Saturday, November 21, 2015 Sandpipers, Swans, and Murres

Seward, AK

Sunrise 9:11 am, sunset 4:15 pm, for a total day length of 7 hours and 3 minutes. Tomorrow will be 4 minutes and 15 seconds shorter.

Mostly sunny today! Low of 20º, high of 37º with a mild north wind. Quite a relief from the recent minus 25º with wind chill. Snow showers and rain on ice in the forecast for the week.

I spotted the resident TRUMPETER SWAN family flying over the head of the bay. Even at a great distance, I could jubilantly count all four cygnets and both parents. I understand Bear Lake is not yet frozen, and they have been staying there for a while.

When looking for the Swans up close (without success), I instead found 18 shorebirds, including DUNLINS, ROCK SANDPIPERS, and a possible SANDERLING furiously probing for invertebrates in the silty tidelands. These shorebirds are not unheard of here in the winter, but it is always a wonderful surprise.

On the way back, almost to the car, I turned back to see a RAVEN hopping up and down in the stubby, dry grass. As Ravens are always up to something, I stopped to watch. A smaller black and white head popped up. A COMMON MURRE! What was it doing in the grass? Another poor choice by a distraught murre. The Raven proceeded to attack the poor bird, who fought back valiantly.

I pondered the options and considered the wisdom of interfering and perhaps returning the Murre to the bay. Just as I decided to let Nature take its course, an adult BALD EAGLE swooped in and nabbed the Murre. End of discussion. Instantly, a juvenile BALD EAGLE and two RAVENS gave chase. The predators and prey quickly flew out of sight behind the trees. 

I do not know who dined that afternoon, but can probably guess that there would be yet another headless, bloody carcass under a tree. I wonder why the head is so valued; can the eyes and brain with their associated fat be so important?

I watched another Raven parade around the precious head of a Murre, posturing and exclaiming over his prize before grabbing it and flying off. The pointy mandibles and bony skull certainly didn’t look that appealing to me.

It is very sad to see so many Murres suffering. As in the 90s, most of the Murres are starving. Why these superb divers are unable to find fish when the other seabirds seem fine, is a mystery. What drives them to frantically fly inland, up to at least 12 miles from the ocean, or crash in the grass is also baffling.

Meanwhile, the main predators, the Eagles, and the scavengers, Ravens (also sometime predators), Crows, and Magpies are feasting on this easy source of food. Except for the shocking brutality of the kill and fierce “preparation,” it’s not much different from us eating a sanitized, plucked, gutted, and headless plastic-wrapped rock hen or chicken. Bon appetite!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Vote for Wind Currents Map Kantar Award

For those of you who are as excited as I am about the beautiful and informative wind currents map website, please vote for it!

The website is on the short list for the Kantar Information is Beautiful Awards. I’ve never seen a more beautiful information website and hope that the creator, Cameron Beccario wins.

Click on the lower corner of the website or go to

While you’re at Cameron’s website, check out the huge storm that’s hammering Western Alaska right now. Big weather!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Monday, November 16, 2015 More Murres in Trouble
Seward, Alaska

Cold and clear, fierce NNW wind. I checked that sneaky sun; in town, it lumbers over the eastern mountain at 9:41 am and slips away behind the western mountains at 2:03 pm. The day goes quickly!

As the cold intensifies, more and more COMMON MURRES are succumbing, as evidenced by fresh carcasses and blowing feathers in the harbor, along the beaches and around town. BALD EAGLES, including first year birds, are feasting on the easy pickings. Scavengers, including RAVENS, NW CROWS, and BLACK-BILLED MAGPIES pick the bones clean.

It’s very sad to see the lethargic Murres, looking cold and barely paddling along as if in a daze, totally unaware of danger. Their lives are measured in hours if not minutes.

I watched several Murre groups in the harbor today. Some birds were very active, preening, diving, and feeding. That was encouraging! I do not know why they are surviving and not far away, their relations are dying.

While watching the Murres, I also found a RED-BREASTED MERGANSER swimming with COMMON MERGANSERS, first one in a long time. Jim H reported the HOODED MERGANSER at the Stash and Store pond, so that’s all three merganser species in one day.

No luck with the YELLOW-BILLED LOON.

Two sea otters wrestled energetically with each other, enjoying the blustery, sunny day, all splash and teeth without harm. The harbor is always an interesting place to visit.

On the way home, I screeched to a stop: FOUR STARLINGS! They seem to be surviving just fine in this bitter weather!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Save the Swans!

Save the Swans!
Seward, Alaska

Seward has been extraordinarily fortunate to have a phenomenal pair of resident Trumpeter Swans. Last summer, the pair successfully raised four beautiful cygnets. The family delighted visitors and locals who watched them grow throughout the summer into winter.

Then tragedy struck on January 4th when the swan family flew from the Lagoon towards the boat harbor. Two of the four cygnets died within 2 days, hitting the unmarked power lines on the east side of the Lagoon. The power lines, strung like deadly piano wire, are virtually invisible in low light.

This summer, the adults nested at the same location, and this time, raised six beautiful cygnets. Again, the majestic swans provided pleasure and inspiration to all who saw them. Then tragically, on October 2, two of the cygnets hit the power lines and died.

Due to public outcry, the Seward Electric Department installed 20 bird diverters along the Lagoon power lines on October 5th. However, large gaps remain on either side of the diverters, and the south power lines are not protected at all.

The Seward Electric department head, John Foutz, estimated that 115 more diverters are needed to protect the rest of the power lines along the Lagoon with the recommended 15’ maximum spacing. The cost for the diverters, bucket truck, and linemen crew is an astounding $16,766.

A special account has been set up at City Hall to accept donations to help defray costs. If you would like to help, the city can accept cash, credit, and checks. Refer to the Swan Diverters Fund #01000-0000-2321-0050.

With cash: stop by the Utility office at City Hall at 410 Adams St.
With credit card: call the City Utility staff at 907-224-3331 Extension #1
Open Monday – Friday, 8 am to 5 pm.
By mail: send a check to City of Seward
                                    Finance Department 
                                    Attention Swan Diverters Fund
                                    PO Box 167
                                    Seward, AK 99664

Thank you so much for your help! A donation of any amount is greatly appreciated!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold

Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter  

Sunday, November 15, 2015 Yellow-billed Loon and Wacky Murres

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 8:56 am, sunset 4:27 pm, for a total day length of 7 hours and 30 minutes, and total night length of 16 hours and 30 minutes. Love those stars and planets! Tomorrow’s day length will be 4 minutes and 40 seconds shorter.

Sunny, cold, and clear with a low of 9º and a high of 21º, strong NNW winds 15-35 mph, thankfully calming down by nightfall. Forecast for continuing wind and colder temperatures until Wednesday when clouds  might deliver warmth and a chance of snow or sn’rain.

First bird of the day was an immature BALD EAGLE hauling a COMMON MURRE to a breakfast bough near my house. I’ve noticed Murres are a favorite dawn feast for Eagles, an easy grab and go for a large, hungry raptor now that salmon are under ice.

At noon, a smaller raptor, a SHARP-SHINNED HAWK, chased a BLACK-BILLED MAGPIE around and through a tangle of alders, almost succeeding several times. The chase was absolutely silent, and deadly serious. Several times, the Hawk stopped to rest and reconnoiter with the audacious Magpie sitting a tantalizing 3 feet away, watching. Then, off they went again, up and down, threading through the maze of branches, both birds demonstrating phenomenal aerial skills. The last I saw, the Hawk had no lunch and the Magpie lived to taunt again.

Along the beach, several small flocks of Murres flew in large circles over land and water. This seems very unusual, a huge expenditure of energy, and exposure to predation and cold. Why?

Some Murres were napping in the shelter of the breakwater, not very alert, and likely prey. Another Murre dove in a freshwater stream as the tide rushed in laden with jellies. That seemed unusual too, but at least it was trying to find food.

More unusual Murre behavior occurred mid-afternoon south of the harbor Uplands. I was so excited to find a young YELLOW-BILLED LOON! The first of the year for me.

Close by was a Murre. Very close by. In fact, the Murre was fearlessly close, and was either very friendly, curious, or possibly a bit aggressive, reaching out with its bill to the Loon. A pest? A menace? The Murre paddled around the perplexed Loon, who turned to face it. Finally, the Loon reared back and stretched its wings as if to show how big it was. The Murre watched, and then wandered off.  That was strange!

Back at home, three Magpies were busy working over a very fresh Murre carcass. It could have been from the breakfast bird. Or it could have been an injured Murre that a neighbor reported on my answering machine at 11:30, possibly dropped by an eagle in the alley behind my house, and later retrieved.

I thought the Murre adventures had ended for the day, but at 9 pm I received a call from another neighbor who had spotted a bird standing like a penguin in the snow by the side of the highway at Mile 9. What excellent vision! He turned around, assessed the situation, then threw a light blanket over the bird which calmed it immediately. His wife held the quiet bird in her lap all the way home in the warm car. All excellent first responder techniques for a victim in shock.

The bird was soon delivered to my house. I carefully unwrapped it, found nothing obviously wrong with it, rewrapped it, put it in a box, and drove it to the boat harbor. A couple other Murres floated peacefully in the calm water, illuminated by a nearby street light. I opened the box, loosened the blanket, and tilted the box. It hopped out, walked a few steps, and entered the water.

First thing, a little drink. It stretched its wings, shook off, and started paddling slowly, watching me watching it. In the dim light, I could see a small whitish bird flying quickly underwater. It surfaced and collided with the Murre, startling them both. The MARBLED MURRELET and Common Murre swam off, side by side into the dark. A happy ending for that Murre! But why was it at Mile 9, in the snow, at night?

Why are so many Murres behaving so strangely?

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

UPDATE: Three groups of Murres totaling 10 birds, were observed flying north over the Seward Highway between town and Mile 12 around 3 pm today. How very strange! Sounds like one lucky bird of this flight was rescued.

UPDATE: In addition to the murre that was rescued at 9 pm, 8 other people rescued Murres from as far a Mile 12 and took them to the Alaska Sealife Center. Lucky birds!