Marbled Murrelett – August Bird of the Month

Marbled Murrelet

(Brachyramphus marmoratus)

Photo by Michelle Michaud – Winter Plumage

General Information:  The Marbled Murrelet is small chunky, long-lived seabird.  This bird is unique among aclids, including other murrelets, in that it nests high up in large coastal trees.  In the Pacific Northwest, these species can be found nesting up to 50 miles inland in old-growth forests.   The species has a global population of 385,000, with 70% of the population residing in Alaska.  It is a member of the alcidae family. 

Range:  The Marbled Murrelet can be found along the Pacific coast from northern Baja California out into the Aleutian Islands.  This chunky little seabird can be found year-round in Kachemak Bay and Cook Inlet. 


Bird Biology:

Characteristics:   Often found in pairs, but in protected bays in Alaska, the Marbled Murrelet can be found in groups numbering around 50 birds.  In breeding plumage darkish-brown overall.  In non-breeding plumage a black cap and cheep patch, white collar, white scapulars, white breast and vent.  Fairly long bill. 

They forage, loaf, molt, preen, and undertake courtship displays in near-shore marine waters. 

Winter plumage – Photo by Gary Lyon
Breeding Plumage – Photo by USFWS

Preferred Habitat:  This bird spends all of its time on the ocean, except when breeding.  Winters at sea.

Breeding Season:  April through September

Nests:  Moss-covered platforms on large moss-covered limbs in old-growth trees (200+ years old).   In treeless areas in Alaska, the bird nests on the ground or in rocky cavities typically within one-mile of shore, but no more than four-miles from shore. 

Eggs and Incubation: Egg laying begins in April through late June/early July.  Only one egg is laid.  Nestlings are semi-precocial and downy.   The nest is tended by both parents and hatchlings are brooded up to three days (birds stay in the nest). 

Fledging:  The chick leaves the nest 27-28 days following hatching, flying either to sea or a lake near the coast.    

Food Preferences:  Marbled Murrelets are opportunistic feeders, consuming small fish (e.g, Sand Lance, Capelin, Herring) and crustaceans (Shrimp, Mysids, Euphausiids, and Amphipods). 

Feeding Methodology:  Surface diver, foraging in shallow water (100 feet or less).  Uses it wings to swim under water to catch fish.  Prefers waters at the mouth of rivers and glacial streams, however, it can be found foraging 30 miles out from shore. 

Migration:  Some birds move south in the winter. 

Vocalizations:  Call is a high, gull-like squeal.  At dusk a clear “keer, keer, keer” call.    

Threats:  Habitat loss is the primary threat in the lower 48, where more than 95% of its habitat has been logged.  In Alaska, threats include changes in food availability, avian predators, incidental by-catch in gillnet fisheries, and loss of habitat through old-growth logging.  Marbled Murrelets are vulnerable to oil and marine pollution.

Fun Facts:

  • The Marbled Murrelet usually nests in trees greater than 200 years in age – old growth.
  • While the bird was first described in 1789, it wasn’t until almost 200 years later that the first nest of Marbled Murrelet was discovered and formally documented.
  • The Marbled Murrelet was once known as the “Australian Bumble Bee” by fishermen and as the “fogbird” or “fog lark” by loggers.

Conservation Status:  This species is declining and along the Pacific Coast (California, Oregon, and Washington), the species is listed a threatened under the Endangered Species Act.  In Alaska, the Marbled Murrelet is on the Alaska Audubon “Alaska Watchlist 2017 – Red List”.  Species on the “red list” are either have declining or depressed population trends.  Although the Marble Murrelet has declined in population, it population has stabilized over the past decade.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the Marbled Murrelet as endangered; its population trend decreasing. 

Similar Species in Alaska:  In the Alaska, other murrelet species include the Kittletz Murrelet and the Ancient Murrelet.  Occasionally, the Long-billed Murrelet strays into Alaskan waters, including Kachemak Bay (this bird breeds in Siberia).  

Sources of Information:

Audubon, Guide to Birds of North America.  Downloaded on 11 April 2018.

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

Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  All About Birds – Marbled Murrelet.  Downloaded on 11 April 2018. 

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

Hank Lentfer//Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab

International Union for Conservation of Nature.  The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2017-3. <>. Downloaded on 11 April 2018.

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

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

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Pacific Southwest Region, Arcata Office.  Marbled Murrelet Species Profile.  Downloaded on 30 July 2018 at

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

It’s A Great Day to Bird

Arctic Tern – July Bird of the Month – 2018

Arctic Tern

(Sterna paradisaea) 

Photo by Michael Boylan

General Information:  This species is also known as the “Mirror-winged Tern” because of its silver gray upperwings, much like a mirror.  It is a common arctic and subarctic breeder, and uncommon pelagic migrant.  A member of the Laridae family, its estimated population is well over 2.0 million birds.  Only 10% of the population is believed to breed in Alaska.  The Arctic Tern goes ‘south’ for the winter – if going to Antarctica is considered ‘going south.’

Range:  Due to its long distance migration, this bird’s range is quite large.  In the spring it migrates from Antarctica to the arctic and subarctic where it breeds.  Come fall, it returns to Antarctic either via a western route or an eastern route.  Most birds migrate via the eastern route. 


Bird Biology:

Characteristics: A medium size tern with angular wings and pointed wingtips.  All plumages show pale silvery gray and white primaries (flight feathers) with small dark tips.  In breeding, the adult tern sports a black cap, long deeply forked tail, short red bill, and quite short red legs. In non-breeding plumage the legs and bill are black and the forehead white.

Preferred Habitat: Open ocean, open tundra, open boreal forests, lakes, ponds, marshes, and small rocky islands.  During the winter the terns prefer Antarctic pack ice. 

Breeding Season:  The Arctic Tern is a circumpolar breeder, with breeding beginning in May and June.  Breeding pairs form a monogamous bond during a given breeding season.  They do not breed until they are 3-4 years old. 

Nesting: The Arctic Tern nest in colonies in a variety of habitats: on small, rocky islands – near- shore or off-shore, open tundra, in open boreal forests, and on barrier beaches on the northeastern Atlantic coast. 

Both the male and female build the nest – a shallow hollow often unlined or sparsely lined with debris and plant material, which is added while sitting on the nest – obtained within reach of the nest.  Parents vigorously defend the nest, diving at and striking intruders.

Arctic terns breed on Tern Lake (appropriate name) at the junction of the Seward and Sterling Highways.  Nesting terns can also be found at Potter Marsh outside of Anchorage.  Terns previously nested at the Old Tern Colony on the south-side of the Homer Airport, but disturbance has caused nest abandonment. 

Photo by Michelle Michaud

Eggs and Incubation: Arctic Terns lay between 1-3 eggs, which are incubated by both parents for 21-23 days.  Once hatched, the young are tended by both parents.  Chicks are semi-precocial (eyes open) and downy. 

The young may leave the nest shortly after hatching, but they don’t travel far – staying close to the nest.  Tern chicks can swim at 2 days. 

Fledging: The young take wing (fly) 21-28 days after hatching, but are fed by their parents for much longer (1-2 months).  These birds will not breed the following year, nor do they make the long migration north.  Some may “summer” off the coast of western South America, around Peru.

Food Preferences:  Arctic Terns feed on small fish, generally less than 6-inches in length (e.g., sandlances, sandeels, herring, cod, and smelt).  They may also grab insects from the air or water surface, and are known to eat crustaceans, mollusks, marine worms, earthworms, and on rare occasions berries.

While in Antarctica the terns feed on krill. 

Feeding Methodology:  Often feeds with other terns and gulls on the open ocean, but inland generally feeds along tundra lakes, rivers, and marshes.  The Arctic Tern feeds by plucking food from the water’s surface or by flying upwind, hovering briefly, then diving to catch prey below the water’s surface.  I’m sure we’ve all seen this behavior.

The Arctic Tern may also forages over streams, ponds, lakes, marshes, and coastal waters.  They are very aggressive toward intruders and may steal food from other birds by swooping at them causing the bird to drops its catch. 

Roosting: Commonly perches on rocks, branches emerging from water, logs, and road signs.  Its not uncommon to see an Arctic Tern perched on a road sign along Potter’s Marsh in Anchorage.  They can often be found resting on the water. 

Photo by Carla Stanley

Migration:  Arctic Terns are long-distant migrants, traveling an estimated 31,000 miles during migration.  How far and where a migrant travels depends upon what part of North America the bird spends the breeding season.  Birds in Western North America (our Alaska birds) migrate south across the Pacific Ocean to Antarctica.  Eastern North American birds migrate across the North Atlantic towards Europe and Northern Africa before heading south to Australia, New Zealand, and Antarctica.  During migration they remain out to sea.

Spring migration is from March to early June.  Fall migration is from July to November, peaking August to mid-September. 

Vocalizations:  Foraging or when taking off from the colony, Arctic Terns give a high-pitched “kip” call.  Alarm call:  A shrill or grating scream high in pitch. 

Threats:  Climate change, oil spills, environmental contaminants, predation (rats, cats, dogs, pigs, horses, cattle, etc.), human disturbance at colonies, habitat degradation, and reductions in fish stocks.

Fun Facts:

  • Want to see breeding Arctic Terns then check out Tern Lake at the junction of the Sterling and Seward Highways, with a bonus of possibly seeing an American Dipper at the salmon viewing platform/bridge!
  • Longest migrant – traveling upwards of 31,000 miles per year
  • Some live up to 25 years, which equals more than 600,000 miles of flying in a lifetime (just think of the frequent flyer miles it earns).
  • They molt their wing feathers during our winter, spending much of that time resting on small ice blocks on the edge of the Antarctic pack ice.

Conservation Status:  Alaska Audubon includes the Arctic Tern on its list of Common Species Suspecting to be Declining.  The tern is declining on the Arctic Coastal Plain, but has been increasing on the Yukon Kuskowkim Delta. 

The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the Arctic Tern as a species of least concern, but noting that the species’ population is declining. 

Similar Tern Species in Alaska: Aleutian Terns are found in Alaska, and occasionally in Kachemak Bay. 

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.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  All About Birds: Arctic Tern.  Downloaded on April 30, 2018.

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

National Audubon Society.  Edited by Elphick, C., Dunning, Jr. J.B., and Sibley, D.A.  2001.  The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior.  2001.  Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 

National Audubon Society: Guide to Birds of North America.  Downloaded on 3 May 2018. 

Roger Charters/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab

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 2017-3. <>. Downloaded on 03 May 2018.

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

It’s A Great Day to Bird


Golden-crowned Sparrow – June Bird of the Month – 2018

Golden-crowned Sparrow

(Zonotrichia atricapilla)

Photo by Mossy Kilcher
Photo by Michelle Michaud

General Information:  The Golden-crowned Sparrow is a common, large sparrow in the family Passerellidae, genus Zonotrichia. This genus consists of four species:  Golden-crowned, White-crowned, White-throated, and Harris’s Sparrows.  Both the Golden-crowned and White-crowned species are commonly found in the Homer area.

Range:  Birders in Homer are fortunate to have this species as a summer visitor since it is not wide-spread – restricted in its range.  Its breeding season range is limited to western Canada and Alaska.  Migration takes it as far south as Baja California, spending much of its time on the western coast in weedy or brushy areas.  A few birds will remain year-round in the Homer area – at lower elevations. 

The Golden-crowned Sparrow is a rare visitor to the Interior West U.S. and casual in the Eastern United States. 


Bird Biology:

Characteristics: Breeding adults have a distinctive, yellow fore-crown, with black stripes on each  side of the crown.  Besides the distinctive yellow crown, other field marks include a bi-colored bill,  a gray-brown breast, with no spotting, and a pale brown rump. 

Immature Golden-crowned Sparrows are similar to immature White-crowned Sparrows.  One of the key distinguishing marks between the two immature sparrow species is the color of the bill.  The White-crowned Sparrow has a pinkish, orange bill while the Golden-crowned Sparrow has the bi-colored bill. 

Preferred Habitat: Low shrubs, dense vegetation. 

Breeding Season:  Pairs are monogamous during the breeding season. 

Nest: Golden-crowned Sparrow build a thick cup nest generally on the ground at the base of a small, dense shrub or in a bank with overhanging plants.  The nests are composed of small twigs, bark, ferns, dry grasses, and dead leaves.  They will line the nest with fine grasses, hair, and feathers.

Eggs and Incubation: Three-five eggs are typically laid.  The female incubates the eggs 11-13 days.  When hatched, the chicks are atricial (unable to eat on their own) and naked. 

Fledging: Both parents feed the young.  Chicks quickly grow their downy feathers and leave the nest within 9 days, and are able to fly short distances 4 days later, thereby becoming independent. 

Food Preferences:  The Golden-crowned Sparrow are omnivores – they eat both plants and animals.  More is known about their winter diet, than their summer diet.  In the winter they eat a variety of food types, including seeds (geranium, pigweed, starwort, dock, grasses, sumac, nightshade, knotweed), fruits (apples, grapes, elderberry, olive), grains (oats, wheat, barley, corn), buds, flowers, and plant sprouts.  They will also eat insects (ants, wasps, bees, moths, butterflies, beetles, terminates, and flies).  In the summer it is believed they eat insects, fruit, seeds, and spiders. 

Feeding Methodology:  The Golden-crowned Sparrows is a ground forager, preferring to feed close to cover, gleaning for seeds or scratching leaf litter to uncover morsels.  They often feed alone or in pairs. 

While they are less aggressive when feeding, they do defend breeding territories (approximately 2.5 acres in size).

Migration:  This bird’s entire population takes the same migration route each year – along the West Coast from its wintering grounds (anywhere northern Baja California to southern British Columbia, Canada) to its breeding grounds (in Alaska and Northwestern Canada) and back.  Spring migration is April and May, while fall migration begins in late August.

Wintering Golden-crowned Sparrows can usually be found in flocks with White-crowned Sparrows.  Both species winter in small numbers in the Homer area. 

Photo by Michelle Michaud


Song:  A series of high clear whistles with a mnemonic of “I see you” or  “Come see me” or even “Oh Pretty Bird”.  At least that is what I hear when they sing.  Try out a version that works for you.

Call:  A clear “Tew”.

Flight Call:  A high “seep”.

Threats:  Feral and outdoor domestic cats.  Other birds, such as corvids (Raven, crows, magpies, jays) will predate the eggs and chicks of a Golden-crowned Sparrow.

Fun Facts:

  • This species is also known as the “weary Willie” because it song sounds, to some, like “I’m so tired”.
  • Miners in the Yukon at the turn of the twentieth century referred to the Golden-crowned Sparrow as the “no gold here” bird, because its song resembled that phrase.

Conservation Status:  The global population is estimated at 4.0 million species.  The species is not on the U.S. State of the Birds Watch List nor Audubon Alaska’s Watch List.  The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the Golden-crowned Sparrow as a species of Least Concern; its population trend increasing.  However, this species has had little study and it is not known how it responds to human influences.  The effects of climate change on this species is also not known.  With a restricted range, the bird may be vulnerable to habitat change.

Other Sparrow Species in Alaska: Common sparrow species found around the Homer area include: White-crowned Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, and Lincoln’s Sparrow.  The White-throated Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, and American Tree Sparrow are also occasionally found in our area.  The American Tree Sparrow is a common species elsewhere in Alaska, unfortunately outside of the Homer area. 

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.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  All About Birds – Golden-crowned Sparrow.  Downloaded on 6 April 2018. 

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

International Union for Conservation of Nature.  The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2017-3. <>. Downloaded on 06 April 2018.

Lucas DeCicco/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab

National Audubon Society.  Edited by Elphick, C., Dunning, Jr. J.B., and Sibley, D.A.  2001.  The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior.  2001.  Alfred A. Knopf Inc.   

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

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



Wilson’s Snipe – May Bird of the Month – 2018

Wilson’s Snipe

(Gallinago delicate)

Wilson’s Snipe at Anchor Point wetland (Photo by Michelle Michaud)
Photo by Robin Edwards

General Information:  The Wilson’s Snipe, a member of the Cholopacidae family, genus Gallinago, a common and widespread shorebird species, is not typically found along shorelines, but rather wetlands.  The Wilson’s Snipe has a global breeding population estimated at 2 million birds.

These birds are generally not seen, since they camouflage so well, until flushed when they explode into zigzag flight, uttering their flight call.

Wilson’s Snipe is named for the  ornithologist and author Alexander Wilson, who was born in Scotland in 1766, and later emigrated to America.   There are four other birds named for him: Wilson’s Warbler, Wilson’s Phalarope, Wilson’s Plover, and Wilson’s Storm-Petrel. 

Range: The Wilson’s Snipe can be found throughout North America, breeding in several northern Lower 48 states, and in Canada and Alaska.  The bird is a year-round resident of several western states, and parts of Alaska, including Kodiak Island. 


Bird Biology:

Characteristics: This secretive, stocky shorebird is dark brownish overall, with bold cream-colored stripes on its neck and head.  The stockiness is due to extra-large pectoral muscles. Snipe weigh in at 3.7 ounces (yes, about 1/3 of a pound), and are 10-11 inches in length. 

Snipes may form loose groups of up to 10, but are generally a solitary bird. 

Preferred Habitat:  Although a “shorebird”, these birds prefers moist habitat, such as wetlands (marshes, bogs, and willow/alder swamps) during the breeding season.  During migration and on the wintering grounds they prefer damp areas with vegetative cover, such as wet fields, marshes, and ditches. 

Wilson’s Snipe in a wetland (Photo by Michelle Michaud)

Breeding Season:  Breeding begins in mid-May, which is a great time to hear and, with luck, see a male Wilson’s Snipe performing his aerial display where they zigzag across the sky at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour.   Listen for the distinctive winnowing display sound as you try to locate the bird high above.

Nesting: Wilson’s Snipe are ground nesters.  The female builds the nest – a shallow scrape in moist soil.  She weaves a lining of coarse grasses, building a nest up to 3 inches deep, and 7 inches across.  Once that is accomplished, she then adds finer grasses inside; and takes a few more grasses or sedges (sedges have edges) from the edge of the nest for placement in the nest.

Eggs and Incubation:  The female has full incubation responsibility, laying four eggs, which she incubated for 18-20 days.  Hatching is asynchronistic, meaning eggs hatch at different times.  Only one brood per season is common, and then re-nesting may occur.

Snipe chick (Photo by Nina Faust)

Fledging:  The young snipes are able to fly within 19-20 days of hatching.  Once the chicks fledge, the parents separate with the male taking and caring for the two oldest chicks, and the female the two youngest chicks.

Food Preferences:  The Wilson’s Snipe by probing for aquatic invertebrates – primarily insect larvae, but also crustaceans, earthworms, and mollusks.

Feeding Methodology:  Wilson’s Snipe stick their long beaks deep into the soil or shallow water as they probe for their food – sewing machine style.  They may occasionally use foot stomping or bouncing to locate – ‘scare up’ – prey.  Snipe are active feeders day and night, so your chances are good to see one if you look closely (they camouflage well).  The bill has a flexible tip allowing the bird to open it to grasp food while the base of the bill remains closed.  This allows them to ‘slurp up’ prey without removing their bills from the soil. 

Roosting:  They are often spotted standing on fence posts and in trees or dense vegetation. 

Photo by Michelle Michaud

Migration:  Wilson’s Snipe generally arrive in the Homer area in late April or early May.  They are readily identified by their spiraling flight display and the winnowing sounds that result from air moving through their tail feathers.

For those birds that migrate, spring migration is from late February through late May.  Fall migration is from mid-July to December. The snipe migrate mostly at night. 

In some parts of the U.S., Wilson’s Snipe are year-round residents – aren’t those birders lucky.  The bird winters in the United States, Central America, and as far south as Venezuela. 

Vocalizations:  Flight call is a harsh “scrape”.  The perch display song is a loud, repeating “TIKa” or “TUKa” sound.  And of course, the “hu-hu-hu-hu-hu” winnowing sound is made during flight display, when the air moves through the bird’s tail feathers. 

The Cornell Lab of Ornthology has gracious provided us with the call and flight display sounds of the Wilson’s Snipe.


Flight Display

Threats:  Most states do allow hunting of snipe.  Hunters consider them a challenge with their explosive, surprising, flushing from their concealment.  Between 2006 and 2010, approximately 105,000 snipe were taken annually by U.S. and Canadian hunters.  This number is believed to be considerably lower than the number of snipe hunted for “sport” during the mid-twentieth century.

Other threats include loss of wetland habitat due to conversion and draining; and collisions with radio, TV, and cell towers, powerlines, buildings (glass), and vehicles. 

 Fun Facts: 

  • Have you noticed how far back on the head the snipe’s eyes are set? This allows the bird to see a potential predator sneaking up on a feeding snipe.  This bird almost literally has “eyes on the back of its head”. 
  • Snipe can reach flight speeds up to an estimated 60 miles per hour due to massive flight muscles, which gives the snipe its “stocky” look.
  • “Going Snipe hunting” is often considered a childhood prank.
  • Did you know the word “sniper” originated among British soldiers in India during the 1770s as they hunted for snipe?  While snipes are still hunted worldwide, their fast, erratic flight style makes them difficult targets.
  • Research on the winnowing sound generated by the snipe’s outermost tail feathers (retrices) reveals that it occurs at air speeds of approximately 25 miles per hour.

Conservation Status:   The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have identified the Wilson’s Snipe as a species of Least Concern on their Red List of Threatened Species.  However, they also note that the population trend for the species is decreasing. Wilson’s Snipe do not appear on the Alaska Audubon’s Watchlist. 

Snipe Species in Alaska:  Occasionally the Common Snipe or Jack Snipe have been found in Alaska.  Such sightings are rare. 

Sources of Information:  

American Bird Conservancy.  Bird of the Week.  Downloaded on 15 April 2018.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology – All About Birds.  Downloaded on 15 March 2018. 

International Union for Conservation Nature.  The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2017-3. <>. Downloaded on 15 March 2018.

North American Bird Conservation Initiative. 2016. The State of North America’s Birds 2016.  Species Assessment Summary and Watch List.

O’Brien, M., Crossley, R., and Karlson, K.  2006.  The Shorebird Guide.  Houghton Mifflin Company. 

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

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

Wil Hershberger//Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab

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





Lesser Sandhill Crane – April Bird of the Month – 2018

Lesser Sandhill Crane

(Antigone canadensis canadensis)

Sandhill Crane (Photo by Nina Faust)

General Information

There are 15 crane species in the world.  Two of those species – the Sandhill Crane and Whooping Crane – breed in the United States.  There are six subspecies of the Sandhill Crane: Greater, Lesser, Canadian, Mississippi, Florida, and Cuba.  Our Homer Cranes are of the Lesser Sandhill Crane subspecies.

The Sandhill Crane is a member of the Gruidae family; and was formerly in the genus Grus, but was recently reclassified to the Antigone genus.  The species remains the canadensis. 

Range:  There are two flyways for the Lesser Sandhill Crane: Central and Pacific. 

The Central Flyway population spends summers in Canada, northern Alaska, and the Siberian Peninsula; overwintering in Mexico, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. 

The summer breeding grounds for the Pacific Flyway population is Southcentral Alaska (including Homer) and along the Alaska Peninsula.  This population overwinters in the Central Valley of California – Sacramento area.

Migration Map – Sandhill Cranes (all subspecies)

Source: International Crane Foundation.

Alaska Range Map

Source:  Alaska Department of Fish and Game. 

Bird Biology:

Characteristics: Cranes are large, wading birds with long necks and legs, and a characteristic feathered tail bonnet, red crown, and long menacing beak.  Their legs are black, and their plumage varies from shades of grey, brown, and rust.  Juveniles have cinnamon-brown feathers and lack the red crown. 

Lesser Sandhill Cranes typically weigh around 7.5 lbs and reach a shoulder height of 34-48 inches.  Males and females are generally indistinguishable; here’s a tip: when giving an alert call or territorial call the males bring their head back 90 degrees (beak straight up in the air), while the female brings her head back only about 45 degrees (See photo below). 

Lesser Sandhill Cranes have an impressive wingspan of 6-8 feet.   When spotted flying overhead, look for slow rolling downbeats, and quick upbeats of those large wings.  You can generally tell when cranes are ready to fly as they may show agitation, ‘crane’ their neck, and then take a few steps prior to taking off. 

In the wild, a crane that survives the first year, generally has a life span of around 20-30 years.  Cranes do not begin breeding until around four years of age. 

Cranes use an iron oxide mud to paint their feathers.  Painting, is believed to help camouflage the cranes from predators especially while the crane is on the nest.  The crane will take a bundle of grass and dip it in the mud and then apply the mud to its feathers.

Preferred Habitat: Cranes inhabit a variety of open wetland and upland habitats for nesting and loafing.  For roosting, cranes seek out wet areas or islands, which are safer from predators.

Crane Display:  Cranes have a variety of display postures to signal different activities, including:

  • When to fly
  • Attack and threat
  • Receptivity to breeding

And, how we enjoy watching cranes dance, especially during courtships as they jump and hop while spreading their wings, with an animated bowing to another crane – often like mirror images. 

Sandhill Cranes Displaying (photo by Nina Faust)

Want to learn more about Sandhill Crane displays?  Check out the Sandhill Crane Display Dictionary: What Cranes Say with Their Body Language, by Yunker Happ.  Go to:   This field pamphlet is available at the Homer Bookstore, the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, or Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies.


Reproduction:  Cranes form pair bonds and mate for life (divorce does happen and a crane that loses a mate will bond again).  Breeding begins around four years of age.  They have low reproductive rates, in part, due to being long-lived birds. 

Breeding Season:  In the Homer area, the breeding season begins soon after the long-anticipated arrival of the cranes in late April/early May.

Nesting:  The nest is nothing fancy, the main criteria is camouflage.  Cranes are ground nesters, building simple nests of dry grasses and feathers, in the shape of a shallow depression. 

The preferred nest site is an area protected from predators, with a preference for wetlands and islands.  However, cranes in the Homer area haven’t read the memo and are found nesting in upland areas as well.  A three-year crane nesting survey of the Homer Area, from 2011-2013, found 30 known nesting pairs and the probability that more remote nests were never reported or found. 

Crane on a nest (Photo by Michelle Michaud)
Crane on a Nest in Beluga Slough (Photo by Michelle Michaud)

A master of camouflage – look carefully above the piece of wood on the lower right side of the photo. 

Eggs and Incubation:  The female generally lays two eggs, and if a crane pair experiences nest disturbance/abandonment early in the incubation period, they may nest again and lay additional eggs.  Chicks hatch within 30 days. 

Both parents incubate the eggs, however, the male’s primary task is to maintain the integrity of the territory. Incubating pairs trade places about every two hours during daylight hours. This gives each bird a chance to stretch, exercise, and feed. At night, the female incubates while the male stands guard. The male is often the first to feed the chicks.

The photos below show various crane nests; one with an egg; one with egg shell fragments (all photos by Michelle Michaud).

Nesting success is often dependent on habitat selection.  Egg loss can be due to abandonment, or predation (eagles, ravens, crows, gulls, dogs, coyotes, and lynx), or being stepped on by moose.

Prior to fledging, the colt is flightless and very susceptible to predation.  Colt loss can be due to a number of factors:  predation, especially by eagles and dogs, lack of food, or parental neglect; or exceptionally bad weather, like wind and rain or snow in early spring.  Photos by Nina Faust.

Fledging: Colts fledge within 60-70 days.  They stay with their parents for 9-10 months.  When the parents return to the breeding grounds, the adults chase off the colts to start a new family.  These colts have now gained the red coloring on their heads, as well as the yellow eyes of an adult, and will join a group of non-breeding subadults — the crane equivalent of a roaming band of juveniles. 

Not all crane colts survive to fledging.  In Homer in 2017, 29 known breeding pairs produced 54 colts, of which only 34 colts fledged.

Food Preferences:  Cranes are omnivores – eating frogs, voles, shrews, insects, bulbs, seeds, berries, and even baby ducklings.

Homer cranes are habituated to humans, especially when fed whole or cracked corn. Such feeding, however, is not necessary.  There is sufficient food available in the wild for the cranes to obtain the nutrients needed for growth and survival.  Feeding Cranes in an urban setting can be detrimental to the crane as it exposes them to predators, especially dogs and eagles.  The urban habitat often lacks good nesting sites and natural sources of protein necessary for chick development.  Other urban hazards affecting crane mortality include collisions with electrical power lines and vehicles, attacks by roaming neighborhood dogs, and poisoning from pesticides used on lawns.  Also cranes can become aggressive protecting their young and can injure pets or humans. 

Roosting:  Cranes roost in large flocks, generally in shallow bodies of water to avoid predation.  Cranes with colts that have yet to fledge roost separately, generally near the nest site (within their breeding territory). 

Population Estimate:  According to Kachemak Crane Watch, the Sandhill Crane population in the Homer Area (Anchor Point south to Kachemak Bay) is stable at around 200-250 individuals recorded annually.

Migration:  In 2008, a study sponsored by Kachemak Crane Watch and conducted by the International Crane Foundation, sought to discover the migration route and wintering grounds of Homer area Sandhill Cranes.  Ten (10) cranes were captured and fitted with satellite and radio transmitters.  The study revealed several key findings:  migration route, where the cranes winter (Central Valley of California), amount of time needed to reach their breeding and wintering grounds, and where they stopped during migration to refuel (See Figure 1 below).  The journey from Homer to the Central Valley of California is approximately 2,400 miles – one way!   The cranes take approximately one month during the fall migration to reach the Central Valley of California and approximately two months during spring migration return to Homer.  They may spend up to a week or more at a staging area along the route in order to “refuel” for the long journey.

Sandhill Crane in flight (Photo by Nina Faust)

Figure 1: Map showing the transmitter data of the migration route of the Homer area banded cranes, including the different staging areas where they spent some stop-over time en-route to their breeding and wintering grounds.  You can find this figure at:

Vocalizations:  Sandhill Cranes have several calls, but the most distinctive is the unison call – a loud, resonant bugle.    

Cranes performing “unison” call.  The male is in the middle, the female to the left.  (Photo by Nina Faust)

 Listen now to the unison call

Threats:  Habitat loss is a primary threat – loss of wetlands, grasslands and agricultural fields being developed, conflicts with agriculture, afforestation (trees taking over grasslands), conflicts with living in urban areas.  Other threats include; drought, predation, impacts with vehicles, pesticide use on lawns and gardens, and collisions with power lines. 

Sandhill Crane family walking down the street in Old Town, Homer.  Drive carefully.  Photo by Nina Faust.

Hunting:  Sandhill Cranes are hunted in Alaska for sport and subsistence, although they are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA).  Hunting season begins in September, prior to migration.  A number of other states also allow hunting of Sandhill Cranes, including Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.  

Fun Facts:

  • Sandhill Crane chicks are called “colts”.
  • Three pairs of Sandhill Cranes breed in Beluga Slough. One pair breeds near the boardwalk trail by the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center.  You can watch this pair raise their colt(s) during the summer months. 
  • Kachemak Crane Watch co-founder Nina Faust is an accomplished videographer of Homer Sandhill Cranes. Nina produced a wonderful video called “Raising Kid Colt: A Story of a Young Sandhill Crane.” You will experience, up close, the intimate world of a Sandhill Crane’s family life, which includes seldom-seen perspectives of raising crane colts, as well as a progression of colt development over the summer. You can check out all her crane videos by going to the Kachemak Crane Watch website:
  • Prior to fall migration, cranes will begin gathering in large groups. When the September weather conditions present a high pressure bringing upper air currents from the northwest, the cranes will circle the sky – called ‘kettling’ and the gathering group will then head towards their wintering grounds – a spectacle to see.
  • Our Homer Cranes typically migrate south by the middle of September. You can enjoy the nightly “fly-in” of cranes at Beluga Slough as they begin to gather prior to migration.
  • The Tanana Valley Sandhill Crane Festival (Fairbanks) is held every year in late August. This three-day event features field trips, workshops, and a great opportunity to see and learn more about Sandhill Cranes.    
  • A crane fossil was found in Nebraska dating from the Pliocene period (5.3-2.6 million years ago). The fossil appears structurally identical to the modern Sandhill Crane.  That would make the Sandhill Crane one of the oldest known bird species!

Conservation Status:  The Sandhill Crane is a species of Least Concern, with populations generally increasing.  Of concern is habitat loss and drought in California’s Central Valley, which significantly affects the Pacific Flyway population of Sandhill Cranes.   The Pacific Flyway population is much smaller (approximately 20,000 birds) than the Central Flyway population (approximately 450,000 birds).  The Central Flyway population are those cranes that make their way north through the Platte River in Nebraska. 

In Homer, Kachemak Crane Watch (KCW) is dedicated to the protection of Sandhill Cranes and their habitat in the Kachemak Bay area.   

The 2018 breeding season is fast approaching.  Become a “Citizen Scientist”- KCW has been monitoring the Homer area crane population for over 15 years with the help of citizen scientists.   With your help, KCW seeks information on:

  • distribution and abundance of cranes from Anchor Point to the head of Kachemak Bay;
  • nests and colts (chicks);
  • population numbers;
  • arrival and departure dates; and
  • mortality due to eagle predation, dogs, and other causes.

Report your observations to Kachemak Crane Watch at 907-235-6262 or email report@ 

Crane Species in Alaska:  Only the Lesser Sandhill Crane subspecies is found in Alaska. 

More Information:

For more information about Homer area Sandhill Cranes go to:

For more information about all subspecies of Sandhill Cranes go to International Crane Foundation at:

Sources of Information:

Alaska Department of Fish and Game.  Species Profile: Sandhill Crane.

All About Birds.  2017.  Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Bailey, E. and Faust, N. 2017.  Lesser Sandhill Cranes, Annual Summary.  Homer, Alaska, Summer 2017.

International Crane Foundation. Sandhill Crane.  2018.

International Union for Conservation of Nature.  The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2017-3. <>. Downloaded on 15 March 2018.

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

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

Yunker Happ, C.  2015.  Sandhill Crane Display Dictionary: What Cranes Say with Their Body Language.  Waterford Press.     


Downy Woodpecker – March Bird of the Month – 2018

Welcome to “Bird of the Month”.  Each month we will be presenting a different bird species.  We hope you enjoy it. 

Downy Woodpecker

(Picoides pubescens)

Male Downy Woodpecker (Photo by Robin Edwards)
Female Downy Woodpecker (Photo by MIchelle Michaud)

The Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) is the smallest North American woodpecker, weighing in at around 1.0 ounce (yes, that’s right – ounce), and only 6.75 inches in length.   In comparison, the Hairy Woodpecker, which is most often confused with the Downy Woodpecker, and can also be found in the Homer Area,  weighs in at around 2.3  to 2.5 ounces,  and measures 9.25 inches in length.  The Hairy Woodpecker has a longer, sharper bill, and lacks the black spots on the white outer tail feathers that are found on the Downy.

The Downy Woodpecker can be found and enjoyed in every state.  In Homer, you want to search for the Downy Woodpecker in forested areas – after all, woodpeckers like trees, but remember, don’t ignore the small branches on bushes for the Downy. 

Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology –

Bird Biology:

Characteristics:  Both male and female of the species are black and white, however, the male is distinguished from the female with the presence of a red patch on the back of its head.  Downy Woodpeckers pair-bond and are considered monogamous, however, during the non-breeding season, the pair may live alone. 

Preferred Habitat: The habitat preferences of the Downy Woodpecker are less specialized than that of the Hairy Woodpecker.  The Downy is generally found in open woodlands (especially deciduous trees – think Aspen and Birch –  and brushy or weedy edges).  They can also be frequently found in urban areas as a popular presence at a bird feeder or within city parks, backyards, and vacant wooded lots.

If you see a small black and white woodpecker on a low bush it is a Downy Woodpecker.

Breeding Season:  The breeding season begins in early April in the southern United States and up to late May in the northern portion of its range – waiting for spring, just like us. 

Nesting: Downy Woodpeckers are cavity nesters, utilizing a dead tree to excavate a cavity.  The cavity is generally 8-12 inches deep and takes the pair  13-20 days to excavate. 

Eggs and Incubation: Between 3-6 eggs are laid (although normally 4-5).  Both pair will incubate the eggs, with the male assigned night duty.  Incubation lasts around 12 days.  The pair will typically fledge one brood per year. 

Fledging:  Both parents feed the young, with the young fledging within 20-22 days.  Even following fledgling, the young depend upon their parents for up to three additional weeks for food. 

Food Preferences:  The Downy forages for insects, larva, and seeds.  Have a Downy in your area and want a closer look, then put out a suet feeder and chances are a Downy will come to grace your feeder.

Female Downy Woodpecker at a suet feeder (Photo by Michelle Michaud)

Feeding Methodology:  The Downy feeds by an acrobatic ability to cling to tree trunks and branches, utilizing its specialized feet and tail feathers.  The Downy can explore for insects along branches the size of twigs.  Remember they only weigh an ounce. 

The Downy works its way up a tree trunk in a series of rapid, jerky, stop-and-go movements.  It can often be seen hanging upside down. The males tend to feed in the tops of trees on small diameter branches, while females feed midlevel or lower on large diameter branches. 

Roosting:  Downy Woodpeckers roost in tree cavities.

Migration: Downy Woodpeckers are permanent residents meaning they do not migrate, although there may be some movement in the winter with birds at higher elevations moving to lower elevations. 

Want to see a Downy Woodpecker? Then you are in luck as the Downy Woodpecker can be found year-round in the Homer area. 


Song:   Sorry, no song.  After all, Downy Woodpeckers are not Passerines, which are our songbirds.  The Downy is a drummer.

Call:  The call is a sharp “pik” sound.  The call may vary in pitch and volume. 

Drumming:  While drumming is persistent, but there is a lag time of 10-15 seconds between drum sequences. 

Even if the Downy doesn’t sing, who doesn’t get excited when hearing a woodpecker drumming and then anxiously looking for the source?

Fun Facts:

  • The Downy Woodpecker got its name due to its soft, downy plumage. Its scientific species name “pubescens” means “having hair-like feathers or “with hair of puberty”. 
  • A group of woodpeckers is called a “descent” or “drumming”.
  • Downy Woodpeckers can drill in dead trees or limbs as small as 4 inches around, so they can live in a far wider range of habitats than other woodpeckers, and thus are not dependent on larger trees.

Conservation Status:  The ‘Good News’ – the Downy Woodpecker is considered a species of Least Concern.  The Downy Woodpecker is doing well in Alaska and does not appear on Audubon Alaska’s 2017 Watch List. 

Woodpecker Species in Alaska:  Other Woodpecker species found in the Homer area include the Hairy Woodpecker, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Black-backed Woodpecker, and the Northern Flicker.  The last three, are uncommon to rare in the Homer area, but you may have been one of the fortunate birders to have seen the Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpeckers in the Homer area this past winter.

More Information:  For more information about the Downy Woodpecker go to All About Birds (Cornell Lab of Ornithology) at:

Sources of Information:

All About Birds.  2017.  Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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

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

Mayntz, Melissa. 2017.  Collective Nouns to Describe Bird Flocks.  2017.

National Audubon Society.  Edited by Elphick, C., Dunning, Jr. J.B., and Sibley, D.A.  2001.  The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior.  2001.  Alfred A. Knopf Inc.   

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

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.




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