Monday, June 27, 2011

Salt Marsh Morning

 [Great Egret with just-captured juvenile Seaside Sparrow, Tuckerton NJ Saturday.]

Getting up at oh-dark-thirty to do a marsh bird survey has its benefits. There's a world of difference between a salt marsh at 5:30 a.m. and the same marsh at 9:00 a.m. This was my second run through of my portion of the SHARP survey at Tuckerton, along Great Bay Boulevard, and the numbers from my 10 survey points speak volumes: 45 Clapper Rails, 65 Seaside Sparrows, and a very strong 22 Saltmarsh Sparrows. Understand, we only need to detect (i.e. hear) birds to count them, but it was astonishing how easy a time I was having seeing these birds. The high tide might have had something to do with it, but I think it was mainly the height of breeding season expressing itself, especially for the strange, promiscuous, late-breeding Saltmarsh Sparrows, sometimes tricky to see but this day chasing each other around, sometimes in groups, and singing their weak little song.

The craziest thing, as you might have discerned from the picture above, was the Great Egret with a bird in its bill, a bird that turned out to be a just captured, still struggling juvenile Seaside Sparrow. Struggle was hopeless - I've once before seen an egret devour a female Red-winged Blackbird, to the horror of the group I was leading. Maybe National Audubon should have chosen a different symbol. . .

[A few dips in the water to smooth the swallowing, and down it goes.]

When I first saw the sparrow through the camera lens, I thought it might be a Saltmarsh Sparrow, but the buff wasn't orange or extensive enough, and it had the dark lore and yellow supraloral of a Seaside. Young Seaside Sparrows can be pretty buffy, and are pale with fine streaking below. I should mention that the new Crossley Guide does a pretty good job on this i.d., particularly the text.

Besides the breeding birds, Tuckerton had one each of Black-bellied Plover, Greater Yellowlegs, and Least Sandpiper, all in winter plumage and none of which likely made it to the breeding grounds this year, maybe not even north of Tuckerton. Likely one-year olds. A Willow Flycatcher sang at the end of Great Bay Boulevard.

[The concerned apparent parent called and worried nearby. Look how big a Seaside Sparrow's bill is.]

[One of the 22 Saltmarsh Sparrows I recorded. I saw most of these; their weak songs are difficult to detect at distance.]

[Clapper Rail swimming a high tide channel along Great Bay Boulevard.]

[Luckily, I didn't hit this juvenile Chuck-wills-widow as I drove to my survey - it was on Lily Lake Road near Forsythe NWR, where they are common. I sorely wished I had had time to wait around for a parent to come feed it. Chuck's, besides being much bigger than Whip-poor-wills, are quite warm-toned to the Whip's gray. Click to enlarge.]

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Last Tango in Barrow

[This Peregrine Falcon swept into Point Barrow with his mate and snatched a Semipalmated Sandpiper on our last morning in Alaska. They disappeared low over the northern horizon, meaning pretty much headed for the north pole - with the unfed female in hot pursuit of a Black Guillemot!]

Well, we're back. There's night here, most unusual. And Laughing Gulls, haven't seen one of them in like three weeks. Kind of like dark, which seems weird.

You need to go to Barrow once in your life, at least. Trust me.

At some point I'll put a link to our actual itinerary from the Alaska trip here - it will be on the NJA website soon.

 [Polar Bear vigil.]

[Mixed pair of Parasitic Jaegers, an "intermediate" and light morph, nestled on the wet tundra at Barrow.]

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Midnight in Alaska

 [Snowy Owl nest on a tundra hummock, Arctic Ocean in the distant background. She incubates, and waits. He hunts, and defends.]

We accidentally-on purpose ran into Denver Holt today, while we were (what and where else) scoping a Snowy Owl on her nest, with mate nearby attending. Denver gave us an overview of Snowy Owls in the Arctic: how lemmings drive the train, how pairs with hyper-aggressive males seem to be more successful at raising large broods.

[This apparent female Baird's Sandpiper waits while her mate rockets high and far in display flight.]

[Spectacled Eider and his mate. Check out this image of wintering Spectacled Eiders - cold seems not to be an issue for these birds, but climate change could be. Spectacled eiders winter in polynyas in the Bering Sea.]

[Alaskan cultural moment, Barrow today.]

[Presumed adult female Glaucous Gull quarrels with presumed immature male (larger, right) over Bowhead Whale blubber discarded after a successful Inupiat hunt, Point Barrow this evening. We'll be back to check the spoils again tomorrow - perhaps a fancier gull will show up. Or a Polar Bear.]

[Sun not-set over Barrow right now, as seen out my hotel room window at 11:46 p.m., looking north-northwest.]

Tomorrow's our last day here, so I had to stay up for the midnight sun. Can't sleep anyway - My body has always wanted to go to sleep within an hour of sundown and wake up a little before sun-up, long winter nights or short summer ones. Or no nighters here, apparently. Luckily Mark and I scored a free upgrade to first class for our flight from Fairbanks to Minneapolis on Sunday - sleepy time then, hopefully, with Arctic dreams, as Barry Lopez so aptly titled his book.

Friday, June 17, 2011

We're Not in Kansas Anymore

 [Snow Buntings nest all around town in Barrow - the House Finches of the north, with a voice not dissimilar.]

This may be far enough, this place called Barrow. Which is a good thing, because it's about as far as you can go.

I'm envious of the birds here. They are at the peak of excitement now, the height of their lives in this month of June, displaying, singing, chasing, breeding under the midnight sun (82 days of no sunset). Then they mellow and migrate away, like people getting old. But they get to do it again next year, and the next while we humans mellow, age, maybe (I hope not) even languish, and never can go back to our Arctic summer.

We'll ignore the 65 days of no sunrise here. It's a dry town. Good thing.

 [Distant Steller's Eider, the last digit on the lifer odometer rolls over yet again. We found multiple Spectacled Eiders as well.]

Our arrival day was rain, cold and mud - but still no dark, so I drove around getting the lay of the land, retiring, still in light, around 1:00 a.m. The "dawn" (i.e. when I woke up) broke clear, and stayed that way all day, lighting up hovering singing Dunlin, booming Pectoral Sandpipers, light and dark Parasitic and Pomarine Jaegers, little Semipalmated Sandpipers perched on snowbanks. Three Snowy Owls, all bright white males, hunted while their mates presumably incubate. Pacific and Red-throated Loons wail. It's a good place.

 [Red Phalarope. Lots of these, and Red-necked, too.]

[Long-tailed Ducks.]

[Nope, not Kansas. Whale bones frame the Arctic Ocean.]

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Along "The Richardson"

 ["Myrtle" Yellow-rumped Warbler feeding young.]

I've been meaning all trip to get good photos of the "common" stuff up here, like Myrtle Yellow-rumped Warbler and Gray-cheeked Thrush, and never managed it, and won't , because I'm up in Barrow now. I had a Yellow-rumped Warbler building a nest right outside my tent in Paxson, too.

Part of the story of interior Alaska is that it's the east - the Yellow-rumped is Myrtle, not Audubon's; The Fox Sparrow is Taiga, not Sooty; the medium sized grebe is Horned, not Eared (as pointed out by Audie, our host at Denali Highway Cabins.] The Yellow-rumped pictured may well migrate to Cape May or Chincoteague to winter.

[Harlan's Hawk, another easterner, sort of. Check out this bird's range map, breeding in AK, wintering in the south-centeral U.S. Note the unbanded tail and streaky throat.] 

[Summer training for these dogs means pulling an ATV uphill.]

[The famous and controversial (at least when it was built) Alyeska pipeline. It's 4 feet in diameter.]

[This is the tent Mark made me stay in while at Denali Highway Cabins ;>) - that's the Gulkana River, a Sockeye Salmon spawning stream.] 

[Aurora and Borealis sing us a goodbye song, while Jenny accompanies on harmonica and Audie looks on.]

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Good Day on the Tundra

 [Finally, a clean perched view of Smith's Longspur, at a tundra location that shall remained undisclosed.]

I hate lying, can't do it well, don't like it being done to me, so when folks have asked me about the Smith's Longspur (folks including leaders of 2 major tour companies and counting), I waffle and wince. "We haven't had much luck," I say, keeping the confidence of the friend who gave us the spot and asked us not to tell anyone. Until this morning, the poor luck was true, sort of, with only fly-by looks for most participants. Our early morning expedition did better.

 [This American Golden-plover started a distraction display, and I backed away.]

We spent a chilly day on the Denali Highway, the first forty miles of it out of Paxson - tundra ponds for ducks, tundra for shorebirds, willows for Arctic Warbler, and rocks for Pika and, well, see below.

Speaking of chilly, have I mentioned I've been sleeping in an unheated tent the past few nights? Good training, with temps in the 30's, for Barrow, where I'll hopefully be tomorrow night. The sun won't set, but the high temp is forecast to be 40, maybe. A Varied Thrush woke me here in Paxson this morning, at 3:00 a.m.

 [I think of northern North American Red Foxes as the "real" ones. They look different than the ones in the east, don't they? A lot of people, including some good biologists, think our eastern Red Foxes are solely from introduction from England; the "natives" were northern or mountain top animals. This one was on the Denali Highway today.]

 [Give us this day our daily Moose. . . this one swam a tundra lake, shaking like a dog when it reached the shore.]

 [Open country animals tend to be the right color, like this Rock Ptarmigan.]

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Alaska Edition Continued: Grace, Earned and Unearned

 [One picture of the alpine tundra: Whimbrel.]

We struggled to find our first hawk-owl - and now we're up to 6, I think. The staked out Great Gray Owls had disappeared, then 2 hours and 100 miles later one flies up off the road and crosses in front of the vans, carrying prey, point blank views for all. We walk and walk over uneven alpine tundra looking for Smith's Longspur - and find it, when, we hear, all the other tour groups up here now are having trouble with that bird. We also find a Whimbrel nest with 4 eggs. Luck favors the prepared, I guess, and the hard working.

 [Yesterday we sadly bade farewell to our friends at Sheep Mountain Lodge along the Glenn Highway. Anjanette Steer, here with Mark (there are Dall Sheep up on that mountain in the background), plans to race in the Iditarod next March. She and her husband Zack run Sheep Mountain Lodge. Zack has raced in the Iditarod several times, placing as high as third. You can follow the Iditarod online, and we'll be cheering for Anjanette.]

[Some of the Steers' sled dogs. They get the summers off, Zack told us, to rest, heal any injuries, and because it's too hot for them to train. It was 40 degrees in the mornings; Zack says they run best at 10-15 below.]

[Fireweed is just beginning to bloom.]

The alpine tundra today was magnificent - vast, quiet, both colorful and somber, Long-tailed Jaegers flying overhead, Lapland Longspurs bubbling their songs, flowers blooming. My knee's paying for the trekking over uneven, spongy ground, but it was worth it. So much so we'll be out there again tomorrow.

 [Male Lapland Longspur returns to earth after a high display flight.]

[We re-made an old acquaintance, not seen since Denali National Park at the start of the trip - Arctic Ground Squirrel along the Denali Highway.]

 [Lifer. . . if you can find it. The tiny dot atop the rocky promontory, top left, is a gray morph Gyrfalcon. The ledge under the overhang down and right from it, with the whitewash, is probably its eyrie. This is shot with my SLR and 300mm, much cropped. I studied this bird for 20 minutes at 60 power, pretty much hogging my scope from the participants (there were plenty to go around), eventually seeing it fly. Bulky, gray, muted face pattern, wings fell well short of the tail so not a Peregrine, broader and blunter winged - now, to get one closer. . . ]

 [Mark and I were crazy enough to plan to prepare a meal for our tour on our arrival at Denali Highway Cabins last night after a long day of birding, and a long drive. Mark made his famous bread, shortbread cookies, baked potatoes, and broccoli. I took on salmon for 16 people, on an unfamilar grill - with fresh Copper River Sockeye (we're less than 100 miles from the river), it's hard to screw up. Yuuuummmm!!]

[Another picture of alpine tundra: this young Caribou investigated us today, wheeling when it got downwind and caught our scent.]

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Three Owl Morning, and Everyone Needs a Hobby

 [Ten million spruce trees - and one of them has a Northern Hawk-owl perched at the tip.]

Finding owls in Alaska is like finding owls anywhere else. You look. You look more. You look high. You look low. You listen. You scan. You search the 10 million trees - and one will have the two nestling Great-horned Owls, another will have the hawk-owl-looking tuft on top that indeed is a Northern Hawk-owl. Beyond, near the moose (give us this day our daily moose), will hunt the Short-eared Owl. That was our morning yesterday.

Or part of it. The taiga warblers sang, and multiple Bohemian Waxwings perched and flew, perched and flew, eventually perching for scope views for the lot of us.

[Great-horned Owl fledglings. I'm hoping we find an adult before the trip is done - Alaskan Great-horned Owls are pale. Digiscoped at 60 power.]

 [Bohemian Waxwing.]

 ["Hey Mark, did you notice we're only seeing female Red-necked Phaloropes?" says I in an overstated way. "Gee, Don, do you think there's a reason for that?" replies Mark, even more overstated. "Why, yes Mark. . . " Thence a discussion of phalaropes and their polyandrous ways. The males sit on the nests.]

 [The northernmost amphibian, Alaskan Wood Frogs do every year what Walt Disney wished he could. . . freeze and thaw.]

 [Old World Swallowtails were hill-topping along the Glenn Highway.]

 [An Alaskan cultural moment. . . Everybody needs a hobby. Someday, just once, I'm going to ride around Alaska during the midnight sun, shooting out the car window at signs. Seems like that's a popular activity here. I hear you get extra points for the Moose and Caribou crossing signs.]

[Pray, prey.]

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Stalking and Being Stalked

[Varied Thrush, Seward Highway yesterday - after a bit of belly crawling. Just noticed Varied Thrushes have a fairly stout bill.]

We finally found a really cooperative Varied Thrush, afer hearing them all around us for the last few days but only seeing them teed up high in the tip-top of far-away spruces. I'm always trying to meet the standard of good looks for all participants at every species detected during a tour, a worthy but usually unattainable objective. Let's not talk about Townsend's Warbler, for example, the little brats. . .

 [At Potter Marsh just outside Anchorage we accidentally parked right next to an Arctic Tern nest.]

Some birds are easier than others to get good looks at. Witness the Arctic Terns - though we struggle mightily to see one in the east, here they're nesting of course. The birds at Potter Marsh aggressively defended their space - Mark has shots of one nearly parting my hair as I took these photos. It's hard to believe these birds will be in the southern hemisphere in a few months.

The Arctic Terns were at Potter Marsh, a well-known birding location south of Anchorage. Anchorage and surrounds are disturbingly civilized, reminding me of a giant Rio Grande, NJ with a Fred Meyers instead of a Wal-Mart. Glad to leave that mess behind.

[I love the long, long wings and tail of Arctic Terns, marks of a consummate long distance migrant.]

[The Matanuska Glacier, just down the road from our present home at Sheep Mountain Lodge.]

Speaking of being stalked - both Mark and I are carrying bear spray whenever we're away from the vehicles. I'd kind of like the chance to try it (it's a guy thing, I guess). . . we haven't seen any bears since Denali, but they're out there. Somewhere out there is a statistic that groups of 3 or more are never attacked. We're having an encounter with a Snowshoe Hare out the lodge window right now, didn't bring any "Hare Spray."

We were out until after 10 p.m. searching in vain for Hawk Owl, and afterwards I scanned from the lodge close to midnight (still plenty of light for Hawk Owls and Zeiss bins.) Colette had a moose outside her cabin at 2:00 a.m. We're out there again.