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Fauna Series No. 3







Faunal Position

Life Zones







Fauna of the National Parks — No. 3
Birds and Mammals of Mount McKinley National Park
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Charadrius semipalmatus [BONAPARTE]

GENERAL APPEARANCE.—A very small plover, similar to the killdeer but much smaller and having one, instead of two, black breast bands (fig. 26) It lacks the characteristic rust color of the killdeer's rump and tail. The legs and the base of the bill are warm yellow. The tip of the bill is black. The trim little body of this plover is white below and brownish-gray above. Length, 6.7 inches.

semipalmated plover
Figure 26.— The semipalmated plover has but one black neck band and is smaller than the killdeer.
Photograph taken June 2, 1926, Savage River. M. V. Z. No. 5079.

IDENTIFICATION.—The smaller size, single black breast band, and white forehead are sufficient to distinguish this species from all other wading birds which breed in the Mount McKinley district.

DISTRIBUTION.—It is distributed throughout North and South America. It breeds across the Arctic and sub-Arctic portions of North America. In McKinley Park these birds are common summer residents along the gravel bars which are so characteristic of the larger rivers of the region.

HABITS.—Semipalmated plovers were first noted by us on May 21, 1926; a pair engaged in an ardent courtship was noted along a thawing gravel bar on Savage River. On this date, deep snowbanks still lay in many places on the river bars. On June 2, we found two plover nests on open gravel bars within 30 yards of Savage River. Both nests were on dry ground where the rocks were small and so numerous as to cover most of the surface of the ground. One nest was located beside a small pile of driftwood, while the other was located right amid the bare rocks (fig. 27) with only a few rootlets and small bits of driftwood to cushion the eggs from the hard rocks upon which they lay.

nest of plover eggs
Figure 27.—This nest containing eggs of the semipalmated plover was found out in the open amid the bare rocks.
Photograph taken June 2, 1926, Savage River. M. V. Z. No. 5074.

At first we supposed that the bird on the nest and the one most concerned about the safety of the eggs must be the female, but close observation proved that it was the male bird. The sexes in this species are said to have similar plumage and to be alike in external appearance. However, we found that on the nesting ground the male can be distinguished at close range, for he has a wide black band across the upper portion of his forehead; although the female has a similar band, it is narrower and browner than her mate's.

The male was flushed from the nest and in three out of four observed instances it was the male that was incubating the eggs. In nearly every case the bird on the nest would leave it while we were still 50 or 60 yards distant, and we found it advisable to retire to a greater distance and watch binoculars, in order to locate the nest as the bird returned to resume the duties of incubation. When the male was flushed from the nest, in nearly every instance if we stayed near the nest he would return at once and, coming up to within 6 or 8 feet of us, would spread his wings and tail and crawl off along the ground as though badly injured. Sometimes he would lie flat on the ground and flap his wings as if in mortal agony. A plaintive cheeping accompanied this ruse, to attract our attention and to draw us away from the nest and eggs. If we remained stationary, he would crawl off a few feet and then look back over his shoulder to see if his ruse was successful. If we made any attempt to follow the bird, he would flutter along feebly until 50 or 60 yards distant from the nest. Then he would get up and run along until he had led us about 200 yards from it. Having thus decoyed us away, he would leave us behind and circle back to his nest. On June 6, when frightened from the nest, the male plover was very solicitous. Failing to decoy us away with his regular tactics, he circled around and ran by the nest to see if all was well, yet he never stopped near it, and he pretended not to see it at all.

On June 18, we found a pair of semipalmated plovers with a brood of 4 day-old downy chicks. Whenever we approached, the parents gave a warning cry to their chicks. Upon hearing this alarm note the youngsters, with one exception, crouched motionless and flat on the gravel with their heads and necks extended. Their gray fuzzy backs blended so well with the gray gravel upon which they lay that, as long as they remained motionless, we were able to find them only by the most diligent search. The one bold chick would not heed his father's command to hide, but kept running about along the water's edge picking up small insects and other bits of food. Even when we walked up to within 20 feet of him he made no attempt to hide but sought safety by running away. Seeing the danger that the chick was thus bringing upon himself, the father plover was almost beside himself with anxiety. When the young plover insisted on running about in spite of repeated warnings from his parent, his father flew directly at the chick, knocked it off its feet, rolling it over and over on the sand; then, when it refused to lie still, the parent pecked the unruly chick on the head until it stretched out its neck and remained still and motionless. However, this chick was a restless soul and would not stay quiet for more than a minute or two at a time. Soon, seeing no intimate threat of danger, he jumped up and started running about in search of food. The danger of such disobedience to his parent's warnings was better understood as we watched the numerous gulls and jaegers that were continually flying about over this territory, keeping a constant watch for such chicks, which they gobbled up whenever found.

This day-old plover chick was able to run about when he was only 12 hours out of the egg. When on land, the chick appeared to be largely feet and legs. Its feet were nearly as large as the feet of its parents and proved to be exceedingly useful, for by the aid of them the downy youngster was able to run tirelessly over the rough gravel as fast as a man could walk. In one instance we tried briskly to "walk" a day-old chick down and found that after 20 minutes the chick was still going much stronger than we were. The large feet also enabled this chick to walk over soft mud (fig. 28)—a bird with small feet would have gotten stuck in the mud. Then, too, we found that when he was cornered, he did not hesitate to strike out and swim boldly across a 10-foot channel of rough water. In the rough water the chick bobbed about like a cork but, with the aid of his large feet, he was able to swim against a fairly swift current.

nest of plover eggs
Figure 28.—The large feet of this semipalmated plover chick enable it to walk and run safely over soft mud.
Photograph taken June 18, 1926, Savage River. M. V. Z. No. 5088.

On July 9 we found a family of four half-grown semipalmated plovers on the Sanctuary River. These young plovers ran ahead of us along the river bar and were able to run and dodge with great adroitness, so that it was only with difficulty that we succeeded in capturing two of them. In the two specimens captured the natal down was replaced largely by the juvenile plumage.

We have been told by residents of the district that the plovers are among the earliest fall migrants to leave the McKinley region. The first arrivals from the south were noted at Wonder Lake by John and Paula Anderson, in the spring of 1929, on May 14. I found this plover just about as numerous in 1932 as in 1926. There appears to be little seasonal variation in this rather common species.

Pluvialis dominica fulva [GMELIN]

GENERAL APPEARANCE.—A typical wading bird about the size of a killdeer, but chunkier. In summer the throat, the chin, the top of the head and upper parts of the adults are black with a distinct white band extending across the forehead, and the back along the side of the head above the eye and down the side of the neck. The back is speckled with numerous fine spots of golden yellow. Length, 10.5 inches.

IDENTIFICATION.—The golden flecking on the upper parts distinguishes the golden plover from the black-bellied plover, which is the only other species of plover with black under parts in Alaska. The short black bill distinguishes it from other plovers of the McKinley region.

DISTRIBUTION.—It is distributed throughout North and South America. It breeds sparingly in the Mount McKinley region and along the Arctic Coast of Alaska. It was found by us at Copper Mountain on the Sanctuary-Savage River divide, and at Sable Pass.

HABITS.—On June 16, 1926, we encountered a pair of golden plovers on a barren gravel ridge near the summit of the Sanctuary-Savage River divide. They returned repeatedly to one locality, calling and showing great solicitude. The female of this pair was collected as a specimen and examination showed that she would have laid an egg within 5 or 6 days. Everything indicated that they would have nested right where we found them.

On July 11, we found two pairs of golden plovers in one of the mountain passes near Copper Mountain. One of these pairs of parent birds dragged over the tundra pretending to have broken wings; they gave every indication of having a brood of downy chicks nearby, but though we retired to a distance and watched with binoculars the chicks always eluded us.

On July 13, at Copper Mountain, a male golden plover kept up a continual outcry whenever we went near a certain patch of fireweed. It was obvious from his actions that there were young nearby but the parent was always on the alert and gave his offspring warning of our every move in their direction, thereby enabling them to hide even more surely and successfully.

At Sable Pass, on July 18, 1932, I found a pair of breeding golden plovers high up on a field of dry rocky tundra where, judging from their actions, the birds had small downy young hidden nearby.

We found about the same number of these plovers present in 1932 as were there in 1926, and we believe that the species is a rather rare though regular breeder in the McKinley region.

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