Puffins and Auklets and Murres, Oh My!

Horned Puffins, Tufted Puffins, Parakeet Auklets, and Common Murres are among the nesting seabirds on Round Island in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.

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The goal for our July 2009 trip to Round Island, located in Bristol Bay off the Alaskan mainland, was primarily to see hundreds of Pacific Walruses.  But Round Island has rocky headlands that are the nest sites of a quarter-million seabirds, so we enjoyed five days of wonderful birding at close range and with a soundtrack that always included the lyrical cries of Black-legged Kittiwakes and the beautiful notes of Golden-crowned Sparrows and Hermit Thrushes.  The only ducks we observed were nine Harlequin Ducks in the surf; we are more accustomed to seeing Harlequin Ducks on the fast rivers near our Olympic Peninsula home.

For this weblog entry, I will show you some of my favorite photographs of birds on the island.  I didn’t spend as much time photographing birds as I would have liked, because of several days of windy conditions and the constant distraction of photographing Walruses; however, I was thrilled with the photography I was able to do.

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Tufted Puffin at burrow entrance

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Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) in breeding plumage perched at the entrance to its burrow, located among tundra grasses on a cliff face within the Round Island State Game Sanctuary in Bristol Bay, Alaska.  The Tufted Puffins were secretive around their burrow entrances, and seemed to wait until we were looking away before silently entering the opening.

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Savannah Sparrow atop dried umbel

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Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) surveying its territory from atop a dried umbel of a Cow Parsnip or Angelica.  Savannah Sparrows were the most common songbird on the island; wherever we walked, they were constantly chipping from atop plants or rocks, and were gathering insects with which to feed their young.

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Horned Puffin in breeding plumage

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Horned Puffin (Fratercula corniculata) in breeding plumage perched at edge of breeding colony.  The Horned Puffins perched on exposed rocks on the cliff faces, often several together.  This puffin was sitting about 100 feet from where we pitched our tent, so whenever lighting conditions were good, we would quietly approach the cliff to see if birds were present.  The puffins allowed us to sit on an overlook and photograph, perhaps 35 feet from them.

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Horned Puffins motion picture

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Horned Puffins in flight, heading back to their burrows after a fishing trip off Round Island.  At this point the puffins did not appear to have young, because we never observed any carrying fish.

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Horned Puffin in breeding plumage

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Horned Puffin in breeding plumage stretching and fluffing its wings while perched at the edge of a cliff on Round Island.

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Horned Puffin in breeding plumage

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Bright reddish-orange feet and wonderful faces characterize this species.

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Landscape of Round Island

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The grassy headlands and rocky cliffs of Round Island provide good habitat for a variety of songbirds and seabirds. There are no bears or wolves on the island, which is located some 40 miles from the mainland.  Here the major predators on nesting birds are Red Foxes and Common Ravens.

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.Pelagic Cormorants in breeding plumage

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Pelagic Cormorants (Phalacrocorax urile) in breeding plumage resting, showing metallic iridescence when the sun was coming from directly behind us.

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Pelagic Cormorants with chicks

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Pelagic Cormorants on nests with young, perched on the vertical cliff faces of Round Island.

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Common Murre (Uria aalge) with blue eggs on seaside cliff.  During the half-hour or so that we observed this ledge, the adult left the ledge and both eggs were snatched by a marauding Common Raven.  Staff member Stephanie Sell mentioned that this location had been particularly susceptible to Raven raids, and that many eggs had been lost to predation.

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Common Raven Panting

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Common Raven (Corvus corax) panting to reduce heat stress on a hot day, when temperatures rose to about 80°F (and the temperature inside our tent at 10:00 p.m. was about 110°! ).  Ravens nested on Round Island, and we watched a cliffside nest with four young that were nearly ready to fledge.

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.Egg raided by Common Raven

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A seabird egg probably taken by a Common Raven (we’re not sure of the egg species).  We also observed a Raven carrying a bloody carcass of a small bird, probably a nestling, that it subsequently buried by piling pebbles and wildflowers atop it, creating a cache for later use.

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.Common Raven feather

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Closeup of a molted Common Raven feather.

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Parakeet Auklet (Aethia psittacula) perched on a rock just above the sea.  Often, half-a-dozen auklets gathered on the same rock and chattered noisily.

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Headlands and treeless tundra on Round Island, Alaska

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Tundra grasses on steep hillsides were a better habitat for humans than birds, but we did see Savannah Sparrows there.  In a willow thicket, Hermit Thrushes sang and nested.

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Round Island headquarters building

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Atop the sanctuary office building, Golden-crowned Sparrows sang their sorrowful descending notes that reminded me of “Three Blind Mice.”  This is as close as I got (the sparrow is on the roofline on the right side).  Note the steel cables that hold down the building during hurricane-force winds.

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You can read other descriptions of our Round Island adventures at:

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Experiencing the Walruses of Round Island, Alaska

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I am the Walrus

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4th of July in an Eskimo Village

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website


February 2, 2009 Stories of Life on a Ragged Old Maple

Eagles, cormorants, ospreys, falcons, and woodpeckers all make use of an old Bigleaf Maple tree on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

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We awoke two days ago to dense fog over Fawn Lake. When we looked out the windows at dawn, there was a Bald Eagle perched atop the old and ragged Bigleaf Maple tree that sits along the waterfront. This tree has been just hanging on to life for the 18+ years we have lived on this little Olympic Peninsula lake, 2009_wa_23491and we desperately hope that it continues to live, because it provides so much benefit to the birds of Fawn Lake. Some of the major limbs are dead and the branches drip with mosses and lichens. Windstorms and eagles thrusting off have broken branches, and woodpeckers have excavated here and there, lending the tree a rough appearance that is anything but graceful. Yet the birds love it–and thus so do we.

During the summer of 1993, a pair of Ospreys roosted virtually every night on one of the high horizontal branches of the maple. They flew in at deepest dusk, then perched side-by-side like lovers and spent the night on their high roost. At the break of dawn, they flew off to

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go fishing. They often brought trout back to the tree for a leisurely midday meal. We really missed the Ospreys when they migrated that autumn.

Bald Eagles often land on the maple, because the bare branches at the top lend a panoramic view of the lake. When the eagle visited several days ago, it was apparently waiting for the fog to clear, and stayed several hours. At first, the eagle faced our house, where there was lively songbird activity at the feeders we maintain. The eagle appeared to take a lively interest in the small birds, moving its head when the birds suddenly flew. Later, when the lake started to clear, the eagle turned around on its perch to face the lake, then actively watched the Hooded Mergansers and Ring-necked Ducks as they courted and fed. The eagle reminded me of a cat watching the comings and goings at a bird feeder with intense interest. As the fog nearly cleared, the eagle took off.

A little over a decade ago, I installed a Wood Duck nest box and a Swallow box on the lower reaches of the tree. Actually, the installation taxed my strength and agility on a tall ladder, but I managed to get it done without breaking my neck. I don’t recall if we hosted any nesting ducks that spring, but we did have a Western Screech-owl take up residency in the nest box for a night, and I was able to photograph it at close range as it stuck only its sleepy face out of the entrance.

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That spring or the next, Violet-green Swallows nested in their designated box. I was really excited by the new family, and when I saw a Raccoon sticking its arm into the nest box in the dark and fishing around for the young, I reacted as if I was nature’s arbiter of what was fair and good, and shouted and threw stones at the Raccoon. The Raccoon 155801retreated, but I saw that it had a swallow sideways in its mouth, looking like a feathery mustache. After that, I installed a predator guard, using a piece of slick aluminum to wrap the tree at about my head height. About the same time, I also wrapped the base of a nearby cherry tree to prevent the Beavers from gnawing it down. With the predator guard, the Raccoon problems ceased, though Douglas Squirrels and Northern Flying Squirrels still have the run of the tree.

Black-capped Chickadees, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, and Yellow-rumped Warblers are among the songbirds that feed on insects tucked here and there on the tree. Probing the tree’s depths are Pileated Woodpeckers and Red-breasted152091Sapsuckers. On occasion in recent years, I have taken to yelling at a Pileated Woodpecker that hammers too long on the upper trunk, because I know it wouldn’t take much for the tree to weaken and lose one of its major limbs, which would harm the habitat of all the others birds that use the tree. It’s sacrilegious, I know, to scare away a Pileated, but sometimes it is just so rewarding to play God.

As the years went by, we began watching Hooded Mergansers and Wood Ducks 188581competing for the nest box, so I set up a second nest box on the opposite side of the tree. Then I installed an infrared camera in one nest box so that we could watch the lives of the ducks on live reality television. It was magical! That spring of 2007 we watched the nest box cam for hours at a time, and were finally rewarded by the hatching and fledging of a mixed family of young Hooded Mergansers and Wood Ducks leaping out of the nest box to the lake below. [I will recap this whole story in a blog entry soon to come]. We have now been hosting mostly Hooded Mergansers for years, and each year we see more of these beautiful ducks during the winter. There are also more Wood Ducks coming each spring, and they are simply beautiful in low morning sunshine as they perch on the mossy limbs of the tree. Some of the Wood Ducks even come to our platform feeder on the deck to nibble on sunflower seeds. We never thought we would have a duck coming to the feeder–especially an elegant Wood Duck! 

The latest birds to use the tree are Double-Crested Cormorants. There are some tall firs and cedars on a nearby lot that have been used each winter for resting and night roosting by a loose colony of cormorants that spend the day fishing the lake.
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Those trees seem to have an overpopulation problem, so several weeks ago a juvenile cormorant came and perched on the maple, and ended up staying all night. It became possessive, and after a sword fight with sharp bills, chased away a Great Blue Heron that took a liking to the cormorant’s favored branch. Soon more cormorants joined it, and we had four or five spending the night. I decided I had enough cormorants, and began harassing them so that we would not

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end up with a tree filled with cormorants–and breaking all the remaining delicate branches. My harassment campaign is not going so well; for the most part, the cormorants ignore me unless I walk directly under the tree and start waving my arms and yelling. Shouldering the task of balancing nature is such a heavy burden!

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Recently a juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk flew up to the highest limb after an unsuccessful raid on our feeders. It perched for about two hours, actively watching the comings and goings at the feeders without making an attack.2009_wa_21651Perhaps it was planning a future raid, or maybe it just wasn’t hungry. We watched it grooming and stretching and reaching up with a yellow leg and needle-sharp talons to scratch its head. Then it flew off across the lake with a fresh mission on its mind.

And the beat of life goes on …

 

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

NEW: To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

Click on the photographs in the gallery below for versions with captions.