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Posts Tagged ‘Pine Grosbeak’

After returning from St. Paul Island, we stayed within driving distance of Anchorage for the next week.  On June 18, most of our group drove 175 miles up Glenn Highway to the Tolsona Wilderness Campground where a family of Great Gray Owls had been observed for several weeks.  I would have liked to see the owls, but I opted to go with my roommate, Ellen, to retrieve her car from a friend’s house in Wasilla.  Ellen’s car would be part of the caravan transporting our 22 birders for this part of the trip.

Seward to Denali 2

We got the car and then headed on up the highway to meet the others.  Ellen and I found the only Northern Flickers of the trip while searching for a Northern Hawk Owl.  The flickers were the yellow-shafted sub-species rather than the red-shafted form of Northern Flicker found in the west.  The photo below was shot by wildlife photographer Michael Quinton in Alaska.  For more of Michael’s beautiful work, see his blog, Journal of a Wildlife Photographer.

Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker

Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker

I was surprised to see the yellow-shafted form of the Flicker, but trip co-leader, Dave Hursh, explained that many birds in Alaska are the eastern sub-species. The eBird map below for Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker shows how the range sweeps west and north.  The red-shafted form occurs in the west and does not go as far north as Alaska.  Yellow-rumped Warblers show similar range patterns with our eastern “Myrtle” warblers common in Alaska and their western “Audubon’s” counterparts staying farther south.

Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted) eBird range map

Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted) eBird range map

We met the rest of our group a little later just after they had found the Northern Hawk Owl sitting on a telephone wire and everyone got great looks.  The day ended with a delicious dinner at Sheep Mountain Lodge and the drive back to Anchorage.

The next day we drove to Seward, birding along the way.  One of my favorite stops was just outside of Seward at Ava’s Place, a yard with numerous feeders and an owner who welcomes birders.  There was constant activity in the yard with an estimated 30 Pine Siskins and about a dozen other species.  I especially enjoyed the Pine Grosbeaks – males, females, and juveniles.

Pine Grosbeak (male)

Pine Grosbeak (male)

Pine Grosbeak (female)

Pine Grosbeak (female)

The reason for our visit to Seward was to take the 9-hour Northwestern Fjord tour.  It was a wonderful cruise, 150 miles round trip that went deep into Kenai Fjords National Park.  I have to confess, though, that the Northwestern Glacier itself was underwhelming, even downright disappointing.  I think that I had expected it to look like it did 100 years ago, but the glacier has retreated over 6 miles in the last century.  The photos below show the view in 1909 and again in 2005.  Most other glaciers in Alaska and elsewhere are also rapidly melting, evidence of global warming accelerated by human activities.

Northwestern Glacier in 1909 and 2005

Northwestern Glacier in 1909 and 2005

The day was very overcast and I had visual difficulty with my transitions lenses that darkened too much.  But, I couldn’t see well without them either because they had the prisms that corrected my double vision.  Even so, I enjoyed the wildlife and beautiful landscape.

The highlight for me was a Humpback Whale that we observed “pec slapping.”  We speculated about the behavior, but back home a little research suggests that it’s a form of communication.  The whale swam on the surface of the water slowly and repeatedly lifting and slapping it’s massive 15-foot pectoral fin on the surface of the water.  It was quite impressive!  We also observed the whale breech, almost completely clearing the water, for a thrilling finale.

Unfortunately, I did not get a photo of the whale, but I did get a photo of the Steller’s Sea Lions below.

Steller's Sea Lions

Steller’s Sea Lions

After Seward we made the long drive to Healy, our base for exploring Denali National Park for two full days.

Denali National Park

Denali National Park

Wolves in Denali National Park

Wolves in Denali National Park

We saw birds in Denali, but the highlights there were mammals.  We saw all of the “Big 5” – grizzly bear, caribou, moose, Dall sheep, and wolf.  Four of the five are pretty reliable, but we were very lucky that most of us saw two wolves right on the road.  The wolf population has declined in Denali in recent years.  Numbers reached a record low this spring with an estimated population of just 48 in the park’s 18,820 square kilometers of wolf population area.

We saw several caribou, most scruffy like the one in the photo below.

Caribou

Caribou

Arctic Ground Squirrel

Arctic Ground Squirrel

I also enjoyed seeing smaller mammals like the Arctic Ground Squirrel.  I asked the bus driver to stop so that I could get this photo.  He seemed to think that I was the only one who was interested, but I saw several other cameras come out for this cute little rodent.

Wildflowers in Nome and the Pribolof Islands had been mostly small tundra species except for the lupine and wild celery.  Larger showier flowers were common around Denali and on the Kenai Peninsula.  I loved the beautiful Fireweed.

Flower Fly on Fireweed

Flower Fly on Fireweed

I never got tired of Ptarmigans.  We watched this female Willow Ptarmigan scramble up a hill followed by several small chicks.

Willow Ptarmigan (female)

Willow Ptarmigan (female)

Mew Gulls were very cooperative photographic subjects.  This one perched atop a car in a parking lot and I was able to walk right up to it.

Mew Gull

Mew Gull

And, here is a female Mew Gull on her nest by the side of a river.

Mew Gull

Mew Gull

Black-billed Magpies were big bold subjects for the camera.  This one was in a parking lot.  They were rather common, but they were always fun to see.

Black-billed Magpie

Black-billed Magpie

Gray Jays were bold, too, and we enjoyed several near a picnic area at one of the stops on our all-day bus ride in Denali National Park.  It is illegal to feed the birds, but based upon the way they were looking for handouts, I’m sure that they had previous experience with snack-sharing law-breaking visitors.

Gray Jay

Gray Jay

As in every part of the trip, it was over all too soon and we drove back to Anchorage.  In the photo below, taken on that drive, you can see the ubiquitous wild celery in the foreground.

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This is the third of six posts about my month in Alaska.  Next – Alaska 2015: To the Top of the World

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Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl hunting in the Superior National Forest. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

The Great Gray Owl was actively hunting in a bog in the Superior National Forest as we watched it from the side of Minnesota Highway 2 north of Two Harbors.  It sat in the tops of trees surveying the ground below in the early morning light.  Every couple of minutes the owl  flew to a different tree, always alert, but not seeming to care that we were watching.  The fifteen minutes that we stood there in the serene beauty of the north woods was a wonderful start to the five-day trip.  This owl was not in a known location, but Erik had found it simply by knowing the habitat and carefully watching.  The Great Gray Owl is the tallest North American owl with a height of 24 to 33 inches.  It has the largest wingspan of five feet, but it is just a big ball of fluff.  It preys mostly on rodents with its small feet and talons.  Both Great Horned and Snowy owls weigh half again as much and have larger feet and talons allowing them to capture lager prey.

Our group of birders

Our group of birders – Gary Ludi, Shelley Rutkin, Myrna Harris

Myrna Harris and I had flown to Minnesota the day before where we met our guide, Erik Bruhnke, and Gary Ludi from Atlanta, for the Partnership for International Birding trip.  On the first day, we birded a little in Minneapolis and then headed north where we saw the first owls of the trip, two Snowies at the Superior airport in Wisconsin.  We learned that it was definitely not an irruption year, but that owls were actually rather scarce.  Still, we could not stop ourselves from teasing Erik that we expected an owl every day.

After our Great Gray Owl flew deeper into the woods and out of sight, we continued north.  There were long stretches without any birds at all, but the ones that we did find were the northern specialties that had motivated us to travel to northern Minnesota in January when sane people were heading south.

Myrna - warming up in Isabella

Myrna – warming up in Isabella. The temp outside was -9 degrees F.

In Grand Marais, we found a flock of Red Crossbills and Common Redpolls with one Hoary Redpoll and one White-winged Crossbill.  Four finch species in one binocular view!  An even more exciting find was a flock of about 30 Bohemian Waxwings.

Bohemian Waxwings

Bohemian Waxwings. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

They were close enough to see well with our naked eyes, but with bins and scopes we could see every feather. These are BIG birds! Bohemian Waxwings are only one inch longer than Cedar Waxwings, but they weigh almost twice as much (56 grams vs. 32 grams). Their breasts and bellies are gray rather than the gorgeous bronze of Cedar Waxwings, but their classic waxwing head and face, intricate markings on the wings, and Rufous undertail coverts make them just as beautiful.

Bohemian Waxwings

Bohemian Waxwings eating snow. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Day three of the trip was spent entirely in Sax Zim Bog.

Sax Zim Bog

Sax Zim Bog

I recorded only 21 species that day, but three of them were lifers.  Our owl for the day was an extremely cooperative Northern Hawk Owl who allowed us excellent looks.

Northern Hawk Owl.  Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Northern Hawk Owl. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

A common bird in the bog, but exciting for me was Ruffed Grouse – seven of them!  This grouse was close to becoming a nemesis bird, but I can now claim it as a lifer.  Most of them were adeptly clambering around in the tops of shrubs or trees, foraging on buds.  We also had a wonderful view of a Sharp-tailed Grouse.

Sharp-tailed Grouse.  Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Sharp-tailed Grouse. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

One of my favorite new birds is Pine Grosbeak – big, lovely, easy to identify, and very cooperative.

PineGrosbeak

Male PineGrosbeak. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Boreal Chickadee

Boreal Chickadee – an adorable Minnesota specialty. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Next it was time to look for gulls.  But first we wanted one more look at a Snowy Owl, so we headed back to the Superior airport early on our fourth day.  This time we found a Snowy perched in the top of a tree.  This is not common behavior for a Snowy, but it allowed us to get the scope on it for a quality view.  Crows harassed the poor bird and we could see the Snowy hiss at them.

Snowy Owl.  Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Snowy Owl being harassed by American Crows. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Satisfied, with our Owl encounter of the day, we headed to the Superior landfill and Wisconsin Point to look for gulls.  We found only Herring Gulls and fly-over Glaucous Gulls.  But back at Canal Park in Duluth, we walked to the water’s edge and discovered a beautiful Iceland Gull right in front of us.  This is the kind of gull that makes gull watching fun.  Erik also found a Thayer’s Gull, another lifer for Gary, Myrna, and me.

Iceland Gull.  Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Iceland Gull. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

We celebrated our life gulls with one last visit to Sax Zim Bog where we found Redpolls everywhere, including five Hoaries.  We also saw Pine Grosbeaks, two Northern Shrikes, and other bog birds including Bald Eagles, which we saw four of our five days in Minnesota.

Black-capped Chickadee and Hoary Redpoll

A Black-capped Chickadee checks out a Hoary Redpoll. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Common Redpolls

Common Redpolls were the most numerous feeder visitor. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Red Squirrel

Minnesota’s Red Squirrels were much cuter than our Gray Squirrels at home.

The last day of our trip came all too quickly, but we had seen most of the expected birds.  The Boreal Owl just wasn’t meant to be for this trip.  Ironically, they started showing up as soon as we returned home.  So, our main target for the drive back to Minneapolis was Rough-legged Hawk.  We finally found a distant dark morph Rough-legged Hawk at Crex Meadows in Wisconsin.  The distance was too great to see detailed field marks, but we could see the characteristic hovering behavior.  The Rough-legged Hawk is one of only two large raptors that hover regularly when hunting.  The other large raptor that hovers is the Osprey.  Although the bird was not close, it was exciting to see the special hunting behavior that makes it unique.  On that last day, our owl for the day was this beautiful Barred Owl.

Barred Owl.  Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Barred Owl. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

We boarded our plane for home with happy memories of winter in Minnesota and dreams of returning in the warmth of spring.  This trip was January 16-20, 2013.  Partnership for International Birding sponsored the trip and Erik Bruhnke of Naturally Avian was our guide.  Many thanks for Erik for a wonderful trip and for granting permission to use his beautiful photos in this post.

Erik and Shelley - trying to stay warm!

Erik and Shelley – trying to stay warm!

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