September 18: First snow in the mountains.
September 21: First frost along the lake.
September 18: First snow in the mountains.
September 21: First frost along the lake.
A diminutive four inches from the tip of its beak to the tip of its tail (not much larger than most hummingbirds) but with a lyric song that captures the spirit of nature, the Pacific Wren (Troglodytes pacificus) is Alaska’s only wren.*
Pushed up against a steep bank grown thick with salmonberry bushes and partly draping over the water where I fish for salmon is a certain alder tree that several species of birds find attractive. Golden-crowned Sparrows, Black-capped Chickadees, Yellow Warblers and Wilson’s Warblers are among the regular visitors bringing an added measure of cheer to a morning’s angling.
Not long ago while wading and casting, I heard a new song, complex up and down tinkling as though the sound of a brook had been transposed to birdsong. “That sounds like a wren,” I thought with surprise. I didn’t know that any sort of wren existed in Alaska. I gave my attention to the source of the melody and eventually a furtive, flitting whir of motion came into view as a tiny, mouse-sized bird bounced along the river bank from reed to reed to vine to grass blade, inspecting each for insects I suppose. Dressed in mottled brown, with short wings, a long, slender down-curved bill and stubby tail held high, there was no mistaking the bird for anything but a wren.
But it was so small! Easily the tiniest wren I’d ever encountered, not to mention the smallest species of bird I’ve seen thus far around the environs of Chignik Lake. Most passerines would fit nicely on the palm of one’s hand, and yet the volume of the songs they produce never ceases to astound. The winter wren’s vocals are no exception.
After the morning’s fishing was done and fillets from a brace of salmon were added to our winter provisions, I returned with my camera in an attempt to photograph this little fellow. A variety of other birds came and went, but there was no sign of the wren until suddenly a blur of brown motion gave him away. Yet no sooner did I spot him than he settled into the V where the alder trunk splits and fanning out his tail and wings remained silent and nearly motionless, obscured by leaves and branches. Was he attempting to hide from me? From the Merlin and Shrikes that frequent the area? Or was this behavior rooted in something else?
In his essay Tuckerman Ravine, Henry Thoreau described the song of a bird he could hear in a thicket but was unable to spot as a:
“…twittering flow…a fine corkscrew stream issuing with incessant lisping tinkle from a cork, flowing rapidly, and I said that he had pulled out the spile and left it running.”
The wren eventually moved to more open territory, but remained quiet…
A “spile” is wooden peg used to open or close a wine cask, and it has been reckoned that the trickling, tinkling song Thoreau described was that of a Winter Wren, a close relative of the Pacific Wren. In fact, the species were only scientifically differentiated – based on song, genetics and breeding habits – in 2010.
Elsewhere, naturalist, conservationist and fly-angler John Burroughs described the winter wren and its voice thus:
“Such a dapper, fidgety, gesticulating, bobbing-up-and-down-and-out-and-in little bird, and yet full of such sweet, wild melody!”
…Until finally it was if he could no longer help himself. He just had to sing. And what a song… The fact that a bird with a chest not much bigger than my thumbnail can produce such vocals is astonishing.
I am indebted to the book, Birds of America, (1917 & 1936), edited in chief by T. Gilbert Pearson along with several other editors whose love of birds shines through in their thorough research and beautiful descriptions. The color plates alone make this a volume well worth owning.
*Marsh Wrens have been reported in Alaska as accidentals – meaning very few records of this species have been confirmed.
From a favorite perch, this Northern Shrike watches patiently for a careless sparrow, warbler or vole to come within striking range. They’re passerines by taxonomical classification, which relates them to the songbirds they prey upon.
My first encounter with shrikes did not include the sighting of this somewhat uncommon bird, but with evidence left at the scene. I was about 14, on an upland hunt in Pennsylvania with Gil Twiest, when I noticed a mouse or shrew tightly wedged in the V of a pair of branches on a small crabapple tree. As it happens, Gil is a biologist and an expert on birds. When I called him over for a look at what I’d found, he immediately surmised, “That’s the work of a shrike.” The remainder of the morning I pretended to hunt while searching in vain for the compellingly macabre bird that had committed this act.
Many years later while letting my mind wander as I stared at my fishing line on the Tama River in Japan, I was jolted back into the present by an unearthly, bird-like shriek. I’d never seen or heard a shrike, but I knew immediately that’s what it had to be. Sure enough, when I turned around and got the source of the screech in my binoculars, there it was – hooked beak, eye stripe, large head – peering down on me from the wire where it was perched. I don’t recall if I caught fish or not; it was a red-letter day.
It’s the shrike’s sharply hooked beak that indicates its intensions. Lanius excubitor, the Northern Shrike’s scientific name, means Butcher Watchman, and while all birds exhibit fascinating behavior of one description or another, the shrike’s habits rank it near the top.
Northern Shrike, Chignik Lake near the mouth of Clark’s River, Alaska
By definition, the feet of passerines feature three toes facing forward and one toe pointing back – a perfect arrangement for perching. Hence passerines are commonly referred to as “perching birds.” Suitably light and ideal for maintaining a grasp on twigs, branches and wires, a shrike’s feet lack the power of the heavy talons of hawks, falcons, eagles and other birds of prey. They’ve evolved a remarkable strategy to compensate for this shortcoming.
Upon capturing a small animal, they carry it in their beak to a suitable dining area. This could be a small tree where a pair of branches form a V in which to wedge the animal, or a cactus, bush or tree with sufficiently long, sharp thorns on which they can impale their meal. On the banks of Japan’s Hanamizu River, year after year Bull-headed Shrikes (Mozu in Japanese), utilized a strand of barbed-wire enclosing a garden and marked their territory with all manner of large earthworms, grasshoppers, dragon flies and other small creatures. Once securely fastened, the shrike can easily tear into it’s meal with it powerful beak.
Note the distinctive eye mask and large head. Like some other birds of prey such as kestrels and harriers, shrikes possess the ability to hover while searching for prey.
Roughly the size of the familiar American robin (albeit with a shorter wingspan), these are tough little birds. Although often solitary, here in the village of Chignik Lake a pair of them – very likely a mated pair – work tirelessly to drive off magpies, kingfishers and other birds that enter their territory. We’ve even watched as two of them harassed a mature bald eagle into giving up a preferred roost.
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.
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.
Looked out the window this morning and saw nervous water on the lake. Skipped breakfast. Three hens and a buck. I’ll cure eggs for ikura later today. Shioyaki salmon for dinner tonight. Beginning of our second week in Chignik Lake, Alaska.