May 1, Tuesday Morning, frost: Eagles are once again daily encounters as they take up familiar roosts and join the village in watching for salmon. A few fish have trickled in, but usually it’s June before the run really gets going. A couple of nice char have been caught. Catkins on the willows, leaf buds everywhere ready to burst. A small flock of Pine Grosbeaks was in the village yesterday, the males as brilliant pinkish-red as they’ll ever be.
What a wonderful talent – that can create an entire Spring
from a brush and a sheet of paper. If he would try poetry
I know he would be a master…
Su Tung P’o – On a Painting by Wang the Clerk of Yeng Ling, c. 1080
Also known as Su Shi, Su Tung P’o (1037-1101) was a Song Dynasty writer, calligrapher, painter, poet, statesman and noted gourmet. The dish “dungpo pork” is named for him.
Two mornings ago upon walking outside, we were greeted with a cheerful song that was both new and yet familiar. I spun around, went back for my binoculars, and found the year’s first Fox Sparrow trilling from a perch near the top of a White Spruce. Here in Southwest Alaska, there is no more certain emissary of Spring.
Our first connection with Fox Sparrows occurred back when we used to spend our summers in Seward, Alaska. There, in late spring, one served as our alarm clock. Perched just outside our camper his lilting song – delivered at a volume startling for a being so small – was generally among the first sounds of the morning.
“Foxy” sings three time during this minute-long clip. Redpolls, which continue to course through the village each day scavenging for spruce cone seeds and other food, can be heard in the background vocalizing with a mix of electric zaps, trills and cat-like mews.
Here along the Pacific Northwest Coast, Fox Sparrows are predominated by the “Sooty” race. Note the way the spots and blotches on his chest come together to form one large blotch in the center. Overall, Sooty Fox Sparrows have dark, uniformly brown backs. However, as with many passerines, there can be a great deal of variation in coloring. The individual in the photos accompanying this article is neither as dark nor as heavily splotched as other Sooties we’ve seen, and there’s a little slate coloring on his head.
Hopefully our new friend will find a mate in the coming days. We’ll be looking for their nest with its four or five pale cyan, speckled eggs on the ground beneath one of the village’s White Spruce trees or perhaps under an especially thick swatch of alders.
In any event, regardless of where you are, we hope your spring (or autumn, if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere) is off to as good a start as this little fellow’s.
The range of Sooty Fox Sparrows is generally confined to the Pacific Coast. Other recognized forms of Fox Sparrows include “Slate-colored” and “Red.”
I didn’t even own a camera at the time, but as I admired a photograph of a Bighorn Sheep in a national magazine featuring animals of the Rocky Mountains, I knew that if and when I ever did get a camera, high on my list of hoped for captures would be that iconic orange eye. And while I have yet to score a great shot of a mature male with a heavy, curling rack, one of the keys – perhaps the key as I evaluate much of my wildlife photography is the quality of the eye in the photo.
A sharp, clear eye showing a little color and reflecting catchlight can make or break a wildlife portrait. So once I have a decent photographic record of a given species, I start working to get an eye-catching eye.
Even in low light, you can usually find an angle where some light is reflected in the animal’s eyes. This might mean waiting for the animal to change its position, or it might mean changing your own position. The other key is to not focus on the animal, but on the eye of the animal.
Just as with portraits of humans, the eyes are critical to animal portraits. Here in Chignik Lake, several foxes regularly visited the village this past winter. Each was unique – not just in size, coat color and facial markings, but in personality as well. As we studied these foxes, we gave them names. Skit, a young fox who was a frequent visitor to the White Spruce Grove that we check daily for birds and other wildlife, had a tough go of it during this especially harsh winter. An injury to his right eye no doubt impeded his ability to hunt as well as to guard against adversaries. There were times when he looked like he might be nearing his last leg.
Despite hardships, he seemed to exude a puppyish curiosity and resilience. And somehow he managed to scrape through. When we last saw him a couple of weeks ago, his coat looked healthier than it had since the beginning of winter and his eye appeared to have healed.
As visual creatures, we’re drawn to eyes, even ascribing spiritual qualities to them. Glint and shine and rich, saturated iris colors suggest to us intelligence and vitality, traits that in turn give a subject charisma.
While catchlight can be added through the magic of digital technology, the more satisfying – and realistic-looking – achievement is to capture it as you’re making the picture. Watch the light and look for it reflected in your subject’s eyes. A little shimmer can really make a photo pop!
Panache: Bohemian Waxwing, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
The red, waxy tips on the Bohemian Waxwings’ wings are actually flattened feather shafts.
…beneath a silk-blue sky…
To sun, to feast, and to converse
and all together – for this I have abandoned
All my other lives.
Robert Francis – Waxwings, 1960
– Robert Francis (1901-1987) lived for 40 years in a two-room house he built in Amherst, Massachusetts. Of Francis, Robert Frost noted, “…of all the great, neglected poets, (he is) the best.”
Determining the population status of birds in the Chignik area can be challenging. Common Redpolls (Acanthis flammea) are a case in point. Overall, there are estimated to be about 13,000,000 of these crimson-splashed passerines in Alaska – a number which surely fluctuates considerably from year to year. At home in a range of habitats including Arctic tundra, scrub alder and boreal conifer forests, their call, an electric zapping buzz, is frequently heard from high in the sky even when the birds themselves can’t be located.
*Click to listen to redpolls calling.
But how common are redpolls on the Alaska Peninsula? They aren’t included among the over 200 species of birds listed on the Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List. Conversely, a checklist for the peninsula’s Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve denotes them as “common.” And finally, according to a Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird reporting list, it is “rare” to encounter more than a couple of redpolls on a given outing in this area.
In recent months, redpolls have been a part of most daily walks, and while often I get only a fleeting glimpse of a few birds, there have been times when as many as 80 redpolls have swept through the village, lingering to feast on the seeds of White Spruce cones.
It is those trees that seem to hold the key, as they provide both an abundant source of food as well as shelter from winter winds and snow.
Although redpolls occasionally descend to lower latitudes, they are typically birds of the far north, common in suitable habitat the world over. In fact, we encountered redpolls in Mongolia along Ulaanbaatar’s Tuul River. Unsurprisingly, the species has evolved to survive in conditions that are often harsh.
One of their most interesting adaptations is an expanded esophagus which they can rapidly cram full of alder, birch or conifer seeds. Once their esophagus is filled, they’re able to retreat to the safety and and relative warmth of dense conifer boughs to digest their meal in leisure. Thus, redpolls can sometimes be heard softly vocalizing from deep inside the spruce trees even when they can’t be seen.
Look for their nests of four or five light green eggs with purplish to reddish spots in thick brush fairly close to the ground. Redpoll chicks are ready to leave the nest in about 10 to 12 days.
*Audio clip courtesy of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, published in 2000 by Alan Knox and Peter Lowther
When we moved to Chignik Lake in August, 2016, we were interested amateur birders. Neither of us foresaw this minor side-hobby going further than that. But it soon became apparent that we have found ourselves in a unique situation to add to the comparatively limited data base and knowledge of the avian fauna of this remote part of the world.
Remote? The Lake and Peninsula Borough covers 32,922 square miles (85,270 square km) – roughly the size of West Virginia or South Carolina. Yet fewer than 2,000 people inhabit this rugged landscape, which has no roads connecting it to the world beyond. It is a place where wolves regularly show up on the edges of isolated villages and where Japanese glass fishing floats from a bygone era are regularly found washed up on beaches.
Although birding efforts are regularly conducted at the area’s several National Parks and Wildlife Reserves, it has been over 50 years since anyone specifically studied the birds of the Chignik Lake area. While some things remain the same (the Great Horned Owls David Narver documented in his 1963 paper Birds of the Chignik River System are still here), a lot else has changed. Among other things, several decades ago White Spruce trees were introduced from Kodiak Island. These conifers provide shelter, nesting sites and an abundance of food. This in turn sometimes results in uncommon, rare or previously unrecorded species showing up here and in some cases staying awhile.
One such species is the lone White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) which has taken up residence in a grove of White Spruces this past winter. He or she seems to have gotten mixed in with a small flock of other sparrows – 10 or 11 Golden-crowneds, an American Tree Sparrow and a first-winter White-crowned Sparrow. Between the feeders we’ve put up at The Grove and the abundance of conifer seeds and other forage, these sparrows, along with a few juncos, have hung in over the course of the harshest winter Chignik Lake has experienced in recent years.
Given that this young White-throated was first observed in late fall, it seems likely that it was a late-fledged bird migrating south. This suggests that it was Alaska-bred. If so, this appears to be an unusual occurrence for a species which may be expanding its range north.