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August 29, 2016

Bird of the Week – Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser, Sitka, Alaska

The third species of Merganser that breeds in North America is the Hooded Merganser. The male likely wins the prize for snappiest headgear among North American birds. Hoodies are the smallest of the three mergansers, and the only one that breeds only in North America. A cavity nester, it prefers cavities – or manmade nest boxes – in old trees near or over water. Hoodies have extensive courtship displays, including the upward neck stretch. Hoodies have an attitude that is much larger than their diminutive size. They’re fun to watch. Unfortunately, humankind’s relentless cutting of old growth forests, where it’s…

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Bird of the Week – Red-breasted Merganser

Red-breasted Merganser Male, North Fork Chena River

All three species of North American mergansers breed in Alaska, although one rarely makes it past the Panhandle. We’ve looked at the Common Merganser already. Now we’ll have a look at the other two. The Red-breasted Merganser is the most northerly breeding of the mergansers, found all the way to the North Slope. It’s also the bird with the second-snappiest hair-do (feather-do?), trailing only next week’s species. This is a diving duck, foraging as deep at 15-20 feet underwater for fish, especially smolts. Red-breasted Mergansers don’t breed until they are two years old, and breed late in the season, with…

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Bird of the Week – Parasitic Jaeger

Parasitic Jaeger on a Nest, Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge

Back in June, we looked at a Long-tailed Jaeger. This is one of that species’ relatives, the Parasitic Jaeger. Even among gulls and jaegers, Parasitic Jaegers are unsavory characters. A major part of their diet is obtained through kleptoparasitism. They steal food from other birds, either by harassing the other birds till they drop if or, if it’s been swallowed, until the victim regurgitates it. Alaska-breeding Parasitic Jaegers aren’t exclusively kleptoparasites, unlike their east Atlantic cousins. Alaska’s birds also hunt and, truth be told, steal eggs. Hey, it’s a living. Parasitic Jeager are among the least known, least studied birds that…

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Bird of the Week – Yellow Wagtail

Yellow Wagtail, Chevak, Alaska

In the Western Hemisphere, the Yellow Wagtail’s range is restricted to Western Alaska and the North Slope east to the MacKenzie River in Canada. Science – specifically, the American Ornithological Union – has recently determined that the North American population is a separate species from the more widespread Asian population. The decision to create two species where there was one is called a “split.” Alaska’s bird is formally the Eastern Yellow Wagtail. And there are a bewildering number of subspecies.   Alaska’s birds probably winter in southern China and Taiwan, perhaps as far south as New Guinea.  Like a lot…

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Bird of the Week – Osprey

Osprey, Chena Lakes Flood Control, North Pole

Osprey are comparative newcomers to Interior Alaska. Note those talons, among the longest among all birds. The Osprey feeds almost exclusively on fish – another name for them is Fishhawk – and however slippery a fish might be, it’s unlikely to escape those talons. Osprey need about 100-115 days to raise their kids:  Three days from completion of the nest to lay the eggs; about 37 days to incubate the eggs to hatching; 50-55 days to fledge and 10-15 days to be ready to migrate. Longer if they have to build the nest from scratch.  If you are going to eat…

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Bird of the Week – Eurasian Bullfinch

Eurasian Bullfinch Female, Fairbanks, 1996

There are some birds that are vagrants, birds that turn up in Alaska but have no business – or anyone to breed with – in the area. Maybe the migration instructions in their brains got wired wrong; maybe they are pioneers trying to expand the range. We’ll be looking at some vagrants intermittently the next few months. This isn’t a very good photo, but it is unique in one way: it’s the one of the first bird photos WC took. In 1996, an Eurasian Bullfinch female turned up at a feeder on Rosie Creek Road, outside of Fairbanks, in the dark…

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Bird of the Week – Great Blue Heron

Great Blue fishing the shoreline, Valdez

The Great Blue Heron is visual evidence that birds did indeed evolve from dinosaurs; when you see a Great Blue in flight, you can almost think you are seeing a pterodactyl. Great Blues are found in Alaska throughout Southeast and in Southcentral Alaska as far west as Seward. There are irregular reports from Cook Inlet. While Great Blues are equally at home in marine and freshwater environments, in Alaska they are mostly marine and estuarine.   Although this is primarily a fish eater, wading (often belly deep) along the shoreline of oceans, marshes, lakes, and rivers, it also hunts upland areas for rodents…

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Bird of the Week – Snow Goose

Snow Geese, Creamer's Field, Fairbanks

The Snow Goose is one of the most abundant waterfowl species in North America, maybe in the world. Oddly, it doesn’t occur in great abundance in Alaska. (Bonus points for identifying the four other species in this photo.) But they do range west as far as Interior Alaska during spring migration, although not every year.  There are breeding birds in the northeastern corner of Alaska’s Arctic coast, but generally Snow Geese breed in far northern Canada. Snow Geese have two color morphs – thought to be different species until 1983. The white morph, shown here, is overwhelmingly the more common…

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Bird of the Week – Red Phalarope

Red Phalarope, Barrow, Alaska

WC will say at the top these are poor-quality photos. Taken in 2002, WC’s camera then was something called an Olympus C2500L, which was a state of the art camera in its day, but the state of the art was pretty primitive compared to today’s digital cameras. WC’s skills left a lot to be desired, too. But a couple of years ago when WC was featuring Phalaropes, this species got overlooked. The Red Phalarope is the most pelagic of the three phalarope species, spending up to 11 months each year in marine habitats. Its migratory routes and winter areas are…

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Bird of the Week – Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird Male, Peat Ponds, Fairbanks

Interior Alaska is near the northerly limit of Red-winged Blackbirds’ range. The Red-winged Blackbird might be the most abundant (and best studied) bird in the U.S. The species breeds in marsh and upland habitats from interior Alaska and central Canada to Costa Rica, and from California to the Atlantic Coast and West Indies. Although primarily associated with large freshwater marshes and prairies, it also nests in small patches of marsh vegetation in roadside ditches, saltwater marshes, rice paddies, hay fields, pasture land, fallow fields, suburban habitats, and even urban parks. The Red-winged Blackbird is also known for its polygynous social…

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