Saturday, September 14, 2019 Exit Glacier

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 7:24 am, sunset 8:25 pm for a total day length of 13 hours even. Tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 24 seconds shorter.

Gorgeous, sunny day today with a high of 62 and overnight low of 44. The brisk north wind did not bring significant smoke. Yay! Possible heavy rain forecast for Sunday; Monday partly sunny, then showers likely for the rest of the week.

I had barely emerged from the car at the Exit Glacier parking lot when I heard SANDHILL CRANES bugling high over the mountains. I scrambled to get my camera and binoculars out. Just in time! Over 150 Cranes gathered overhead reconnoitering their route, then continued south in a beautiful arc. 

Exit Glacier beckoned; the early afternoon light ignited turquoise crevasses amidst dark, pulverized mountain-dust medial moraine stripes. Surprisingly, cottonwoods still held on to their brittle yellowed leaves even after recent stormy weather. It won’t be long before this lovely backdrop succumbs to the winds.

Near the end of the spur trail that chases the retreating glacier, I sat on a warm, glacially-striated rock to enjoy the fine scenery and rare day. After a time, I noticed hundreds of minute white parachutes blown by the katabatic breeze like snow flurries. More, and hundreds more. Had they actually been snow, everyone would have noticed. But they were stealth, zipping along in plain view unnoticed and overshadowed by the grandeur of the nearby glacier.

I could almost hear their tiny voices, “Wheeeeee!” as the liberated seeds flew far from their mothers’ arms into the wide world. Who says plants can’t move? I managed to pounce on a few that momentarily landed nearby and inspected them with wonder. Dozens of delicate white filaments sprouting from the top of the elongated, tan seed easily transported their precious cargo, powered by the wind. 

I scanned the surrounding glacier-scoured landscape with my binocs for the mother fireweeds, expecting a veritable blizzard erupting from the source, but I found none. Maybe they were just out of sight, but who knows how far these seeds had already flown?

Back on the main trail in the valley, I did see Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium) and Dwarf Fireweed (Chamerion latifolium) seeds flying from rain-battered plants and almost heard their cheers for the sunny day and wind that set them free. Could be a mix of both species migrating like the cranes, just not quite as loud or as far. Pretty good for a seed!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Wednesday, September 11, 2019 Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop

By sheer luck and a last-minute schedule adjustment, I managed to squeeze in two fabulous trips to Spencer Glacier via the Glacier Discovery Train. Rain sandwiched the September 4 trip; hard rain and wind, remnants of two typhoons, chased the September 11 trip. 

Prior to catching the train, I checked out Portage Lake. Bus passengers crowded the M/V Ptarmigan deck as she circled a low blue berg before sailing off to see Portage Glacier hidden around the corner. Clouds hung low and mist spattered. I was happy to return to blue skies at Portage.

Suddenly, the joyous bugling of cranes caught my ears. I quickly looked up to see several skeins of SANDHILL CRANES overhead, my first of the fall. So thrilling!  Then I boarded the train for the short trip to the Whistle Stop.

Spencer Glacier experienced considerable calving this summer during the hot sunny weather. Towering ice bergs packed the southwest end, temporarily grounded, waiting for their inevitable journey down the Placer River. Bergie bits in fanciful shapes dotted the calm shallow water, doubled by their reflections. Even though the glacier has receded dramatically, it is still very impressive and beautiful. 

Gold, yellow, and red fall colors provided a spectacular background for the blue ice. A closer look revealed a lot of dead trees and premature colors also due to the severe and unusual summer drought. 

A USFS engineer was inspecting the amazing 280’ Placer River Trail Bridge, the longest clear span, glue laminate, timber truss bridge in North America.

From the USFS link: The pedestrian bridge was completed in 2013 at a cost of $1.67 million. It is designed to withstand wind gusts up to 120 mph, 200# per square inch of snow load, flooding potential, and high seismic events. The bridge has 20 feet of clearance, designed to allow ice bergs to freely pass underneath during periods flooding. Quite a challenging and dynamic environment!

The deck panels, posts, cap rail and horizontal rail elements are made of Alaska Yellow Cedar glulam. No preservative is needed on these areas due to the decay-resistant nature of the wood, but they are now gray. The truss members and rest of the bridge are preservative-treated Douglas Fir glulam. I could smell the creosote, though not as strongly as in previous years.

The plan is to connect the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop with the Grandview Whistle Stop with 30 miles of trails, cabins, and campsites. For now, however, that ambitious trail peters out shortly beyond the bridge, overgrown with alders, willows and fireweed. I noticed a lot of moose tracks, including young ones, and turned around, not interested in surprising their owners.

I saw very few birds on my trips. The water levels all though the wetlands around Portage were very low and the rivers seem very low. A small flock of MALLARDS preened on a exposed mud bar. Two TRUMPETER SWANS graced a pond in Placer River Valley. At the whistle stop I saw a few DARK-EYED JUNCOS and heard COMMON REDPOLLS. On the way back, however, in the Portage Valley wetlands near the railroad tracks, we spotted a flock of Sandhill Cranes feeding.

Despite this summer’s extremes of heat, drought, wildfires, and flooding, the resilient Cranes bring hope, joy, life, and inspiration in the face of adversity and dramatic change, just like Spencer Glacier.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Sunday, September 8, 2019 Salmon-eating Swans

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 7:10 am, sunset 8:43 pm for a total day length of 13 hours and 33 minutes. Tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 24 seconds shorter.

High today in the low 60s, low in the mid 40s. Continuing rain in the forecast for the next 10 days, making up for the drought this summer. It won’t resurrect the dead trees, shrubs, and forbs, but half-dead plants seem to be reviving. Rain is the color green!

I tuned into the continual Nature show at the Lagoon this afternoon. Eight splendid adult TRUMPETER SWANS napped at north end. I assume six are last year’s resident cygnets, now 15 months old, plus two extras, also possibly older residents. 

A surprise adult GREAT BLUE HERON, normally so shy and secretive, fished in the nearby water and walked among them. Two DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANTS dove for fish in deeper water. A DIPPER sailed past heading for the culvert and feeder creek. Pink salmon and one very old king salmon splashed, spawned, and swam up the creeks.

After a time, the Swans began preening and stretching. Suddenly, three RIVER OTTERS rolled into view and stirred up everyone. They bounced up onto shore, displacing the Great Blue Heron who flew up and landed behind them. The Swans, alert now, watched warily. The Otters instantly evaluated the risk of the eight powerful bills and 16 strong wings, and wisely flowed back into the water, disappearing as quickly as they came.

Wide-awake, some of the Swans slowly and majestically waded into the water. I was amazed to watch one Swan reach down and repeatedly pull up a salmon carcass, grabbing bits of the loose skin and soft flesh before it sank again. Several times, it grabbed enough of the salmon to shake it vigorously, bits flying, then resumed eating. 

Two, then three Swans paddled up the little creek, long necks looping down, sucking up salmon eggs like vacuum cleaners. A Mallard loitered behind, gobbling down more salmon eggs. Live salmon swam past, intent on completing their mission of spawning, their bounty and bodies unintentionally providing nourishment for many food webs.

The two outlier Swans paddled off. After more stretching, preening, and egg gobbling, the six followed, leaving the Great Blue Heron in peace. I looked forward to watching it fish, but suddenly it took off, cleared the highway, aiming for the head of the bay.

I know the show continued with many variations and cameos and I hated to leave my favorite channel, but my time was up.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter
Seward, Alaska