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)
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)
Alaska Birding with PIB: At Tangle River on Denali Highway 17 June 2019
In western Pennsylvania we rarely see longspurs, the sparrow-like birds whose long hind toe gives them their name, but two species of longspurs breed in Alaska.
Lapland longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus) are the most conspicuous songbird on the tundra as they prominently claim territory and a mate. The males flutter and sing above their chosen patch, advertising themselves in loud flight song displays.
Smith’s longspurs (Calcarius pictus) are harder to find partly because of their lifestyle. They don’t claim a territory, they don’t claim one mate, and they don’t use flight song displays. Instead the males sing from the top of a twig, “Hey, ladies! Come here.”
When a female shows up the two go through their courtship displays and copulate. Then they both go off to mate with other birds.
The fancy name for this is polygynandry. Each female and each male pairs and mates with two or three of the opposite sex. These birds are very busy during the breeding season!
Over a period of one week in the early spring, a female longspur will copulate over 350 times on average; this is one of the highest copulation rates of any bird. Males are well-equipped to deliver such large numbers of ejaculates—their testes are about double the mass of those of the monogamous and congeneric Lapland Longspur.
Every nest contains chicks of mixed parentage — the same mother, various dads. Fathers choose a couple of females and try to insure that most of the chicks are their own.
Males do not defend territories, but instead guard [their] females by following them closely. [Males] compete for fertilizations by copulating frequently in order to dilute or displace sperm from other males.
When John James Audubon named Smith’s longspur for his friend Gideon B. Smith he was unaware that these birds had such an unusual social life. It took a long time for humans to figure it out, beginning with pioneering behavioral work in the 1960s and now DNA tests today.
Inside the calm exterior of a Smith’s longspur is a very promiscuous bird.
(credits: YouTube video by Jared Hughey for Heather Craig’s 2013 breeding study, photo of female Smith’s longspur from Wikimedia Commons, photo of male Smith’s longspur by Jared Hughey on Flickr. NOTE: I have been trying to reach Jared Hughey since 11 May 2019 via email, Facebook and Alaska NPS Twitter to confirm photo permission for his stillshot of the male Smith’s longspur. Perhaps he is out doing field work. When he contacts me I will remove his photo if he objects to its use.)
Alaska Birding with PIB: Denali Highway 16 June 2019
Today our birding tour travels 113 miles of the Denali Highway, the only direct route from Cantwell to Paxson, Alaska. In Pennsylvania the trip would take about 2 hours including birding stops. But not on this road!
For most of its 133-mile length the Denali Highway is a dusty gravel road with occasional washboard sections. Closed during the winter (October to mid-May) its recommended speed limit is 30 mph and services are scant. In other words, don’t expect a bathroom. 20 miles are paved but we won’t be driving on them. Our destination, the Tangle River Inn at Delta Junction, is where the pavement begins.
Highlights of the road include:
Great views of Denali mountain if it’s not clouded over,
The second highest highway pass in Alaska at MacLaren Summit, 4085 feet
The MacLaren River,
Fly fishing for grayling — we will see this but not do it
Moose, caribou, lots of wildlife, and …
Google predicts the trip will take 3 hours but we’ll be birding so I expect to be out there all day. Here are just a few of the birds we hope to see.
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)
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.
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.
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.
You can see the Aleutians’ white foreheads in flight.
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)
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.
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.
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 (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 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.
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!
(photos from Wikimedia Commons, click on the captions to see the originals)
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.
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 …
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.
Our travels will touch the places circled in red below.
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.
I’ll “see” you when I return to my computer on Tuesday morning, June 25.