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 north of 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)
Alaska Birding with PIB: Arrive in Nome, 20 June 2019
Because the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, Alaska copes with climate change every day.
Record heat waves, low sea ice, eroding coastlines, melting permafrost, disappearing lakes, ice-road failures, and declines in fish, bird and wildlife populations. Here are just a few examples of what Alaska is dealing with:
Ice road failures:
Winter is the time to go places in Alaska when the frozen lakes and rivers become highways, but this year the ice was thin and it broke up earlier than expected. There were accidents at the ice failures, people died, and villages were cut off because the ice is their only road. Every winter the Kuskokwim River becomes a 200-mile ice highway that links 13,000 people in southwestern Alaska. The New York Times described how people cope now that the ice is thin: Alaska Relies On Ice. What Happens When It Can’t Be Trusted?
Lack of sea ice makes a village disappear:
The town of Shishmaref, Alaska is disappearing. Perched on an island in the Chukchi Sea, the sea ice that used to protect it from huge waves in autumn storms is forming too late now to do any good. The new seawall is a only temporary fix. The island is shrinking. In 2016 the villagers voted to leave the island but there’s no money to do it — and so they stay. Read more + video at CNN’s Tragedy of a village built on ice.
Alaska Birding with PIB: Pelagic tour at Kenai Fjords National Park 19 June 2019
Last summer I went to Newfoundland to see the only puffin we ever think about in eastern North America, the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica). In the Pacific there are two more puffins and a closely related bird that’s like a unicorn. Today I hope to see all three.
Atlantic or Pacific, the first thing to know about puffins is that all of them are pelagic. They spend most of their lives far out at sea and only come to land in the breeding season when they look their very best. If you want to see a puffin you have to visit their homes in early summer. Otherwise they’re gone.
The tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) is the largest of them, more powerful than cute. Almost double the weight of the Atlantic puffin, his breeding plumage includes a bright orange beak, white face, and long golden head plumes. His extensive breeding range makes him relatively easy to find on coasts and islands from California to Japan. At their breeding colonies each pair digs a burrow up to five feet deep where they raise a single chick per year.
The horned puffin (Fratercula corniculata), below, resembles the Atlantic puffin but he’s 40% larger, has a mostly yellow beak, and feather “eyebrows” like horns. There’s no danger you’ll mix them up in the wild. The horned puffin is only in the Pacific, the Atlantic puffin is only in the Atlantic.
The horned puffin also differs in his nesting strategy. These pairs don’t burrow to make a nest. Instead the female lays her single egg on scree in a rock crevice or on a cliff. Horned puffin breeding colonies range from (rarely) British Columbia to Alaska to the Sea of Okhotsk (Russia and Japan).
And finally there’s the unicorn.
The rhinoceros auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata) is not an auklet at all but the closest relative of puffins. Slightly larger than an Atlantic puffin he has a large orange bill with a single horn protruding from it, leading some to call him the unicorn puffin.
The rhinoceros auklet nests on offshore islands from California to the Gulf of Alaska to Korea and Japan. You’ll see them on the water during the day but not on land. Instead they fly home at night with fish to feed their chicks. As they arrive at the nesting colonies they run the gauntlet of gulls waiting to steal their food (see video below). Perhaps that’s why they come home only at night.
The unicorn has a different lifestyle but he’s a puffin nonetheless.
(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)
Alaska Birding with PIB: Anchorage to Seward 18 June 2019
Red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) are conifer specialists that breed across North America and Eurasia, from Alaska to Newfoundland, from Scotland to Japan. They are so tied to spruces, pines and firs that you won’t find them in deciduous forests nor anywhere that the cone crop has failed. That explains why in three decades I’ve seen only one red crossbill in western Pennsylvania.
Red crossbills eat conifer seeds by prying open the cones using their crossed bills. Their beaks have evolved to match the cones they open — and so have the cones. A 2010 study led by C. Benkman showed that it’s a continuous arms race in which the cones evolve to foil the beaks and the beaks evolve to open the cones. The crossbill-cone competition has resulted in 21 subspecies of red crossbills with different beaks and call types. One population in Idaho, the Cassia crossbill (Loxia sinesciuris), was given separate species status in 2017.
Though red crossbills don’t migrate, they range far and wide in search of food, calling “jip jip” as they fly. Their flocks are usually noisy but fall silent when they’re feeding intensely. In his Essential Field Guide Companion Pete Dunne describes them as Eclectic Parrot-Finches: wide-ranging, social, and parrot-like in behavior.
Red crossbills favor old growth conifer forests because the cone crop is heavier on trees more than 60 years old. If I’m lucky, today I’ll see the “Red Parrot-Finch of the Pines” near Seward, Alaska.
(photo and base map from Wikimedia Commons, breeding range drawn freestyle by Kate St. John; click on the captions to see the originals)