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August 29, 2014

Bird of the Week – Tundra Swan

Tundra Swan in Flight, Peat Ponds, Fairbanks, Alaska

While a little smaller than it’s Trumpeter Swan cousin, the Tundra Swan is a big bird, weighing in at just under 14 pounds. They are truly lovely in flight. The “ski jump” shape to the bill, as opposed to the Trumpeter’s wedge-shape, as well as the yellow patch at the corner of the eye, distinguish Tundras from Trumpeters. The size difference is difficult to judge unless you have both species, side by side, in the field. For more bird photos, please visit Frozen Feather Images.

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Bird of the Week – Greater White-fronted Goose

Greater White-fronted Goose, Creamer's Refuge, Spring 2014

The Speckle-belly, as it’s known to hunters, is a medium-sized goose that mostly breeds in coastal Alaska, but is a fairly common sight in Alaska in spring migration. It’s impossible to mistake a Speckle-belly for any other bird in Alaska; the orange bill with the white line is definitive. For more bird photos, please visit Frozen Feather Images.

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Bird of the Week – Common Merganser

Common Merganser Drake and Hen

The Common Merganser breeds south of the Brooks Range in Alaska, in wooded areas along clearwater streams. The female has that excellent spiky hairdo feather-do; the male is a bit plainer, but both have the bright orange bill that is a good field mark for these birds, although you want to be sure you don’t have a Red-breasted. They are one of the less common ducks in Alaska, but you can usually find them canoeing a clear water river. Most years there’s a pair on the West Fork of the Upper Chena River. This is a fish-eating duck; that long…

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Bird of the Week – Lesser Scaup

Lesser Scaup Drake and Hen

Lesser Scaup is another species of marsh and sea duck that breeds far inland in Interior Alaska. Lesser Scaup are notoriously difficult to tell from their close cousins, Greater Scaup. Their ranges overlap, too. But by slight differences in the head, neck and pattern on the back, you can usually tease the two apart. These birds were at the Peat Ponds, one of the better birding spots around Fairbanks. The photo was taken in the fall of 2013. The female has moved into eclipse plumage; the male is still in breeding plumage. For more bird photos, please visit Frozen Feather Images.

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Bird of the Week – Red-necked Grebe

Red-necked Grebe Male

The Red-necked Grebe is the larger of Alaska’s grebe species. North American Birds described this species as “territorial and interspecifically aggressive, commonly threatening or making underwater attack dives against other waterbirds that enter its breeding territory.” It’s a bully, and a raucous, noisy bully at that. That’s right; it’s a Redneck. It typically nests on slightly larger ponds than its smaller cousin, the Horned Grebe. Unlike most waterbirds, this grebe builds its nest on a floating nest of bulrushes. If the water rises, the nest floats up, instead of being drowned. For more bird photos, please visit Frozen Feather Images.  

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Bird of the Week – Bufflehead


North America’s smallest diving duck is the Bufflehead. With his dramatically colored head– it looks like a white dome from a distance – this is another easy waterfowl to identify in the field. This duck winters in salt water, but nests in the boreal forest in tree cavities. Or boxes if someone has put a box up near a pond. The kids, at 1-2 days old, jump from the nest cavity to the ground and then follow the hen to the nearest body of water. The Bufflehead is a close relative of last week’s Goldeneyes. For more bird photos, please…

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Bird of the Week – Goldeneye

Barrow's Goldeneye Drake, Tangle River, Denali Highway

This is a bonus week, because it is hard to talk about one of Alaska’s Goldeneye species without comparing it to the other. And Alaska boasts two species of Goldeneyes. Common Goldeneye occurs across much of North America. We see them in breeding plumage here. The male has a roundish white patch between the eye and the bill. By comparison, the Barrow’s Goldeneye is less common, occurring most often in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, and has a crescent-shaped white patch between the eye and bill. You can see that the black and white patterns on their backs are different…

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Park Service Gets it Wrong on Drone Law

When I worked as a canoe guide in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) about 20 years ago, I came to realize that the concept of “wilderness” was a subjective one. Everyone experiences wilderness and wildness in different ways, and their perspective of what constitutes wilderness is often connected to noise level. For example, certain border lakes in the BWCAW allow for the operation of 25 hp or less motors (while almost all of the 2,000 or so lakes prohibit any motorized craft). For some people, even that was too much; but for others, 25hp or less meant no…

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Bird of the Week – Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail Drake, Creamer's Refuge, Fairbanks

If last week’s bird is obvious for its bill, the Northern Pintail is famous for the drake’s namesake tail. Apart from the impressive tail, the white stripe extends up into the chocolate brown neck and the bill is silver and black.  Altogether a handsome bird. Like the Northern Shoveler, the Pintail is a dabbler, foraging in the top of the water column. As often as not, what you see are duck butts. For more bird photos, please visit Frozen Feather Images.    

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Bird of the Week – Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler Drake, Peat Ponds, Fairbanks

The Northern Shoveler’s bill gets all the attention, distracting you from noticing that the drake and the hen are both very handsome ducks. Shovelers are dabblers, birds that feed in the top of the water column without diving entirely underwater. The Shoveler’s bill is well-adapted to that role. The Shoveler hen is much less flamboyant, with cryptic coloration that makes her hard for predators to find when she is on eggs. Some ornithologists speculate that the male hangs around as a distraction for predators until the eggs are hatched. But that is quite a bill, isn’t it? For more bird…

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