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April 29, 2016

Bird of the Week – Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk self-identifying; Delta Barley Project, Delta Junction

The Red-tailed Hawk is the most common hawk in Alaska. This another polymorphic hawk, presenting a bewildering variety of colorations. In fact, the dark morph, “Harlan’s Hawk,” was at one point thought to be a different species. In Alaska, look for the dark head and the dark “belly band” and you’ve probably got a Red-tailed. In flight, it’s a little easier. Red-tailed Hawks breed throughout interior and southcentral Alaska. Alaska and Canada birds migrate to the southwest U.S., to Mexico and Central America and even to northern South America. Elsewhere in the U.S. they are present year-round. Camera geek stuff:…

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Bird of the Week – Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk, Delta Barley Project

Rough-legged Hawks are rare in most of Alaska; they breed on the North Slope along the bluffs along the north-flowing rivers. But they move through eastern Alaska in the spring to get there. The big agricultural fields have a lot of small rodents, which gives the hawks a chance to fuel up before heading further north.  This bird is snacking on a Red Squirrel. The hawk takes its name from its heavily feathered legs; most hawks have bare, unfeathered legs. Presumably, it’s an adaptation to the bird’s seasonal arctic habitat. The Rough-legged Hawk is polymorphic, meaning it comes in a…

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Bird of the Week – Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawk Juvenile, Chena Hot Springs Road, Fairbanks

Alaska has two Accipters, the genus of smaller hawks with rounded wings and long tails. This is the smaller of the two, the Sharp-shinned Hawk. This is a juvenile, still counting on mom and dad for meals. In fact, he caught WC’s attention by his incessant squawking, begging for food. WC would guess that he’s pretty near his last delivered meal, that his parents were gong to leave him on his own pretty soon. If he kept that noise going all night he would have wound up a snack for a Great-horned Owl. The Sharp-shined Hawk feeds almost exclusively on smaller…

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Bird of the Week – Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle on Nest, Alaska Range

Raptors get all the publicity. Let’s look at some raptors, then. The Golden Eagle, much less common than the Bald Eagle, is one of North America’s largest raptors. At least in Alaska, Golden Eagles tend to return to the same nest year after year, nesting there from about age 4 to age 20 or older. Each year the breeding pair adds more sticks to the nest, and the cumulative effect can be very impressive, as you can see here. Alaska’s Golden Eagles migrate to South America for the winter. One of the world’s experts on Golden Eagles lives in Fairbanks….

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Bird of the Week – Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow, Yakutat, Alaska

Barn Swallows are uncommon in Interior and Southcentral Alaska, but pretty easy to find in Southeastern. WC got this photo near the Yakutat Airport. For many years, WC chased steelhead trout along the Situk River, outside of Yakutat. For obvious reasons, WC carried only a pocket camera while fishing, so image quality isn’t great here. The Barn Swallow is the most widely distributed and abundant swallow in the world. It breeds throughout most of North America, Europe, and Asia and winters in Central and South America, southern Spain, Morocco, Egypt, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, India, Indochina, Malaysia, and Australia….

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Bird of the Week – Bank Swallow

Bank Swallow Posing at Nest Entrance, Chevak in the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge

Yep, another swallow. This one more correctly named, because uniquely among Alaska swallows, it excavates a nesting cavity in a dirt bank. The Bank Swallow’s scientific name – Riparia riparia – neatly describes its preference for nesting in the lakeside and streamside (riparian) banks and bluffs of lakes, rivers and streams. This is a highly social land-bird with a Holarctic (Eastern and Western Hemispheres) breeding distribution. It nests in colonies ranging from 10 to almost 2,000 active nests. One of only a few passerines with an almost cosmopolitan distribution, it is one of the most widely distributed swallows in the world. In the Old World,…

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Bird of the Week – Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow, Creamer's Refuge, Fairbanks

Another seriously mis-named species, WC regrets to report. Despite the name, the Tree Swallow has little to do with trees and everything to do with open fields, meadows and swamps. Like its fellow Swallows, it’s an insectivore, a bug eater. Specifically flying bugs. And in Alaska, that means gnats and mosquitoes. Like Cliff Swallows, these birds are living mosquito magnets. A long term Tree Swallow study is underway at Creamer’s Refuge in Fairbanks. Conducted by school children under the supervision of ornithologists, they study the reproductive success of the species. Some of the kids who have worked on this project…

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Bird of the Week – Cliff Swallow

Cliff Swallows, Creamer's Refuge, Fairbanks

Sure, they’re a messy nuisance if they build their mud daub nests under your eaves, but these are mosquito-eating machines. A Cliff Swallow foraging for its young eats about 60 bugs per hour, through all daylight hours. Both parents forage, so that’s 2 birds x 60 bugs per hour  x 20 daylight hours equals 2,400 bugs a day, mostly mosquitoes and flies. The hatching of their eggs is timed for peak bug season, wherever they nest. So for a month or so, a Cliff Swallow pair are biological mosquito magnets. Except, of course, that these mosquito magnets cost us nothing…

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Bird of the Week – Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird, Delta Barley Project

Okay, Enough ducks already. Let’s look at a thrush. WC isn’t sure Mountain Bluebirds breed in Alaska every year; they seem to come and go. But it sure is a treat when you find one. Birds of North America says, The Mountain Bluebird is one of the most sublime of all North American passerines. Like other North American bluebirds, it is beautiful, bold, and charismatic, with a dedicated human following. Indeed, many people view bluebirds as emblematic species representing all that is good in the world. The truth is a little less bluebird-like. The species thrives in areas of human…

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Bird of the Week – Green-winged Teal

Green-winged Teal, Creamer's Refuge, Fairbanks

There sure are a lot of ducks… Here’s another dabbler species, pretty common in Alaska. The Green-winged Teal is North America’s smallest dabbling duck. Unlike many of North America’s other dabblers, this one does not breed extensively in the prairie pothole region of the central part of the continent. Instead it’s most abundant during summer breeding season in river deltas and wetlands of the boreal forest in Canada and Alaska. This Teal nests in dense cover, often in shrubs or sedges. While it is heavily hunted, because its breeding areas are far from human activity, its numbers have remained high and may even…

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