Fat Boys: McKay’s Buntings, Sarichef Island, Alaska. The whitest song bird in North America, McKay’s Buntings primarily nest on just two remote islands in the Bering Sea, St. Mathews and Hall. In wintertime, they visit other islands as well as a few locations on Alaska’s mainland. Their total population is just a few thousand birds.
Happy the Man
Happy the man, and happy he alone, He who can call today his own: He who, secure within, can say, Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today. Be fair or foul or rain or shine The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.
Not Heaven itself upon the past has power,
But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour. John Dryden – Happy the Man, 1685
So great was John Dryden’s (1631-1700) influence that England’s Restoration Period has been called The Age of Dryden. In 1668 he was named England’s first Poet Laureate.
“Of all the wild creatures which still persist in the land, despite settlement and civilization, the Loon seems best to typify the untamed savagery of the wilderness.”
So wrote Edward Howe Forbush in Game Birds, Wild-Fowl and Shore Birds, 1912. Click below to hear the loon’s haunting tremolo call. (courtesy Wikipedia)
Four common loons, Gavia immer, occupied our lake this summer. Normally laying but two large eggs ranging in color from deep amber to brown to greenish-gray, our loons may have comprised two mated pairs or a mated pair and their adult offspring. Common Loons are reported mainly as a spring and summer bird in the Chignik system. On his list compiled during summers from 1960 – 1963, David Narver reported this species as “uncommon.”
With huge, webbed feet positioned far back on bulky bodies, loons are excellent swimmers but struggle on land. Therefore, they select nesting sites close to the water’s edge, preferably where an abrupt bank allows them to swim undetected below the surface right up to the nest. At reservoirs, where fluctuating water levels may leave nests either inundated with water or too far from it, loons will sometimes take advantage of artificial nesting islands. Their precocious chicks are able to dive just a couple of days after hatching, though the downy balls of animated fluff quickly bob back to the surface where they might hitch a ride on their mother’s back.
Loons are generally quite shy, as was generally the case with this foursome. Perhaps the caution common to this species was always so, or perhaps it is a vestige of the days when the millinery trade prompted hunters to wipe out any loon that wasn’t sufficiently wary. Mostly staying well off shore, on one particularly calm, clear morning as we hiked a few miles up the lake, the group swam toward us from a good distance out. The event made having lugged along several pounds of camera equipment worth the effort.
Loons are frequently seen, though less frequently identified, while in flight. Characterized by as many as 250 wingbeats per minute or more, their flight pattern is much like that of a duck or goose. A stiletto-shaped bill and large feet hanging astern like a rudder – along with the fact that they are most often encountered alone or in pairs rather than in flocks – distinguish them.
While the loons of summer left Chignik Lake back in mid-September, beginning toward the end of that month on nearly a daily basis we have been seeing one and sometimes two of the birds in the photo above. Usually sticking to the safety of open water, this one came close enough to shore for a passible photograph during the flood that hit Chignik Lake in mid-October.
Loons are dedicated fish-eaters and exceptional at their work. It’s reported that a family of four can take as much as a thousand pounds of fish out of a lake in a 15-week period. The above bird came up from dives swallowing its catch (probably sockeye salmon parr) time after time. Although Red-throated Loons are reported to be more common than Common Loons on the lake, based on the above bird’s jagged neck markings, thick bill and the tell-tale white ring around it’s eye, I believe it to be a juvenile Common Loon.
In Walden, Thoreau described the loon’s evocative cry as “…perhaps the wildest sound that is ever heard…” in his native Massachusetts of the mid-1800s. Celebrated in literature, art, popular culture and even on Canadian currency, Common Loons aren’t as common as they used to be. Acid rain, mercury toxicity from coal-burning plants and other sources, lead poisoning from fishing sinkers and hunting ammunition, and increasing scarcity of the isolated, quiet nesting sites they prefer has resulted in their disappearance from some lakes. If you have loons in a lake near you, count yourself fortunate: it likely that the water quality is clean.
The Canadian one-dollar “loonie.” (Wikipedia)
Know as Divers in Europe, the origination of the North American term “Loon” is uncertain. Speculation is that it derives from the bird’s awkward movements on land. These are large birds. With wingspans of up to five feet and a bill-to-tail-feather length of about three feet, they’re roughly the size of a Canada Goose. Except during winters, when they may show up on almost any of North America’s coastal waters, Common Loons are birds of the North. Their breeding range begins just south of the U.S.-Canadian boarder and extends to all but the most northerly parts of Alaska and Canada. Their habitat overlaps with Pacific, Red-throated and, in the west and far north, Yellow-billed loons.
A slender bill, light gray nape and distinctive white lines tracing down the neck mark this as a Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica). Thisphoto was taken a few years in August on a tundra pond near Point Hope, Alaska.
The royalty of the lake. Hopefully our loons have had a safe fall migration and are enjoying an abundance of fish on their winter waters. With luck, they’ll be back on Chignik Lake this spring, ready to raise a new pair of chicks. A common loon tagged in Wisconsin was reported to have reached the ripe old age of at least 25 years, so the loons of Chignik Lake and their offspring could be around for many summers to come.
If you’re lucky enough to encounter loons, observe them from a respectful distance. A bird disrupted from feeding is a hungry bird, an effect multiplied if they have young, are migrating, or trying to fend off the cold. As with so many species around the world, the chief threat to loons is human encroachment and development of the wild habitat which they need in order to successfully nest and thrive. Many states and provinces have loon conservation programs where you can learn more. See for example the Biodiversity Research Institute’s Center for Loon Conservation page or Google “Loon Conservation” in your region.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Magpies are the only birds that have shown they can recognize themselves in mirrors. Intelligent, garrulous and beautiful, while they love berries, the tell-tale hook on the end of their beak indicates their prowess as predators as well as their adaptability to scavenging. Chignik Lake, Alaska.
At the Fishing Hole. Adult and juvenile belted kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon) Chignik Lake, Alaska.
There’s no mistaking the distinctive rattling call of belted kingfishers. These two served as this morning’s alarm clock. Abundant salmon parr in this area keep these birds well fed.
Chignik Lake is a Native Alaskan village with a population of about 50 people situated southwest of Iliamna and Katmai (famous for the Brooks Falls) on the Alaskan Peninsula. Access is by plane or by a combination of ferry and small boat. As a reference point, Anchorage near the top right of the screen shot at the top of the long Cook Inlet. The large island is Kodiak.
Little Ringed Plover, Charadrius dubius, Tuul River, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Nikon D4, Nikkor 200-400mm lens, 1.4 teleconverter.
At about six inches (15 cm) from bill to tail and weighing just an ounce and a half or so (40 g), little ringed plovers are common along the Tuul River near Ulaanbaatar. Their small size, pale pink legs and bright yellow eye rings are diagnostic. These wary little birds seem to bob their heads and scurry back and forth along the shoreline constantly, hence the Latin “dubius” which means moving to and fro. They’re ground nesters. Among the shoreline rocks and pebbles, their light brown or grey speckled eggs are virtually invisible. As fall approaches, little ringed plovers migrate to Africa where they spend the winter.
We’re now at 40 species and counting in our urban birding adventures in and around Ulaanbaatar.