The creative study of birds through art, photography, and writing

Mixed Woodpecker Flocks in an Alaskan Burn

by Bryce W. Robinson

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Male Black-backed Woodpecker working his way through a burn near Willow, Alaska. 

My friends Luke, Charlie, Linnaea and I recently visited a year old burn site near Willow, Alaska. Our purpose for the visit was to find a rarely encountered woodpecker species, the Black-backed Woodpecker (Picoides arctics). Luke had visited the site a year prior, only about a month after the burn, and found quite a few woodpeckers already foraging on the burned spruce. We were hoping to have the same luck.

When we reached the burn, we took a few roads that led towards the location Luke had luck in the year prior. While driving I noticed tan bark chippings flecked off of the charred trees, a sure sign of foraging woodpeckers.

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Downy Woodpecker foraging on a burnt spruce.

We set out on foot down a two track that led into a portion of the forest. Only two hundred meters down the track we heard woodpeckers. We first heard a Hairy Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus), but soon after came the husky call of a Black-backed. We quickly had visual, and soon after had others. Multiple Black-backed Woodpeckers, the magic of the burn.

The flock foraged along through the forest, much like a winter passerine flock foraging through deciduous groves. Soon the birds had gone, and we continued down the track only to find more woodpeckers.

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Hairy Woodpecker foraging low on a burnt spruce.

We counted many individuals. At one point we were surrounded by Downy Woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens). Other birds joined the flock, including White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys), Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula), Myrtle’s Warbler (Setophaga coronata coronata), and Wilson’s Warbler (Cardellina pusilla). It was interesting to watch the woodpeckers interact with the passerines. Many times the Myrtle’s Warblers would chase the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers.

Mixed flocks are excellent. Even more, a mixed flock is a symbol of fire ecology and the importance of natural fire cycles for many species, particularly Black-backed Woodpecker. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get the photos I really wanted of the birds and their foraging behaviors. I’ll make it back to the burn soon, hopefully to film some behaviors as well. That way I can fully portray the importance of burns for these birds, and the excellent behavior of flecking bark in search of food.

Spurting and Filter Feeding Behaviors of a Juvenile Red-necked Stint (Calidris ruficollis)

by Bryce W. Robinson

 

Apart from its scarcity and place as a formidable ID challenge, juvenile Red-necked Stint (Calidris ruficollis) is an excellent late summer encounter in Alaska because of its focus on feeding and building fat stores for migration. This focus makes the stint a great subject for close proximity observation, photography, and video. Interactive birds that tolerate your respectful but close proximity are the most fun.

While taking advantage of one such bird, I noticed a somewhat atypical feeding behavior. I was able to capture the behavior in the clip above, as the bird sifts through the water, filter feeding in a way, and consumes small items when it happens upon them. I’ve seen this before in other peeps, but it is certainly an uncommon feeding behavior.

Spurting is an even more uncommon feeding behavior, but one that is regular in many shorebird species (Fellows 2013). Fellows (2013) offers the following description of the behavior: “the bird dips its bill into the water for a couple of seconds, or sometimes a bit longer, presumably to obtain food. It then withdraws its bill and slightly pushes its head forward, usually (though not always) with the bill lowered and then ejects or spurts a stream of water, as if ridding itself  of surplus liquid taken in while feeding underwater. The bill is then reinserted in the water and the sequence is repeated“.

I’d never seen anything spurt before until I watched this juvenile Red-necked Stint  filter feed in shallow water this summer. Unfortunately the video above doesn’t capture anything but filtering, but I was able to manage a decent photo of a spurting event.

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Photo 1. A spurting juvenile Red-necked Stint at Safety Sound, Alaska. Note the stream of water trailing from the birds bill.

I feel quite fortunate to bear witness to spurting behavior. Special thanks to my friend Luke for not only knowing the name of the behavior, but also letting me know of a note that names and details the behavior in shorebirds (Fellows 2013). Excellent behavior and excellent birding.

Referenced Literature:

Fellows, B. 2013. Spurting Behaviour in Wading Birds. Wader Study Group Bulletin 120(3) pp. 208-209

Does Illness drive Procellariids Inland?

by Bryce W. Robinson

NOTES ON BEACH SIGHTINGS OF TWO MEMBERS OF PROCELLARIIDAE ON THE SOUTHERN SHORE OF THE SEWARD PENINSULA, ALASKA

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Photo 1. An unfinished watercolor sketch of a dark morph Pacific Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis rogersii) from my Nome 2016 sketch journal.

In late July my friend Luke DeCicco and I spent quite a bit of time studying gulls along the southern Seward Peninsula coast east of Nome, Alaska. The gulls at this time of year are in their first to second cycle transitive molt (first pre-basic molt), and represent an excellent challenge and education for those of us who care. But this post isn’t about gulls. This post details some anecdotal observations Luke and I made on procellarids we observed while on the coast studying gulls.

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Photo 2. Dark morph Pacific Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis rogersii) sitting on the mouth of the Nome River. Nome, Alaska.

While studying gulls at the Nome River mouth east of Nome, Luke noticed a small dark bird sitting onshore amongst a large flock of gulls. He immediately recognized the bird as a dark morph Pacific Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis rogersii). Soon after noticing the bird, the flock took to the air and mixed up. The fulmar flew upstream and landed 200 meters up river, drifting back downriver towards the coast.

I took photos as the bird drifted downriver. When the bird neared my location it started moving towards the shore. It soon reached the river bank and climbed onshore directly in front of me (Photo 3). I was shooting with my 300 mm f4.0 and 1.4X teleconverter, to give some understanding of how close I was to the bird. I still don’t understand the behavior, but I suppose the bird was quite ill and needed to be off water to feel secure.

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Photo 3. Dark morph Pacific Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis rogersii) climbing onto the river bank to rest on land. The bird came directly towards me, climbed onshore in front of me, and sat looking towards me.

The bird sat and seemed content and alert. Other than sitting on land only meters in front of me and surrounded by many other people as well, there didn’t appear to be anything aberrant about the birds behavior. I did notice the striking plumage of the dark fulmar, especially the difference between the brown toned retained feathers and the cobalt colored fresh feathers. The bird was in the midst of its pre-basic molt. After about 10 minutes the bird took off and flew out to the ocean and landed ~200 meters offshore. It seemed to fly fine but I still think the reason the bird was on the coast was due to illness.

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Photo 4. Resting dark morph Pacific Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis rogersii) on the river bank at the mouth of the Nome River, Nome, Alaska.

Later the same week Luke and I were frequenting the coast of Safety Sound in our attempts at finding and trapping juvenile Red Knots. While checking the coast for knots we came upon a Short-tailed Shearwater sleeping on the beach in the rain. The bird had drooped wings, a sullen posture, and was very wet. It was quite clear the bird was ill and likely wasn’t going to last long.

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Photo 5. An ill Short-tailed Shearwater (Ardenna tenuirostris) on the beach of Safety Sound on the Seward Peninsula, Alaska.

Over the next week Luke and I came upon 2 more dead Short-tailed Shearwater on the coast of Safety Sound. The high number of shearwaters and the lone fulmar left me thinking about ill seabirds and their possible inclination to seek land for comfort. I haven’t been able to find any literature on the matter, but I’ll keep looking.

 

 

Last year I discovered a Short-tailed Shearwater only 20 meters off shore of Safety Sound at approximately the same location as the bird photographed above (photo 5) and the two other dead shearwaters we discovered this season. I remember last year having thoughts on the health of the near shore shearwater. You can read my write up from last year here: https://ornithologi.com/2015/08/08/short-tailed-shearwater/

I haven’t spent much time on the coast, nor have I much experience studying the family procellariidae, so I’m unsure whether or not these birds seek shelter on the coast if they are ill. I have found seabirds dead on the coast, but in these cases the birds appeared to have been washed to shore after dying in the ocean.

Although a grim subject I couldn’t help but share my observations and thoughts. It’s quite interesting, and for someone who hasn’t spent much time at sea observing these birds it was quite exciting. I’m open for discussion on the matter and would love to hear of any similar experiences from those living on coastlines.

White Wagtail Breeding in Teller, Alaska

by Bryce W. Robinson

 

Working again in Nome this summer, although for a relatively short time, provided me with the opportunity to attempt to see some of the birds of the region that I had missed in previous years. One such bird was the White Wagtail (Motacilla alba). Before traveling to Nome, my friend Luke had informed me that he had already seen the species in a lagoon near the Red Knot camp, so my chances were promising.

Red Knot work was in full swing when I reached Nome, which limited the chance to try for the wagtails. In the meantime came a report of a White Wagtail AND a Common Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula) in Teller some 40 miles from our camp. On 5 July, a day of rain and weather, we took advantage of the inability to work with Knots and headed to Teller to try for both birds.

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An alarm calling adult White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) in Teller, Alaska.

When we reached Teller we began the search, more focused on the plover than the wagtail as the bird was a lifer for most in the group and the wagtail was not. After 20 minutes of fruitless plover searching Luke spotted our other target, a wagtail at the north end of the village. Luke and I both set out to photograph and film the bird and soon realized it was carrying food. Another adult appeared, also with food, and our minds tipped to the possibility that these birds bred in the area. Jim (head of the Red Knot project) watched the food carrying adult and followed it back to an electricity box on the side of a nearby building. The bird entered the utility box, and exited without the food. We quickly backed the truck up below the box to gain access and check for nestlings. Sure enough a grass nest sat in the corner of the box containing small nestlings.

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Electricity box containing a White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) nest. Teller, Alaska.

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White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) nest. Teller, Alaska.

After quickly documenting the nesting situation we left and let the adults return to provisioning the young. At the end of the day we left Teller with an excellent experience with White Wagtail, but unfortunately no Common Ringed Plover. Such is birding.

A few weeks later on 22 July, Luke and I returned to Teller on another poor weather day to check on the success of the brood. We soon found multiple juvenile wagtails chasing the adults, begging for food. Luke mentioned that White Wagtail had bred in Teller in years past, but I was left feeling like I had just struck oil – My first White Wagtails, breeding at that!

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Juvenile White Wagtail (Motacilla alba). Teller, Alaska.

The experienced left me excited. I’ve found that the best way to deal with the hangover excitement of a great birding experience is to illustrate, so after the initial sighting of the adults in early July I took advantage of the next day of weather and painted a White Wagtail on the inset of my Nome 2016 sketch journal.

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White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) in the inset of a 2016 field season sketch book for birds of the Seward Peninsula, Alaska. 

Seeing a bird species for the first time, and one that is quite uncommon in North America at that, is the best of birding. Especially if it feels like its been a long time coming. To see the bird and gain a first hand account of its breeding habits, well that is something else. It has a context, and context is what makes my experiences fruitful. I love life histories of birds, especially regarding breeding. I consider this experience to be the example of the what I seek when I step out the door aimed at observing birdlife.

July 2016 in Nome, Alaska had some magic, or something. But it seems that it was a continuation of a theme that started in early May. I bet that if you were to ask anyone that traveled to Nome, AK in the summer of 2016 they would agree. It was special summer, and I can’t wait to hear reports of what the fall brings in the region.

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