Posts Tagged ‘Hoary Redpoll’

Our days in Alaska were going quickly and it was soon time for the last segment of the trip – Barrow, the northernmost city in the US.  Barrow is about 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle and roughly 1,300 miles south of the North Pole.  As you might expect, it was cold, and windy too, so we were often chilly even in our warmest winter wear.  Barrow is small with a population of about 4,400; approximately 61 percent are Iñupiat Eskimo.  Like Nome, no roads connect it to any other city in Alaska.

Anchorage to Barrow

Anchorage to Barrow

Our flight from Anchorage on June 25 arrived in the early afternoon and we checked into the Airport Inn hotel.  We started seeing birds before we even got on the bus to go birding.  A Snowy Owl was perched on a tall pole just down the street from the hotel.  Snow Buntings were nesting in a box attached to the side of the house across the street.  We learned that these nest boxes are common because Snow Buntings are thought to bring good luck.

To the Top of the World

Our main targets in Barrow were eiders (sea ducks) with all four of the world’s eider species breeding there.  For many birders, Spectacled Eider is the holy grail of waterfowl.  And, we did see them, although we had only distant scope views.  I did not get a photo, but here is Cindy Shults’ postcard.  More about Cindy later in this story.

Spectacled Eiders

Spectacled Eiders

The most beautiful duck turned out to be Steller’s Eider and we did get good looks at several pair of this species.

Steller's Eiders

Steller’s Eiders

On all of Bill Drummond’s trips, he has everyone vote for their top five birds using whatever criteria they choose.  Steller’s Eider was voted the top bird for our Alaska trip with Spectacled Eider coming in second.

We also saw our first Red Phalaropes of the trip, life birds for me.  Just like the Red-necked Phalaropes that we saw earlier in the trip, the females are more brightly colored than the males.

Red Phalarope

Red Phalarope

After seeing our target birds on the first day, we were free to just enjoy Barrow and more birds for the next day and a half.  During the days leading up to Barrow, trip co-leader Dave Hursh had enthusiastically talked about the booming of Pectoral Sandpipers and how special it would be to hear it.  I didn’t anticipate that it would be all that special.  But I loved the call when I heard it.  I failed to get a recording, but I found a good description of the call in the September 1898 issue of the periodical “Birds and All Nature.”

“The note is deep, hollow, and resonant, but at the same time liquid and musical, and may be represented by a repetition of the syllables too-u, too-u, too-u, too-u, too-u.”  The full text of this short article can be found here Pectoral Sandpiper.

Pectoral Sandpiper

Pectoral Sandpiper

Another bird that I really enjoyed seeing in Barrow was Long-billed Dowitcher.  While most of the others were scoping distant birds on the water, I enjoyed some quality time with the phalaropes and this bird.  I had never seen a Long-billed Dowitcher at such close range and I usually see dowitchers in winter plumage rather than breeding plumage.  Additionally, there was no chance of mistaken identification because the very similar Short-billed Dowitcher does not range as far north as Barrow.

Long-billed Dowitcher

Long-billed Dowitcher

The Barrow community is traditionally known as Ukpeagvik, “place where snowy owls are hunted.”  This words on this sign surprised me a little, but it was a stark reminder of the challenges of life in the far north.  Everyone is just trying to find enough food to survive.

Where we hunt Snowy Owls

I enjoyed more quality time with a few special birds again on our second day.  In Barrow, these birds were as common as robins and chickadees are at home, but I had no idea when or if I would ever see them again.  The two birds below were seen from a long boardwalk out over the tundra along with a Semipalmated Sandpiper on her nest and a female Pectoral Sandpiper.

Lapland Longspur (female)

Lapland Longspur (female)

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting

A sea watch was the plan for our last morning and I almost didn’t go thinking that all the birds would be out so far that I couldn’t see them.  But, this morning turned out to be a wonderful end to our stay in Barrow.  On our way to the ocean we stumbled into Cindy Shults’ yard, the only one that we saw in Barrow with bird feeders.  The yard itself was interesting and we enjoyed the birds including several Hoary Redpolls, a just fledged Snow Bunting, and an unexpected Pine Siskin, which is rare that far north.

Hoary Redpoll

Hoary Redpoll

Cindy came out to talk with us and we thoroughly enjoyed meeting her and talking about life in Barrow.  Cindy is a freelance photographer who owns Windows to the World Photography.  She was also the manager of the Barrow Job Center until recently when the job center was closed.

Cindy Shults

Cindy Shults in her yard

After visiting with Cindy and her birds, we tore ourselves away and went to watch for sea birds.  That turned out to be more fun than I’d expected.  I did see birds and I learned how to identify White-winged Scoter and Black Guillemot at a great distance.  We also had fun talking with a young man who had recently graduated from high school.  We think that his friends dared him to come talk to us, but he seemed genuinely interested in what we were doing.  He was very personable and smart and he shared his dreams of going to college elsewhere and then returning to Barrow.

Soon, it was time to catch our plane back to Anchorage. We packed up and said goodbye to our new friends, Andrew and Nancy, managers of the Airport Inn.  They hope to buy the hotel and we joked about how it would help business if we returned in February and brought friends with us.

Andrew and Nancy in the Airport Inn breakfast room with their daughter, Ellie

Andrew and Nancy in the Airport Inn breakfast room with their daughter, Ellie

Dave Hursh had left the night before with a few members of our group for Dutch Harbor.  Once the rest of us arrived back in Anchorage, everyone would go different directions, most heading home.  But, my adventure in Alaska was not yet over.  My friend, Diane, would fly from Minneapolis to meet me at the Anchorage airport and we would spend a week on the Kenai Peninsula.  That story is next – Alaska 2015: Bird Nest Habitat

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Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl hunting in the Superior National Forest. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

The Great Gray Owl was actively hunting in a bog in the Superior National Forest as we watched it from the side of Minnesota Highway 2 north of Two Harbors.  It sat in the tops of trees surveying the ground below in the early morning light.  Every couple of minutes the owl  flew to a different tree, always alert, but not seeming to care that we were watching.  The fifteen minutes that we stood there in the serene beauty of the north woods was a wonderful start to the five-day trip.  This owl was not in a known location, but Erik had found it simply by knowing the habitat and carefully watching.  The Great Gray Owl is the tallest North American owl with a height of 24 to 33 inches.  It has the largest wingspan of five feet, but it is just a big ball of fluff.  It preys mostly on rodents with its small feet and talons.  Both Great Horned and Snowy owls weigh half again as much and have larger feet and talons allowing them to capture lager prey.

Our group of birders

Our group of birders – Gary Ludi, Shelley Rutkin, Myrna Harris

Myrna Harris and I had flown to Minnesota the day before where we met our guide, Erik Bruhnke, and Gary Ludi from Atlanta, for the Partnership for International Birding trip.  On the first day, we birded a little in Minneapolis and then headed north where we saw the first owls of the trip, two Snowies at the Superior airport in Wisconsin.  We learned that it was definitely not an irruption year, but that owls were actually rather scarce.  Still, we could not stop ourselves from teasing Erik that we expected an owl every day.

After our Great Gray Owl flew deeper into the woods and out of sight, we continued north.  There were long stretches without any birds at all, but the ones that we did find were the northern specialties that had motivated us to travel to northern Minnesota in January when sane people were heading south.

Myrna - warming up in Isabella

Myrna – warming up in Isabella. The temp outside was -9 degrees F.

In Grand Marais, we found a flock of Red Crossbills and Common Redpolls with one Hoary Redpoll and one White-winged Crossbill.  Four finch species in one binocular view!  An even more exciting find was a flock of about 30 Bohemian Waxwings.

Bohemian Waxwings

Bohemian Waxwings. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

They were close enough to see well with our naked eyes, but with bins and scopes we could see every feather. These are BIG birds! Bohemian Waxwings are only one inch longer than Cedar Waxwings, but they weigh almost twice as much (56 grams vs. 32 grams). Their breasts and bellies are gray rather than the gorgeous bronze of Cedar Waxwings, but their classic waxwing head and face, intricate markings on the wings, and Rufous undertail coverts make them just as beautiful.

Bohemian Waxwings

Bohemian Waxwings eating snow. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Day three of the trip was spent entirely in Sax Zim Bog.

Sax Zim Bog

Sax Zim Bog

I recorded only 21 species that day, but three of them were lifers.  Our owl for the day was an extremely cooperative Northern Hawk Owl who allowed us excellent looks.

Northern Hawk Owl.  Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Northern Hawk Owl. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

A common bird in the bog, but exciting for me was Ruffed Grouse – seven of them!  This grouse was close to becoming a nemesis bird, but I can now claim it as a lifer.  Most of them were adeptly clambering around in the tops of shrubs or trees, foraging on buds.  We also had a wonderful view of a Sharp-tailed Grouse.

Sharp-tailed Grouse.  Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Sharp-tailed Grouse. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

One of my favorite new birds is Pine Grosbeak – big, lovely, easy to identify, and very cooperative.


Male PineGrosbeak. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Boreal Chickadee

Boreal Chickadee – an adorable Minnesota specialty. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Next it was time to look for gulls.  But first we wanted one more look at a Snowy Owl, so we headed back to the Superior airport early on our fourth day.  This time we found a Snowy perched in the top of a tree.  This is not common behavior for a Snowy, but it allowed us to get the scope on it for a quality view.  Crows harassed the poor bird and we could see the Snowy hiss at them.

Snowy Owl.  Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Snowy Owl being harassed by American Crows. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Satisfied, with our Owl encounter of the day, we headed to the Superior landfill and Wisconsin Point to look for gulls.  We found only Herring Gulls and fly-over Glaucous Gulls.  But back at Canal Park in Duluth, we walked to the water’s edge and discovered a beautiful Iceland Gull right in front of us.  This is the kind of gull that makes gull watching fun.  Erik also found a Thayer’s Gull, another lifer for Gary, Myrna, and me.

Iceland Gull.  Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Iceland Gull. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

We celebrated our life gulls with one last visit to Sax Zim Bog where we found Redpolls everywhere, including five Hoaries.  We also saw Pine Grosbeaks, two Northern Shrikes, and other bog birds including Bald Eagles, which we saw four of our five days in Minnesota.

Black-capped Chickadee and Hoary Redpoll

A Black-capped Chickadee checks out a Hoary Redpoll. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Common Redpolls

Common Redpolls were the most numerous feeder visitor. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Red Squirrel

Minnesota’s Red Squirrels were much cuter than our Gray Squirrels at home.

The last day of our trip came all too quickly, but we had seen most of the expected birds.  The Boreal Owl just wasn’t meant to be for this trip.  Ironically, they started showing up as soon as we returned home.  So, our main target for the drive back to Minneapolis was Rough-legged Hawk.  We finally found a distant dark morph Rough-legged Hawk at Crex Meadows in Wisconsin.  The distance was too great to see detailed field marks, but we could see the characteristic hovering behavior.  The Rough-legged Hawk is one of only two large raptors that hover regularly when hunting.  The other large raptor that hovers is the Osprey.  Although the bird was not close, it was exciting to see the special hunting behavior that makes it unique.  On that last day, our owl for the day was this beautiful Barred Owl.

Barred Owl.  Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Barred Owl. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

We boarded our plane for home with happy memories of winter in Minnesota and dreams of returning in the warmth of spring.  This trip was January 16-20, 2013.  Partnership for International Birding sponsored the trip and Erik Bruhnke of Naturally Avian was our guide.  Many thanks for Erik for a wonderful trip and for granting permission to use his beautiful photos in this post.

Erik and Shelley - trying to stay warm!

Erik and Shelley – trying to stay warm!

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