Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Puffins! A little history

Horned Puffin 

When Russ and I were in Alaska, if I’d been limited to seeing and photographing just one species of bird, I’d have picked the Horned Puffin—one of the most treasured birds on my life list yet one of the few that I’d never photographed. Indeed, before this trip I’d seen only one in my life, at the northern end of Alaska’s Inside Passage in 2001. I was also hoping for good Tufted Puffin photos—I’d seen lots of them on that Inside Passage trip, and also on a couple of pelagic boat trips off California and once from a fishing boat out of Newport, Oregon, but had very few photos, hardly any of them good. 

Tufted Puffin

Oddly enough, I have over a thousand photos of Atlantic Puffins from boat trips off the Maine coast, including hundreds of excellent close-ups from a couple of hours in an observation blind on Machias Seal Island during my Big Year in 2013.   

Atlantic Puffin

In all the world, there are only three species of puffins. They belong to the genus Fratercula, a word that comes from Medieval Latin for friar or monk. Some believe the generic name was given because flying puffins draw their feet together as if in prayer, but the predominant theory is that their black-and-white plumage reminded someone of the monastic robes worn by friars. Either way, I find it bewildering that anyone would think of a somber-garbed, celibate monk when naming birds with such extraordinarily jolly and colorful faces who mate right out there in open water and on their colonial nesting grounds in full view of other seabirds and ornithologists. Two common nicknames, the “clown of the sea” and “sea parrot,” could have provided more understandable roots for puffins' genus name.  

Atlantic Puffin

It’s true that only adults wear this spectacular plumage, and only during the few months of the year that they’re courting and nesting; their faces grow much duskier, they shed the large, colorful plate at the base of the bill, and the bright orange bill tip, legs, and feet grow duller after they leave the breeding islands for the open ocean when their young no longer need them. 

Young Tufted Puffin
Immature Tufted Puffin. Non-breeding adults are a little brighter, but not much.

But puffins, especially Atlantic and Horned Puffins, are seldom seen except during that short breeding season. The rest of the year they are too dispersed and too far out at sea for much observation. The people who first named them were much more familiar with breeding than non-breeding adults, so you'd think they'd have chosen something more apt.

Atlantic Puffin

I like to pretend that the English word puffin, which sounds like "puffy," reflects the birds’ adorable plumpness, but it has a much more sinister derivation. An unrelated seabird, the Manx Shearwater, holds the scientific name Puffinus puffinus, which comes from Middle English for the delicious, fatty meat of the defenseless nestlings, which for centuries were snatched out of their burrows by the thousands in Ireland, Scotland, the Scottish islands, and the Isle of Man. Puffins were given their vernacular name because their nestlings are equally plump and defenseless. Fortunately, Iceland is the only country in the world where puffins are still legally hunted.  

Atlantic Puffin

The only puffin found on the Atlantic is, appropriately, called the Atlantic Puffin. The two on the Pacific are the Horned and Tufted Puffins. Some taxonomists believe that Tufted Puffins are more closely related to Rhinoceros Auklets than to the other two puffins.

Rhinoceros Auklet
Rhinoceros Auklet

These ornithologists place Tufted Puffins in a monotypic genus, Lunda, but the American Ornithological Society is still keeping Tufted Puffins in Fratercula.

Audubon painted all three puffins in his Birds of America, but he saw just one species in life, the Atlantic Puffin, during his 1833 journey to Labrador. 

He used specimens from Britain’s acclaimed ornithologist John Gould to paint his Horned Puffins in 1834 or 1835. 

He wrote of his Tufted Puffin painting that a hunter had shot his specimen at the mouth of the Kennebec River in Maine in the winter of 1831-32. 


Scientists have long questioned the accuracy of that claim, but this year a Tufted Puffin turned up in a few spots in Maine, making Audubon’s account more believable.

Next time I'll cover the unique adaptations that make puffins so wonderfully distinctive. 

Saturday, August 13, 2022

August: the month of tiny treasures

Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding in bee balm

Every year as March folds into April and winter feels more and more endless, I start yearning for hummingbirds. Usually I’m sufficiently realistic, or resigned, to leave my hummingbird feeders packed away until May, but this year I jumped the gun in April because of the Rufous Hummingbird that turned up in my yard last November and remained until December 4. But like every one of the years I’ve lived here, not a single April hummer turned up, and my first Ruby-throat of the year appeared right on schedule, on May 10. 

As thrilled as I am to see the first hummingbird, a whole lot of other birds appear at that exact same time every spring. Warblers, vireos, orioles, tanagers, and a host of other new arrivals divert my attention. I can count on daily hummingbirds through the rest of May into September, and of course I’m delighted to see each one—how could I not be? But I'm afraid I take them pretty much in stride. 

Well, I take them in stride up until August. By then, both local adult males and migrating ones from further north are everywhere, along with increasing numbers of local fledglings growing independent, and suddenly the air around feeders and hummingbird gardens is electric with hummingbird activity. At the exact same time, bee balm and jewelweed are in full bloom, both depending on this huge wave of hummingbirds for pollination. August is the month to photograph hummingbirds up here, when so many are visiting these colorful flowers.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding in bee balm

This year, I’m spending just about every weekday babysitting another tiny treasure, my grandson Walter. His birthday is in August, which has thus evolved into both my month of hummingbirds and my month of Walter magic. The previous owner of Walter's house planted a wonderful stand of bee balm in the front yard. It's on the west side of the house, so it’s shaded all morning but comes into ideal light for photography right at Walter’s nap time. That’s where I’ve been spending my time while Walter is asleep.


Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding in bee balm
Notice the tiny flecks of pollen on this bird's head and the base of the bill.

Hummingbirds are extraordinarily territorial. One adult female has claimed ownership over every one of those bee balm plants and goes ballistic whenever another hummingbird shows up. When not feeding there or somewhere in the backyard, she perches in a birch tree where she can make sure no other hummingbirds dare visit. 

Ruby-throated Hummingbird resting in birch

Unfortunately, she does not approve of paparazzi, so if I don’t already have my camera up and my eye behind it when she arrives in the bee balm, the moment I move into position to take a photo, off she goes. 

I do have some nice photos of her from when I’m ready and don't have to move when she flies in, and I have some even better photos of a second hummingbird who doesn’t seem to care at all if I’m moving about right near her. Unfortunately, I don’t have too many photos of her because she gets driven off the moment the other female notices, so I can only photograph her during the first female's brief forays to the backyard. And even more unfortunately, I can’t tell the two birds apart in the photos except when the "owner" is in the birch tree—it’s only their behavior in reaction to me and my camera that distinguishes them in the bee balm.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird at bee balm

Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding in bee balm

Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding in bee balm 

I haven’t seen any adult males at the bee balm. I’ve watched male Ruby-throats take on birds as large as Bald Eagles, but they’re intimidated by the slightly larger females. So I haven’t had a chance to get any photos of a male at Walter's bee balm, and soon those adult males will be gone for the year. (Young birds and adult females stick around weeks longer.)

Walter and Chuckie Chickadee

Walter has seen hummingbirds hovering at the window where the house’s previous owner used to have a feeder. He’s SO delighted to see these sprites, even tinier than the chickadees he loves so much. Walter's most thrilling encounter with hummingbirds was last week when he came to our house for dinner. He and I were on the front porch when a female flew to my feeder, a few feet from us. Walter has an adorable habit of waving and saying “hi” to animals, and he said "hi" over and over to this tiny creature who hovered, wings buzzing, and looked straight at him. A palpable magic filled the air between this tiny bird’s sparkling eyes and those of my entranced little grandson. (My son-in-law made a recording of Walter saying "hi" last week, and I mixed it with buzzing hummingbirds to make this approximation of the audio.)

Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding in bee balm

There is so much magic that deserves nurturing and preserving on this Earth we all share. Why is it so easy to forget and to take this incredible planet for granted?

Discovering milkweed

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Alaska, Part 11: Winding Down and the End of the Road

Moose cow and twin calves

On June 23, the day after our final full day of birding in Alaska (that amazing boat trip through some of Kenai Fjords National Park) our group spent a few hours birding in Seward before driving back to Anchorage. We started out at a wetlands where we said goodbye to Trumpeter Swans, Wilson's Snipe, and Short-billed and Glaucous-winged Gulls. 

Wilson's Snipe

We stopped by the feeder where we’d seen sooty Fox Sparrows and a very uncooperative Rufous Hummingbird two days before. We saw the sparrows again, but this time the hummingbird was even less cooperative. We were still missing a few species like Pacific Wren, so we walked through a lovely wooded neighborhood. No luck on the wren, but we did see another Townsend’s Warbler...

Townsend's Warbler

... added Brown Creeper and Pine Grosbeak for the trip, and watched an extremely cooperative mother moose with twin calves. 

Moose cow and twin calves

Moose cow and twin calves

We also stopped where we’d seen the American Dipper on the 21st. Despite very poor lighting, we were close enough that I got my best dipper photos ever. 

American Dipper

American Dipper

We went back to the hotel to pack everything, stopped for lunch, and got on the road again, making few stops en route to Anchorage. We had time for showers and some packing before our last dinner and checklist compilation together. One member of our group flew home that night. Our guides and most of our group were flying out first thing in the morning, but Russ and I would be lingering to take an evening flight. 

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That gave us plenty of time for leisurely birding on the 24th. After breakfast, we took a nice little path behind the hotel that Erik Bruhnke had told us about. We didn’t see anything new but watched a singing Alder Flycatcher and Orange-crowned Warbler...

Alder Flycatcher

Orange-crowned Warbler

...and more of the ubiquitous White-crowned Sparrows. 

White-crowned Sparrow

We also came upon a Black-billed Magpie in stunning plumage. I had excellent light and clicked photo after photo before realizing the poor thing was missing almost its entire upper bill. It looked like either a congenital deformity or an old injury. 

Black-billed Magpie

Black-billed Magpie

I watched it capturing some insects on the ground using its tongue to compensate for the missing bill. I don’t know how it was managing to keep its feathers in such pristine order, but I presume its tongue played a role in that, too. I felt sad but also filled with admiration for the plucky bird who was playing the hand it was given so well. 

Black-billed Magpie

We got back to the room and showered, packed up, checked out, and put our luggage back in the hotel’s storage room one last time, and then headed back out for a last visit to Lake Hood. We got more lovely looks at the same water birds we’d seen the day before our tour officially began.

Red-necked Grebe

Greater Scaup

Since we had plenty of time before our evening flight, we got to explore a little further along the lake, taking us to a line of docks people use to get in and out of small seaplanes. That’s where we saw a bird we’d missed first time around there, a Red-throated Loon swimming close to shore. 

Red-throated Loon

Red-throated Loon

It didn’t seem to mind as we approached closer and closer. Finally we reached the dock nearest to the bird and I started walking on it, so focused, literally, on the bird, my eye firmly against my camera’s viewfinder, that I had no clue what was happening when the ground dropped out from under me—the dock I was walking on had a step! I crashed on my knee and hand and as my camera hit the dock, its lens hood popped off into the water. Oops. 

If you’re going to get injured while on a wonderful trip, it’s probably best to wait until the very last day to do it. Russ and I were about to head back to the hotel anyway to eat lunch and lounge around before it was time to take the shuttle to the airport. Taking a big fall while photographing a stunningly beautiful bird was jarring, but I must be more monomaniacal than even I realized, because as I pulled myself up, there was the Red-throated Loon at a perfect angle, and I resumed clicking away on my knees. My camera was working just fine without the lens hood. 

Red-throated Loon

Poor Russ is not monomaniacal about anything, except maybe me—when I finally looked up at him instead of down at the bird, he looked utterly stricken. I was still clicking away while he fished my lens hood out of the water and asked how bad I was hurt. I could still take pictures, so clearly was not at death’s door. When the loon finally swam on to where shrubs blocked my view, Russ helped me to my feet. My knee looked pretty bad, though it didn’t hurt much to stand or to walk. But pulling up my pants leg to see it, I could feel that I’d injured my finger, too. Fortunately, it was on my left hand. Unfortunately, it was my ring finger, and I didn’t think through how I should have instantly taken my wedding ring off. That didn't occur to me until we were back at the hotel and the finger was the color and shape of a sausage. It took a good 20 minutes of icing it and painful twisting and turning to get the ring off. 

I’m on blood thinners, so I would've headed to the emergency room immediately had I hit my head. But the injuries to my knee and finger seemed manageable. We parked ourselves at a table in the hotel lobby to eat lunch and work on our laptops. I backed up all that day’s photos and started writing blog posts while Russ did some actual work. My finger looked way worse than it felt. I could type just fine, and my knee didn’t hurt while I was sitting or walking. 

Russ and I waited to take the shuttle to the airport in the lobby. The glass of ice next to my computer is where I soaked my poor finger after falling at Lake Hood.

The rest of the day was uneventful. The hotel shuttle got us to the airport in plenty of time, and we found a nice quiet spot to wait before boarding. When we got on the plane, a flight attendant brought me some ice for my finger, and then I fell asleep. We arrived in Minneapolis early in the morning and in Duluth at midmorning. Our great Alaska adventure was at an end. 

My knee and entire leg below it were dark purple for over a week, and took a few more weeks to go through that weird rainbow of discoloration before it went back to normal. And my finger is still a bit too swollen to get my wedding ring on. My doctor was much more concerned about my falling at all than about the minor knee or finger injuries, but I reassured him that the fall wasn’t an old lady fall—it was a crazy bird photographer fall. 

Two weeks ago, when my knee still hurt when I knelt and my finger still ached when I tied my shoes, Russ asked if those last loon photos had been worth it. The best Red-throated Loon photos I’d ever taken before this trip were at a very great distance in winter plumage. 

Red-throated Loon

Then I got some decent shots of them on the Nome leg of this trip...

Red-throated Loon on nest

Red-throated Loon

... but nothing like these final closeups. If my injuries had been serious enough to make birding or playing with my grandson harder, I’d say no, it wasn’t worth it. But even right after it happened, the injuries were not serious and now are completely behind me. My camera didn't suffer even a glitch and the lens hood cleaned up good as new. And all those photos are right there to enjoy whenever I like for the rest of my life. I may be crazy, but yep. It was worth it. 

Red-throated Loon

Monday, August 1, 2022

Alaska, Part 10: A Fantastic Boat Trip into Kenai Fjords National Park

The glacer!

At the end of a delicious and satisfying meal, what is tastier than dessert? The more filling and satisfying the meal, the smaller the dessert can be and still be perfect. Two weeks in Alaska was pretty darn satisfying, so I’d have been perfectly content with a sweet but light final day of birding, but somehow our last full day turned out to be the sweetest, richest, best dessert possible. 

Our group was signed up for an all-day boat trip into Kenai Fjords National Park and the Alaska Maritimes National Wildlife Refuge on June 22. We took the 9-hour trip aboard the Orca Song that goes all the way through the narrow Northwestern Fjord to the Northwestern Glacier (starred on the map). 

On the boat trip, I added the only lifer I could have reasonably expected to see after our Nome adventure, met my goal of getting halfway decent photos of both species of Western puffins, and had the most splendid experiences with whales and orcas I’d ever imagined.

Orca

This day and the day we went up the Kougarok Road out of Nome to see the Bristle-thighed Curlew were the two days of the entire tour when we had to prepare for worst-case scenarios. Our hike up the dome for the curlew is usually long and arduous, involving negotiating a mile or more of trudging through tundra tussocks once we reach the top of the muddy dome, so we had to wear sturdy boots with ankle support and be physically prepared for what I was calling a “death march.” And on this boat trip, we’d be facing the coldest conditions of the entire two weeks, with no protection from wind and potentially a lot of wave action. Our leaders would be staying at the bow for the entire day, and strongly advised us to stay up there with them unless we needed to warm up or go inside the cabin to eat or drink. We were warned to take something for seasickness if that could be a problem, and also that waves usually wash onto the deck, making it slippery as well as unsteady. Much of my focus while preparing for this trip was on selecting appropriate clothing for this one day. 

But oddly enough, just like that curlew “death march,” the anticipation of rugged conditions on this boat trip far exceeded the actual event. When we left the port in Seward, the sky was clear, there was no wind, and the water was shockingly still. Improbably, it stayed like that the entire day! I know that professional guides tend to make every experience sound like one of the best the guide has ever experienced—I’ve seen this often enough to use my own judgment about how rare or exciting anything on a guided tour is—but such cooperative conditions every inch of the way really were unusual. 

Kenai Fjords

As with the Denali National Park bus tour, almost every participant except those in our group was there for glaciers, spectacular scenery, and mammals, not birds. Our guides made sure that the captain and naturalist knew which birds we wanted to see, and they brought us to a few wonderful seabird nesting cliffs and pointed out good birds wherever possible, so we had superb birding in addition to getting to see all those glaciers, spectacular scenery, and mammals, which were thrilling even for a monomaniacal birder like me. 

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In order to be sure that all of us would get places on the bow, we arrived at the harbor nice and early to be at the head of the boarding line. The wait was pleasant, and once we got going, we were barely out an hour before we came upon humpback whales “bubble-net feeding.” 

Humpback Whale bubble feeding

Humpback whales don’t eat during the half of the year that they’re breeding and giving birth in warm tropical and subtropical waters—they live off their fat reserves. That means that while they’re in their cold feeding waters the other half of the year, they must make up for lost time. Humpbacks are one of the few whales that engage in surface-feeding behaviors, and are especially famous for this bubble-net feeding. One whale exhales out its blowhole at a gathering of prey. Then other whales join in, blowing bubbles as they circle the prey, forming a circular “bubble net” which can be 10 to 100 feet in diameter. Then one whale makes a feeding sound and all the whales simultaneously swim up with their mouths open. 

Humpback Whale bubble feeding

Their mouths may be huge, but their throat is tiny—just grapefruit size—and humpback whales have baleen, not teeth, so they cannot rip large fish into manageable bits. So they focus on krill and small schooling fish such as herring and juvenile salmon. They have long throat grooves from the top of their chin all the way down to the navel, allowing the mouth to expand to take in as many trapped fish as possible along with up to 15,000 gallons of sea water, which will stream out through the baleen as the fish go down the hatch. Bubble-net feeding works—humpback whales manage to take in from 2 to 2 ½ tons of food every day. It was thrilling to witness this for the first time in my life. 

Humpback Whale bubble feeding

As compelling as the whales are, a lot of birders on boat trips get sick of watching them instead of birds. Fortunately, our group seemed happy to stay put watching these wondrous mammals performing this fascinating behavior, and even if they weren’t happy whale-watching, dozens of Glaucous-winged Gulls were swimming nearby and flying just above the whales, hoping to capitalize on so much prey at the surface. Lots of other seabirds, such as Pigeon Guillemots... 

Pigeon Guillemot

...Common Murres...

Common Murres

...and both puffins were milling about. 

Horned and Tufted Puffins

Vessels are prohibited from approaching close to whales, and also from staying within whale-watching distance beyond a strict time limit, so eventually we moved on. We spent part of the time gliding past the steep cliffs rising above the narrow paths of water that define fjords. Those cliffs are about as inaccessible to mammalian predators as can be, which is exactly why so many seabirds nest on them. I was thrilled to get to photographs of nesting Glaucous-winged Gulls and Black-legged Kittiwakes…

Glaucous-winged Gulls and Black-legged Kittiwakes

…and Common and Thick-billed Murres.

Common and Thick-billed Murres

We saw plenty of Pelagic Cormorants. 

Pelagic Cormorant

I even got a glimpse, and a poor photo, of a Red-faced Cormorant on the nest with murres and kittiwakes. 

Nesting Black-legged Kittiwakes, Red-faced Cormorant, and Common Murres

We missed Kittliz’s Murrelet, a seabird I’d have loved to see though it wouldn’t have been a lifer. But I got fine looks and even photos at the one seabird I most desperately wanted to see and photograph—my lifer Parakeet Auklet. 

Parakeet Auklet

Parakeet Auklet

I’d been hoping against hope to get halfway decent photos of Tufted and Horned Puffins. This trip exceeded my hopes, giving me nice photos of both species in the water…

Tufted Puffin and Glaucous-winged Gull

Horned Puffin

…and on the nesting cliffs. 

Tufted Puffin

Horned Puffin

The splendid birding was matched, and perhaps even surpassed, by gorgeous scenery, thrillingly noisy calving glaciers, and mammals. Harbor seals swam in the water and rested on chunks of ice.

Harbor Seal

Steller’s sea lions lounged about on rocky shores. 

Steller's Sea Lion

Sea otters are too shy to pose for tourists but I did grab a couple of grainy distant photos. 

Sea Otter

We also saw mountain goats on one rocky cliff. 

Mountain Goat

Right after we’d watched a huge glacier calving event, one of the crew members pulled a big chunk of that glacier ice out of the water, which they used to prepare delicious margaritas. 

Glacial ice!

The margarita made with the glacial ice

Naturally I had one, which may have contributed an extra glow of appreciation when a pod of orcas showed up and gave me some of my favorite photos of the entire Alaskan adventure. 

Orca

Orca

That night at our celebratory dinner, I had a lovely blueberry mojito. This was the only day of the entire tour that I had even one drink, and that second one perhaps is why I was too tired to sit around the restaurant waiting for dessert, so Russ and I headed back to the hotel before the rest of the group. They all got great looks at six northern river otters playing on the dock right outside the window. I’m not sure the most delicious cocktail in the world was worth the price of missing that, but I wasn’t bummed out when I heard—nothing short of missing a high-resolution video of a family of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers could have cast even a tiny shadow over my memories of a perfect day. 

Blueberry mojito