Sunday, September 17, 2017 Cranes, and Swan Drama

Seward, Alaska

Saturday evening I rushed out to the head of the bay in response to a hot tip about SANDHILL CRANES. Apparently the storm had forced them down for the night. When I found them, the majority were busily feeding while a few stood guard, watching vigilantly for any sign of trouble. There was none, so I enjoyed the scene and quietly moved on.

These are the first Cranes I’ve seen in Seward this year. Other lucky people reported a 1000 cranes flying overhead on Monday and hundreds on Saturday. I’m always sorry to miss that grand sight and sound.

Today, I went back to see if they were still here. But the storm had passed and the Cranes took advantage of the calm, partly cloudy conditions to move on.

A MERLIN flashed overhead and landed on a driftwood log. SAVANNAH SPARROWS scattered ahead of me, and two chunky birds, Snipe? Dowitchers? flew up and back down into the sedges too quick to identify.

Five regal TRUMPETER SWANS floated serenely in the pond, two adults and three cygnets. They must be the resident Nash Road family, out to see the neighborhood. I had heard the cygnets were flying, but this was the first time I’d seen evidence.

I glimpsed three more adults through the vegetation surrounding a small pond a short distance away. I wondered if they were Daddy’s Girl and her parents. If so, that could make her a sibling of one of the new parents, and her parents the grandparents of the cygnets. Maybe. I also wondered if these eight swans would be tolerant now that the nesting season was over, and share the larger pond.
I didn’t have to wonder for long. I heard the cygnet parents trumpeting softly, calling back and forth. Hmmm. Something was up. I kept walking down the beach, out of sight to minimize any disturbance. After about 10 minutes, I saw in the distance, all five adult swans flying low over the bay. I think the cygnet parents headed straight for the threesome and chased them off their little pond and into the air.

One adult managed to catch up to another fleeing swan and nailed it in the rump. That must have hurt! Then they all landed, but not for long. With a great deal of trumpeting and loud splashing as their giant webbed feet struck the surface of the water, their powerful wings pumping, the chase was on! Back and forth! I couldn’t keep track of who was who or which was which. It was so exciting!

Finally, the threesome separated out and landed at what must have been an acceptable distance. The two victorious adults, still trumpeting loudly, approached each other and all but high-fived. They were so pumped! After congratulating each other, they decided to return to the big pond. Off they flew, right past the enemy Swans to the pond and landed.

Honking loudly, they called to the cygnets that had flown to the bay without my noticing. The 3 ½ month old cygnets took off and began to circle back to their parents. But when I looked back, the parents had also taken off, and had returned to attack the threesome again. It was a repeat performance! I couldn’t believe it!

The parents drove the threesome off while the cygnets circled around, uncertain of what to do. Finally, they landed out front in the bay, about where they had been before. This time, the parents, after they finished high-fiving, flew over to join their babies, still trumpeting in excitement. They landed and regrouped, then suddenly the whole family took off, heading for the Nash Road wetlands.

As they flew away down the bay, I saw two MORE adult Swans swim out from the creek. I have no idea who they are or where they came from. Ten Swans! What a busy place!

I was sorry my time here had run out. As I left, Daddy’s Girl and her parents floated serenely on the bay, perhaps wondering what the heck just happened. But knowing how fiercely protective these incredible parents have been for the past four generations, I was not surprised. Good job, mom and dad!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Friday, September 15, 2017 Greater Yellowlegs, Peregrine Falcon, Swans

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 7:27 am, sunset 8:20 pm for a total day length of 12 hours and 52 minutes. Tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 24 seconds shorter.

Mostly light rain and calm today, with a few precious interludes between rain. More rain in the forecast, easing up on Sunday and midweek to cloudy with a chance of rain, and wind then more rain.

I lucked out on the noon walk today at Afognak Beach and enjoyed one of those interludes. Spent pink salmon carcasses littered the beach. On the edge of the ebbing tide, I was very surprised to find a family of GREATER YELLOWLEGS! One adult and three juveniles poked in the silty mud and around recently exposed rocks close to the beach. One plucked and ate an amphipod. They didn’t seem very concerned about me and kept hunting. Such elegant birds with those long, yellow legs and long bills!

Over at the creek, teeming with spawning pink salmon, was another adult Greater Yellowlegs and a SPOTTED SANDPIPER. I wonder how much longer they will be here; or are they considering staying to tough it out?

On a rainy, blustery Tuesday, September 12, I found three TRUMPETER SWANS walking along the tideline when the tide was quite far out. They pecked and poked in the mud; no idea what they found to eat. I could not tell at that distance if this threesome was Daddy’s Girl and her parents; they all looked about the same. After a time, they walked into the water and floated offshore in the bay.

Meanwhile, a bazillion gulls, mostly GLAUCOUS-WINGED and MEW, with several HERRING GULLS raised a ruckus on the flats. I soon spotted the cause: a very determined juvenile PEREGRINE FALCON dashed through the mobs of gulls feeding on pink salmon carcasses. It relentlessly but ineffectually pursued one Mew Gull after another as the gulls rose up in clouds. No place to hide; just fly, fly, fly and try to disappear into the masses. Despite the numerous choices, I did not see a strike. So exciting to watch!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold

Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Wednesday, September 13, 2017 Tern Lake and Dave’s Creek

Mile 38, Seward Highway

On the way home from Portage, we stopped at Tern Lake. The resident TRUMPETER SWAN family with a single gray cygnet napped on a grassy island in the middle of the lake. I did not see the resident Common Loon family that raised two chicks. More than 20 SCAUP with a few AMERICAN WIGEON and small groups of MALLARDS dabbled near the shore. The light was too dim to determine which Scaup species.

We then drove to the day use area. A large school of Red Salmon swam near the observation deck. Just above the bridge, beaver(s) had delivered freshly cut small trees and started to build a dam. It looked like the middle section blew out and lodged against the rocks below the bridge.  Or maybe they weren’t done yet and had started several dams. This could be a catastrophe if they succeed.

A Red Salmon waited in a pool below the lower pile of branches, considering a route up the cascading stream through the branches to the lake.

Two RUSTY BLACKBIRDS and a HERMIT THRUSH hopped along the tangle of branches, picking off flies. They flew into the underbrush upon our approach, waiting for us to leave. So we did.

What a treat to have seen them!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold

Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Wednesday, September 13, 2017 Spencer Glacier trip

Wednesday, September 13, 2017 Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop
South of Portage, Alaska

A couple friends and I drove to Portage on this rainy day to catch the Alaska Railroad at 11:30 am for a little autumn adventure. First stop, Whittier, for a 40-minute stopover. As expected, it was raining there with a light wind.

The colorful Begich Towers and a trailer loaded with orange and red kayaks popped in the overall grayness. Tour boats were still going out and a few businesses near the harbor were still open, but the end of the season was drawing near. Gray clouds blotted out most views of the surrounding mountaintops and glaciers, though one glacier near the tunnel seems to have retreated quite a long way up its valley since last year.

We boarded after our short walk and headed back through the two tunnels to Portage. After a very short stop there, the train rumbled along the wide Placer River valley away from the highway. Along the way, we crossed into the northeast corner of the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

About 70 SANDHILL CRANES flushed from the wetlands upon our noisy approach, my first sighting of the fall. A NORTHERN HARRIER hunted nearby, flashing its white rump. Dozens of ducks paddled in the numerous ponds, but were difficult to identify through the rain-streaked windows. An adult BALD EAGLE and a juvenile perched near their nest in a large cottonwood. A falcon, possibly a PEREGRINE, flashed down the valley.

Red and gold carpeted the mountains on both sides of the valley; numerous streams cascaded down their sides. Valley glaciers, shrinking every year, clung with icy-blue stubbornness.

The train stopped briefly so Chugach Adventures could load two large green rafts for the Placer River trip. The rafts are stashed at the take-out after every trip. A battery-powered electric fence protects them from curious bear maulings.

A few minutes later, the train arrived at the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop. We piled out with a group of lucky homeschoolers from Mat-Su and a smattering of tourists. Miraculously, it was calm and not raining. It actually felt warm! We peeled off our rain pants, gloves, and fleece layers and headed down the well-maintained gravel path to the lake while the others took in the USFS ranger-led interpretive walk, headed up the trail to the beautiful Spencer Glacier public use cabin, or took the bus to the rafting trip launch. The few folks left on the train went on to Grandview for the rest of the afternoon.

Spencer Glacier, a broad, blue-tinged, impressive mass of ice, seemed to flow from the clouds to the lake. Calved icebergs had drifted from the face to the end of the lake where the spectacular blue-tinged sculptures lay grounded in the shallows. Tiny red kayaks paddled through them, heading for the glacier face.

We walked along path along the lake, enjoying the scenery and fall colors. It was surprising to see several large beaver lodges along the shore not far from smaller icebergs. That water is cold! Tough, Alaskan beavers to live here!

All too soon, it was time to turn around and walk back to meet the train. We met hikers who had just spent the night at the beautiful Spencer Glacier public use cabin and the next couple heading up for their adventure perched at the top of the switchback trail on the mountainside.

Once again, the train stopped briefly to pick up the happy rafters and stash the rafts behind the electric fence. Once again, we saw the Bald Eagles perching by the nest tree, the ducks dabbled in the ponds, the Northern Harrier floated along the train, and the Sandhill Cranes rose up from their feeding only to settle back down after we left.

We arrived at Portage at 5:15 pm, loaded in the car and drove back home into the rain. What a fine fall trip with good company and a wonderful break from the rain!

Happy Travels!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter