Changes and Milestones, a Question and an Answer

Full Moon at Sunrise, October 15, Newhalen Alaska
I had been looking at this particular landscape about five miles from our house ever since June when we moved to Newhalen. The scene had elements of a good photo, but I just couldn’t see a picture. Then, one morning a few weeks ago as a full moon was hanging low on the horizon, the rising sun put some nice color in the sky. Sensing that their might be a moment, I drove out and there it was.

I began 2019 with four major goals. I wanted to:

– send out a few articles to magazines for publication

– write a book

– run a half-marathon after my 60th birthday, and

– starting from scratch with very little meaningful background in music, I wanted to put in 500 hours on the guitar and see where that got me

After putting together a couple of articles I quickly abandoned the first goal as both too time-consuming and not reflective of the kind of writing I want to do, and therefore not where I want to put my energy at this point in my life and career.

From Gavia pacifica (Pacific Loon) to Pinicola enucleator (Pine Grosbeak), I documented some 80 species of birds at Chignik Lake, including species that had never before been recorded in the region. Redpolls (above) were among our favorites.

Nonetheless, writing remains a central part of my life, and while I didn’t finish a book, I’ve begun. Over the coming weeks (and months), look for Birds of Chignik Lake to be published in installments on Cutterlight. It is my hope that I’ll be able to make a meaningful contribution to the work of others. Perhaps I’ll even be able to interest a publisher in producing a printed edition of this book when it’s finished. Either way, I’m excited to have begun the book and I’m eager to begin sharing my findings on Cutterlight.

Commitment to a fitness regimen paid off, and on October 23, running side by side, Barbra and I completed our first half-marathon in over 10 years. We did this as a “virtual run,” signing up for the Long Beach Half-Marathon (a race we did in person 12 or 13 years ago), and having documented our successful completion of the run up here in Newhalen, we’re now awaiting our finisher medals and T-shirts which should be arriving in the mail soon. Time was never part of the objective; my racing days are behind me. But I am happy to report that we remained injury free and were able to complete the full 13.1 miles running the entire distance. This bodes well for another season of hiking up and down salmon and trout rivers.

The nearby Tazimina River flows through a spectacularly wild  landscape. Cold and pristine enough to drink from, it’s loaded with large grayling, trout, and in fall, salmon.

All of this was terrific – including the manner in which not achieving the first goal led to the positive outcome of more clearly defining what it is I want to do with my writing and my time. I’m in the process of putting together templates for each of the 80-some species I recorded at Chignik Lake, and with other foundational work already done – and with permission from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to use their range maps secured – I hope to begin publishing installments later this month. And finally, fresh off the success of our October half, we’ve already signed up for another event, the February 2 Huntington Beach Surf City Half-Marathon. This is another race we did on site some years ago (coinciding with the Pittsburgh Steelers scoring their sixth Super Bowl victory), and that we’ll participate in virtually up here in Newhalen.

That leaves just the final and most important of the four 2019 goals to account for – the goal that I believed would help me answer a question that has been on my mind since December 31 of 2018.

Can a 60-year-old person learn to play the guitar to any meaningful skill level starting essentially from scratch?

As I mentioned in a previous article, the Internet seems to offer no answer to this question, though it’s clear others have posed it.

Again, this is not about having learned at a younger age and continuing to play into one’s seventh decade. Nor is it about picking up an instrument again after a hiatus of a few years. My question had nothing to do with learning to pick the notes to Happy Birthday or similar songs, as one site suggests. And it’s certainly not about “deriving benefits,” or finally playing well enough that the “cat stops yowling,” as per a particularly insulting Washington Post article.

We age. Our memories grow less sharp, our hearing less keen. Fingers slow. Nails grow brittle. New skills are acquired less easily. Even sitting for a long period of time in a given position can present challenges that our younger selves didn’t imagine. Over the years, injuries accumulate – a broken finger here, a finger sliced to the bone there – injuries long forgotten… till you sit down with a guitar in your hands.

It’s a simple question, and the manner in which expert upon expert appears to avoid directly answering it left me fearing that… Well, time marches on. At some point windows close. Patronizing assurances that begin with “Anyone can…” are invariably fibs.

At the beginning of the year, I made a commitment to stick with it, put in 500 hours with no expectations, and discover what I might discover. Good, bad or indifferent, I promised to report what I learned.

Yesterday morning, I completed my 500th hour of practice. I will report soon.

To read more about my journey with the guitar, type Learning to Play the Guitar in the “Search Cutterlight Articles” bar near the top of the page.

Vacancies at Chignik Lake’s New Nesting Boxes are Filling Fast: Tree Swallows have Arrived!

We knew that with Violet-greens having returned, Tree Swallows wouldn’t be far behind. This pair didn’t let much daylight burn before checking out a homesite. They may have used this same box last year. That’s the female perched on top of the box while the male, decked out in shimmering shades of blue, assesses the nesting quarters.

Just before leaving The Lake for our epic 65-day bicycle tour of Hokkaido last spring, we installed four new nesting boxes. We left just as the swallows were returning, but when we got back we were informed that our boxes had immediately attracted new tenants. So we’ve been keeping our eye on them, eager for the arrival of Violet-green and Tree Swallows this spring to see who might move in. Violet-greens first showed up on May 14 and headed straight for a set of older boxes at a neighbors’ house. But even with some 40 boxes in the village, we knew every available site would soon have a pair of nesting birds.

This morning when I stepped outside, I lifted my binoculars to scope out silhouettes on a power line near two of our boxes. Tree Swallows – the season’s first! With the early morning sun buried behind gray clouds, there wasn’t much light. But the office where I work on photos and writing has a view of one of our boxes, so I kept my eye on things. Within a couple of hours, new arrivals were checking out the two boxes closest to our home. And then the sun popped out, giving me an opportunity to make a couple of pictures of birds beginning to set up housekeeping at each box.

For awhile, several birds sallied back and forth around this box. Finally a female entered and stayed put for quite awhile. Here the male is checking up on her.

Interested in attracting your own mosquito-eating backyard friends? Check out our previous post on Violet-green swallows where you’ll find tips for putting up nesting boxes as well as the article below that for tips on placing your new boxes. Establishing nesting boxes is way more interesting (and way, way more ethical) than plugging in those nasty electric bug zappers. Click the links below!

Our Violet-greens are Back at The Lake!

New Homes Available! Swallow Nesting Boxes at Chignik Lake

Our Violet-greens are Back at The Lake!

A single Violet-green Swallow can consume hundreds of mosquitoes and midges a day. With 40 or so nesting box cavities scattered throughout the village of Chignik Lake (population 50), these iridescently-plumaged little fellows and their Tree Swallow cousins are local favorites.

Chignik Lake’s first swallows, multi-hued Violet-greens, made their seasonal debut yesterday, May 15. This morning we went out to get photos of these much anticipated first arrivals. Tree Swallows, which will also use the dozens of nesting boxes residents have put up, should be arriving any time now along with the Bank Swallows that have established a colony on a bluff a mile or so down the Chignik River.

The Native American tradition of hanging nesting cavities for swallows goes as far back as anyone knows. Writing in the 1800’s, John J. Audubon noted that:

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. 

It’s sad to see those annoying, energy-wasting, indiscriminate electric bug zappers, which kill beautiful moths along with everything else, hung more often than nesting boxes in these modern times. A nesting pair of birds will do a better job keeping pests under control, add cheer to any property, and when the wooden box has seen its best days it can be be left to return to soil rather than discarded to fill our world with yet more plastic, toxic parts and slowly-decomposing metal.

If nesting boxes around our village are any indication, they need not be elaborate. All that’s needed is untreated wood, a saw, a means to cut a hole, nails or screws and the appropriate tool for securing that hardware. Although it is often recommended that boxes be cleaned out annually, we know of no one here who does so. The swallows themselves seem perfectly capable of spring cleaning when they arrive, as they have done with natural cavities for as long as swallows have been around. However, if you’d feel better about cleaning out the boxes once the nesting season is finished, by all means go for it; you’ll be creating a clean space for birds that use the boxes as overnight and foul weather shelters during wintertime.

Engaged in housekeeping (removing his offsprings’ excrement) this Violet-green and his mate made a nest behind a knothole in the side of a store in McCarthy, Alaska.  

Two additional tips for your own backyard nesting boxes:

  1. Do Not put any sort of ledge or peg in front of the hole. As you can see in the photo below, swallows and other cavity nesters don’t need a perch. Their claws are adapted to cling to the sides of trees. The only purpose a ledge or peg serves is to give nest-raiders such as magpies, crows and other predators a perch from which to get at eggs and nestlings.
  2. Give some thought to the species of bird you hope to attract, then research the size of entry hole and the size of the interior cavity that bird prefers.

To those tips, we’ll add a third. Invasive European Starlings and House Sparrows haven’t yet found us out here on the Alaska Peninsula. If they are a problem where you live, we urge that they be discouraged from nesting by any means necessary. Both of these birds represent a significant, growing threat to species diversity.

Don’t have the time or the right tools to build your own boxes? Consider purchasing. A cedar box will last a long time, making it an economical gift to birds for years or even decades to come. And don’t be discouraged if your boxes don’t attract guests right away. Sometimes it takes more than one season for birds to move in.

Flowers are blooming, insects are out, swallows are returning and salmon are beginning to stage in the bay for their annual spawning run up the Chignik River. It still feels like spring, but summer is just around the corner.

New Homes Available! Swallow Nesting Boxes at Chignik Lake

Construction Complete! Lovely one-room summer homes with lake and mountain views available now! Perfect for rearing a brood of chicks.

Reading John J. Audubon’s accounts of his journeys throughout the United States in search of every species of bird for his paintings, I’m always charmed by his portraits of communities and their abundant bird nesting boxes.

“Almost every Country tavern has a Martin box on the upper part of its signboard;” he wrote of 1840’s America, “and I have observed that the handsomer the box, the better does the inn generally prove to be.”

The prevalence of hollow gourds fashioned with holes and used as nesting sites in Native American villages is also well documented. Apparently the symbiotic relationship between swallows and humans goes back a long time and cuts across cultures. Virtually everyone seems to love these harbingers of spring, their artistic mastery of the air, and the serious damage they do to mosquito populations and to other annoying insects.

And so it is here in Chignik Lake. Upon moving here we were struck by the numerous swallow nesting boxes situated on posts, nailed to utility poles and affixed to buildings throughout the village. Here we have mostly Tree Swallows along with occasional Violet-green Swallows. In the absence of invasive species such as House Sparrows and Starlings – which take over nesting boxes -, and with a lake featuring copious hatches of midges and other insects, this is a perfect place for swallows to rear a brood of chicks. Magpies can be a scourge, so it’s important that nesting boxes not feature any sort of perch to allow them to access the eggs and chicks, but other than our Merlins, there are essentially no other serious threats to the swallows of Chignik Lake.

The major factor limiting the number of swallows Chignik Lake can accommodate is… accommodations. So this spring we did our part to help these birds out by putting up four new cedar nesting boxes. The first Tree Swallows showed up sometime around May 9, and the early birds have already begun choosing nesting sites. Our boxes may have gone up a bit late for this year’s birds, but after they’ve weathered for a year and the swallows have had an opportunity to check them out, we’re hopeful they’ll attract these welcome summer visitors in future years.

Location, location, location. High enough up, away from occupied buildings and busy roads, near a lake chock full of bugs, and a pesticide & herbicide-free environment. Heck, if we were Tree Swallows, we’d spend our summers here!

If you’d like to put up swallow nesting boxes in your area:

  • Place the boxes high enough off the ground to avoid predators
  • Although swallows like to feed and nest near water, position the boxes well back from the shore. Predators cruise shorelines.
  • Although swallows will at times happily nest in apartment-style boxes (a friend in Chignik Lake has a row of about a dozen boxes that fill up with residents every summer) it is generally recommended that for Tree Swallows and Violet-greens, boxes be placed at least 30 feet apart.
  • Do Not attach a roosting peg or ledge anywhere on the box. Swallows don’t need such a perch, but avian predators will use it to to prey on eggs and chicks.
  • Swallows prefer nesting boxes in open areas, at least 30 feet or so away from buildings. This is by no means a hard-and-fast rule, and don’t let a lack of open space prevent you from putting up nesting boxes. Boxes placed near shrubs and trees are likely to attract wrens, sparrows and other birds rather than swallows.
  • Do what you can to keep European Starlings and House Sparrows out of the boxes. These invasive species have had a negative impact on a number of native bird species. A hole diameter of 1⅛” – 1⅜” is said to be large enough for swallows but will keep starlings and sparrows out.
  • Keep cats indoors. This is a good general rule to protect wildlife, but is especially important if your aim is to attract birds. You don’t want to invite birds only to have them and their chicks fall prey to a pet.

Looking for Love

His colors will never be brighter than they are right now, nor his call more cheerful. Pine Grosbeaks tend to be irregular in their presence, but for the past two years in Chignik Lake they’ve been regular residents. For a look at a nearby female, which is very differently colored, see below. (Note the midges flying around to the right in the above photo. With big insect hatches coming off the lake and river, our swallows should be here any day!) 

Most days in the village the optimistic Peee-Peeet! of Pine Grosbeaks can be heard as they fly overhead or perch atop the tallest spruce trees. Always striking, the males are particularly colorful during springtime. Like their crossbill cousins, Pine Grosbeaks can be remarkably unwary. Move slowly around them, sit quietly, and they may forage on the ground practically at your feet. I’ve even had one perch on my head!

Female Pine Grosbeaks feature a rich olive-gold on their head, upper back, rump and often on their upper breast. This time of year, the leaf buds of deciduous trees figure heavily in Pine Grosbeaks’ diets. During wintertime they can be attracted to feeders featuring black oil sunflower seeds, suet or (I’m guessing) peanuts. They also love small fruit and during warmer months will include insects in their diet.

The “gros” of grosbeak is from the French gros, which means large. This is a species we’ll be looking for this summer in Hokkaido, Japan – part of their ranged across the Northern Hemisphere.

Red Crossbill Feeding on White Spruce Cone Seeds, Chignik Lake, Alaska Peninsula

A young male Red Crossbill feeds on the seeds of a White Spruce cone it has picked up from the ground and carried to a nearby bough. In the background, the happy chattering of Redpolls and Pine Siskins can be heard. See below for a photo of this species’ unique bill.

In late fall, a mixed flock approximately 50 Pine Siskins and 15 Red Crossbills showed up at the White Spruce Grove here in Chignik Lake. As both species are rarely seen beyond coniferous forests of pine, hemlock, fir or spruce trees, we were surprised to find them one morning busily calling back and forth and feeding on spruce cone seeds in the stand of 20 White Spruce trees we call “The White Spruce Grove.” In fact, as best as I can determine, the photographs we’ve gotten of these birds are the first ever captures of either of these species in the Chigniks – or perhaps anywhere out on the Alaska Peninsula.

Crossbills and conifers have coevolved in a complex relationship in which different crossbill morphs (types of crossbills) have evolved bills specifically adapted to the particular type of cones they feed on. Thus one population of crossbills might have bills adapted for opening Ponderosa Pine cones, while another population might be adapted to open hemlock cones. White Spruce trees are not native to the Chigniks; they were planted here by residents decades ago when Chignik Village changed from existing as a hunting and fishing camp to a place of year-round residence. The original seedlings came from Kodiak Island. It is likely that the Red Crossbills that visited us made their way from Kodiak Island, or from some other White Spruce forest in Southwest Alaska. 

Although about 30 Pine Siskins remain as I write this, all but two of the Red Crossbills have vanished. Hopefully most have moved on to more suitable habitat on Kodiak Island or on the Alaska mainland, but with a Sharp-shinned Hawk and Northern Shrikes showing up from time to time and with resident Great Horned Owls ever on the lookout for an easy meal, given the lack of wariness most crossbills exhibit it is possible that some may have fallen to predators.

The feeding habits of these crossbills is fascinating. Their oddly configured bills are adapted specifically for prying open cones and pulling out the seeds. Although they frequently perch on the cones and feed in every position conceivable, including hanging upside down, crossbills often employ a more active feeding strategy. Foraging on the ground, they choose an especially seed-packed cone that has fallen from the tree. Taking this cone in their claws or bill, they fly to a nearby branch and dine on the seeds in the safety of the tree. When they’re finished, they drop it to the ground and search for another such cone. After a session of such feeding, they retreat deep into the safety of the tree to digest their meal at leisure.

So the next time you’re in a northern coniferous forest and a conifer cone drops to the ground, look up. You might catch a glimpse of a crossbill that has just finished its meal.

Reference: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Handbook of Bird Biology, 3rd Ed, Lovette & Fitzpatrick