A studio for bird study

Tag: summer

Late Summer is for Studying Juveniles

by Bryce W. Robinson

Juvenile Western Sandpiper - Calidris mauri

Juvenile Western Sandpiper – Calidris mauri

Late summer in western Alaska is relatively slow birding compared to the early summer arrival of migrants and vagrants. Still, it holds potential for finding wayward migrants that head the wrong way, or get blown in from a storm. Additionally, even though most adult shorebirds are long gone, hoards of juveniles have taken their place. In some cases, this is the only place to see these juvenal plumages, as many of these birds will make a pre-formative molt prior to reaching their migratory stopover sites or wintering grounds. Juvenile shorebirds can be a challenge, so I’ve taken the opportunity to sift through what I find and make sure I recognize everything.

The bird above and the bird below are both juvenile Western Sandpipers – Calidris mauri, yet they appear quite different in bill length and patterning. I have seen this difference in multiple birds, and at times I’ve wondered if I am simply misidentifying the second bird. I am confident that this is just variation in the species. So, I’m putting these birds up and welcome any comments on their differences. I could be mistaken, it happens often.

Juvenile Western Sandpiper - Calidris mauri

Juvenile Western Sandpiper – Calidris mauri

At the moment it seems that the only shorebirds I see are juvenile Western Sandpipers. The density here on the Seward Peninsula is shocking. On occasion there will be a number of Semipalmated Plovers intermixed in the flocks, and even more uncommon are Baird’s. It seems Least Sandpipers haven’t made it to the coast yet, or are already gone. Time will tell. Rock Sandpipers and Dunlin have started moving through, but I haven’t seen a single Red Knot on the coast. The other day I did find two vagrant juvenile Greater Yellowlegs, a very good bird for western Alaska.

It has been fun searching for variation, all the while considering the timing of each species movements and their strategies for vacating the breeding grounds. Birding in western Alaska in late summer is enlightening, and provides a greater understanding of how these creatures manage themselves year round.



Alaska Mosquitoes Are the Bane of All Existence, Even for the Willow Ptarmigan

by Bryce W. Robinson

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What is the Alaska State Bird? Well, according to everyone I spoke to before my journey north, the Alaska state bird is the Mosquito. I’ll admit now, I understand their point. If there is no wind on the north slope, and temperatures are fair, the mosquitoes are intolerable. Luckily, one can prepare for the onslaught by bathing in carcinogenic 100% Deet and wearing cumbersome face nets.

One can prepare, if one is human. I saw first hand the other night that all blood carrying life here suffers from the miserable insects. I was watching a Sandhill Crane feeding in the short grass of the tundra. In an instant, the peaceful scene changed as two violent Willow Ptarmigan began a campaign to oust the crane from their area. I assume the behavior was due to the presence of a band of small young ptarmigans, hidden somewhere nearby.

After the crane wisely vacated the area, I took the opportunity to pair the striking summer plumage of the two ptarmigan with the golden evening sun for some spectacular photography. The Ptarmigan were cooperative. I set myself at an appropriate distance from the birds, and laid on the tundra to sit at their level. While I shot the birds, the Alaska state bird conducted its business on all of my vulnerable areas. It’s been three days, and I’m still itching.

What struck me most was the amount of mosquitoes on the head of the male Ptarmigan. The poor bird was constantly shaking the bastards off, but to no avail. He was being mercilessly bitten, and had no defense. I felt for the small feathered creature. In this instance we shared something; the misery of the mosquito, a fact of life in the north country.

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A Mid-summer Arctic Midnight with Yellow-billed Loons

by Bryce W. Robinson

For those that forget, it never gets dark in the arctic during summer. The result is a night full of spectacular light for photography, if the skies are clear.

A few days ago, my friend Heather found a pair of Yellow-billed Loons thirty miles south of Prudhoe Bay. I have been hoping for this particular loon ever since I arrived on the tundra, while keeping in mind that it was likely I would never see one. They prefer areas farther west, with more lakes and less oil workers. Like minds, I guess.

Lucky me, to have a friend like Heather, checking areas that I’ve been unable to make it to lately. I only have a week left here, so the loon’s timeliness cannot be overstated. My friends and I made some time last night to make a trip to the loons, hoping they stayed put for the day. In my mind, if I came away empty handed, the midnight sun would provide great photo opportunities with other birds as well.

Too bad the night was full of dramatic rain clouds, letting the sunlight through only in pieces. Too bad for photography, but not for my spirit. It was a perfect night, with near perfect temperatures, and loads of mosquitoes.

Anyway, the photography for the evening was a bust, but the loons were at the pond waiting for us! I’m not sure how to communicate my experience with the birds. Life birds, as birders term the first sight of a bird in their lifetime, can be the most incredible experience, but some leave you wanting. Some birds, for whatever reason, have been a bit anti-climactic for me. Not the Yellow-billed Loon. Perhaps the scenery contributed to the experience, but I must say that my first Yellow-billed Loons exceeded expectations.

The Yellow-billed Loon is in my top ten for the best life bird experiences I’ve had over my years of birding. The night smelled of tundra wildflowers and arctic rain. I laid myself on the edge of the pond for a spell of time, and filmed the birds. Today, my body itches from the hoards of mosquitoes that had their feast on my blood, but the experience was worth the itch. The birds forgot me, and soon drifted close, acting naturally, and providing me not only with some footage, but with a feeling of peace and joy in experiencing an emblematic life of the Arctic Coastal Plain.

Although the light was poor, I am very happy with the footage. I film these birds to share with those who love them as much as myself, but really I film them selfishly, to capture the moment so that I can watch them in years to come, and revisit the feeling of laying on the edge of a tundra pond, watching a pair of Yellow-billed Loons conduct their business.