After the Fog Burned off – Eagles

As swallows swooped and soared, this pair of Bald Eagles began a chorus of their characteristic high-pitched piping. The sunshine must’ve felt as good to them as it did to us.

Two days in a row we’ve woken to heavy fog here at The Lake. It wasn’t forecast either day. Yesterday by mid-morning, the mist had burned off. When it did, the birds came out in force. From our vantage point on the deck outside my “office,” Barbra and I saw or heard Pine Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins, Redpolls, Wilson’s Warblers, Ravens, Magpies, Golden-crowned Sparrows, American Robins, Fox Sparrows, Violet-green Swallows, Tree Swallows and out on the lake a small group of Black Scoters and a few passing Glaucus-winged Gulls. But the stars of the morning were a pair of mature Bald Eagles that took up perches on a favorite utility pole near the lakeshore.

This was the view from our dining room window yesterday morning just after dawn. The village of Chignik Lake lies only a few miles upriver from a bay on the Alaska Gulf, so we get our share of wet weather. 

As the sun began peeking through the fog, the first eagle to arrive did its best to dry its soggy wings. Either that, or this is one of those rare Peacock Eagles.

His (her?) mate hadn’t yet arrived and I moved a little closer to capture a portrait. Once the fog lifted, we had a day of blue skies. Temperatures climbed into the 60’s so we took the opportunity to work on our “Alaska Tans” – defined as tans that cover the backs of one’s hands, face and neck down to the level of a shirt or coat collar. But by early afternoon, it was warm enough (mid-60’s) to sit outside in a just a shirt, shorts and bare feet and read (Barbra) and play guitar (me).

While I worked on photos, Barbra scanned for birds from the deck outside her former classroom. Off in the distance to the right, along the far edge of the lake, the second eagle can be seen soaring low. (You might have to enlarge this photo.) The duplex in front of Barbra is where we live – on the righthand side. 

There are at least 50 nesting boxes in this bird-loving village of only about 50 to 70 residents. The boxes are occupied almost exclusively by either Violet-green or Tree Swallows. Both species seem inclined to investigate anything out of the ordinary in their neighborhood – us, eagles, other birds. The real threats to swallows are Chignik Lake’s abundant Magpies – notorious nest robbers. In years past, Merlins, Northern Shrikes and occasional Sharp-shinned Hawks have also posed a threat, but none of these species appear to be present this year – at least so far.

A mated pair? Siblings? Friends? (Do eagles have friends?) It was interesting to watch these two repeatedly mirror each other’s behavior. We’ve read about these dreaded Dracula Eagles – another rare sighting.

As I mentioned, we’ve had two consecutive mornings of heavy fog. Inspired by the way the morning cleared up yesterday, last evening we prepared our pack raft in anticipation of doing a three-mile river float today. Unfortunately, the weatherman got it completely wrong. The fog only grudgingly lifted late in the morning and instead of the calm that had been forecast, winds – the bane of rafting – kicked up. So I spent the morning working on photos. Yet hope springs eternal. The prediction for tomorrow morning is for partial sunshine and calm, so perhaps we can get in one last river float before we have to pack up the gear and mail it to Newhalen. Every hour of these final days at The Lake is a time to savor.

If you enjoyed this post and would like to see some of the birds mentioned and more of the landscape around Chignik Lake, check out the link below:

Morning Nature Walk, the Chigniks

Hope your day is going well!

Burn Barrel Love (Valentine’s Day)

Burn Barrel Love, Chignik Lake, Alaska

Waking to heavy snowfall a few weeks ago, we went out looking for wildlife. At the White Spruce Grove, Pine Siskins, Chickadees, Golden-crowned Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos were happily filling up on cone seeds and the food in our feeders. We’d heard there was a lynx in the area, and there are always foxes and wolves just beyond the village. We didn’t see much – just this pair of Ravens hanging out and enjoying a snowy moment at one of their favorite meeting places.

 

Ink and Light: Snow Birds and Basho

Snow Birds: House Sparrows, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Come!
Let’s go snow-viewing
till we’re buried!
Matsuo Basho, 1644 – 1694

House Sparrow males and females are dimorphic: a female is center in this photo, accompanied by three males. This species has adapted so well to life with people, they’ve become nearly ubiquitous in places of human habitation throughout the world – and nearly absent in more natural environments.

Basho suffered from severe bouts of depression, occasionally becoming recluse for long periods of time. A solitary nature took him on a number of journeys, alone, along routes that were often well off the beaten path. The Edo Five Routes which he followed on one of his earliest journeys were considered to be among Japan’s most dangerous roads; When he first embarked on this trek, he expected to be killed by thieves or to simply die along the way. Widely regarded as the world’s finest master of hokku (haiku), his poetic travel log Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Interior) is considered to be his finest work. 

Wildlife Wednesday: Black-capped Chickadees!

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Gregarious, full of curiosity and brimming with personality, Black-capped Chickadees are often happy to take seeds right from a friendly hand. Weighing only about 10 grams (less than half an ounce) their little claws are nonetheless quite strong!

Many a hunter sitting quietly in a northern woods while waiting for a White-tailed Deer or Wild Turkey to come by has experienced a chickadee approaching ever nearer before boldly perching right on the rifle barrel – or even on the hunter’s arm or cap. Such an event feels like a stamp of imprimatur from Mother Nature herself.

Last fall, when we hung bird feeders at the White Spruce Grove a little over half-a-mile from our home and began putting out seeds for Chignik Lake’s birds, within just a few days we noticed something uncanny. As soon as we hit the trail to the feeders, chickadees would descend upon us, fluttering and chattering with a familiarity that suggested that they somehow knew us. And each day as we came within view of the spruce trees themselves, a dozen or so chickadees would erupt in excited calls, flitting down from the boughs as though to greet us. There seemed to be no doubt that these little birds recognized us, Barbra in her red hat and scarf, me in my black watch cap, both of us in camouflage jackets. That sent us to the internet to do some research.

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As it turns out, Black-capped chickadees are remarkably intelligent little beings, in possession of 13 different, complex vocalizations as well as memories that allow them to recall the precise location of food they’ve cached for up to several weeks. Regarding their vocalizations, not only do they warn each other with rapid dee-dee-dees, it has been shown that these calls vary according to the danger at hand, with their longest and most insistent alarms reserved for Pygmy Owls, a predator that poses an especial threat to chickadees.

Another, happier call among our local chickadees (it seemed to us) appeared to go something like, “Here come Jack and Barbra with more seeds!” While the various sparrows hung back demurely, deep in the cover of the spruce trees, the chickadees would land on our camera lens and flap around our heads.

“I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment, while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.”
Henry David Thoreau in Walden

We wondered if we could get these bold, inquisitive birds to take seeds from our hands – and whether or not it would be ethical to do so.

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One of the advantages of feeding birds is that it provides opportunities to closely study individuals. Early last fall, we noticed that this chubby-looking fellow had broken off the tip of his upper beak. We wondered if this would adversely affect his ability to make it through the winter. Happily, it hasn’t. We still see him, and he still looks like he’s not missing any meals.

There’s no doubt that some wild animals should not be fed. Most North Americans are familiar with the cautionary proverb, A fed bear is a dead bear. That’s because bears that learn to associate humans with food become dangerous, destructive nuisances. But chickadees? After doing our due diligence in research and considering the welfare of the birds from a variety of perspectives, we felt comfortable taking our bird feeding to the next level.

Getting the birds to come to our hands proved to be fairly easy. One morning, we temporarily took down their favorite feeder, stood near the tree with outstretched arms and seeds in our hands… and waited. After a number of feints and false starts, one particularly brave bird took the plunge and was rewarded with a nice, fat sunflower seed. After that, it was one bird after another.

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For the next few days, hand feeding our feathered friends was the highlight of the day. During those few days, we learned quite a lot. In addition to their many and varied vocalizations, Black-capped Chickadees establish pecking order by silent bill-gaping – an aggressive, open-mouthed gesture that is enough to cow a rival bird into waiting its turn or leaving the immediate feeding area altogether. There also seemed to be quite a range of distinctive personalities, with some birds readily and repeatedly feeding from our hands – and remaining long enough to carefully sort through the offerings for the choicest seeds -, while other birds hung back or landed only briefly.

The National Audubon Society encourages people to feed wild birds. Habitat is shrinking, and with that loss food sources can be scarce. Place your feeders in areas where birds have easy, quick access to the safety of shrubbery and trees, keep cats indoors, and to prevent the spread of disease among birds, occasionally clean the feeders. Once you start, keep the feeders full so that birds that have come to expect a food source aren’t suddenly left high and dry during inclement weather. But be warned: you might discover that the view out your window becomes more interesting than whatever’s on TV!

Ink & Light: “At First Sight” – Love and Lines from Richard Brautigan

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At First Sight: Sandhill Cranes, Northern British Columbia

Sandhill Cranes choose partners based on graceful mating dances and remain together for life.

…and our graves will be like two lovers washing
their clothes together
In a laundromat
If you will bring the soap
I will bring the bleach.
Richard Brautigan (from Romeo and Juliet, 1970)

– Raised in abject poverty, Richard Brautigan (1935-1984) was struggling to gain a foothold in San Francisco’s literary scene when, in 1967, he published Trout Fishing in America. The counter-culture novel catapulted him to international fame. A year later he solidified his reputation with In Watermelon Sugar. 

Ink and Light: “The meanest flower that blows…”

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Feather Fan: Junco

To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
William Wordsworth – Intimations of Immortality, 1807

Along with Samuel Coleridge, Wordsworth (1770-1850) is credited with founding English Literature’s Romantic Age. He was the country’s Poet Laureate from 1843 until his death.

Purple Martins: The Highest-Flying Swallow

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The Catch: Purple Martins, Kimiwan Lake Bird Walk, Alberta, Canada

Swallows are a favorite bird wherever they fly, and among them North America’s largest and most universally appreciated species is without a doubt the Purple Martin (Progne subis). Before Europeans ever came to North America, Native Americans in the South were known to hang hollow gourds as nesting boxes to attract these birds. The beneficial nature of Martins is well known: not only do they consume enormous quantities of insects that humans consider pests – among them horseflies, beetles, termites and grasshoppers -, they also aggressively drive away birds of prey as well as crows and thus were traditionally welcomed by farmers. Often soaring at altitudes of several hundred feet, Martins capture their prey exclusively on the wing; they quench their thirst on the wing as well, skimming the surface of ponds, lakes and rivers.

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Iridescent purples and gun metal blues mark the plumage of the male Martin.

Although the range of the three subspecies of Martins covers most of the U. S. and sections of southern Canada, they tend to be rather uncommon. This is due in part to their very specific nesting requirements and to the fact that invasive species – European starlings and house sparrows – frequently outcompete Martins for preferred sites. Formerly found in hollow trees, Eastern Martins have almost exclusively shifted their nests to human created housing: apartment-like complexes on poles, rows of houses side-by-side, or, particularly in the South, hollow gourds. Like Chimney Swifts and Barn Swallows, Eastern Purple Martins have become dependent upon humans for nesting sites.

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The plumage of females is lighter in color, predominated by shades of brown.

Writing in the early 1800’s, John Audubon observed the ubiquitous nature of Martin nesting boxes in America:

The… Indian is also fond of the Martin’s company. He frequently hangs up a calabash on some twig near his camp, and in this cradle the bird keeps watch, and sallies forth to drive off the Vulture that might otherwise commit depredations on the deer-skins or pieces of venison exposed to the air to be dried. The slaves in the Southern States take more pains to accommodate this favourite bird. The calabash is neatly scooped out, and attached to the flexible top of a cane, brought from the swamp, where that plant usually grows, and placed close to their huts. Almost every country tavern has a Martin box on the upper part of its sign-board; and I have observed that the handsomer the box, the better does the inn generally prove to be. 

All our cities are furnished with houses for the reception of these birds; and it is seldom that even lads bent upon mischief disturb the favoured Martin. He sweeps along the streets, here and there seizing a fly, bangs to the eaves of the houses, or peeps into them, as he poises himself in the air in front of the windows, or mounts high above the city, soaring into the clear sky, plays with the string of the child’s kite, snapping at it, as he swiftly passes, with unerring precision, or suddenly sweeps along the roofs, chasing off grimalkin, who is probably prowling in quest of his young. Birds of America, John J. Audubon, printed 1827 – 1838.

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Healthy Martin colonies indicate a healthy environment.

The next time you see a large flock of dark birds, look closely. Although often starlings, Martins, too, come together in the thousands and even hundreds of thousands, particularly in late summer as they prepare to migrate to South America.

For more information about Purple Martins, or to learn more about building a nesting complex of your own to attract them, visit www.purplemartin.org

For more information on the wonderful Kimiwan Nature Walk and Interpretive Center in McLennan, Alberta, please visit www.kimiwanbirdwalk.ca.