Late last month observers discovered a small green pond at the bottom of Halema’uma’u Crater at Kilauea volcano. Water inside the crater is rather amazing since Kilauea is the active volcano on the Big Island of Hawai’i that erupted violently in 2018, destroying parts of Leilani Estates, Highway 132, Vacationland and Kapoho.
Geologists wondered if the green spot was a rock or algae so they flew over the crater several times looking for a telltale reflection to indicate it was water. Yes, it’s wet.
Bristle-thighed curlews are so rare and hard to find that they’ve been called the birders’ Holy Grail. The word “Tahiti” in their scientific name, Numenius tahitiensis, tells us why. These birds are Pacific Islanders. Their remote breeding location in Alaska was not discovered until 1948.
Adult bristle-thighed curlews spend only two months on their breeding grounds at the central Seward Peninsula and Yukon Delta. They arrive in late May and begin nesting almost immediately.
When the eggs hatch in June, the chicks are precocial and soon walk off the nest. At 3+ weeks old they learn to fly but they aren’t independent yet. At 5 weeks their parents leave them with a few caretaker adults and depart for the staging grounds at the Bering Sea.
There they fatten up for the first leg of their journey home — a non-stop 2,500 mile flight to Laysan, Midway Atoll in the Hawaiian islands. For some curlews the final destination is much further, as shown on the map below. (Red spots are breeding range, white arrow is first stop, blue circles are wintering locations.)
Young curlews follow the adults a few weeks later. They won’t return to Alaska until they’re three to four years old.
This year I happened to visit Hawaii and Alaska on the same schedule as the bristle-thighed curlews. My Life Bird curlew was a fly-by at Kahuku Golf Course, Kauai on February 28, photographed here by Michael McNulty. Then I saw curlews again near Nome, Alaska in June.
Every year the curlews travel from Hawaii to Alaska. With a worldwide population of only 7,000 birds and sea level rise due to flood their home islands, this amazing bird is vulnerable to extinction.
p.s. Bristle-thighed curlews are closely related to whimbrels, whom they resemble. We saw and heard both species in western Alaska.
Last month we found chocolate lilies and other delightful wildflowers while on PIB‘s Alaska birding tour. Here are the best of them, mostly found at Turnagain Pass Rest Area on 18 June 2019. Please leave a comment to help me identify the ones I’ve labeled “mystery” flowers and correct any I’ve misidentified. Thanks!
Don’t be fooled by the happy green colors on the watery edge of this map. The high temperature in much of Alaska tomorrow will be 85 degrees F.
Alaska is baking under a five-to-seven day heat wave caused by exceptionally strong high pressure that will break most temperature records. Alaskans aren’t prepared for it. The normal high in Anchorage this week should be 67 degrees F but that’s close to what the low will be (61).
Not only will it be hot in Alaska but it will be hard to breathe. Baking temperatures, dry vegetation and lightning have ignited huge forest fires across the state. The Sunday 7am forecast for much of Alaska includes “areas of smoke” shown in gray below.
There’s only one place left that’s truly cold. That cold dot on the map is the peak of Denali.
If I had to pick a Best Bird on my trip to Alaska it would be the long-tailed jaegar (long-tailed skua, Stercorarius longicaudus), the most graceful arctic predator.
Long-tailed jaegars are the smallest of skuas, a genus of predatory seabirds that range from pole to pole. In flight their long tails and flowing movements remind me of swallow-tailed kites as they float over the tundra in pairs and loudly defend their territories. On the hunt they can hover like kestrels, as shown in the video below.
Though long-tailed jaegars are seabirds, their favorite foods in Alaska are collared lemmings.
How does a seabird without talons capture rodents? Well, he doesn’t use his feet.
Birds of North America Online explains his hunting technique …
Long-tailed Jaeger hunts these lemmings by hovering or poising in a headwind at height of 1-10 m [3-30 feet] (usually about 4 m) above tundra, like a kestrel unlike other jaegers, and by watching from perches on small rises or frost mounds … Having detected prey, often pursues it on foot and pecks it until it is dead; never uses feet to capture prey.
Before my trip to Alaska I rarely thought about killer whales because I’d never had a chance to see them. Now I have and they are quite impressive.
Killer whales or orcas (Orcinus orca) are the largest oceanic dolphin, occurring around the world. Some are resident, some transient, others live offshore. Offshore orcas travel the wide swaths of ocean shown on the map below.
Killer whales are apex predators but what they eat depends on their lifestyle. Resident whales eat fish and are very vocal because fish don’t run away when they hear an orca. Transient whales eat marine mammals, especially seals, and are silent because seals flee at the sound of a killer whale.
Like other dolphins, killer whales are very intelligent and highly social. They swim with their families their entire lives. The family groups are matrilineal, lead by the eldest mother and made up of her sons, daughters, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. Her knowledge and traditions guide her family long after her reproductive years and actually insure that her children live longer than those whose mothers died.(*)
From the drone’s photos and videos, scientists could tell if an orca was thin and weak or plumb and strong. During the study they filmed two brothers swimming together, just as they had their entire lives. One was very thin and the two were vocalizing a lot as they swam south. Eventually the weak brother dove and was never seen again. His brother swam back alone, vocalizing on the way. It appears that he accompanied his dying brother during his last moments.
Alaska Birding with PIB: Nome to Anchorage 23 June 2019
Most people never see a wild gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus), the world’s largest falcon and most northern diurnal raptor. Though gyrfalcons have a circumpolar distribution through North America, Greenland, Iceland and Eurasia, they rarely come south, even in winter. Their remoteness protected them from the past persecution of raptors and made them prized as falconers’ birds.
Compared to peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons have larger heads, thicker necks, bulkier deep chests, shorter and broader wings, and a longer tail. Gyrfalcons look like powerful prize fighters, peregrines are sleek and fast.
Gyrfalcons need this bulk because their prey items are much larger birds than peregrines eat. Gyrfalcons can kill cranes and Canada geese but their primary prey are ptarmigans, especially rock ptarmigans. In some regions the gyrfalcon population is cyclic in response to the ptarmigan population. Climate change is affecting the ptarmigan population — bad news for gyrfalcons.
We think of gyrs as white falcons because that’s what we see in the media but there’s a lot of color variation. Many are brown-speckled, like the bird in Iceland on the right.
Most gyrfalcons in North America are a uniform dark brown, like this one that spent the winter of 2001-2002 at the Black Falcon Terminal (dock) in Boston, Massachusetts. This bird was so famous and so reliably found that 17 years later there are still photos of it online. Glen Tepke took this picture on 16 February 2002.
I mention this individual bird because I traveled to see it — the only gyrfalcon I’d ever seen until my trip to Alaska. It shows how rare they are in the eastern U.S.
Gyrfalcons live in Alaska year round and breed here in early summer. Yesterday we saw a gyrfalcon family with 3 or 4 young in the nest. The young were nearly ready to fledge — at the ‘pantaloons’ stage — very dark brown. They were definitely Best Birds!
Last year a pair nested in Nome, photographed in June 2018 by Mick Thompson.
Alaska Birding Tour with PIB: Nome vicinity, 22 June 2019
Willow ptarmigans (Lagopus lagopus) are ground dwelling birds that live where it snows about half the year. They’re also the favorite prey of many species so they need to be able to hide in place.
Their plumage provides camouflage but it has to be clever because the ground changes color from white in winter, to mottled during snow melt, to brown in summer. Ptarmigans solve this by molting continuously from April to November.
Their basic plumage is winter white to match the snow. It allows them to stand still and disappear …
… or burrow in the snow with only their heads exposed.
In April the snow starts to melt and the ptarmigans start to molt. The male looks like a snow patch as he begins his courtship clucking.
In June the male and female are incubating eggs. They still match the ground; they’re brown.
Their chicks match the ground, too.
By late summer they look patchy again. Their plumage gets ready for the first snow.
In November they’re back to winter white.
Ptarmigans change with the seasons.
(photos from Wikimedia Commons, and Dan Arndt via Flickr; click on the captions to see the originals)
Today we’re in Nome, Alaska on the summer solstice. If we were at the Arctic Circle the sun would never set today but Nome is 143 miles south. The sun does set here, but barely. It never gets completely dark. Instead, twilight lasts for 2.5 hours and then the sun is up again.
The photos above and below were taken at sunrise during the 2013 summer solstice from the Bering Land Bridge Preserve office in Nome. The photo caption says, “Up here in Bering Land Bridge, summer solstice means almost 24 hour days. Sunrise at our office here in Nome on the solstice is around 04:18 am, and the sun won’t set until 01:47 am the next day.”
The sun just skims below the horizon, then circles the town.
Indeed it is the longest day.
(photos from Bering Land Bridge National Preserve on Flickr, Creative Commons license; click on the captions to see the originals)