March 20 – Creeping into Spring

It is officially the first day of spring. Although the snow is indeed melting and skies are blue, we expect at least a few more snows and more cold weather. The Mallards are coming more frequently to our yard, sometimes in the broad daylight, which drives our dog crazy as he watches through the back window.

One sign of spring is the recent periodic appearances of two Hairy Woodpeckers in our yard, which have been absent since the summer.

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Also another apparent sign of spring was a pair of Brown Creepers talking and flitting from tree to tree at Spenard Crossing this morning. As usual they were difficult to photograph, but I did get a few shots.

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Another sign of spring was the increased numbers of Common Mergansers and Common Goldeneyes at Spenard Crossing, where the water was flowing briskly along in some large open areas that had very recently been covered with ice.

The pictures below are of Common Mergansers and Mallards there, the last one showing the arrival of one of the male mergansers from farther out on the water and his being greeted by two of the females.

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Finally is a picture of a Common Raven at Spenard Crossing. They usually seem to disappear when I point my camera at them, but this one was engrossed in getting across the ice to where the ducks were.

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March 17 – Non-green St. Patrick’s Day

Things are, as expected, very white here now. We’ve had a break from new snow, with melting, slush, messy muddy roads as some of our piled-up snow slowly sinks down, but more snow is expected tomorrow night, I understand. The birds around our house, as well as on the few local birding jaunts that I’ve recently taken, are also those that are expected. We wait for spring, but at least the daylight hours almost equal the nighttime hours.

Birds photographed around our house include Red-breasted Nuthatch and Downy Woodpecker.

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Probably due to the Northern Goshawk that was in our yard for a few days weeks ago, the Mallards from then until yesterday only came down before dawn and after dusk. So, no photos that weren’t dark. But yesterday, although they were very easily spooked, they came down when it was quite light out. As I typed this a large flock of Mallards was circling the yard gain trying to decided if it was safe. Not only do they have worries about the Goshawk, but of course, every now and then our dog is out in the yard, and he loves to chase ducks.

Places visited in Anchorage lately include Potter Marsh,

Spenard Crossing (birds in photos are Red-breasted Nuthatch, Mallards, Common Goldeneye),

Point Woronzoff,


and the Campbell Creek Estuary Natural Are, where there were beautiful mountain views across the inlet.

March 6 – McWonderful Nome

I only spent a day in Nome (March 5), and I only saw 3 bird species all day, but it was a great day. The trip started the late afternoon before that, and was a bit nerve-wracking, even though it was a beautiful clear day for the first half of the trip and we were able to get a view of distant mountains to the north and of Denali, partly obscured by clouds by the time the plane got close enough for me to get a picture.


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We flew to Nome via Kotzebue, which was almost invisible  in the foggy, blowing snow.

When the plane reached the Nome area, the visibility was even worse and the pilot came down quite a bit and then went back up and circled a couple of times, trying to see the airport. He told us that he would try to see the airport one more time approaching from the west, and if that didn’t work, we would have to go back to Anchorage. He apparently saw something as we got lower and lower, and decided to lower the wheels and wingflaps (I forget what they are called) for landing, but looking out the window I could not see anything until seconds before we landed. Even then everything was vague and blurry. There was much applause and cheering as we landed.

I stayed overnight at a wonderful airbnb, where I have stayed before, Remi’s – two friendly hosts and their cute pets:

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The next day had a bit more visibility, enough to see nearby birds anyway, although looking out to sea or across the land away from town all was white and frozen.

I drove to Round the Clock Road as it began to be light out, the traditional place to find my goal birds, McKay’s Buntings. Two residents there put out birdseed at the traditional site to find the buntings on the ground in the driveway near the road and another site with a platform feeder nestled in the few low trees near the end of the road (feeder of Jim Dory, who had posted his bunting sightings there on March 2, so I knew they were around this year, and whom I met as I did my bunting vigil). I added birdseed to the driveway site and periodically got out to try to remove newly fallen snow so the seeds could be found by the birds.

I spent the entire snowy day there sitting in my car waiting for buntings to show up, except for time spent returning in late midday to go to my room and then to go to an enjoyable visit with two new acquaintances, Pastor Charles Brower and his wife Janet, including discussion of the Poor People’s Campaign, a National Call for Moral Revival.

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As I said, birding was slow. It was a long morning, mostly birdless except for a few Common Ravens flying by and a very quick glimpse in mid-morning of four buntings, one of which seemed to be a McKay’s Bunting. It was not until early afternoon when more buntings appeared, a very welcome flock of about 25, about half and half McKay’s and Snow Buntings. They did not stay long and only came back once before I left for my nonbirding activities. Later in the day after a short drive along the frozen ocean, I returned to find a mixed flock of about 42 buntings flitting between the two feeding areas and disappearing across the fields and reappearing.

Although both species are mostly white, they generally can be distinguished by the McKay’s having a white or at least a whiter back, and much less black and brown on them elsewhere. Because the species hybridize, however, and because the plumages of winter birds can be very similar, especially in the females, not all birds are easily identified as to species. My pictures show birds in quite a variety of plumages.

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As I sat there, listening for buntings and then watching and photographing them when they finally appeared, I was curious to see if I could hear any difference in the sounds of the two species, as none of my apps had recordings of the sound of McKay’s. Mostly I could not tell which bird(s) were making sounds, however, except when I got a short video of two McKay’s Buntings on a power line, but I still could not tell whether their sounds were different from those of Snow Buntings. In the video the sound unfortunately are very faint.

The above still photos of the buntings do not at all reveal how jumpy and constantly in rapid motion they were as they fed on the seed, as can be seen from video below:

Most people that go to Nome to bird go there around early June, and rarely at other times except to chase particular rarities, such as the Pied Wheatear that came there last summer. People interested in adding McKay’s Buntings to their year-lists or life-lists go there in winter, one of the best places and times to find them, which is of course what I just did. I am also interested in finding out what birding is like there at other times of the year. I have more trips to Nome planned in early April, mid-May and early June, and will add later summer and fall trips after that. Like doing big years, this Nome exploration is for me mainly a way to have an excuse to go birding somewhere interesting that is not just around my home. Stay tuned to find out what my Nome-year is like.

March 3 – Ceremonial and Other Starts

First, before I talk about three different starts, are photos of a very fluffy Common Redpoll that has been around our yard lately, for at least a week. The fact that it is all puffed up, as well as being very tame, makes me think it is sick, but it seems to be hanging in there.

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I have a few pictures of the start of a full moon evening recently as the moon rose over mountains east of our house:

Most of this blog post is on the ceremonial start of the Iditarod in downtown Anchorage this morning. Tomorrow the real race, which I understand goes for about 1050 miles, begins north of Anchorage, ending in Nome on Anchorage’s west coast. While there are what I understand to be valid concerns associated with the race and about the dogs about dog treatment issues, it still is exciting to watch the action. The crowd was huge, much larger than when I went to last week’s Fur Rendezvous race. They are kept from the dogs by ropes on both sides of the downtown Anchorage track, and by vigilant police and other officials, but the officials and the official press are allowed much closer to the action.

You will see from these photos that there are multiple people and sometimes two sleds being towed by the dog teams (all teams seemed to have 12 dogs on today’s ceremonial start). The real race only has the one “musher”. Today’s extra people got to ride in the ceremonial start race only, some paying to do so, some winning raffles, some as part of a “make a wish”. In the real race, the single sled is piled high with provisions for the cross-country trek.”

The first two videos below are dogs waiting for the action to begin (teams go one-by-one, with dogs, sleds, handlers, mushers all waiting impatiently, spread out for blocks, the teams advancing slowly as the teams ahead of them reach the starting line and are given the signal by the announcer to take off).


The other thing starting soon is my Nome birding for the year. Tomorrow evening I will fly there for a one-day stop, aimed at seeing what birds are around at this time of the year, which hopefully will include McKay’s and Snow Buntings, but probably not much more. On the way back to Anchorage on Monday evening I probably won’t fly over the Iditarod dogs, which will probably be north of where we fly, and it will be dark so I wouldn’t see them anyway. But I’ll be thinking about the rigors, for both mushers and dogs, in this grueling race. I won’t be in Nome when they end the race, which I think takes at least about 8 days. But I’ll be back each month through the summer and into the fall, to see what the birding and the birds are like there as the year progresses.

February 27 – Snow, Birds, Caster

It really is winter now, if anyone had any doubts about it. Last night we got about 6 more inches of snow on top of the 3 or so we had yesterday, which was on top of what was already on the ground. Even while shoveling it, I admired its beauty.


The birds, of course, were starved, and have been regular at our various feeders. Lately, the Mallards come prior to dawn and after sunset only, probably due to being scared off by the Goshawk weeks ago, so I rarely can get photos of them. Photographs below are of: Bohemian Waxwings (they come to our yard to rest only; we don’t have any food they like), a Downy Woodpecker, Pine Grosbeaks (there were 13 around today for awhile, one of which landed in the piled-up snow on top of a bird feeder)), Common Redpolls, a Red-breasted Nuthatch, Steller’s Jay, and Black-billed Magpies.

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Caster also loves the snow, and particularly loves racing through it after a magpie, which drive him nuts by flying low over the yard, and barking at tiny redpolls high above his head in the birch trees.

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February 23 – Dog Days…

…not the normal meaning of the phrase, however. By “dog days” I mean what happens in Alaska every year, beginning often in Anchorage, in February and March – dog sled races. Today was day 1 of the Fur Rendezvous, which is a big annual celebration that is about much more than dogs, but it does have a dog race each of three days, starting downtown and wending its way out around the edge of town and back. Today, (there not being much bird activity) after living here for three years, I finally made it downtown to watch them start the races. It was a beautiful crisp sunny day.


Downtown, near the start of the race, the streets were closed off, trucks full of noisy dogs were parked up and down the snowy street, and people were wandering everywhere. Due to our recent snow, I expect they did not have to haul in snow onto the streets as is sometimes the case so that the dogs can haul the sleds. I was there about an hour early and wandered around looking at and listening to the dogs that sound very much like our husky-mix, Caster. The dogs were all leaner however, clearly fine-tuned machines.

As the noon hour start time approached, I found a sunny spot down the race-route a half a block away from the starting point, and watched the various teams approach, one-by-one. It was wonderful to watch them – I love dogs!





February 15 – Sharp Birding (back in Anchorage)

Yesterday I spent a few minutes between meetings checking to see if I could again see the Sharp-tailed Grouse that was the wonder of the Anchorage Christmas Bird Count in December. No luck. Later in the day, I took a few pictures of a very fluffy snowfall that eventually added a couple of inches to the yard.

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Today after lunch I was trying to keep our dog quiet so my husband could nap before heading off to his evening work-shift, and was periodically looking out over the yard.

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Suddenly I realized that there was a bird on the backyard feeders that was substantially bigger than the Common Redpolls and Pine Grosbeaks and smaller than the Black-billed Magpies that had just been there.

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It was a Sharp-shinned Hawk investigating the bird feeders, one by one. Of course there were no other birds around anymore. It was fascinating to watch the hawk carefully peer at each feeder and at the remaining seeds as if expecting something to emerge.

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The hawk went up to the nearest birch tree for awhile.

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The hawk next went down to the feeder below its perch and pecked at seeds from the feeder that hangs beneath a suet feeder, where I photographed it. Sadly, I was unable to get a photo as the hawk hovered next to the suet feeder before it returned to a birch-tree perch.

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For the next half hour, the Sharpie perched in the birch tree, looking around, and periodically preening. The only other bird that I saw in the yard during that time was a Red-breasted Nuthatch that briefly landed above the Sharpie and then raced away out of sight of me and the hawk.

After the hawk zoomed away to find a more productive site, about 40 Common Redpolls returned for a quick gobbling down of food before also leaving for parts unknown.

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I love the unexpected among the expected in birding!

February 7 – Not in Alaska

I’m back for a few days in Raleigh (where I lived from 1979-2000) for a Poor People’s Campaign training session, but I came early so I would have time to see some friends and some southern birds. I am staying with my friend, Lena, whose yard is a bird magnet. The pictures below were taken this morning in her yard, and include pictures of birds (and a couple of mammals) not generally, or ever, found in Alaska.

Shown below: Baltimore Oriole (Lena has over the years had up to 14 of them winter in her yard), Northern Cardinal, White-throated Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, Yellow-rumped Warbler (is in AK to breed, and sometimes to winter), Mourning Dove and Brown Thrasher.

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And the mammals in her yard: chipmunk and gray squirrel.

We drove east midday today to Tarboro where my friend Christina gave an excellent talk on gardening for birds with native plants (and where I, incidentally, sold 2 of my books). I also got to see, but not photograph, Turkey and Black Vultures on the drive there.

Tomorrow morning we will bird nearby, and then my training will begin.



January 31 – Mostly Caster, and A Few Birds

I probably should have done some research on huskies before we adopted Caster (a small part husky). I now know that huskies have a soft undercoat that sheds in an amazing number of fluffy clumps, after which the long hairs of the rough outer coat shed. That appears to be mostly over, for now. I also did not know that huskies, at least Caster, have unlimited energy, almost always wanting to play, eat, be attended to in some way. Caster also has an extremely piercing bark, which he is increasingly inclined to use, especially if there is another dog or a stranger or a bird in view, and he loves to nip and bite things. Sigh. He is a very loving dog, however, and we (probably) will keep him. Right now he goes to “reactive rover” training once a week. Oddly, at this training he is the model dog, doing exactly what he is supposed to do and mostly ignoring the other people and dogs. Time will tell on whether he will generalize this learning to his behavior at home. Following are a few more pictures that show he does sometimes rest between times of playing and running around, and a video that shows a bit of his playfulness with a new floppy squeaky toy.

In between hours of dealing with Caster I have spent a bit of time looking at our backyard birds. Pictures follow of one of four juncos that came briefly to our yard, a female Pine Grosbeak, and a couple of redpolls, one of which is much lighter in color:

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Also, a couple of pictures showing recent snow follow:



January 23 – Snow, Caster and a Few Birds

After days of cold and rather boring weather, we finally got snow, about 4 inches last night and this morning, enough to cover up all traces of our usual duck visitors. A couple more inches of snow are expected tonight and tomorrow, I believe.

Our husky-mix, Caster, was very interested in the new world of snow, nearly motionlessly taking in the sounds and smells. He would probably love to stay outside in the snow.

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The birds continue to be sporadic visitors. Shown are Pine Grosbeaks, Common Redpolls, and Red-breasted Nuthatches, which along with the Steller’s Jays and Black-billed Magpies, are the most common visitors.

Only rarely do we have Bohemian Waxwings stopping by in our yard, since we have no fruit trees.

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The hawks (Goshawk and Sharp-shinned) have not been seen in our yard lately, and the Mallards only come in the predawn and post-sunset darkness.