alaskabirder

Its a Great Day to Bird

Month: June 2015

Denali National Park and Denali Highway

After visiting Barrow we took off for Denali National Park with the hopes of seeing an Arctic Warbler, among other bird and the ‘Big 5’ mammals of Denali.  We didn’t have any luck with the warbler, although two women on our bus out to Wonder Lake did see an Arctic Warbler at the Wonder Lake Campground.  We wandered the campground but our bus had a short turn-around time so we should have stayed there and caught a later bus, but didn’t – timing is everything…..  Next time we go to the park we will (1) go the latter part of June (supposedly the warblers don’t generally arrive until mid June), and (2) we will get on and off the buses at different locations and check out prime warbler habitat.  And we did see 4 of the Big 5 mammals.

We spent two nights at the Savage River campground,  a nicely designed small campground and one that we definitely would come back to camp.

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Our campsite

Campsite

We went for a short hike to visit one of the old cabins.  Along the way we did encounter some wildlife.  And in the campground we had Gray Jays and Dark-eyed Juncos.

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Squirrel trying to find its way into the cabin

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A Snowshoe Hare. I call them “spruce bunnies” since they love to munch on spruce trees.

We also went for a hike along the Savage River.  This was a pretty level, easy hike of about two miles.  We did see and hear a number of bird species on our walk including American Tree Sparrows, Wilson’s Warblers, and White-crowned Sparrows.  The Arctic Ground Squirrels were busy chowing down gaining weight for the winter – they are true hibernators and live off their body fat during hibernation.  With a heart beat of two beats per minute they really know how to slow it down during hibernation.

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Trail along the river

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Saw about five caribou just hanging out

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And we cannot forget the Arctic Ground Squirrel. Looks pudgy in the back.

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So cute

MewGull

This gull decided to check out someone’s car

We caught an early bus into the park  hoping the wildlife would be out and about and we were not disappointed!  We were treated to the sighting of grizzly bear, including a sow and two cubs, a wolverine (the second time our bus driver has seen one in his 17 years driving for the park), moose, Dall sheep, caribou, and arctic ground squirrels.  Okay, the ‘Big 5’  – Moose, Caribou, Grizzly Bear, Dall Sheep, and Wolf.   Drats, we missed seeing the wolf that the bus ahead of us saw – timing is everything…  Best of all we got to see the ‘Big One’ Denali as we Alaskans like to call the mountain.   Denali (or Mount McKinley as it is known to folks from Ohio) was spectacular.  We were told that our full view of the mountain constituted belonging to the 30% Club – the mountain is often shrouded in clouds since its massif size creates its own weather.   Jack decided that such a reward was worth purchasing a 30% club magnet, now displayed in our adventure van.  Supposedly only 30% of the people who visit Denali ever see the mountain, in whole or in part.  A display at the visitor center showed the mountain visible only two times in July of last year.  We felt fortunate.

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Our bus

Views along the way …

Denali-8 Denali-7 Denali-6 Denali-5 Denali-4 Denali-3 Denali-2 Denali-1

And wildlife sightings …

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Grizzly bear feeding – digging into the hillside

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Caribou

Gyrfalcon

Gyrfalcon

Sheep

Dall Sheep

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Moose

And Our View of the mountain…

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Mt. Denali

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Quilt in the Eielson Visitor Center

Plant life …the bloom was starting

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Mountain Avens

Birding was limited while on a bus, but we did see a Gyrfalcon (life bird for Michelle) as well as a Willow Ptarmigan – the state bird – and a Long-tailed Jaeger.  Plus several ducks were spotted in some small ponds near Wonder Lake.  Of course there were Mew Gulls at the Eielson Visitor Center.  Surprisingly we did not see any Golden Eagles, which are found in the park.

After our trip to Denali National Park, we intended to drive the Dalton Highway to Deadhorse (near Prudhoe Bay) and back, but the road had just reopened after being flooded for several weeks.  We had heard there were over 250 trucks waiting to make their way up the highway and we didn’t want to compete with all those truckers.  We hope to get up north next summer.  So instead we went birding along the Denali Highway in search of the Arctic Warbler and the Smith’s Longspur.  Got skunked by both birds.  Did see some nice birds however, including a Horned Lark (hadn’t seen one of those in Alaska in a long time) and a Rock Ptarmigan.

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Along the Denali Highway

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Some neat wetlands along the route …

Scaup

… many which harbored ducks, including this Scaup sp.

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Fresh snow on the mountains and down quite far

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It is beautiful though

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And the road is mostly gravel and dirt, so the van doesn’t stay white for long

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White-crowned Sparrows were checking out our campsite at Tangle Lakes. They liked getting into the fire pit searching for food.

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This is a fat one or just puffed up because of the cold morning

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Thrush sp. – I think it is a Gray-checked???

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In our search for the Arctic Warbler we came across this Semi-palmated Plover with a nest nearby

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Trying to get us away from the nest, which we never did see.

Blackpoll

A Blackpoll Warbler. The bird was a fair distance away.

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Male Red-breasted Merganser in the Tangle River

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Beautiful Moss Campion

InterestingPlant

Don’t know the name of this plant species, but pretty.

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Didn’t get our Smith’s Longspur, but did see  a male Rock Ptarmigan

Duck'sHead

Thought this cloud looked like a duck’s head

We didn’t stay as long as anticipated since I caught a nasty cold upon our return from Barrow and didn’t feel much like camping or birding.  We did stop in Anchorage on the way home to do a little shopping, including at the Target store on “C” Street.  There we found a Mew Gull nesting on the Target sign.  With all the noise and traffic, I hope the eggs hatch and the chicks survive.  There is a small pond nearby – at the opposite end of the parking lot – but this seems like a strange place to nest.

MEGU-Target

We do plan to visit these areas again next year, weather permitting.  With longer stays in both areas and a visit up the Dalton Highway.  So many places to see, so little time….

 

Remember, It’s A Great Day To Bird (or as Gary Lyon would say “Bird On”)

Top of the World – Barrow Alaska

Jack and I decided to venture to the top of the world, that is the most northern community in Alaska and thus the United States – Barrow Alaska (Ukpiagvik in Inupiat).  All 4,700 people call Barrow home while surviving 330 miles above the Arctic Circle (they have a natural gas field nearby so stay warm).  We arrived to cold temperatures (low 30s), snow, and strong winds (gusts to 30+ mph) around 11:30 am.  On the way, we made a quick stop at Prudhoe Bay – think oil filed workers – before flying on to Barrow.  As I waited for our baggage to arrive (s0 much for the 20 minute rule guaranteed by Alaska Airlines), Jack went to pick up our rental vehicle for our three day stay – a 4wd pickup truck.  We then checked into our hotel (Airport Inn), changed into warm clothing, and immediately braved the wind and cold to go birding – over 185 species come here to breed and continue the cycle of life.  One nice benefit from our early season arrival was almost no mosquitoes yet!  There was still a fair amount of shore ice so no polar bears roaming the town but also no bowhead whaling yet.

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Barrow Airport – We Have Arrived

OurTransportation

Our vehicle for our stay – a 4WD vehicle is a necessity

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The Airport Inn – Our hotel and one of three in town

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Google view of the Barrow area. Red lines show the roads we traveled.

The roads were variable as far as conditions go in the Arctic – surprised to find gravel roads when you are surrounded by wetland permafrost tundra.  The road out to a birding hot spot – Freshwater Lake, required 4wd as there was one spot near the cemetery that was quite muddy, okay a mud pit suitable for a mud buggy.    The habitat of the area as you can see from the aerial photo above is flat treeless tundra with many lakes and ponds.  Many of the larger lakes were still frozen over.  I suspect with the 24 hours of daylight and warmer days the lakes will thaw quickly.  We noticed a big difference in the amount of snow cover just in the three days were were there.

NiceDay

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Breakup

Habitat-2

Imagine birding 24 hours straight?  Although you could bird here 24 hours (the summer sun never truly sets ), we did not.  The area has few roads and we drove them all several times during our stay.  Each day proved to be different from the next as to where the birds would be found.  On our arrival with such nasty weather we had a lot of shorebirds hunkered down in the ponds along Nunavak Road.  This was our most productive area for the day.  As you can see from the photos below, there was still a lot of snow on the ground when we arrived.  When we went back to this area the next two days, we didn’t have the same level of bird activity as we did the first day.  Could the fact it was snowing and nasty weather have made a difference?  We think so.

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Along Nunavak Road

Phalaropes are a fun shorebird species to watch with their unique feeding behavior.  They go round and round in the water in a dizzying display to stir up food.  We noticed that Red Phalaropes, while they do still swim in circles to stir up the invertebrates, don’t quite circle with the same intensity as the Red-necked Phalaropes.  And the female Red Phalarope is actually the more striking of the the pair.  We first noticed this when we saw a pair trying to mate (when all else fails check the bird book…).  I love these birds in flight.  Their wing pattern against their red body is very striking.

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Female Red Phalarope

Mating

Attempted (or actual) copulation

The Red-necked Phalaropes were everywhere the first two days.  However, once the sun came out on our last day we didn’t see as many.  It was fun to watch them swim around and around and around and around in tight circles in search of food.  I was able to capture one on video.

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Red-necked Phalarope

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Pectoral Sandpipers were the most prevalent shorebird.  They were “EVERYWHERE”.  We always knew when a male was chasing or trying to attract a female.  The males inflate their throat sac which expands and contracts during display flights and you hear this wonderful deep echoing sound.

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Pectoral Sandpiper

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Pectoral Sandpiper with deflated throat sac

The Laplund Longspur (or as we started calling them “lappy”) is a common bird in Barrow during the summer.  They offered a great show as we  watched them fly up into the air (almost straight up) and then gently float their way down carried by the wind on a glide path.

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Male Lapland (Lappy) Longspur.

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This guy was on top of a sculpture signing away

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Female Lapland Longspur

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Female Lapland Longspur searching for food

The Snow Bunting is also a very common bird in Barrow.  It became a favorite bird to see – they seem so elegant.  I guess the locals like them also since we were told that people have nest boxes for the birds.  You find them all over town, on top of buildings and exploring the many junk yards  when not on the ground feeding.

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Snow Bunting

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As you can see the Snow Bunting doesn’t mind the snow

SnowBunting

In addition to Lapland Longspur and Snow Buntings, other songbirds observed included Savannah Sparrows, Common Redpolls, and a lone Orange-crowned Warbler.  The warbler, not very common to this area, was observed along the bluffs near the boardwalk.

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Boardwalk

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Orange-crowned Warbler

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You can actually see the “orange” crown

We also saw a fair number of shorebirds besides Phalaropes and the Pectoral Sandpiper.  The shorebirds that come to Barrow for the ‘summer’  are truly amazing “hardy” birds (Jack calls them ‘wing warriors’) to fly so far and arrive at a time when there are still winter conditions.

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Habitat-2

Brrrrrrr

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Semi-palmated Sandpiper

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Dunlin

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American Golden-Plover

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White-rumped Sandpiper

There were a fair number of duck species too, with the Northern Pintail being the most prevalent.  These birds seemed to be as prevalent as the Pectoral Sandpiper.

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Pair of Northern Pintails

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Male Long-tailed Duck. In Homer we see them in their non-breeding plumage during the winter

The Greater White-fronted Goose was present throughout the area.  The first day we only saw a few, but by the second and third day the numbers had increased substantially.  When we were walking on the tundra checking lakes in search of a Yellow-billed Loon (did not see one), we practically stumbled across a nesting Greater White-fronted Goose.  The photo below is the nest that was temporarily abandoned while we were nearby.  I quickly took a photo and we continued on our way – mom returned.  With so many predatory Jaegers about (mostly Pomarine), we didn’t want the parent to be off the nest for too long.  We saw several flocks of snow geese fly over, but none on the ground.  Tundra swans were present on the tundra and it was strange to see them away from water.

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Greater White-fronted Goose

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Greater White-fronted Goose nest with eggs

The main purpose of going to Barrow for me was to see all four Eider species.  We were successful in that endeavor!  The main purpose of going to Barrow for Jack was to see a Snowy Owl.  He got his wish too!  We saw at least two different Snowy Owls.  One was perched on a railing, while another was on an electric line.   Both were beautiful – almost mystical birds.

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Snowy Owl

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In flight

Our first sighting of an eider was on our second day.  We were traveling down the road towards Ikoravik Lake when we flushed a King Eider pair from a pond.  The male bird flew right by Jack’s window.  Hard to miss that bird.  We later found the pair on a pond.  We saw another male the next day at a pond near Freshwater Lake.  Both these areas were great places to bird.  Common Eiders were only observed in flight along the Beaufort/Chukchi Sea.  We saw several flocks of 50 or more birds flying east.  Of the eider species we spotted on the ground, we actually saw more Steller’s Eiders than King or Spectacled.  On our last day near Freshwater Lake we finally saw a Spectacled Eider male.  What a beautiful bird.  But then again, all the eider species are striking.

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Spectacled Eider

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King Eider pair

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King Eider taking off

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King Eider taking off – interesting rump pattern

On our last day we met John from Germany.  He was an older birder who showed up in Barrow hoping to find a Yellow-billed Loon.  He didn’t rent a vehicle and had been birding on foot for several days.  We invited him to join us on our last day.  While we had our xtra tuff boots to negotiate the very wet, cold tundra, he only had hiking boots, and well used ones at that.  And no warm socks.  We had gotten a permit to be able to walk beyond the road system ($150) so we ventured out a short ways from the road looking for eiders, loons, and other birds.  Poor John’s feet got wet, but he didn’t seem to mind.  Luckily our last day was sunny and the wind wasn’t at strong.  John was a good sport.  We stopped once at the hotel so he could change socks.  John’s next stop was Unalaska.

John-n-Jack

John (background) and Jack looking for the Spectacled Eider near Freshwater Lake

Besides birds, we did check out the town and some of the environs.  As you can see, there was still a lot of snow on the ground in places.

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Barrow-3
I told Jack that you can tell which families have lived in Barrow the longest by the number of dead vehicles in front of their homes.  The more dead vehicles (cars, trucks, atvs, snow machines), the longer they have resided at that location.  The community really needs a vehicle graveyard.  The buses above are no longer in use (at least I hope not).  There were even a few places for sale.

House-for-Sale

Fixer Upper

House-for-sale-1

I wonder what this home was selling for???

This was one of the nicer homes we saw

NicerHome

And believe it or not, we did see a few trees.  Not sure how they got there or whether they are alive or not ….

Trees-Barrow

There are a few restaurants in town, including the Arctic Pizza place.  There was a sign inside near some stairways that lead up that read “No children or teenagers allowed”.  Hmm. I wonder what goes on upstairs?  Barrow is a “dry” community which means no alcohol.   At the restaurant you could get pizza, of course, as well as typical American food (hamburgers, sandwiches), Chinese food, and Italian pasta dishes.  This was the only restaurant that we visited so we cannot tell you about any others.  The pizza was good.

Restuarant

Arctic Pizza Restaurant

MenuPrices

Appetizer and Salad Menu (check out the prices)

When in Barrow one must stop at the “Top of The World Sign” and get their photo taken, which we did.

Welcome-to-Barrow

Top of the World Sign

W2B-Shell

Michelle at the sign

W2B-Jack

Jack at the sign

Many Alaskan villages remind me of cities and communities you might find in third world countries.  The living conditions are some what primitive.  With no roads to Barrow all supplies come via barge or air.  Gasoline to refuel the vehicle when we left was $7.00 per gallon.  Since Barrow only gets fuel once per year, they pay whatever the going rate is when the fuel arrives.  With prices now lower, hopefully they will be able to save on gasoline for their many vehicles.

Long-timeResidents

Typical sighting – lots of vehicles

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Jack participated in at least one cultural activity – he checked out the monument for Will Rogers who died in a plane crash near Point Barrow in 1935.

Sightseeing

Will Rogers Memorial

RoadSign

Signpost

In Barrow there are dumpsters everywhere.  However, despite the many dumpsters there was still a lot of trash on the ground.  Many of the dumpsters, such as this one, are painted with messages.

GarbageArt

We did go to the local grocery store – Alaska Commercial – to find me a pair of gloves (I brought two left hand gloves) and sunglasses for Jack (snow glare).  Of course one of the more popular isles is the sugary drinks section.  The sugar industry is why Americans and others around the world are overweight.  Plus this stuff will rot your teeth.  And we did see at least two dentist offices in town.

Barrow-drinks-1 Barrow-drinks-2

We had a great time in Barrow and would recommend the trip.   It is wise to plan ahead as our fellow birder John said he just showed up and was told he was lucky he didn’t come  next week because all the hotel rooms in Barrow were booked for bird tours and the like.  We had booked our room back in January.  There were several independent birders (not those on tour) who were at the same hotel as us.  Funny though, we didn’t really run into anyone else out birding while we were out and about – and there aren’t “that” many roads.

 

Total Species: 40

Total Life Birds for Michelle:  4

Total new birds to add to Michelle’s Alaska List:  5

 

Species Observed:

Snow Bunting

Lapland Longspur

Common Redpool

Savannah Sparrow

Orange-crowned Warbler

American Golden-Plover

Pacific Golden-Plover

Dunlin

White-rumped Sandpiper

Baird’s Sandpiper

Semi-palmated Sandpiper

Pectoral Sandpiper

Long-billed Dowitcher

Red-necked Phalarope

Red Rhalarope

Pomarine Jaeger

Parasitic Jaeger

Long-tailed Jaeger

Common Raven

Steller’s Edier

Common Eider

King Eider

Spectacled Eider

Glaucous Gull

Sabine’s Gull

Snowy Owl

Greater White-fronted Goose

Snow Goose

Mallard

Long-tailed Duck

Greater Scaup

Northern Pintail

Norther Shoveler

Green-winged Teal

American Widgeon

Tundra Swan

Red-throated Loon

Common Loon

Pacific Loon

Arctic Tern

 

It’s A Great Day to Bird wherever you are …..

This and That

It is 5:30 am, the sun is shining brightly, and my wake-up call summons from the birds singing and the Sandhill Crane bugling.  He (or is it the female) started at 4:30 this morning laying early morning claim to its territory.  Must be the daylight – we are now getting 18+ hours of it.

Shorebird Monitoring

We finished the last of nine Shorebird Monitoring sessions for the year.  Most of those brave winged warriors have continued onward yet another several hundred miles in their thousand mile(s) journey perpetuating their quest to breed in the Arctic or northern environs.  Life continues we hope in the face of climate change adversity.  Despite the date (May 26) we still observed four different species at Anchor Point: Greater Yellowlegs, Dowitcher sp., Wandering Tattlers, and Spotted Sandpipers.  The Spotted Sandpipers most likely breed along the Anchor River so are ‘home-making.’  And it was along the river that we spotted all four species.

WATattler

Wandering Tattler

It was a beautiful blue-sky day, the water calm, and a mild wind – can this really be the Anchor Point known for its fierce winds?  We’ve been fortunate during our shorebird monitoring this year at the Anchor Point beach/Anchor River.  The weather has been warm, with little or NO wind, and mostly sunny.  Monitors included Michael Craig, Ken Jones, and myself.

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Michael Craig and Ken Jones

In addition to looking for shorebirds, we can’t help but search for other bird species as well.  On the ocean Inlet we spotted a number of Common Loons, as well as a mixed flock of White-winged Scoters and Greater Scaup.

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Common Loon

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White-winged Scoter and Greater Scaup

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Mew Gull

And of course the ever-present Mew Gulls.   The number of gulls is much higher in the winter than during the spring months.  The gulls are also answering Nature’s call and are somewhere off breeding now.

Around Home

Some of the best birding is ‘backyard birding.’  Plant lots of native trees and shrubs, mix in some nesting habitat, add a feeder and ta da birds!  For some reason it seems like we have a lot more songbirds this year than in previous years.  There is a pair of nesting American Robins.  A first for us, I think.  I don’t recall a pair exhibiting nesting behavior in our immediate area in the past, in fact we get excited to see a Robin.  Jack built a nice brush pile for the birds and we see Golden-crowned Sparrows giving it some scrutiny.  I wonder who might be nesting there.   But the most prevalent singer is the Orange-crowned Warbler.  I think last year’s hatch might have produced a bumper crop of Orange-crowns.

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Orange-crowned Warbler

The single Sandhill Crane faithfully comes to the house daily to stake out its territory and chase away interloper cranes.  Some days its vigilance is more frequent than other days.  I think it is getting close to the time when the eggs will hatch.  Hopefully soon the pair will be bringing the colt(s) to our yard.

Yard-Crane-1

Sandhill Crane – King of the mound

Jack built the mound that the crane is standing on.  They seem to like slightly elevated areas.  Possibly to see other cranes in the area or seem more lordly???

One of the best things about living in the ‘snow zone’ at 1,5000 feet elevation is that we are neighbors to Eveline State Recreation Site, and enjoy an almost daily hike in the park with its panoramic views and amazing display of wildflowers – summer only of course.  This park is located just north of our property – within short walking distance.  Lots of birds are now singing as we walk through the park’s varied habitat.  Occasionally I bring my camera and am able to capture one of the many birds perched on a bush, or surveying us from the top of a spruce tree – including this Golden-crowned Sparrow.

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Golden-crowned Sparrow

Last weekend Jack and I went to Eagle Lake to determine whether the Pacific Loons had returned to the lake to nest.  They have!  I’ve been doing loon monitoring at the lake for the past five years (missing last year).  In all those years the loons only fledged one chick in one year.  I suspect the eggs or young are eaten by the nesting mew gulls, or by raptors in the area – the Bald Eagles and Merlins we’ve seen in the area.

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Eagle Lake

In addition to the nesting Pacific Loon pair we spotted the following species:  Greater Yellowlegs (this guy was not too happy with us, even flying up into a tree to squawk at us), Lesser Yellowlegs, Ring-necked Duck (two males courting one female), three pairs of nesting Mew Gulls, Golden-crowned Sparrows, Fox Sparrows, Hermit Thrushes, American Robins, Orange-crowned Warblers, Green-winged Teals, and a few Violet-green Swallows.

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Greater Yellowleg flying into nearby tree

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Now letting us know he wasn’t happy by our presence

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Mew Gull keeping watch

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Fox Saprrow

We will go back several times over the next two months to check on the status of the loon nest.  Hopefully this year, the pair will fledge a young.

Since we had such a beautiful weekend – sunny and warm (70s at our house), we decided to check out the forest/meadow trails off Rogers Loop Road.  We hiked from Rogers Loop Road to the over look near Diamond Ridge Road.  There were a lot of birds singing and a great day to be outdoors.

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Trail – and as you can see the foliage is not out on some of the shrubs yet

Jack

Jack

Squirrel

Cooperative squirrel

Rununculus

Marsh Marigold

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Old Homesteader barn

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Varied Thrush – looks like a hatch year bird

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Same bird

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Savannah Sparrow

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Wilson’s Warbler – there were several birds chasing each  other around – fighting for territory or mates?

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A babbling brook along the trail

I also made a quick stop at Karen Horneday park – a local city park in Homer.  There I found a spruce tree loaded with cones and several Pine Siskins feeding away.

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Plenty of cones for the birds

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Pine Siskin

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They are such acrobats

Sunday afternoon I went to a friend’s house off of Skyline Drive in Homer and joined friends for a picnic.  Another beautiful day and this property has a commanding view of the Bay and mountains – just relaxes the mind and renews the spirit.   And, warm enough that I could actually wear a short-sleeved shirt.  After a delicious lunch we walked the property trails enjoying the sights and sounds of the area, including the sighting of a young moose.  We quickly and quietly retreated so as to not disturb the moose.  Getting too close to a moose is not a good thing.

What-a-view

What a view of the Homer area. The thermals coming up off the cliffs were hot.

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Steller’s Jay in search of food

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Oh it found some

Chipper

Nina’s dog Chipper. What a good boy.

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American Robin serenading us

After a glorious weekend of warm sunny weather we are headed to Barrow Alaska for three days to check out the birds there.  I read they were having a heat wave with temperatures in the low 40s.  Woohoo!!!  Now if only we can have those kinds of temperatures during our short stay – none is in the forecast.  Following our Barrow trip, we are then off to Denali National Park and the surrounding area for the rest of the week.  I’m looking forward to the change in scenery and maybe seeing some new birds.  All four species of eiders at Barrow would be nice and of course, a Snowy Owl.  We had planned on taking two weeks and heading up the Dalton Highway but the road washed out several weeks ago and even with its temporary repairs I’m not sure it would be wise to travel the road in our van, which doesn’t even have all-wheel drive.  And, truck traffic has been stacked up awaiting the road reopening.  So we will have to save that trip for next summer.

It’s A Great Day to Bird

 

 

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