Alaska 3 – Let’s fly with the birds!

Within moments of stepping outside our doors we hear and see birds, and it’s true anywhere in the world, in city or country, in deserts or jungles.  For me, birds represent a spirit of freedom and joy that lifts my soul and brings me to song.  They are the most mobile of all of the creatures on our planet – they can fly, in principle, to anywhere they please.

Presently we are surrounded by devastating wildfires, mass shootings, the dismantling of EPA policies, and regression to a time that attacks women’s health and reproductive rights as well as the civil rights and protection of transgender persons, immigrants, and those racially profiled. To face each day we need our souls uplifted and a joyous song in our heart.  Let’s fly with the birds!

Of the 10,000 species of birds in the world, my favorites are the puffin species found in Alaska.  Both Alaska’s Tufted Puffins and Horned Puffins are monomorphic; the male and female exhibit the same plumage coloration. I observed them recently at their breeding colonies in Alaska – on Duck Island, in Cook Inlet, and in Prince William Sound.

Puffins spend their entire lives at sea, coming ashore only to raise their young. They often gorge themselves on small fish to the point that they become too heavy to lift themselves from the ground. Both the male and female adults brood the egg. Upon hatching, both parents take turns providing the young chick with a steady diet of fish. When the puffin chicks fledge, they leave the nest at night in order to avoid predators, fluttering down to the water’s edge alone and heading for the open sea. They won’t return to land again for two to three years when they become breeding adults at the rookery.

A breeding pair of puffins puts its entire energy into just one egg. This strategy aims for a very high success rate, one that must consider annual changes in food availability. In studies conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the overall successful fledging of chicks for Tufted Puffins (above) is 65 percent and for Horned Puffins, 60 percent.

Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons prey on puffins. To protect themselves from airborne attack, puffins form distinct flight patterns between nesting areas and feeding areas, flying in large groups and in patterns that resemble a circling web, making it hard for a bird of prey to find and attack an individual.

The Inuit people of Alaska used puffin skins to make feather-lined parkas. Beak plates were collected and strung together to form rattles used by the shaman in rituals, and the Aleuts and the Inuits sewed beak plates for decoration on the outside of their garments.

The Horned Puffin is a beautiful bird that is always high on a birder’s spotting list. They have distinctive black backs, white undersides, yellow and red bills, orange feet and the flashy “horn” feathers that stand above their eyes. You’ll find them during the summer in colonies on the coastline and islands of Alaska after which they depart for the high seas where they spend the remainder of the year.

The Tufted Puffin also has white facial feathers and colorful beak plates, but a black body with the addition of two tufts of yellow feathers atop its head distinguishes this species. While both puffins stand 15 inches tall, the Tufted Puffin is heavier at an average of 1.7 pounds, and the Horned Puffin weighs in at an average of 1.4 pounds. The weight difference seems minimal, but for a bird that must beat its wings 400 times a minute to stay aloft, every ounce is crucial.  The swift flight of both puffin species makes it difficult to photograph them airborne.  But it is well worth the try.

Ready for relief? – let your soul soar (and swim) with the birds and you will find yourself joining in their joyous songs!

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