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Tag: prudhoe

Late Changing Plumage of Rock Ptarmigan

by Bryce W. Robinson


Male Rock Ptarmigan- Lagopus muta, still in basic plumage. June 21, 2013. Prudhoe Bay, Alaska

My exposure to Ptarmigan this past summer was not limited. Although I haven’t been able to track down the White-tailed Ptarmigan, I have had a lot of experience with both the Willow and Rock Ptarmigan.

Without hesitation I’d say that the easiest way to distinguish the two species is by call. This is very helpful in early summer, when males are traipsing around the open tundra, full of hormones, calling and chasing one another constantly. But what about later in the season, when birds are more cryptic? What about females?

The differences in plumage are subtle, and so far I feel I could only distinguish females in alternate plumage if they were side by side.

Shape is a helpful tool. Richard Crossley asked me how I distinguish between the females of the two species. My response was head shape, but he persisted and exposed my lack of confidence with the parameter. I feel like I have head shape down, but I’ll need more practice this coming summer as I chase the Gyrfalcon around the Seward Peninsula.

I chose to share the above photo as it shows a Rock Ptarmigan in late June. In late may, male Willow Ptarmigan already have full reddish necks, as they have started their pre-alternate molt. Interestingly, male Rock Ptarmigan do not begin their pre-alternate molt until early July. This makes for a simple identification tool. I’ve yet to research any answers to this difference in timing of molt between the two species. I of course, encourage any discussion on the matter.


A Highlight of Birding- Breeding Sabine’s Gulls

by Bryce W. Robinson


I can write a book about how many birding highlights I had this past summer on Alaska’s north slope. It seemed every day I had a memorable experience that will last a lifetime.

I’ve mentioned before that Richard Crossley came to Prudhoe Bay on my last week of work in the region. I agreed to guide him around the oil fields for a day and show him where I had seen particular species. He, of course, had an agenda, and I was tasked to help him out.

We had a hell of a day. I think we started around 8 in the morning, and by midnight, I was still wandering around the tundra photographing birds. He was very keen on finding the Sabine’s Gulls, a bird of which I had seen little. Still, I had a reliable spot that would likely turn up a few gulls, in the least. Just after midnight, we headed that way.

We stopped near the spot I planned to check, only to photograph a small group of Semipalmated and Pectoral Sandpipers. While Richard took photos, I scanned about. I then saw a single Sabine’s some yards away. I alerted Richard. After scanning about a bit, we found a dozen more.

Excitedly we approached the group of gulls and began photographing. The gulls would lift off, and take turns harassing us. Such behavior is typical of breeding birds, defending their young. I took advantage of their tenacity and let my shutter fly. After gathering more photos than necessary, I began the search for the young. Soon enough I found a single bird across a pond, sitting with an adult. It was nothing more than a single ball of grey fluff. So adorable, and so vulnerable.

Our intrusion lasted only a moment. We recognized the stress we were causing the birds, and left. It couldn’t have been better; finding Sabine’s, which I’d barely seen, and having the opportunity to see both adult and young at such close proximity. The experience will stick with me for my lifetime.

The tragedy comes with the benefits of digital photography. Through some glitch, I lost nearly all photos from that evening. Luckily, I have one. It is a photo in the striking midnight sun of the arctic, of a bird I will never forget, and hope to see again, somewhere on the open arctic tundra.


Lost Gulls in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska

by Bryce W. Robinson


Great Black-backed Gull- Larus marinus

Great Black-backed Gull- Larus marinus

If you’ve started to read, then I’m impressed. Gulls in the title is probably a big turn off for most birders. But in all purity, this is what birders love. VAGRANTS. 

Still, Gulls? It is my opinion that the average birder is bored when it comes to gulls. Bored not at the lack of challenge, for there certainly is a challenge, but bored at the birds general appearance and habits. These are simply assumptions on my part. I actually don’t know the reason for the lack of enthusiasm, but I bet the reasons for low numbers of “laruphiles”, or gull lovers, are numerous. Still, it is undeniable that it is widely understood that gulls are not the most exciting subjects when it comes to birding. I on the other hand, have felt an itch for paying attention to this highly successful bird group.

There are only two gulls that breed on the north slope of Alaska, being the Glaucous Gull, and the Sabine’s Gull. Both birds are rather distinctive. The Glaucous Gull differs from other large gulls by having a notably pale back, with entirely pure white remiges. This look is distinctive, even at a distance, allowing any oddballs to be easily recognizable.

The oil fields at Prudhoe Bay house a large number of people. With people comes trash, so it is no surprise that the oil fields have a dump. Dumps are gull magnets, and the dump at Prudhoe Bay is no different. Knowing that anything is possible in birding, I formed the habit of scanning the hundreds of gulls that hang around the dump from day to day. The habit finally paid off two weeks ago when I noticed a dark backed gull amongst the pale Glaucous Gulls.

I hurriedly snapped photos and analyzed the bird. To me, it resembled a Western Gull, but some aspects were a bit off. I also noticed that the bird was banded. Very exciting, given the ability to read the band. Reading bands is a complicated business, and as the gull was in an area that I was unable to enter, I couldn’t get close enough for a better photo, or a way to read the band myself. I wish I had explored my options further. This was the only time I saw the gull. So, no band number. 

I’m just learning the gull dilemma. It is a challenge. There is a lot to learn, and the differences between many species are slight. With this vagrant dark backed gull, I had to get some help. I emailed a friend in high places, and he soon got back to me with a consensus, along with the opinions of other authorities. The result was GREAT BLACK-BACKED GULL. A life bird for me, and a bird I hadn’t even considered. The back just didn’t seem dark enough. Still, after taking into consideration their input and analysis, I agreed. What a bird, so far from home.

In the following days I made my rounds by the dump, in hopes of finding the gull again to catch the band number. Last week, I thought I found the gull again, but actually, I had found something more exciting, a second dark backed gull. Immediatly I caught that this gull had no retained immature remiges, and had yellow legs. I knew the bird, even though it was another life bird; LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL!


Lesser Black-backed Gull- Larus fuscus

Lesser Black-backed Gull- Larus fuscus

Lesser Black-backed Gull- Larus fuscus

Lesser Black-backed Gull- Larus fuscus

Sometimes birding is a game of curve balls. I never knew I could get so excited over gulls, but it spoke true to one of the reasons I am a birder. I love to find birds far from home, on crazy journeys themselves. I love to wonder why, and what they’ve experienced, and simply recognize that they are here, and how strange or miraculous that is.

Birders find vagrants everyday, some, much more exciting than these gulls that passed through Prudhoe bay. Nonetheless, the gulls helped me remember; This is birding, to notice something spectacular, that is so often overlooked.

Lesser Black-backed Gull- Larus fuscus

Lesser Black-backed Gull- Larus fuscus