June 2019 Bird of the Month – Merlin


(Falco columbarius)

Merlin (Photo by Robin Edwards)

General Information:  The Merlin is “pigeon” size, which is why it might also be known as the “pigeon hawk.”  This small raptor, known for its speed, is a member of the falcon (Falconidae) family. 

North America Range

Source: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Merlin/maps-range

Bird Biology:

Characteristics:  This small falcon has a large head, stocky body, sharply pointed wings, wings are sharply pointed. Males are slaty-gray to dark gray, while female and immature birds are browner.  The chest is heavily streaked, the underwings are dark.  The tail sports narrow white bands.  The falcon’s face lacks the “mustache” strip or malar depicted on American Kestrels or Peregrine Falcons.  Some think their expression is mean looking. 

These birds are between 9.4 and 11.8 inches in length, weigh in between 5.6 and 8.5 ounces, and have a wingspan of 20.9 to 26.8 inches.  Females are larger than the males.  Size wise, they are between a robin and a crow. 

The Merlin is generally solitary during the non-breeding season.  This bird is stealthy and does not hover, like an American Kestrel.  Its flight is fast (typically 30+ miles per hour) and direct, seeming to appear out of nowhere, flying with rapid wing-beats, unlike the Sharp-shinned Hawk which has a flap, flap, glide motion. 

Preferred Habitat:  Open and semi-open habitat – prairies; open or broken coniferous forests; rivers and bogs in forest, tundra, alpine tundra; coastal areas; and islands on large lakes.  In urbanized areas, may be found along tree-lined streets, cemeteries, and parks.  You may encounter the Merlin looking for a meal at your bird feeder – the meal being an unsuspecting bird. 

In the breeding season, the Merlin breeds in the forest – sparse woodlands edges, mountainous areas, or open plains/prairies with scattered trees. 

Wintering habitat does not differ, although the Merlin may be frequently found in coastal areas with an abundance of shorebirds to prey upon or in open prairies with an abundance of longspurs and larks. 

Breeding Season:  Begins early to mid May, ending early July. 

The Merlin performs flight displays to attract a female.  These displays include strong bursts of level flight, while rocking side to side; broad U-shaped dives; and slow, fluttering flights in a circle or figure-eight when near a perched mate.  The male will make a slow landing keeping its legs outstretched, head bowed, and tail fanned.  And what female can resist and male who brings her food? 

Nest:  The Merlin utilizes old tree nests of other birds (e.g., corvids and hawks) .  Sometimes they may use an open tree cavity, cliff-ledges, rocky hillsides, and even find a suitable nesting spot on the ground.  When nesting in a tree, the nest is generally 15-35 feet above the ground, but may be as high up as 60 feet.  If on the ground, the bird will line the nest with plant material pulled in while the bird is on the nest.  They rarely reuse the same nest.  The Merlin is highly territorial during the nesting season and will chase off other Merlins.

Eggs and Incubation:  Lays 5-6 eggs.  The eggs are laid at two-day intervals.  Single brood.  The female begins  incubation of the egg, before completing the clutch (i.e., before all the eggs are laid).  The male brings food to the female during incubation.  Incubation last 28-32 days. 

Nestling Period:  The nestlings are born altricial (naked, but downy).  The young are closely brooded by the female, with the male bringing prey, but not feeding the young.  Later both parents hunt to feed the growing chicks. 

Fledging:  The young have their feathers fully developed by 18 days, but do not fly until 25-30 days after hatching.  The youngsters remain near and under the care of their parents for another six weeks before striking out on their own. 

Food Preferences:  Primarily small birds, but also insects and small mammals. 

Feeding Methodology:  The Merlin is a perch-hunting raptor, however you will rarely, if ever, see it perched on a wire.  The Merlin is a master of stealth, its attack is fast and direct.  This bird likes to hunt flocking species.  It will consume its insect prey on the wing (in-flight) and with non-insect prey, it will find a perch in order to pluck and consume.  Young Merlin will target dragonflies – maybe they like the challenge?  You may find the Merlin perched for long periods of time while it scans for unsuspecting prey.

During Homer’s Shorebird Festival in May, you can generally find a Merlin on the Homer Spit in search of shorebirds such as Sandpipers and Dunlin.  The Merlin attacks at high speed, coming in horizontally or from below the horizon.  They generally chase their prey until the prey tires. 

Merlin (Photo by Michelle Michaud)

Migration:  The Merlin is a long-distance migrant except for the dark-morph  Merlin that resides in the Pacific Northwest, which live their year-round or migrate short distances following a food source.  The northern prairie Merlin generally migrates to the southern and central U.S. and northern Mexico.  Our Alaskan Merlin (the taiga form) migrates to the coastal and southern U.S., and may even travel as far south as Ecuador. 

Spring migration is mid-February to mid-May.  Winter migration is late July to mid-November, peaking in mid-September to late-October. 


Call:  Rapid shrill or chatter – “keh, keh, Keh, Keh, keh, keh

Fun Facts:

  • This bird was formerly known as the “pigeon” hawk.
  • Also known as the “little blue corporal” or “bullet hawk”

Conservation Status:  The Merlin suffered widespread declines in the 1960s due to pesticide contamination.  However, with the removal of pesticides such as DDT from use in the United States, the Merlin population is now considered stable. 

The International Union of Conservation of Nature has listed the Merlin as a species of Least Concern, with an estimated worldwide population between 0.5 million and 2.0 million. 

The Merlin is  not on the Alaska Audubon’s “Alaska Watchlist” for 2017.  The National Audubon Society considers the Merlin to be climate endangered.

Threats:  While the species population is currently stable, threats to the species include habitat loss from agriculture (farming and ranching), threats from energy production (wind turbines, fracking), transportation (utility and service lines, cell towers), human disturbance (recreational activities), pollution (ag and forestry effluents), invasive species, and climate change. 

Similar Species in Alaska: Sharp-shinned Hawk and American Kestrel

Sources of Information:

Audubon, Guide to Birds of North American.  Downloaded on May 16, 2019 at: https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/merlin

Baicich, Paul J. and Harrison, Colin J.O. 1997.  Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds, 2nd Edition. Princeton Field Guides

BirdLife International 2016. Falco columbarius. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T22696453A93562971. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T22696453A93562971.en. Downloaded on 16 May 2019.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  All About Birds.  2017. Downloaded on 16 May 2019 at: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Merlin/id

Dunne, Pete.  2006.  Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion:  Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds.  Houghton Mifflin Company. 

National Audubon Society.  Audubon:  Guide to North America Birds.  Downloaded on

Todd, Frank S.  1994. 10,001 Titillating Tidbits of Avian Trivia. Ibis Publishing Company.

Warnock, N. 2017. The Alaska WatchList 2017. Audubon Alaska, Anchorage, AK 99501.





May 2019 Bird of the Month

Townsend’s Warbler

(Setophaga townsendi)

Photo by Robin Edwards

General Information

The Townsend’s Warbler is a small, colorful, black, white, and yellow songbird found in and around Homer during its breeding season.  This species is member of the wood warblers in the family Parulidae, genus Setophaga.  There are 53 species of wood warblers that occur in North America. 

The Townsend’s Warbler is named for John Kirk Townsend, an American naturalist, ornithologist, and collector.  Townsend fell ill and died from the effects of powered arsenic used to prepare bird skins.  The Townsend’s Solitaire (a Thrush) is also named for him. 

Range:  The Townsend’s Warbler is a west coast warbler species, breeding in Alaska, Canada, and the Pacific Northwest.  This species spends its winter along the west coast from Washington to northern Baja, southern Arizona, trans-Pecos Texas, and Central America.

Source:  https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Townsends_Warbler/maps-range

Bird Biology:

Characteristics: The Townsend’s Warbler is about 5 inches in length and weighs in at 0.31 oz (8.8 grams).  The bird has a bright yellow breast, golden olive cheeks, and gray wings.  The male has a black cap, distinct “zorro” mask, black throat, and is streaked black down its sides. 

Preferred Habitat:  In the breeding season, this warbler can be found in coniferous and mixed deciduous-coniferous forests.  In its northern range, it prefers the White Spruce forest.  In the winter, these birds also can be found in oaks, madrones, laurels.

A good place to see a Townsend’s Warbler in the Homer area is along the Calvin and Coyle Trail.

Breeding Season: Breeding occurs from late May to early June.  The pair form a seasonal pair bond – so a new mate each year.  The male is very territorial while on the breeding grounds.  This warbler reaches sexual maturity at one-year of age and can begin breeding.     

Nest:  The nest is a large, compact cup-shaped nest made out of bark, conifer needles, lichens, moss, slender twigs, and dried grasses. The nest is then lined with moss, hair, and fine grasses.  The well-concealed nest is built in a conifer tree well out on a horizontal branch.  Both sexes are believed to construct the nest. 

Eggs and Incubation:  Three to seven eggs are laid and incubated for 12 days.  Not much is known about incubation, but it is believed that both parents incubate the eggs.  

Fledging: The chicks are fed by the female, and possibly by the male.  They fledge 8-10 days following hatching. 

Food Preferences:  Townsend’s Warblers are primarily insectivores – preferring caterpillars, true bugs, and beetles. They may also supplement their diet with a few spiders, seeds, and plant galls.

On the wintering grounds in Mexico, the Townsend’s Warbler feasts on the sugary excretions of scale insects.  Yum!!!  It loves this food source enough to defend its territories around trees infested with these insects.  

Feeding Methodology:  Townsend’s Warblers forage in the top 1/3 of a tree by gleening, hawking, and hovering to capture their prey.  In the non-breeding season, they will feed in mixed flocks. 

Migration: The birds beginning heading north to their breeding grounds (spring migration) in early April through late May, with birds returning to their wintering grounds beginning early August through October.  They are often found in mixed flocks during migration. 


Song: “zoo, zoo, zoo zee” or “weezy, weezy, weezy, weeZEE”

Call:  Sharp “tsik” or “chip”

Flight Call: Clear “swit”

Threats:  The primary threat is loss of habitat, pesticides, and climate change. To see how climate change is predicted to affect the Townsend’s Warbler between 2000 and 2080, go the bottom of the page at: http://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/townsends-warbler

Fun Facts:

  • Males begin singing prior to leaving their wintering grounds.
  • Females may partially construct a nest in one tree, then move all the materials to another tree, finishing the nest there.

Conservation Status:  The global population is estimated at around 17 million.  The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the species as “least concern” with a stable population. The National Audubon Society considers the Townsend’s Warbler a “climate threatened” species, although the species is still common and widespread. This species is not on the Alaska Audubon’s Alaska Watchlist.

Common Warbler Species in Alaska:  Other warbler species in Alaska includes the Yellow Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Arctic Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, and the Northern Waterthrush. 

Sources of Information

Baicich, Paul J. and Harrison, Colin J.O. 1997.  Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds, 2nd Edition. Princeton Field Guides.

BirdLife International 2016. Setophaga townsendi. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T22721683A94723311. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T22721683A94723311.en. Downloaded on 14 April 2019.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  All About Birds – Townsend’s Warbler.  https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Townsends_Warbler/overview  Downloaded on 13 April 2019.

Dunne, Pete.  2006.  Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion:  Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds.  Houghton Mifflin Company. 

National Audubon Society.  2018.  http://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/townsends-warbler.  Downloaded on 13 April 2019. 

Sibley, David Allen.  2003.  The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America.  Andrew Steward Publishing. 

Warnock, N.  2017. The Audubon Alaska WatchList 2017. Audubon Alaska, Anchorage, AK 99501

It’s a Great Day to Bird

Varied Thrush – April Bird of the Month – 2019

Varied Thrush

Photo by Robin Edwards

General Information:  The Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius), a forest loving, secretive bird, is quite common – often heard but not easily observed.  It is a member of the Turdidae family (thrushes).  The Varied Thrush’s haunting song is generally first heard and welcomed by local Homer area residents in late March or early April as it announces the oncoming, long-awaited, spring season.  


Source: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Varied_Thrush/maps-range

Bird Biology:

Characteristics:  When fortunate to be seen, it is not easy to miss this bird with its distinctive plumage: bold black, blue-gray, and orange.  Look for an orange eyebrow, wide black collar, orange underparts, blue-gray back and tail, and orange wing-bars.  The female and juvenile are similar in color to the male, but duller and generally lacking the wide black v-shaped collar. This bird is about the same size as the American Robin, but stockier.

Photo by Robin Edwards

Due to its habitat preference of heavy forest understory, the bird is not readily observed.  Be patient.  Follow its song and listen for its foraging behavior as it busily scratching the forest floor duff. 

Preferred Habitat: This bird’s preferred habitat is the dense, mature, unfragmented moist coniferous forest (fir, hemlock, spruce, with a dense understory).  It may also be found in Alder thickets and Aspen groves.  In the winter, it is often more visible as it frequents parks, gardens, oak woodlands, ravines, and riparian areas.

Don’t forget to look up, as these birds can sometimes be found singing at tree tops (dead or alive), often perched for extended periods of time as they throw their heads back and vocalize the presence of their territory.   

Photo by Michelle Michaud

Breeding Season:  The breeding season begins in mid-April for those birds in the southern portion of the bird’s breeding range, and in mid-May for those birds located further north – like our birds in Alaska.

Nest: The male sings to defend its territory, generally active at dawn and dusk.  However, the female is believed to choose the nest site.  Nests are built utilizing tree branches, with nests located 4-20 feet up, but close to the trunk; generally, in a small conifer. 

The female gathers the materials for the open cup nest.  The outer layer of the nest is composed of twigs, bark strips, mosses, weeds, and grasses.  A layer of rotten wood, moss, mud, or decomposing grasses is then added and allowed to harden the cup.  A final nesting layer is composed of fine grasses, dead leaves, and fine moss.  The moss is generally draped over the rim and placed on the outside of the nest.

Eggs and Incubation:  Generally, three-four eggs, but as many as six and as few as one are laid.  The pair may have a double brood.  The female alone sits on the eggs for 12 days.  Chicks are altricial (eyes closed, downy, and unable to feed themselves).  The chicks are tended by both parents.

Fledging:  It is estimated the chicks fledge 13-15 days following hatching, however, not a lot is known about child rearing and fledging for Varied Thrush chicks.

Food Preferences:  In the breeding season, the Varied Thrush utilizes protein sources such as insects and arthropods found in the leaf litter, including beetles, ants, caterpillars, sowbugs, snails, earthworms, and spiders.  In winter, when insects are few, dried fruits, seeds, and nuts make up their diet. 

Feeding Methodology:  The Varied Thrush forages on the ground, moving dead leaves with a sweeping motion of their bill and then quickly hopping backwards to clear a spot with their feet before checking out their prey.  This bird may also forage in low bushes (generally during the winter).  This thrush is generally a solitary bird, but in the fall and winter, they may form loose flocks around a good food source.  I recently saw seven Varied Thrushes feeding in a state park campground on the northern coast of Oregon.

Photos by Michelle Michaud

Migration:  Spring migration is mid-March to mid-May, while fall migration is from late August to late November.  In the winter, many Alaskan birds migrate to the west coast – south Kenai Peninsula of Alaska to southern California.


Song:  A haunting sound – “eeeeeeeee” (pause) “errrrrrr”. 

Call:  Low “churk” or “chup”

To many this bird’s song sounds like fingernails being run down a chalk board. 

Threats:  Like many birds, loss of forest habitat due to habitat fragmentation and logging is a significant threat.  The best conservation strategy is to retain habitat patches of 40-acres or more with habitat connections.  Varied Thrushes living around human habitation are subject to window strikes, predation by outdoor cats (domestic and feral), and car collisions. 

Fun Facts:

  • Varied Thrush populations are cyclical, with fluctuations on a 2-year cycle.

Conservation Status:  The Varied Thrush is fairly common.  However, populations have declined over 2.5% per year since 1966.  The current global breeding population is estimated at 20 million. 

The Varied Thrush does not appear on the Audubon Alaska’s “Watchlist”; and is listed as a species of “least” concern by the International Union of Concerned Scientists (IUCN).  The IUCN does note the species population is declining.   

The National Audubon Society lists the Varied Thrush as a priority bird: climate endangered. 

Similar Species in Alaska:  American Robin

Sources of Information:

All About Birds.  2017.  Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Downloaded on 13 August 2018 at: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Varied_Thrush/id

Audubon:  Guide to North America Birds.  Downloaded on 13 August 2018 at: https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/varied-thrush

Baicich, Paul J. and Harrison, Colin J.O. 1997.  Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds, 2nd Edition. Princeton Field Guides.

BirdLife International. 2016. Ixoreus naevius. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T22708385A94159470. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T22708385A94159470.en. Downloaded on 13 August 2018.

Dunne, Pete.  2006.  Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion:  Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds.  Houghton Mifflin Company. 

Warnock, N. 2017. The Alaska WatchList 2017. Audubon Alaska, Anchorage, AK 99501.  Downloaded on 13 August 2018 at: http://ak.audubon.org/conservation/alaska-watchlist

It’s a Great Day to Bird

Glaucous-Winged Gull – March 2019 Bird of the Month

General Information:  The Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens) is a common west coast breeder and winter resident found year-round in on the Kenai Peninsula.  No sexual dimorphism here – both male and female look alike.  They are members of the Order: Charadriiformes (which includes Shorebirds), Family: Laridae (Gulls and Terns)

North America Range

Source: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Glaucous-winged_Gull/maps-range

Bird Biology:

Characteristics:  All ages have pink legs – a good field ID.  From there it becomes more difficult as this gull doesn’t reach adult plumage until its fourth year.  And, to add to the confusion, there are the breeding and non-breeding plumages (although not that much different).  A good field bird book is needed if you want to be familiar with gulls.

Glaucous-winged Gulls are large, ranging in size from 19 -23 inches, and weighing in at around 2.0-2.5 pounds, slightly larger than a Herring Gull, but slightly smaller than a Glaucous Gull.

Adults: Look for a large, stocky gray/silver gull with gray back and gray/silver (not black) wingtips, with white spots near tip.  Eyes are dark compared to light eyes on Herring and Glaucous Gulls.   Their bill is yellow with some red on lower mandible and don’t forget the pink legs.  Breeding birds have an all white head and neck, while non-breeding birds have mottled gray in the head and neck.  They are commonly found in pairs year-round, but will forage alone or in large groups. 

Adult Glaucous-winged Gull
Photo by Michelle Michaud

There are a number of different plumages for birds that have yet to reach sexual maturity.  For a description of the different plumages go to: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Glaucous-winged_Gull/id

Juvenile Glaucous-winged Gull
Photo by MIchelle Michaud

Preferred Habitat:  Look for the Glaucous-winged Gull near or on coastal water year-round.  It prefers good food sources such as bays, inlets, estuaries, beaches, harbors, mud flats, and spends much of the winter loafing on offshore waters and beaches.

In the breeding season, this gull nests on steep coastal cliffs and rocky offshore islands (e.g., Gull Island). 

Breeding Season:  Begins mid-May to early June, ending in August.   Glaucous-winged Gulls do not begin breeding until their fourth year or later and breeds/nests in colonies, sometimes quite dense.  As a social breeder, it may breed/nest in colonies with other gull species or seabirds (e.g., puffins, murres).

Nesting:  Preference for a nest site is a nest on the ground, rock ledges, and cliffs, but they may nest on suitable buildings or structures.  The pair will ‘nest bond’, generally starting several nests, but completing only one nest. 

The nest is a bulky cup shape consisting of grasses, seaweed, feathers, fish bones, and other debris (including plastic, unfortunately).  The use of plastic by birds is not a good use of “recycling plastic”since the plastic often be ingested or will entangle the nesting bird or chicks. 

Eggs and Incubation: Typically 2-3 eggs are incubated by both parents for 26-29 days.  Hatchlings are semi-precocial (eyes and ears open, but cannot move about) and downy.  The chicks are fed by both parents.  The chick’s coloring is cryptic to help camouflage it from predators, including other Glaucous-winged Gulls. 

Hatch Year Glaucous-winged Gull
Photo by Michelle Michaud

Fledging:  The chicks generally fledge 35-54 days following hatching and will leave the colony about two weeks later to forage on their own. 

Food Preferences:  Their primary food source is marine invertebrates (limpets, chitons, clams, mussels, squid, crab etc.) and fishes.  They will also predate seabird eggs and chicks.  They scavenge carrion and will eat food found in landfills and parking lots.  Unfortunately people feed gulls, which attracts a lot of gulls in a feeding frenzy. The gulls create a riot as they swoop in to grab the morsel.  This human activity is not appropriate and illegal within the City of Homer.  Gulls have a notorious reputation of hanging out, in large numbers and in mixed flocks, at landfills seeking food so many birders check out landfills to see if there are any rare gulls present. 

Feeding Methodology:  These gulls forage at sea, in intertidal areas, along beaches, in parking lots and landfills.  When on land they are ground foragers.  They take prey from the surface of water or may perform a dramatic plunge into water from the air.  They will try to harass and steal food from other birds, such as cormorants. 

Roosting:  They a social roosters with beaches a favorite roosting spot but they can also be found roosting on pilings, guardrails, lamp posts, parking lots, and in fields or dumps

Adult Glaucous-winged Gulls Roosting on the beach at Anchor Point
Photo by Michelle Michaud
Glaucous-winged Gulls and a single Glaucous Gull roosting on the Homer Ferry Dock
Photo by Michelle Michaud

Migration:  Not all Glaucous-winged Gulls migrate as many northern birds are year-round residents, moving with the food resources.  For those that do migrate, spring migration is from late February to early May.  Fall migration is from late August to late November.  They may migrate as far south as northwestern Mexico but are rarely found inland, preferring a coastal environment. 

Vocalizations:  This bird’s call is a “keow” whistle.  If an intruder approaches you will here the ‘ga, ga’ notes.  I think that is one we’ve all heard and is most familiar. 

Threats:  Fishing line and hooks are deadly as Glaucous-winged Gulls are opportunistic scavengers and can ingest a hook or get entangled.  So if you see fishing line and hooks on the ground, pick them up and dispose of them properly.  And if you are out fishing, do not discard these items onto the ground or from your fishing boat.    

Gull with fishing line and lure attached to it.
Photo by Michelle Michaud

Fun Facts:

  • This bird hybridizes with the Herring Gull, Western Gull, and Glaucous Gull.  The young may possess physical characteristics of both parents. 
  • Gulls are often difficult enough to identify, especially before they reach sexual maturity, but added to that is the fact that they often inter-breed and hybridization makes field identification more difficult.  Pete Dunne recommends that if you find a gull with “… a mixed array of traits, consider the very possibility that it’s a hybrid” and either try to tease out what the bird is or move on to another gull. 
  • This is the one of five North American Gulls that does not have black on its wing-tips.

Conservation Status: 

Audubon Alaska has identified the Glaucous-winged Gull species as a common species that is declining or vulnerable, thereby warranting species conservation attention.  It is estimated that 44% of the bird’s population resides in Alaska making it at-risk for climate change and other environmental influences. 

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) has identified the population of the Glaucous-winged Gull as increasing, with no genuine threats to the global population estimated at over 570,000 individuals.

Similar Species in Alaska:  Glaucous Gull, Herring Gull

Sources of Information:

All About Birds.  Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Downloaded on January 10, 2019 at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Glaucous-winged_Gull/id

Baicich, Paul J. and Harrison, Colin J.O. 1997.  Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds, 2nd Edition. Princeton Field Guides.

BirdLife International 2018. Larus glaucescens. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T22694334A132543276. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2018-2.RLTS.T22694334A132543276.en. Downloaded on 10 January 2019.

Dunne, Pete.  2006.  Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion:  Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds.  Houghton Mifflin Company. 

Lucas DeCicco/McCaulay Library/Cornell University Ornithology Lab (ML174609).

National Audubon Society.  Audubon:  Guide to North America Birds.  Downloaded on January 10, 2019 at: https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/glaucous-winged-gull

Todd, Frank S.  1994. 10,001 Titillating Tidbits of Avian Trivia. Ibis Publishing Company.

Warnock, N. 2017. The Alaska WatchList 2017. Audubon Alaska, Anchorage, AK 99501.  Downloaded on January 10, 2019 at: http://ak.audubon.org/sites/g/files/amh551/f/annotated_watchlist_common_decline_2017.pdf

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Rock Sandpiper – February Bird of the Month – 2019

Rock Sandpiper

(Calidris ptilocnemis)

Wintering Rock Sandpiper at Homer Boat Harbor – Photo by Michelle Michaud

General Information:  The Rock Sandpiper is a shorebird that can be found in Cook Inlet, including on the Homer Spit during the winter.  The Rock Sandpiper has a small range – Alaska, Northern Siberia, and west coast of Canada.  This bird is a member of the Scolopacidae family and consists of four subspecies.     


Source: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Rock_Sandpiper/maps-range

Bird Biology:

Characteristics:  During the winter, this plump, medium-size shorebird is sooty gray in color, with heavily spotted white underparts.   The summer plumage resembles the look of  a breeding Dunlin, only messier (the black on the chest is smudged, rather than the clean margins of the black found on the Dunlin breast and belly).  It has a medium-length black bill with orange at the base, and drooping slightly at the end.  The bill is shorter than a Dunlin, longer than a Surfbird.  The short legs are a greenish-yellow color, and it has a  white wing-stripe( wing bar).  Look for a dark tail in flight.

The sandpiper weighs in at 2.0-4.6 ounces, and is 7.1-9.4 inches in length.   Both sexes have the same plumage – no sexual dimorphism here.   Overall size wise – think American Robin. 

A non-breeding Dunlin is located in the center of the photograph, surrounded by Rock Sandpipers. Notice the difference in coloring and bill length. Photo by Michelle Michaud

Preferred Habitat:  During the breeding season, the Rock Sandpiper breeds in low-elevation tundra areas, but may also nest at higher elevations in the mountains of western Alaska.  Wintering habitat includes rocky coastlines, breakwaters, and mudflats. 

Roosting Rock Sandpipers at the Homer Alaska Boat Harbor – Photos by Michelle Michaud

How many Rock Sandpipers can you count in this photo?

Breeding Season:  The breeding season begins in early June.  The Rock Sandpiper is a common breeder in Alaska. 

Nest:  This ground nester scrapes the ground, then lines the depression with grasses, lichens, and leaves.  The male begins the scrape, with the female occasionally helping  to construct the lining.

Eggs and Incubation:   Fur eggs are usually laid at daily intervals.  Both parents incubate the eggs over approximately 20 days, with the chicks hatching at different intervals.  The chicks are born precocial (leaving the nest shortly after bird and feeding on their own).  The male tends the young until they fledge. 

Fledging:  The chicks fledge (able to fly) approximately 3 weeks following hatching. 

Food Preferences: On the breeding grounds, protein is needed and the diet consists primarily of insects, but also crustaceans, mollusks, and marine worms.  Supplements include  berries, seeds, moss, and algae.  In the winter, they utilize tidal areas and eat mostly crustaceans, insects, and small mollusks. 

Feeding Methodology:  In the winter the Rock Sandpiper forages in the intertidal zone (rocky coasts, mudflats, gravel beaches, sand flats, ) where it finds its food visually. 

Roosting:  This sandpiper roosts above the high tide line on piers, beaches, and rocky banks.  It can be found roosting along the inner eastern bank of the Homer Boat Harbor during high tide in the winter months.

Migration:  Spring migration is from late March to early June.  Fall migration is from late June to mid-November.  Peak fall migration occurs later than other shorebirds.  The subspecies of Rock Sandpipers nesting on the Pribilof Islands and in the Aleutians are short-distance migrants or permanent residents.  The primary Rock Sandpiper wintering in Homer is a summer resident of the Pribilofs and Aleutians.

Vocalizations:  This bird is generally silent, but listen for low whistled notes sometimes vocalized in the winter. 

Threats:  Change of habitat due to climate change and exposure to predation.  Also, while the Rock Sandpiper can be enjoyed in large numbers roosting at the Homer boat harbor and feeding at the tidal flats, winter is an energy stressor so disturbance from dogs and people is a problem.

Fun Facts:

  • There are four subspecies of Rock Sandpipers with each subspecies having differing breeding plumage, but mostly look alike during the winter.
  • Several subspecies winter in Cook Inlet and Kachemak Bay. Several thousand wintering Rock Sandpipers can be found roosting, bathing, and preening on the northern half of the eastern bank of the Homer Boat Harbor or seen flying around the Homer Spit and landing on the tidal flats to feed.  By late April the majority of the Rock Sandpiper’s have departed Homer for their breeding grounds.
  • Check your photos and look carefully since small numbers of Dunlin often winter with Rock Sandpipers in Kachemak Bay, and can be confused for Rock Sandpipers (see photo above to see the difference).
  • The Rock Sandpiper is closely related to the Purple Sandpiper (which resides seen on the east coast of the United States and Canada)
  • Like a plover, the Rock Sandpiper may exhibit the broken wing display if a predator threatens the nest.
  • A hardy bird – its wintering area often means ice on feet and legs – no problem for the Rock Sandpiper with its specialized metabolism.

Conservation Status:  The estimated global population is 160,000-170,000 individuals. 

The subspecies C. ptilocnemis ptilocnemis, found in the Pribilof, St. Matthews, and Hall Islands of Alaska are listed on the Alaska Audubon Watchlist 2017 Yellow List – Vulnerable Species.  Species on this list are declining or vulnerable thereby warranting special conservation attention. The subspecies population status is estimated at around 20,000 birds.  This subspecies primarily winters in Cook Inlet.

The International Union of Concerned Scientists have listed (Red List) the Rock Sandpiper as a species of least concern, but with a declining population. 

Similar Species in Alaska:  Surfbird, Dunlin, and Wandering Tattler

Marked Birds:  If you see or find a Rock Sandpiper with a metal band, colored plastic leg bands, and engraved colored leg flats, please report your details to:

Dan Ruthrauff
USGS Alaska Science Center
4210 University Dr., Anchorage, Alaska, 99508
(907) 786-7162, druthrauff@usgs.gov

These birds were marked at several sites in western Alaska and are part of a distribution study.

Sources of Information:

All About Birds.  2017.  Cornell Lab of Ornithology.   Downloaded on 15 August 2018 at: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Rock_Sandpiper/id

Audubon:  Guide to North America Birds.  Downloaded on 15 August 2018 at: https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/rock-sandpiper

Baicich, Paul J. and Harrison, Colin J.O. 1997.  Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds, 2nd Edition. Princeton Field Guides.

BirdLife International. 2016. Calidris ptilocnemis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T22693424A95218793. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T22693424A95218793.en. Downloaded on 15 August 2018.

Dunne, Pete.  2006.  Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion:  Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds.  Houghton Mifflin Company.  

Gill, R. E., P. S. Tomkovich, and B. J. McCaffery (2002). Rock Sandpiper (Calidris ptilocnemis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.686.  Downloaded on 15 August 2018.

Lucas DeCicco//Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab (ML Audio176399).

Ruthrauff, Dan, U.S. Geological Service, Alaska Science Center.  Wintering Ecology of the Rock Sandpiper.  Downloaded on 15 August 2018 at: https://alaska.usgs.gov/science/biology/shorebirds/rosa_ecology.php

Todd, Frank S.  1994. 10,001 Titillating Tidbits of Avian Trivia. Ibis Publishing Company.

Warnock, N. 2017. The Alaska WatchList 2017. Audubon Alaska, Anchorage, AK 99501.

It’s A Great Day to Bird

Long-tailed Duck – January Bird of the Month – 2019

Long-tailed Duck

(Clangula hyemalis)

Male Long-tailed Duck in breeding plumage. Photo by Robin Edwards

General Information:  Formerly known as Old Squaw, this duck is a circumpolar breeder and a common winter resident in Kachemak Bay off the Homer Spit.  The “old squaw” name was in reference to the bird’s talkative behavior, although it is the male Long-tailed Duck that “talks” the most. 

The Long-tailed Duck  is a member of the Anatidae family, and the only living member of the genus Clangula

Range:  You will have to travel north to find these birds – summer or winter.    In North America they winter in the northern portions of the eastern U.S., Alaska, and Canada, and breed in the Alaska, northern Canada, and the Soviet Union. 

Source: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Long-tailed_Duck/maps-range

Worldwide Range

Source: http://maps.iucnredlist.org/map.html?id=22680427

Bird Biology:

Characteristics/Description:   The summer breeding plumage is distinctively different from the winter plumage.  In summer, males have a black head, chest, and wings with a gray face patch that surrounds the eyes.  The male’s upper back feathers are long and buffy with black centers.  The central tail feather very long (hence their name).   The male’s winter plumage, displays a white head and neck, but the gray face patch remains.  The winter plumage also includes large black spots extending from the side of the check down through the side of the neck.  There is a black band across the breast and lower neck.  Their lower back is black.  The upper back feathers are long and gray.  The central tail feather is black.  Eyes are a dull yellow-brown. 

Male winter plumage. Photo by Michelle Michaud

Male Summer plumage. Photo by Michelle Michaud

Females in the summer have mostly a dark head and heck, with a white patch around the eyes, extending in a thin line towards the ears.  Back and breast are various shades of gray or brown.  Eyes are brown.  During the winter, their head and neck are white with a round dark brown cheek patch.  They have a white belly.  Their crown, breast, and back are brownish-gray.

Female Winter plumage. Photo by Robin Edwards

Female Summer plumage. Photo by Michelle Michaud

Both sexes have uniformly dark under-wings, and small bodies with large heads.  They sit low in the water and are often hidden by the ocean waves. 

Preferred Habitat:  During the breeding season, lakes and ponds are preferred.  During the winter, they prefer the open ocean and can also be found on large freshwater lakes.  A good spot to find them in Kachemak Bay is off the end of the Homer Spit.

Breeding Season:  Breeds in the northern Arctic boreal forest and tundra, utilizing open permafrost pools and lake islands.  The breeding season begins in late May in the south, to June in the north.  They have a single brood. 

Nest:  The nest is a shallow scrape on the ground (often islands or peninsulas), lined with nearby plant material (e.g., willow and/or birch leaves), down, and feathers.  The nests are placed close to the water.  These birds are sociable nesters, nesting near other Long-tailed Ducks. 

Eggs and Incubation:  Usually 5-9 eggs constitute a clutch.  The female incubates the eggs for 23-25 days.  The chicks are born precocial (eyes open) and downy.  The young are lead to sea shortly after hatching.  They are able to swim, dive, and feed themselves immediately. 

Fledging: The hatchlings become independent approximately 5 weeks after hatching. 

Food Preferences:  Long-tailed ducks eat aquatic invertebrates – crustaceans (e.g., amphipods and cladocerans), mollusks, fish, and other marine invertebrates.  During the breeding season, they will also eat freshwater insects and insect larvae, plant material (algae, grasses, seeds, and fruits of tundra plants). 

Feeding Methodology:  Long-tailed ducks are “diving” ducks. 

Migration:  The Long-tailed Duck migrates from its breeding ground in the far north to its wintering grounds in the not so far north.  Spring migration to the breeding grounds begins late February through May, and fall migration to the wintering grounds begins in October continuing through December.   The migration is often in groups, and the birds fly low over the water. 

Vocalizations:  These birds are active vocalizers all year long.  Their call is a three-part yodel. 

Threats:  These birds are “sea” birds and are susceptible to by-catch in gill nets, and oil pollution.

Fun Facts:

  • This bird can dive 200 feet, although most food is obtained within the first 30 feet of the surface. One of the deepest diving ducks in the world. 
  • A diving duck, it spends more time underwater than it does on top of the water.
  • Adults molt three times per year, rather than the typical two times per year of other ducks.
  • And that beautiful plumage we see during the winter? That is actually their breeding plumage (attracting a mate), although the birds actual breed during the spring where their plumage is non-breeding plumage.  Confusing right?

Conservation Status:  The world population is estimated at between 3.2 million and 3.75 million birds. 

The International Union of Concerned Scientists list the Long-tailed Duck as vulnerable due to the severe wintering population decline in the Baltic Sea between the early 1990s and late 2000.

The Alaska Audubon Society has identified the Long-tailed Duck as a species in possible decline on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, although stable on the Alaska Coastal Plain (Audubon Alaska Watchlist 2017:  Common Species Suspected to be Declining). 

Similar Species:  Harlequin Duck, Northern Pintail, Steller’s Eider.

Sources of Information:

All About Birds.  2017.  Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Downloaded on 29 July 2018.  https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Long-tailed_Duck/id

Audubon: Guide to North American Birds.  Downloaded on 30 July 2018 at https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/long-tailed-duck

Baicich, Paul J. and Colin J.O. Harrison.  19997.  Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds, 2nd Edition.  Princeton Field Guides. 

BirdLife International. 2018. Clangula hyemalis (amended version of 2017 assessment). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T22680427A122303234. Downloaded on 29 July 2018.

Dunn, Jon L. and Jonathan Alderer, Editors.  National Geographic: Field Guide to Birds of North America.  5th Edition, 2nd Printing.  2008.

Dunne, Pete.  2006.  Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion:  Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds.  Houghton Mifflin Company. 

Henri Ouellet//Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab (ML Audio 74469)

Warnock, N. 2017. The Alaska WatchList 2017. Audubon Alaska, Anchorage, AK 99501.

American Dipper – December Bird of the Month – 2018

American Dipper

(Cinclus mexicanus)

Photo by Michelle Michaud

General Information:  As the name implies, the American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus), also formerly known as the “Water Ouzel”, is characterized by its dipping movements.  The American dipper is a stocky dark grey bird with a head sometimes tinged brown and distinctive white feathers on the eyelids that cause the eyes to flash white as the bird blinks.  It has long legs, and bobs its whole body up and down while perched on a rock in or near a stream.

The American Dipper’s habit of ‘dipping’ or bobbing up and down while perched on a rock or ledge is not well understood though some believe the action of dipping may help them spot prey beneath the surface of the water or help conceal their image from predators.  Dipping may also be a form of visual communication between birds in the noisy environment they favor – clear, clean, fast-moving streams.

The American dipper is of the Order, PASSERIFORMES; Family, Dipper (Cinclidae).

Range:  The American Dipper is ‘Alaska Hardy’ — a permanent resident of the Kenai Peninsula, but also able to tolerate winters even in the Brooks Range and Seward Peninsula.  Now that’s cold. 

The American Dipper is North America’s only aquatic songbird, and one of five species of dipper in the world (Europe, Northern Africa, Asia, South America, and North America).

Range Map Source:  https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Dipper/maps-range

Bird Biology:

Characteristics:  It is hard to mistake the American Dipper with its dependency on streams and its iconic bobbing nature.  Look for a bird 5.5 to 7.9 in (14 to 20 cm) in length, and weighing in at 1.5 to 2.4 oz. (43 to 67 g).  Males and females look alike, although the average body mass of males is slightly greater than females.  Unlike most other songbirds, but similar to ducks, the American Dipper molts its wing and tail feathers all at once in the late summer. The bird is flightless during this time.

Find a fast-moving stream, look for a stream boulder, and the probability of seeing a dipper increase as they will spend up to 10 minutes preening (preen oil glands), creating their form of wet suit – necessary for waterproofing and insulation.

The American Dipper takes a ‘polar dip’ in the cold water with relish. It is well-adapted to its cold, underwater habitat. The American Dipper has a thick coating of down and feathers as insulation, large preen glands secreting oil to waterproof their feathers, a moveable flap over the nostrils that seals when the bird is underwater, blood cells with a large capacity for carrying oxygen, and an efficient internal system of thermoregulation.

Preferred Habitat:  American Dippers are stream-dependent, foraging in clear fast-moving streams with rocky bottoms.  They prefer unpolluted waters, and can be found in mountain, coastal, or even desert streams.

Breeding:  Dippers are fiercely territorial, vigorously defending their linear stream-dependent nesting territory from other pairs. They are mainly monogamous and in most cases return to the same nest year after year. The American Dipper breeds along swift, rocky streams, seeming to favor clear, cold water, often in narrow canyons. Seem repetitive…Guess you have the picture now about stream preference.

The courtship display may have either the male or female strutting and singing in front of the other bird, with wings drooping and bill pointed up.  The pair may then conduct a ‘flight chase’ with complex aerial maneuvers, all the while singing.  Though some pairs stay together in winter, the dipper is generally a solitary bird; after the chicks’ fledge, parents often divide their brood and their territory and part ways.

Nesting:  The nest, probably built by the female, is a volleyball-sized shell of moss, with an inner saucer of dry grass on which 4-5 white eggs are laid. In Alaska, nest building usually begins in April or May, though cold weather and high altitudes may result in delayed nesting.

American Dipper nests (Photo by Michelle Michaud)

Nest sites include a slight ledge on a mossy rock wall just above stream, among roots on a dirt bank, or behind a waterfall.  The nest is often placed where it remains continuously wet from flying spray.  Many dippers commonly select nest sites under bridges – an adaptable bird.  Good nest sites seem to be the main limiting factor for the presence of a population of dippers.  So if you see a bridge near a fast moving stream and you can look under the bridge, check for a dipper nest.

Bridge which housed several dipper nests (Photo by Michelle Michaud)

American Dipper gathering nesting material – Photos by Michelle Michaud

The clutch is incubated for 2 to 2.5 weeks. Females do all the incubation, but males bring food to the incubating female. The female will brood the chicks for a week or more while the chicks grow feathers to help regulate their body temperature. Both parents feed the chicks, bringing insects and small fish – feeding the hungry brood as many as 20 times an hour.  One would think the parents would be worn out after all that activity, but second broods have been recorded.

Fledging:  When born, the chicks are helpless with sparse down, but are ready to leave the nest in about 24-25 days.  The young are fed by both parents for another two weeks after fledging, as they gradually learn how to find and catch their own prey.  Chicks are able to swim and dive after fledging.

Hatch Year Bird (Photo by Michelle Michaud)

Food Preferences:  The American Dipper feeds on aquatic insects and their larvae (yay! mosquitoes) and may also eat fish eggs and very small fish (less than 3″ long).

Feeding Methodology:   The American Dipper can wade, swim, and dive from either the water or the air and are capable of moving underwater rocks on the stream bed to get food.

Photos by Michelle Michaud

The American Dipper uses its short, stubby wings to ‘fly’ underwater with powerful strokes of their partially folded wings when chasing prey.  They can take prey from the water’s surface while swimming or from mid-air while in flight, but most food is taken underwater.

With its long legs and strong toes, the American Dipper is an underwater marvel; easily able to negotiate along the bottom of fast-moving, rocky streams in current capable of knocking over you or I.

Roosting:  A variety of sites on the ground adjacent to streams are used for nocturnal roosts.

Migration:  The American Dipper is not a long-distant migrant so it is a ‘Homer Bird’ — a  permanent resident of the Kenai Peninsula; but it may move to other locations if necessary to find food or unfrozen water.

Vocalizations:  The song consists of high whistles or trills peee peee pijur pijur repeated a few times.  The song has also been described as a loud, bubbling song.  Whatever you interpret, you will hear the dipper as the song carries over the noise of stream rapids.   Both sexes of this bird sing year round, but are often quiet after nesting.

Call:  The call is a harsh, zeet-zeet-zeet.

Fun Facts:

  • Eat and be eaten… The American Dipper eats fish eggs, but its habit of diving underwater in search of food can infrequently make it the prey of large salmonids.
  • To see an American Dipper stay close to a stream as the dipper will be seen bobbing up and down on a rock in mid-stream, or flying low over the water, following the winding course of a stream rather than taking overland shortcuts.
  • The American Dipper is equipped with an extra eyelid called a nictitating membrane allowing it to see underwater.

Conservation Status:  American Dipper presence/absence can be an indicator of stream quality, as aquatic prey becomes scarce in polluted streams.  No food, no dippers.  The dipper has vanished from some locations due to pollution or increased silt load in streams. Also, sedimentation, acidification, and toxic waste from industry of various types can cause dipper reproductive failure and abandonment of a stream.

The American Dipper’s population status is thought to be a species of ‘Least Concern’ by the International Union of Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, with a stable population.  The American Dipper does not appear on the Alaska Audubon Watchlist (2017).

Other Dipper Species in Alaska: The American Dipper is the only dipper species in Alaska; well okay in all of North America.

Sources of Information:

All About Birds.  Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Downloaded on 23 November 2018 at: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Dipper/id

Alaska Department of Fish & Game.  Species Profile:  American Dipper.  Downloaded on 23 November 2018 at http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=americandipper.main

Audubon: Guide to North America Birds. National Audubon Society.  Downloaded on 23 November 2018 at: https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/american-dipper.

Baicich, Paul J. and Harrison, Colin J.O. 1997.  Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds, 2nd Edition. Princeton Field Guides.

BirdLife International. 2016. Cinclus mexicanus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T22708163A94152063. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T22708163A94152063.en. Downloaded on 25 August 2018.

Dunne, Pete.  2006.  Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion:  Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds.  Houghton Mifflin Company.

Randolph S. Little//Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab

Warnock, N. 2017. The Alaska WatchList 2017. Audubon Alaska, Anchorage, AK 99501.

William W. H. Gunn//Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab

It’s A Great Day to Bird


Common Redpoll – November Bird of the Month – 2018

Common Redpoll

(Carduelis flammea)

Photo by Robin Edwards

General Information:  Common Redpolls are common Arctic and sub-Arctic breeders.  Their numbers vary from year to year (irruptions) depending upon on the availability of seed. 

Description:  These small songbirds are members of the finch family and are about 5.25 inches in length.  Females have a red or orange cap, while males have a red cap and red on the breast and sides, with distinctive black chins.  The male and female have streaking of the flanks, rump, and undertail coverts and a yellow bill. 

North American Range:


Source: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Redpoll/maps-range

Bird Biology:

Preferred Habitat: In winter, the Common Redpoll prefers open woodlands, brushy edges, weedy fields, and is a regular visitor at bird feeders.  During the summer they can be found breeding in varying habitat types: edges of spruce forests, birch stands, mixed conifer and birch, willow thickets, and low tundra shrub.  They avoid dense forest. 

Breeding Season:  Breeding begins in late April in the western states, and June in the east.  The female searches for the nest site and builds the nest on a horizontal branch or in the crotch of a spruce, alder, or willow.  They nest low to the ground.  On the tundra the nest is placed under a rock ledge, in low ground cover, or among driftwood.  

Nest: The nest is cup-shaped, consisting of fine twigs, grasses, and plant stems, and lined with down, feathers, and hair.  In the arctic, old nests may be reused, in which case the female relines the nest.  Pairs will often nest near one another in loose associations.

Eggs and Incubation: Usually 4-5 eggs.  Nestlings are altricial (young are unable to care for themselves when born).  Female incubates the eggs 10-13 days.  Young are tended by both parents. The adult pair remain together and may have from 1-3 broods in a season.  That’s a lot of young ones to take care of each year.

Fledging: The young quickly grow flight feathers and fledge 11-14 days after birth. 

Food Preferences:  Common Redpolls are seed eaters, preferring a seed about the size of their bill.  Birch catkins are a preferred seed source. 

Redpolls do come to feeders, preferring nyjer or thistle seed, but also eating black oil sunflower seed.  They will also scavenge opened seeds left by other birds.

Feeding Methodology:  The Common Redpoll is an active communal forager generally found in flocks. 

Migration:   During a normal year, fall migration begins in late August and extends to early December.  Spring migration is from late February to early June.   Birds migrate during the day and in flocks. 

The Common Redpoll is an irruptive migrant.  They will move south irregularly in winter following patterns in food supply.  Their winter habitat is the northern boreal forest, however every couple of years, redpolls move farther south in winter, occasionally reaching the central or southern United States. Their movements generally correspond to the availability of seeds and population response to increasing numbers.

Photo by Randy Weisser


  • Song:  Combination of a trill and twittering.
  • Call:  Swee-ee-et
  • Flight Call:  A dry rattle

Threats:  Climate change is transforming the Common Redpoll habitat.

Fun Facts:

  • During a winter night, the Common Redpoll will tunnel into the snow to stay warm. These tunnels may be more than a 12 inches long and 4 inches under the snow.  Brrrr.
  • The Common Redpoll can pull a string to get to a piece of hanging food. They can shake seeds out birch catkins so the seed falls to the ground where the birds easily eat them.
  • Redpolls have throat pouches where they temporarily store seeds to later take to a protected, warm spot to eat.
  • Some redpolls eat a diet consisting entirely of birch seeds.
  • Redpolls have high-energy needs and can eat up to 42% of their body mass each day.
  • Redpolls are ‘Alaska Hardy’ and have been found to survive in areas where the temperature dips to minus 65 degrees F. That’s cold!!!
  • A redpoll banded in Alaska was recovered in the eastern U.S. A redpoll banded in Belgium was found in China two years later.  Those are long distance trips. 

Photo by Michelle Michaud

Conservation Status:  Common Redpolls are species of least concern, but populations are declining. Their estimated global population is 160 million.

Similar Species in Alaska:  Hoary Redpoll

Sources of Information:

All About Birds.  2017.  Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Downloaded on 5 June 2018, and 19 July 2018.  https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Redpoll/id

Arthur A. Allen//Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab

Baicich, Paul J. and Harrison, Colin J.O. 1997.  Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds, 2nd Edition. Princeton Field Guides.

Dunn, Jon L. and Adlerfer, Jonathan, Editors.  National Geographic: Field Guide to Birds of North America.  Fifth Edition.  2006. 

Dunne, Pete.  2006.  Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion:  Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds.  Houghton Mifflin Company. 

Geoffrey A. Keller//Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab

National Audubon Society.  Birds of North America.  Downloaded on 19 July 2018.  https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/common-redpoll

Sibley, David Allen.  2003.  The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America.  Andrew Stewart Publishing Inc. 

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2018-1. <www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 19 July 2018.

Warnock, N. 2017. The Alaska WatchList 2017. Audubon Alaska, Anchorage, AK 99501.

 It’s A Great Day to Bird


Northern Saw-whet Owl – October Bird of the Month – 2018

Northern Saw-whet Owl

(Aegolius acadicus)

Photo by Jason Sodergren

Photo by Jason Sodergren

General Information:  The Northern Saw-whet Owl is a small owl about the size of an American Robin.  They are members of the Strigidae family.

North American Range

Source: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Saw-whet_Owl/maps-range

Bird Biology:

Characteristics/Description: Northern Saw-whet Owl is a charismatic small owl – 7.1 to 8.3 inches in height, with a wing span between 16.5 and 18.9 inches – an owl that will fit in the palm of your hand.  Adults are mottled brown with a whitish facial disk and white-spotted head.  Their beak is black and their eyes are yellow.  Juveniles are dark brown with a cinnamon-colored breast and belly.  They have large, rounded heads that lack ear tufts. 

Juvenile Northern Saw-whet Owl. Photo by Mary Frische and Tom Collipy

Preferred Habitat: You’ll only find these owls in the forest, preferring mature forests with an open understory (for foraging).  They prefer deciduous trees for nesting and dense conifers for roosting (the better to hide), with riverside habitat nearby. 

Breeding Season:  Breeding season begins mid-March to mid-April, ending in late June.  They are generally monogamous, however, if there is sufficient food available the male will mate with more than one female.  Males begin calling (incessantly) in late January to attract a mate and to defend its territory. 

Nest:  The females choose the nesting location.  They are secondary cavity nesters (nesting in previously excavated holes – think woodpecker hole) in dead snags.  They are not known to reuse a nest cavity two years in a row. 

The nest is located at the bottom of the cavity, and may consist of wood chips, twigs, moss, hair, and small mammal bones or may even be unlined.   Nest cavities may be anywhere from 8-60 feet off the ground.  The nest hole is generally 3inches wide and 9-18 inches deep. 

Northern Saw-whet Owls also will use nest boxes (see https://nestwatch.org/learn/all-about-birdhouses/birds/northern-saw-whet-owl/ for plans on how to build a nest box).  You might want to consider one for your home, provided you have the right habitat.  If you install a nest box it is helpful to lay some wood chips in the bottom.

Northern Saw-whet Owl in a nest box.  Photo by Mary Frische and Tom Collipy

Photo by Mary Frische and Tom Collipy

Photo by Robin Edwards

Eggs and Incubation:  The female Northern Saw-whet Owl lays between 4-7 eggs (generally 5-6) with a 1 to 3-day interval between each egg, and can have up to two broods per year.  The eggs are incubated by the female for 26-29 days.  The young hatch in intervals, and are taken care of by the female, although the male brings food to the nest during incubation and brooding.  The chicks fledge within three-weeks of hatching at which time the female and male hunt and feed the young. The young are born covered in white down, eyes closed (opening 8-9 days later).  They are semi-helpless when born. 

Fledging:  The young leave the nest 27-35 days after hatching.  However, they remain near the nest and are feed (primarily by the male) for another four weeks or more. 

Food Preferences:  So what do these birds like to eat?  The mostly eat small mammals – mice, shrews, voles, shrew-moles, bats, and the young of chipmunks, squirrels, and gophers. 

All food bets are off during migration, where they supplement their diet with birds – chickadees, juncos, sparrows, wrens, warblers, robins, waxwings, and kinglets.  They may also eat insects such as grasshoppers, moths, beetles, and bugs.i

In the Homer area (coastal), they may also eat intertidal invertebrates, such as amphipods and isopods. 

Feeding Methodology:   These owls hunt at night (nocturnal), using both sight and sound; hunting hunt from a low perch along the forest edge flying silently and low towards prey. 

Roosting:  These birds roost during the daytime in dense vegetation making them difficult to see even though they are typically just above eye level.   

Photo by Mary Frische and Tom Collipy

Migration:  The Northern Saw-whet Owl is both a resident and a long-distance migrant.  They may migrate north/south or in altitude (moving to lower elevations in the winter).  Others may remain in the same location year-round.  These birds migrate at night using known migration routes across the continent.  They are found year-round in Alaska, although their range is quite limited (see range map). 

This owl winters in a variety of woodland habitats, but may also be found in suburban and urban areas.   Spring migration begins late February and continues into May.  Fall migration is from late September to December, peaking in October and early November.


Call:  A rhythmic, repetitive toot, toot.

The bird is most vocal before dawn.  During the breeding season the male gives this rhythmic song for hours without a break.

Threats:   Habitat loss due to reduction in mature forests through logging.  Climate change. 

Fun Facts:

  • Kachemak Bay Birder Jason Sodergren of Homer Alaska has been banding Northern Saw-whet Owls at his home since 2009. To date, he has captured and banded 1231 of these cute, little owls – many of them juveniles.  That is a lot of owls coming through the Homer area. 
  • Its name may have come from its call, which has been likened to a saw being sharpened on a whetting stone. 
  • Migrating Northern Saw-whet Owls can cross large bodies of water, e.g. the Great Lakes.
  • The female keeps a very clean nest, however, once she leaves to roost elsewhere (and prior to the young fledging), the young birds can quickly turn that clean nest box into a typical youngsters’ quarters – messy (layers of feces, pellets, and rotting prey parts).

Conservation Status:  The Northern Saw-whet Owl is a common species, with an estimated global breeding population around 2.0 million.

Only the Southern Appalachian Northern Saw-whet Owl population is listed on the Audubon 2014 State of the Birds Watch List.  This population is at risk of becoming threatened or endangered unless conservation actions are undertaken.  South Dakota and North Carolina have listed the birds as species of special concern.

The International Union of Concerned Scientists listed the Northern Saw-whet Owl as a species of least concern, with a declining population trend.

The species is not listed on Alaska Audubon’s Alaska WatchList 2017. 

Similar Species in Alaska:  Boreal Owl, Northern Hawk Owl

Sources of Information:

All About Birds.  2017.  Cornell Lab of Ornithology.   Downloaded on 3 August 2018 at: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Saw-whet_Owl/id

Audubon:  Guide to North America Birds.  Downloaded on 6 August 2018 at: https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/northern-saw-whet-owl

Baicich, Paul J. and Harrison, Colin J.O. 1997.  Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds, 2nd Edition. Princeton Field Guides.

BirdLife International. 2016. Aegolius acadicus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T22689366A93228694. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T22689366A93228694.en. Downloaded on 06 August 2018.

Dunne, Pete.  2006.  Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion:  Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds.  Houghton Mifflin Company. 

Warnock, N. 2017. The Alaska WatchList 2017. Audubon Alaska, Anchorage, AK 99501.  Downloaded on 6 August 2018 at: http://ak.audubon.org/conservation/alaska-watchlist

It’s a Great Day to Bird


Common Raven – September Bird of the Month – 2018

Common Raven

(Corvus corax)

(Photo by Robin Edwards)

General Information:  Other than commonly seen, there is nothing ‘common’ about the Common Raven – a member of the Corvidae Family, Order Passeriformes (yes a “songbird”)There are eight subspecies of Raven, with the Common Raven of Alaska sharing the Corvidae Family spotlight with the Northwestern Crow, Gray Jay, Steller’s Jay, and Black-billed Magpie of Homer.

The raven is often described as the ‘Einstein of birds’—exhibiting unique problem-solving abilities and the ability to learn from observed behavior.  The brain of a Common Raven is among the largest of all birds.  And, as if the bird knows it is special and not common, the walk of a raven has been described as a swagger accentuated with a couple of hops as distinguished from the waddling crow.



Bird Biology:

Characteristics:  The Common Raven is a large bird, with glossy black feathers, a large bill, shaggy throat feathers, weighing in at 2.6 pounds, and 25 inches long – not your average Passerine song bird. Juvenile birds lack the shaggy throat feathers.

They are larger than the Northwestern Crow as demonstrated in the photo below.  A good way to distinguish a Common Raven from an American or Northwestern Crow is the by their wedge-shaped tails, best observed in flight. They are long-lived birds.

Northwestern Crow in the foreground, Common Raven in the background

Photo by Randy Weisser

Preferred Habitat: The Common Raven is often distinguished from the Northwestern Crow by habitat selection with the Raven preferring more open countryside areas near forested areas whereas the crow is more habituated to human presence.  However, being an exceptional bird, the raven provides an exception to the rule and is often found on Homer beaches with the reward of a good food supply and open space.

The Raven is adaptable to a wide variety of habitat — at home in the Alaskan Arctic, forest, grassland, and coast.  And, for you ‘snowbirds,’ the Common Raven is even found in the Southwestern, ‘lower 48’, desert.

Breeding Season:  Ravens mate for life.  In interior Alaska, mating behavior is displayed in mid-January with nesting beginning in mid-March.

Nesting:  Nests are large – essentially a pile of sticks, up to five feet in diameter and two feet in height, forming a platform of weaved sticks, and often found in the crouch of a tree or cliff overhang.  The male will salvage sticks or even break off tree limbs three-foot long to contribute to the nest.  The female is the interior designer making an inner cup 5-6 inches deep and 9-12 inches wide.   They generally pick a new nesting area each year. 

Photo by Michelle Michaud

Eggs and Incubation:  The female lays 3-7 eggs with an incubation period of 20-25 days.   The female incubates while the male brings food to the female. The pair has one brood a year.

The chicks are altricial – blind and featherless, thus helpless.  They are ‘nest-bound’ and require the care and feeding by both parents.

Fledging:  The chicks leave the nest about 4 weeks after hatching.  The remain with the parents after they fledge.

Food Preferences: The Common Raven has been described as ‘feeding on practically anything’ in its Omnivore style dietary preferences. They are opportunistic feeders.

The Common Raven is often a major predator, especially taking nest eggs of seabirds.  Foraging is often facilitated by a pair of Ravens as they incorporate clever methods of finding food.

They will cache or hide their food, and raid other ravens’ caches.  They are known to regurgitate undigestable food (think pellets).  Their diet is mostly small mammals, but also berries and other fruit, grains, small invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles (outside of Alaska, of course), and birds.

They will follow a predator’s tracks to a fresh kill; and will tug on the tail feathers of a raptor (such as Bald Eagle) to distract it so it can steal a bite of food.  This activity has been observed on the beach at Anchor Point during the summer fishing season.  Check it out next time you are there.

During the non-breeding season, they may travel up to 30-40 miles from their roost site to feed. 

Roosting:  In winter, Common Ravens may gather in flocks to forage during the day and to roost at night. During the rest of the year, they are often coupled, or in small groups. As many as 800 ravens have been seen in one roost near Fairbanks.  Now that is a lot of ravens.

Migration:  The Common Raven is a year-round resident of Homer – well throughout its range.  It has been the only bird present during the Christmas Bird Count in Barrow.

Vocalizations:  The Common Raven is described as a great mimic and possesses a varied repertoire of social vocalizations.  One study in Alaska showed ravens have more than 30 distinct vocalizations (including mews, whistles, even dripping water sounds).  The most common vocalization is deep guttural or croaking voice – it almost sounds like the Raven is talking to you, or voicing an opinion.  They are talented mimics.

Call:  cr-r-r-ruck 

Flight Call:  Kaw 

Fun Facts (there are a lot of them for the raven):

  • A flock of ravens is called an “unkindness”.
  • Ravens have been described as playful, as an active learning strategy. 
  • They are known to recognize different individuals – both ravens and humans.
  • Juvenile ravens have been observed sliding down snowbanks and rolling in fresh snow, apparently just for fun.
  • Ravens seem to play in the air as well – flying loops, executing rolls, dive-bombing each other.
  • Edgar Allan Poe made the raven famous as a symbol of death.  The raven is a theme in much of Native American mythology. Alaska Natives; Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, BellaBella, and Kwakiutl all viewed the raven as the creator of the world and bringer of daylight. The raven is also important in the creation of myths by the Eskimo. The myths of the raven remain a significant social and religious component of Alaska culture.
  • Legend has it that if ravens leave the Tower of London the British Kingdom will fall. 
  • They were once slaughtered as pests (okay not such a “fun” fact). 
  • World’s largest perching bird.
  • North America’s largest songbird.
  • Juveniles do not breed until 3-4 years of age and will often help with feeding the subsequent young of their natal parents.

Conservation Status:  Ravens disappeared from much of the East and Midwest before 1900. In recent decades they have been expanding their range again, especially in the northeast, spreading south into formerly occupied areas.

The International Union of Conservation of Nature lists the Common Raven as a species of Least Concern – trend increasing.  The raven does not appear on the Alaska Audubon’s Alaska Watchlist 2017.  There is an estimated 7.7 million Common Ravens.

Other Raven Species in Alaska: There are no other raven species in Alaska, but other members of the corvid family here include the Northwestern Crow, Steller’s Jay, Gray Jay, and Black-billed Magpie. 

For more information:  The Common Raven has been researched extensively.  Several good books include:

  • Ravens in Winter, by Bernd Heinrich
  • Mind of the Raven by Bernd Heinrich
  • In the Company of Crows and Ravens by John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell

The National Audubon Society has a great video on ravens singing to their mates.  Check it out at:  http://www.audubon.org/news/listen-sweet-soft-warble-common-ravens-sing-their-partners

Sources of Information:

Alaska Department of Fish and Game.  Downloaded on 11 August 2018 at http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=commonraven.main

American Bird Conservancy.   Downloaded on 11 August 2018 at https://abcbirds.org/bird/common-raven/

Arnold B. van den Berg/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab

Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  All About Birds: Common Raven.  Downloaded on 16 May 2018 https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Raven/id

Marzluff, John M. and Tony Angell. 2005.  In the Company of Crows and Ravens. Yale University.

National Audubon, Guide to Birds of North America.  Downloaded on 11 April 2018.  http://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/common-raven

National Georgraphic Society.   Downloaded on 11 August 2018 at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/c/common-raven/

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2017-3. <www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 16 May 2018.

Sibley, David Allen. 2001. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. Alfred A. Knopf. New York.

Warnock, N. 2017. The Alaska WatchList 2017. Audubon Alaska, Anchorage, AK 99501.  Downloaded on 11 April 2018.

William W.H. Gunn//Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab

It’s A Great Day to Bird

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