Alaska; Nome Birds #2

Please consider all images as copyrighted – thank you. Contact me for use… DEClapp

Much of Alaska is wet. I’ve said that before but it bears repeating.

Some of the wetness is coastal; tidal creeks and rivers, salt marshes and mud flats, and beaches and the salt water edge. But, much of the water is found inland; there are tens of thousands of ponds and lakes and tens of thousands of square miles of wet tundra, bog, and fen. This means that millions of ducks, swans, and geese return to Alaska (and northern Canada and Siberia) each year for nesting. There are also birds that we associate with the ocean that use Alaska’s hinterlands for breeding but feed on mammals and other inland creatures while in breeding mode. That includes all three species of jaeger.

The ducks and geese have long been a food source for native Alaskans, and remain so today. In Eskimo villages eggs are still collected and some of the these birds are taken throughout the year. Generally the hunting laws of the nation are followed quite closely in Alaska but there are always a few people that have the right or the need to harvest animals to prepare for the long bleak winter.

Geese are big and robust and in far northwestern Alaska are represented by several types; Greater White-fronted, Canada, Cackling, Brant, Emperor, and an occasional Snow goose. As for swans there are Tundra, Trumpeter, and the rare Whooper. In most of the eastern United States the only swan you can count on seeing is the introduced Mute Swan along the mid-Atlantic shore and a very occasional Trumpeter, usually in the Great Lakes region. As these are mostly long-distance migrants they are also known in the lower forty-eight states for the occasional bird or two that wanders off the normal route and then entertains birders for a while. On the east coast of North America this can happen with European swans and geese as well. The western birds probably pass along the northern boundary of Canada while the European birds hop from Europe to Iceland to Greenland to the Canadian maritime provinces and so on.

Tundra Swans are the most common in the Nome area and they often appear in small to medium-sized flocks. The small patch of yellow on the bill near the eye is usual, but not specific, to Tundra Swans. We saw them mostly along the coast using the inland lagoons along barrier beaches.

The ducks in Alaska are profuse and quite varied. The freshwater ducks are from all over the North American continent. Nesting success is so important that species will fly hundreds and even thousands of miles to a place where they can be sure that the young have a solid chance of surviving. It seems that no matter where you live in the USA there will be some ducks present, but not as many types or with populations as you will see on the Alaskan breeding grounds. There are a few ducks that are found widespread throughout Alaska but lacking out on the Seward Peninsula. It must be just too far for some species, or they have enough space in other locations for breeding success.

For instance on the freshwater side there are Northern Shovelers, Mallards, Gadwall, Blue-winged Teal, Canvasback, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, and Lesser Scaup nesting in Alaska but these ducks are rarely seen out on the Seward Peninsula. Even the sea ducks don’t all make it out here; three of the eider ducks (King, Spectacled, Steller’s) are Alaskan breeders but are not often on the peninsula in the spring and summer; only the Common Eider is well, common. The same can be said for Surf and White-winged Scoters, Bufflehead, Common and Barrow’s Goldeneye, and the widespread Common Merganser – these species would be unlikely and unusual out here.

But many of the ducks that do breed here do so in good numbers. Ducks in breeding plumage are usually quite attractive. For people from the eastern half of the lower forty-eight there are few ducks that can be observed nesting: Mallard, Black, and Wood perhaps. In the more elevated and more loosely populated west there are a few more. But in Alaska many of the species are only seen in breeding plumage and acting out breeding scenarios. They arrive, mate, breed, fatten up again, and leave.

For many generations the Long-tailed Duck would be seen in huge noisy groups on the coastal waters in the winter. They often gathered together prior to migration as well and were always chatting amongst themselves. This earned them the name “Oldsquaw;” a name used for generations but now replaced by the more descriptive (and politically correct) Long-tailed Duck. The original name was one of many that referred to the noises made by groups of this species or perhaps to the pale spot on the head (“old”). Whatever prompted its name doesn’t matter too much –  it is a beautiful bird of Alaska’s scattered ponds.
AK Nome harlequin duck
The Harlequin Duck is a common bird of the rivers that drain the mountains and the extensive tundra of the Seward Peninsula. It is always a kick to see Harlequin Ducks and Wandering Tattlers ( a Tringa shorebird) along the stony edges of a cold Alaskan stream. The duck has a redundant taxonomical name, Histrionicus histrionicus, probably referring to the rather dazzling feather pattern of the male; like an actor with lots of make-up.
AK Nome american widgeon
The American Wigeon is very widespread in North America. Canadians and Americans can all get a look at this bird with relative ease. This species nests pretty much throughout Canada and is a widespread wintering bird in the continental USA. It was called “Baldpate” by early market gunners with reference to the pale coloring on the top of the head.
AK Nome long tailed jaeger
I am including the Long-tailed Jaeger in this group not because they are a duck or a goose or a swan; but because we associate them with water – excepting during breeding season. Most North American birders see the jaegers (Long-tailed, Pomarine, Parasitic) as migrants following the terns southward migration along both Pacific and Atlantic coastlines in the late summer and fall and stealing from them along the way. (Nothing tastes as good as a purloined Sand Lance or Capelin.) In the Nome area we saw one or two Parasitic Jaegers but the Long-tailed Jaeger, like the one above, was by far the most common. They nest on the tundra in the open and the creamy-white body (belly) can be seen a mile away.

There will be another (maybe two) pages on the birds of Nome –  land birds will likely require two pages – stay tuned.        Thanks

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