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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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Stercorarius longicaudus [VIEILLOT]

GENERAL APPEARANCE.—A predaceous, black and white, gull-like bird, with a hooked bill, sharp claws, and webbed feet. Length, including the long, slender central tail feathers, 21 inches.

IDENTIFICATION.—In flight the long central tail feathers form the best identification mark for this species. When perched on the tundra the white breast of this bird is visible at a considerable distance.

DISTRIBUTION.—It breeds in the Arctic regions of Europe, Asia, and America. It is usually found during the nesting season in the neighborhood of wet or marshy tundra. In McKinley Park, it was noted by us nesting on the divide between the Savage and Sanctuary Rivers and in Polychrome Pass, and it was also seen in Sable Pass.

HABITS.—Two pairs of these jaegers were found nesting on June 16, 1926, in the Sanctuary Divide. In each instance the incubating bird was seen at several hundred yards distance, owing to the conspicuous white breast of the bird and to the exposed position of the nest. The latter was merely a slight depression wallowed out in the tundra moss in a dry, slightly elevated spot. In each case, there was but a single well-incubated egg in the nest. In a known instance the bird which was the most fearless in defense of the nest and which incubated the eggs proved, when secured for a specimen, to be the male.

The long-tailed jaeger is the most graceful flier among all of the birds in the McKinley district. Even when the breeze is very slight, these birds are able to soar about with the greatest ease. The long flexible tips of the wings are maneuvered to stabilize flight and to take advantage of slight changes in air currents.

In every instance where we found jaegers breeding in McKinley Park, we found one or more pairs of Hudsonian curlews living and foraging in the same wet meadows with them. Insofar as we could discover, there were no complications arising from these two species of birds living so closely together. This seems the more remarkable since jaegers are notorious robbers and live largely, during the summer, on the eggs and nestlings of other birds. However, it is our belief, after extended observations on the breeding grounds, that the jaeger-curlew company is a mutually protective association, the curlews acting as watchmen and the jaegers as patrolmen to evict robbers.

On June 30, 1932, a nest containing two eggs of this species was found at Sable Pass. There being no fabricated nest, the eggs were deposited in a slight depression. The earliest arrival in spring reached Wonder Lake on May 21, 1929. Our observations show that this species breeds regularly in the McKinley region.

Larus argentatus smithsonianus [COUES]

GENERAL APPEARANCE.—A large swimming bird with flesh-colored webbed feet, a pearl-gray back, and pure white head and under parts. Length, 24 inches.

IDENTIFICATION.—Characters which distinguish this species of gull from all other gulls in the McKinley region are the large size, the flesh-colored, instead of yellow, feet, and the suffused red spot on the lower half of the bill.

DISTRIBUTION.—It breeds in the interior of Alaska and Canada. In McKinley Park, herring gulls breed on islets in the larger ponds and smaller lakes. They were noted by us at Savage River, Highway Pass, and Copper Mountain.

HABITS.—These large gulls reach the McKinley district early in the season. First arrivals were noted by Mr. and Mrs. John E. Anderson, at Wonder Lake, at 11:30 a. m. on May 9, 1927, and at 2 p. m. on May 8, 1929. In 1926 we first noted herring gulls at Savage River on June 1, when an adult female was collected. Dissection showed that this female had laid her set of eggs. Well-marked incubation patches were present on the lower breast of this specimen. This species does not nest on the open gravel bars along the rivers, as does the smaller short-billed gull. A pair of herring gulls was encountered in Highway Pass on July 11, and from their actions they evidently had a nest on an islet in the middle of a large pond, where it was safe from most predators. These large gulls were never numerous, three being the largest number encountered in any one day. At Copper Mountain near Muldrow Glacier, on July 13, 1926, we found many meadow mice were being drowned out of their homes in willow thickets because of the changing course of a stream. A pair of herring gulls flew back and forth continuously over this flooded area. They were searching for meadow mice and nestling birds that were being left homeless by the swiftly changing stream.

A few scattered pairs of large herring gulls nest annually in the McKinley region, but we never found them present in flocks of 20, as was the case with the smaller short-billed gull.

Larus canus brachyrhynchus [RICHARDSON]

GENERAL APPEARANCE.—Similar in color to the herring gull, but much smaller in size. The bill is yellow without spots or rings. The feet and legs are yellowish-green. Length, 17.5 inches.

IDENTIFICATION.—The smaller size and greenish-yellow, instead of flesh-colored, feet, distinguish this species from the large herring gull, which is the only other gull commonly found in the McKinley region.

DISTRIBUTION.—It is found chiefly along the larger streams which afford extensive gravel bars suitable for nest sites. It was noted by us at Savage River, on the East Fork of Toklat River, and at Copper Mountain.

HABITS.—Short-billed gulls were just arriving when we reached the Savage River on May 19. Three gulls of this species were seen flying singly, low to the ground against a strong north wind. These earliest arrivals were apparently in migration, since they did not stop but kept on going northward. During the last week of May, six of these gulls took up quarters along the gravel bars of the river near our camp. The number of "mew" gulls increased until June 5, when 16 were present. After this date the number again dropped to three pairs which remained and bred on the open gravel bars of the river.

On bright days these gulls spent much time bathing in the icy water and sunning themselves on the gravel bars. Mornings and evenings they were often to be seen perched together in groups, watching for mice in the meadows near the stream. The meadow mice live in colonies and have many burrows running along just beneath the brown moss. The gulls wait at the openings of such burrows until the half-grown mice, which are not wise, come along, furnishing the gulls' breakfasts or dinners. It was a striking sight to see the dark green meadows dotted with the white-headed gulls, that stood like statues, for hours at a time, waiting for some unwary mouse to appear. At that season of the year, food was at its lowest ebb and the gulls appeared to realize that it would take less energy, with more certain returns, to stand and wait for mice, than to fly about and hunt for food far and wide.

Later in the season, when summer visitant birds began to nest, the short-billed gulls were seen daily hunting for ptarmigan and other eggs. On such forays the gulls would start out in the morning, three or four flying together in close formation, just over the tops of the low willow and dwarf birch bushes. They, maintained a sharp lookout, with heads cocked sidewise eyeing the ground 4 or 5 feet beneath them. When they located a ptarmigan nest, they would string out in single file. The leading gull would swoop down menacingly upon the hen ptarmigan as she sat on her nest. The first bird would be followed quickly by the second gull and the third. Even if the female ptarmigan were not driven entirely off her nest, she was likely to shift her position on it. Then the gulls would be quick to seize and carry off any eggs that might be momentarily uncovered. Many eggs or nestlings, and sometimes the entire contents of the nest, would be destroyed thus by these gulls.

On June 11, a "mew" gull's nest was found out on an open gravel bar where the river broke up into several interlacing channels. This nest was relatively small, being well and firmly built of dead rootlets and plant fiber compactly built together. It was placed amid several small piles of driftwood which it closely resembled. Another nest, containing two eggs (fig. 38), was discovered on June 18. The nest was placed out in plain sight amid small piles of driftwood on an open gravel bar in the river. It was made of small sticks and rootlets, and it measured 12 inches in length and in breadth outside. The inner cavity of the nest measured 5 by 7 inches. The nest cavity was 2 inches deep. We found, by watching with binoculars, that when a man appeared on the horizon the female gull on the nest would stretch up her neck in alarm and then would sneak off her nest while the intruder was yet a long way off. At other times, if a person walked slowly by the nest at a distance, the gull would merely crouch down on her nest, keep her neck near the ground, and remain motionless, thus trying to escape notice.

short-billed gull
Figure 38.—A short-billed gull on her nest.
Photograph taken June 18, 1926. M. V. Z. No. 5001.

At Copper Mountain, on July 12, a downy young gull about one-fourth grown was found swimming about on a small lake. This downy youngster hid in the grass at our approach and was tenderly watched over by one parent. The other parent gull was found dead, floating in the lake. The surviving parent was observed to pursue and drive away a short-eared owl, and even golden eagles and gyrfalcons, that came near this lake which sheltered the young gull.

The first spring arrival was noted at Wonder Lake on May 9, 1927, and on May 8, 1929. Our observations showed that this is one of the common breeding birds of the McKinley region.

Sterna paradisaea [BRUNNICH]

GENERAL APPEARANCE.—A small gull-like bird, grayish above and white beneath, with webbed feet, forked tail, and a black cap on the top of its head. Length, 15.5 inches.

IDENTIFICATION.—Because of their habits and lightness of action when on the wing, the terns are aptly called sea swallows. The Arctic tern may be distinguished from the common tern by an all red bill and deeper grayish suffusion over the breast and under parts. The feet and legs of the Arctic tern are very small and weak.

DISTRIBUTION.—It breeds in the Arctic regions of North America and winters as far south as the Antarctic continent, making the longest annual migration of any known bird. It was noted by us along the McKinley River.

HABITS.—Mr. and Mrs. John E. Anderson reported the first arrival of the Arctic tern at Wonder Lake at 3 p. m. on May 13, 1927.

Our only contact with this species was on the headwaters of the McKinley River below Muldrow Glacier. At McKinley River bar, three terns were seen by us on July 17, 1926. At Copper Mountain I watched a pair of terns as they flew about over a pond on the tundra, but the birds eluded me when I tried to collect one as a specimen. However, in 1932, an adult female was collected on May 23, near Windy. A few pairs of this species breed regularly in the McKinley region.

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