Category Archives: Travel

Alaskan Flower

Alpine forget-me-not, Denali (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska Birding Tour with PIB: at Denali 15 June 2019

Forget-me-nots in Pennsylvania are the Eurasian species, Myosotis scorpiodes, but in Alaska they have a native one. Found in alpine regions of Europe, Asia and North America, the alpine forget-me-not (Myosotis alpestris) is the State Flower of Alaska.

According to Wikipedia, “it grows well throughout Alaska in open, rocky places high in the mountains, flowering in midsummer. It is also found throughout the Himalaya range at elevations of 9,800–14,100 ft.”

Its common English name, Forget-me-not, is a literal translation of its German name: Vergissmeinnicht.

It blooms at Denali in June.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Arctic Terns Have Short Legs

Arctic tern (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska Birding with PIB: Birding Anchorage to Denali 14 June 2019

The first time I saw an Arctic tern was on a bird outing at Cape May, New Jersey in May 2004. It was the only Arctic tern perched in a big flock of common terns. How to pick it out of the crowd? “Look for the tern with the short legs.”

Arctic, common and Forster’s terns are in the same genus so it’s a challenge to identify them, especially since we don’t get any practice with Arctic terns in Pittsburgh.

In Alaska, terns are simpler. There are only four species: Common tern is very rare. Caspian tern is the only one with a big carrot-red bill. Arctic terns are everywhere and Aleutian terns look different.

Famous for their long distance Arctic to Antarctic migration, Arctic terns (Sterna paradisaea) are pale gray and white with uniformly silver gray upper wings, small round heads, short dark red bills, and short red legs. In the breeding season they have very long white tail streamers.

Arctic tern in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When they’re breeding Arctic terns are quite vocal. If you get too close to a nest they shout and dive bomb you. How close is too close? On the tundra where they nest alone, you may not know there’s a nest until you’re under attack.

Arctic tern in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Aleutian terns (Onychoprion aleuticus) are uncommon and local but easy to identify because they’re dark gray with white tails, white foreheads, black legs, black bills, and white edging on their wings. There’s no mistaking who they are when they’re standing.

Aleutian terns pair (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

You can see the Aleutians’ white foreheads in flight.

Aleutian tern in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Even though it’s not a useful field mark in Alaska, Arctic terns are still the ones with the short legs.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Red Necks And Red Throats

Red-throated loon, Gulkana, Alaska (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska Birding with PIB: In Anchorage 13 June 2019

Our Alaska birding checklist includes five birds whose names begin with “red-necked” or “red-throated.” Though I’ve seen three of them in winter in the Lower 48, they weren’t wearing red. It will be a treat to see them in breeding plumage.

Red-throated loon in non-breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Smallest and lightest of the loons, the red-throated loon (Gavia stellata, photos above) spends summer at northern high latitudes and winter on the coasts of Eurasia and North America. I’ve seen one or two in Pennsylvania on migration but they were colorless with pale throats and mottled gray backs. What a difference breeding plumage makes!

Red-necked grebes (Podiceps grisegena) come to Pittsburgh’s rivers during very cold winters but they don’t look this pretty. In the breeding season they engage in elaborate, vocal displays that show off their red necks and black crests. This video from Germany shows several rituals including the Greeting Ceremony with head turning and the Weed Ceremony with nesting material. Red-necked grebes nest in Alaska, too, so I hope to see them courting.

Female red-necked phalarope in breeding plumage in Iceland (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Red-necked phalaropes (Phalaropus lobatus) never come to Pittsburgh though I’ve seen them in the Gulf of Maine. Like all phalaropes they are full of contradictions. They are wading shorebirds that spend the winter far from land. They reverse the typical sex roles: The female is larger, more colorful, and has many mates. The male stays at home to incubate the eggs and raise the young. Most of the year they don’t have red necks.

Red-necked stints in breeding plumage, Japan (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Red-necked stints (Calidris ruficollis) are red in summer (above) and white in winter (below). They look like other sandpipers but they’re special in North America.

Red-necked stints in winter plumage, Australia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Red-necked stints breed in Siberia and northwestern Alaska and spend the winter in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand. Their range map shows they breed at Nome so I stand a good chance of seeing them. If I do they’ll be a Life Bird.

Range map of red-necked stint (map from Wikimedia Commons)

The red-throated pipit (Anthus cervinus) is a long shot on my Alaska trip.

Red-throated pipit (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Not abundant in North America, they’re mostly Eurasian birds with a small population that crosses the Bering Sea to breed north of Nome. To see this Life Bird I will have to be farther north than Nome, the bird will have to come a bit south, and the weather will have to be good. Fingers crossed!

Range map of red-throated pipit (map from Wikimedia Commons)

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, click on the captions to see the originals)

Gone Birding in Alaska

Willow ptarmigan at Denali (NPS photo/Kent Miller via Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska Birding with PIB: Flying to Anchorage 12 June 2019

Today I’m flying to the 49th and largest state of the union, Alaska, for an 11-day birding tour with Partnership for International Birding. Our guide will be David Trently whose Newfoundland tour was so much fun last July.

U.S. map highlighting Alaska (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska isn’t just the largest state. Overlaid on the Lower 48 it spans from California to Minnesota to Florida with a population only half the size of metro Pittsburgh. Alaska is so sparsely populated that 52% of it is wilderness.

Alaska’s size compared to the Lower 48 (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Eleven days will only scratch the surface.

In the interior we’ll visit Denali National Park and see Denali itself if the sky is clear. Then we’ll travel the Denali Highway to Delta Junction, birding along the way.

Bear digging and Denali (NPS Photo / Daniel A. Leifheit via Wikimedia Commons)

In the south-central region we’ll visit Anchorage and Seward and take a day-long pelagic trip at Kenai Fjords National Park where we’ll see glaciers, killer whales, and lots of seabirds including …

Aialik glacier at Kenai Fjords National Park (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Tufted puffins!

Tufted puffin swimming, Alaska (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Then we fly to Nome to see the Arctic tundra, muskox, reindeer (caribou) and nesting birds. Bristle-thighed curlews, last seen in Hawaii, will be here.

Reindeer at the Teller Road, Nome-to-Teller (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Our travels will touch the places circled in red below.

Map of Alaska, marked with destinations on PIB tour (map from Travel Alaska at

I don’t expect to see hundreds of Life Birds, but that doesn’t matter. Our checklist contains 205 birds including the willow ptarmigan (State Bird of Alaska at top), horned and tufted puffins, auklets, murrelets, gyrfalcon, varied thrush and bluethroat. For mammals you can’t beat killer whales, caribou, muskox, grizzly bears and arctic foxes.

Because there’s a 4-hour time zone difference, a dawn to dusk birding schedule, and little or no Internet access, I’ve written all 13 days of blog posts in advance including the 2 travel days. My husband Rick (who’s too near-sighted to go birding) is holding down the fort at home and posting my blogs to Facebook and Twitter. I’ll moderate your comments when I get access to WiFi.

For now, I’ll be mostly off the grid in a beautiful place.

Islands near Spire Cove, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I’ll “see” you when I return to my computer on Tuesday morning, June 25.

(photos and U.S. map from Wikimedia Commons)

Stunning Birds in Ecuador

Chestnut-breasted coronet, Ecuador, March 2019 (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

Friends of mine recently returned from a birding trip in the Ecuadoran Andes with Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania. These photos from Michelle Kienholz have made me want to go there.

The hummingbirds are stunning in shape and color. Above, a chestnut-breasted coronet (Boissonneaua matthewsii) lives in the sub-tropical forest at 4,000 to 8,500 feet above sea level.

Below, the long-tailed sylph (Aglaiocercus kingii) is best viewed from behind to see his iridescent 4.7-inch tail. He lives in the forest at 3,000 to 9,800 feet.

Long-tailed sylph, Ecuador, March 2019 (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

Speaking of tails, this one is astounding on the black-tailed trainbearer (Lesbia victoriae). Despite his long equipment he maneuvers skillfully in gardens and bushy areas at 8,500 to 13,000 feet.

Black-tailed trainbearer, Ecuador, March 2019 (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

Michelle says it rained a lot in Ecuador but the birds didn’t mind. Here, a black flowerpiercer (Diglossa humeralis) contemplates his next move. The sharp tip on his beak is a tool for piercing flowers.

Black flowerpiercer, Ecuador, March 2019 (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

As colorful as a hummingbird, the masked trogon (Trogon personatus) is the size of an American robin. The trogon’s upright perching style makes him appear larger than that.

Masked trogon, Ecuador, March 2019 (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

Ecuador is on my Bucket List.

(photos by Michelle Kienholz)

Versatile White-Eyes

Japanese white-eye in Kauai, Hawaii (photo by Dick Daniels via Wikimedia Commons)

Seven years ago I wrote about the beautiful white eye ring on a bird named the silvereye (Zosterops lateralis), native to Australia and New Zealand. In Hawaii I saw a similar bird, the Japanese white-eye (Zosterops japonicus).

They’re different species in the same genus, Zosterops.

Japanese white-eye and silvereye (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

It turns out there are 100 species in the Zosterops genus (minus three recently extinct). They range from Africa to India, Southeast Asia, China, Japan, Australia and many islands in the Indian and Pacific oceans.

These versatile little birds — only the size of a chickadee — usually arrive at new locations on their own. They showed up in New Zealand in 1832 and 1856, presumably blown east in a storm from Australia.

Humans helped white-eyes get to Hawaii. We introduced Japanese white-eyes to Oahu in 1929, but these resourceful little birds have now spread to all the other Hawaiian Islands.

Wherever they go, Zosterops tend to differentiate themselves quickly and become new species. Maybe the Japanese white-eye in Hawaii will morph into the “Hawaiian white-eye” in a few hundred years.

See more about the silvereye in this vintage blog: Eye Ring.

A 26-Foot Wall Of Water

In Hilo, Hawaii there’s a palm tree in the city’s bayside park with metal rings on its trunk. Each ring is marked with a year and the height in feet. The highest one (arrow on my photo above) says “26 feet, 1946.” It memorializes a tsunami that spawned the Pacific Tsunami Warning System.

Tsunamis, sometimes called tidal waves, are seismic sea waves caused by earthquakes, underwater landslides or explosions. They happen when the ocean is abruptly displaced, as shown in this tsunami animation.

In the wee hours of 1 April 1946 a massive underwater earthquake struck offshore in the Aleutians near Unimak Island, Alaska. It was so massive that it created a 114-foot wave that swept away Unimak’s new lighthouse. The rest of it raced across the Pacific Ocean at 500 miles per hour and hit Hilo five hours later around 7am.

Hilo had no idea the tsunami was coming. Some people were mesmerized as the bay sucked loudly out to sea and exposed floundering fish. When the water returned in five surging waves, the highest was a 26 foot wall of water. Everyone ran away. 159 people died. The town was destroyed. (Note the wave in the background of this photo taken as the tsunami arrived in 1946.)

People run from tsunami in Hilo, Hawai’i, 1 April 1946 ( photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The palm tree was there when it happened. The 26-foot marker shows the debris line left by the 1946 tsunami plus three other large tsunamis that passed the tree: 15 feet in 1960, 12 feet in 1952 and 8 feet in 1957. This video from September 2018 explains the markers (starting at the 1:19 timemark with the narrator’s face).

The following video shows After and Before photos taken in 2010 and taken at the moment the tsunami hit the trees.

Ultimately, the disaster had a positive outcome. By 1949 the U.S. had installed a warning system, now called the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, to detect earthquakes and warn of potential tsunamis. Throughout Hawaii you’ll see signs and sirens to tell you where to evacuate and when to leave.

Tsunami evacuation signs and sirens in Hawaii (images from Hawaii Emergency Management)

It was a terrifying 26-foot wall of water but it led to a safer future.

(photo credits: palm tree by Kate St. John, 1946 photo from Wikimedia Commons, videos by Aaron and by the Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes, Warning sign and siren from Hawaii Emergency Management)

Extinction Capital of the World

  • Kioea. Last seen in 1859.

By now in my series on Hawaii you’ve probably noticed that the rarest birds on the islands are threatened with extinction. Sadly this situation is normal. So many Hawaiian species have gone extinct and so many are on the edge today that Hawaii is known as the Extinction Capital of the World. The group of forest birds called Hawaiian honeycreepers are a case in point.

Five million years ago a flock of finches similar to redpolls (Carpodacus erythrinus) arrived from Asia, flying non-stop for more than 4,000 miles. When they arrived, Oahu and the Big Island didn’t exist, but over millions of years they spread out and evolved into 59 species of Hawaiian honeycreepers with a wide variety of beaks for exploiting Hawaii’s food sources. They diversified more than Darwin’s finches.

Each bird was perfectly evolved to survive Hawaii’s dangers but had no defense against off-island threats. Their exposure came with the arrival of humans. We came in two waves.

Polynesians arrived in Hawaii around 400AD and were here alone for 1,400 years. During that period 30% of the Hawaiian honeycreepers went extinct.

In 1778 Captain James Cook was the first European to see Hawaii, prompting immigration from the rest of the world. Since then, in just 240 years, another 39% of the honeycreepers have gone extinct. 18 species remain but six are so critically endangered they may be gone soon.

The slideshow above shows a fraction of what we’ve lost. The last bird, the black-faced honeycreeper or poo’uli (Melamprosops phaeosoma), is still listed as critically endangered with 1 to 49 individuals left on Earth. However, none have been seen since 26 November 2004. It’s probably gone.

Hawaii’s endemic birds go extinct so easily because of …

  • Habitat loss: Humans cleared the forest for settlements. Some species had such a small range or specialized food that when their patch was gone, they were too.
  • Introduced species, especially rats, cats and mongoose: The birds don’t know to move their nests out of reach.
  • Avian malaria and avian pox: Honeycreepers have no immunity.
  • Mosquitoes: Avian diseases, carried by mosquitoes, arrived with introduced birds. Honeycreepers don’t know to brush mosquitoes away. They catch malaria easily and it kills them.
  • Climate change: There’s safety from mosquitoes at high elevation but climate change is heating the mountains. The mosquitoes are moving uphill.

Avian diseases caught from mosquitoes are the big problem. Fortunately there’s a silver lining. One of the honeycreepers, the Hawai’ian amakihi, can now live with avian malaria and is expanding its range within mosquito territory.

This 27-minute video, made in 2005 by Susanne Clara Bard, tells the story of the Hawai’ian amakihi’s survival. Though this video is a lot longer than I normally post, it’s worth even a short look to learn why Hawaiian birds face so many challenges.

The Hawai’ian amakihi evolved to survive malaria in only 200 years.

(images from Wikimedia Commons; click on the links to see the species account at Wikipedia)

Tour Day 9: Leaving the Big Island of Hawai’i for home

Re-Learning The Wild

Hawaiian crow in the wild in 2017 (screenshot from ‘Alala Project video (San Diego Zoo Global) shown below)

We have so many crows in Pittsburgh in the winter that it’s hard to imagine any crow becoming extinct but this species, the Hawaiian crow or ‘alala (Corvus hawaiiensis), declined rapidly in the 20th century from disease, habitat loss, and predation. They are now extinct in the wild.

Because the birds were obviously in trouble, a captive breeding program began in the 1970s but it wasn’t enough. By 2002 Earth’s only ‘alalas lived in captivity so scientists prepared carefully for their first release.

Five Hawaiian crows were released in the forest in 2016 but the attempt was unsuccessful. Three of them died, the majority killed by the i’o, the native Hawaiian hawk. The remaining two were brought back into captivity.

The ‘Alala Project revamped their strategy for the next release. The crows had lived in safety for generations and apparently didn’t realize the hawk was so dangerous, or they didn’t warn each other.

Since crows are safer when they stick together the team assessed each crow for its compatibility and hierarchy and chose the group accordingly. They also taught the crows to recognize and raise the alarm when they heard or saw a Hawaiian hawk. The alarm call is important.

A study of Hawaiian crow vocalizations published in January 2017 found that the language of the captive population contained fewer alarm and territory calls and the frequency of alarm calls was greatly reduced. This had to change in the wild.

Eleven birds spent nine months preparing for their release (read more in this Audubon article). Six were released in September 2017, five more at a nearby location in October 2017. They were monitored daily during their first year in the forest.

So far so good. As of fall 2018 they are thriving and they are vocal. Here’s a video from the ‘Alala Project taken during ongoing tracking of the birds and their sounds.

These Hawaiian crows have re-learned the wild. There’s hope they’ll be the start of a future ‘alala population on the islands.

For more information, see this 10-minute video about the ‘Alala Project or this 6-minute video about their release in 2017.

(screenshot from video by San Diego Zoo Global about the ‘Alala Project)

Tour Day 10, Fly to Honolulu. Begin the journey home


Kilauea lava flow, September 2002 (photo by USGS via Wikimedia Commons)

A trip to Hawaii would not be complete without a visit to an active volcano at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. If it weren’t for volcanoes Hawaii wouldn’t exist.

The Hawaiian island chain is a string of mountains created by a volcanic hotspot under the Pacific plate. As the plate moves northwestward, the hotspot keeps bubbling up in a new location. The older islands have extinct volcanoes. The newest island, the Big Island of Hawai’i, is where all the action is.

Hawaiian hotspot under the Pacific plate creates new islands (diagram by USGS via Wikimedia Commons)

Volcanoes are incredibly awe inspiring and deadly if not treated with respect. Explosions, fountains, and lava flows are obvious dangers. Volcanic ash clogs everything (including airplane engines) and the sulfur dioxide emissions can kill.

Hawaiian tradition says that Pele, the goddess of volcanoes and fire, lives in the crater of Kilauea and controls its lava flow. For centuries Hawaiians made religious visits to offer her gifts. Sometimes those visits ended badly. Wikipedia explains that “In 1790, a party of warriors (along with women and children who were in the area) were caught in an unusually violent eruption. Many were killed and others left footprints in the lava that can still be seen today.”

Kilauea has been continuously active since 1983. When it erupted violently from 3 May to 4 September 2018 its lava flows destroyed Highway 132, the beach towns of Vacationland and Kapoho, and parts of the Leilani Estates subdivision. By the time the eruption ended Kilauea had added 875 acres of new land to Hawai’i.

This U.S. Geological Survey video shows conditions at Leilani Estates in late May 2018 while a USGS team monitored the lava flow.

They also monitored it from the air in this flyover from lava fountain to the sea.

Meanwhile a new volcano is growing offshore. Lo’ihi is already 10,100 feet above the sea floor and only 3,000 feet below the waves. Right next to the Big Island, its shape is the pale orange semi-circle on the map below.

Hawaii state map (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Hawaiians know there’s no way to control a volcano. All you can do is get out of the way!

(videos by USGS on YouTube, photos and maps from Wikimedia Commons. click on the captions to see the originals. )

Tour Day 8: Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park