Sunday, May 12, 2019 Homer Yellow-billed Loon

Homer, Alaska

After searching for the elusive YELLOW-BILLED LOON for several days during the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, I finally found it paddling along the west side of the Homer Boat Harbor. 

Then, aloof and alone, it floated serenely in a quiet location between the parking area and the dock. But not for long! An intense and prolonged preening session ensued to remove splitting feather sheaths and get its emerging plumage in flying condition. 

What a joy to watch this magnificent red-eyed, star-spangled, yellow-billed loon preen, stretch, shake, roll, snorkel, paddle, dive, and repeat. Such a supreme, wise and ancient presence!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter on the road

May 14, 2019 Wonder-filled, Outstanding Day!

Seward, Alaska

Mostly sunny day with temps in the 50s, great for photos, and packed with surprises!

What a pleasure to observe the smallest sandpiper in the world busily feeding in small groups in the mudflats, almost oblivious of the giant paparazzo looming nearby. As Aaron Lange remarked on the Kachemak Shorebird Festival Hot Spots Tour, “there is no Least-er Sandpiper!”

Another tidbit learned on the tour from Dale Chorman: there are four things lesser about a Lesser Yellowlegs compared to a Greater Yellowlegs: the bird is smaller, the bill is shorter, the markings on the flanks don’t go down as far, and the call is only two notes, not three or more. 

Brighter, rufous-tinged WESTERN SANDPIPERS with black legs, probed so fast their bills blurred. No Macoma clams were observed, so perhaps they were dining on algae, mostly diatoms, in slime. Check out these two excellent articles about the essential marine biofilm in the Vancouver, Canada area:
I am not aware of any marine biofilm studies in Alaska. It would be very interesting to learn more about this critical food source for migrating shorebirds.

Various ducks including NORTHERN PINTAILS, GREEN-WINGED TEAL, AMERICAN WIGEONS, GADWALL, and MALLARDS also dabbled in the shallow mudflat puddles. I found my FOS PECTORAL SANDPIPER; a giant version of the Least Sandpiper also with yellow legs. Two BLACK TURNSTONES flew in and began flipping over small stones, picking off hidden invertebrates and probing in the mud. 

A few recently arrived SAVANNAH SPARROWS picked through the wrack line. ARCTIC TERNS hovered with elegance and expertise then dove to snatch unsuspecting sticklebacks and other small fish. 

Noisy but neatly attired MEW GULLS watched warily atop driftwood perches. Several pairs worked on starting a family with apparently mixed results, evidenced by some of the frustrated females finally flying off to seek more experienced males.

Back at the car, five TRUMPETER SWANS honked softly as they flew overhead! Hard to tell if they are the resident cygnets, but it’s quite possible. 

At the ship yard, a pair of VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOWS chirruped and twittered as they swooped around one of the ancient steel vessels marooned in the uplands. The Swallows obviously have not read the Swallow nest box construction instructions. As in years past, a 99% incorrectly designed nest site attracted their attention as they flew in and out of a scupper. 

The main attraction of this sloped and precarious nest site was the larger-than-specs entrance hole which sported a nice rim. The vessel, in addition to the crackling “distressed look” paint job, offered abandoned lines for convenient perches. Had I not seen successful fledging last year, I would not have believed this rental would be snapped up by such discerning tenants. Good luck!

First Lake in Two Lakes Park in town was recently stocked with rainbow trout by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for the upcoming Kid’s Fishing Day. A smart River Otter swam/walked/ran/bounded from the Lagoon up to the lake, perhaps following the outflow stream along Second Avenue to reach the lake. I watched him swim smoothly across the lake with a dandy trout in its sharp teeth. He devoured most of the fish with great relish at his private dining spot on the lake bank. He seemed curious about the overly excited dog and me, swimming right up to us, little ears and sensitive whiskers sticking out, dark eyes watching, before expertly diving and disappearing. What a cool sight!

I heard confirmation of an unusual sighting of a Northern Elephant Seal hauled out at Lowell Point Beach in the state park and drove out to see it. The Alaska Sealife Center had erected two barricades advising people to give the animal space. There on the beach, was what I think is a female, looking like a very large dark distressed brown log. I worried that she might be dead, but occasionally she lifted her head, then immediately laid back down to sleep. The farthest north this species normally lives is in the southern tip of Vancouver Island. She has swum a very long ways!

I learned on-line that this is a true seal, related to our much smaller Harbor Seals. The males may grow to over 13 feet and weigh up to 4,500 pounds, the females grow to 10 feet and weigh up to 1500 pounds. The females haul out during April to May when their hair and outer layers of skin are molted and regrown. They do not feed during the month it takes to complete the molt. It will be interesting to see how the beach will be managed to protect this amazing visitor.

As I observed the Elephant Seal, two Humpback Whales spouted in the distance. Before long, it became obvious that they were swimming towards town. I hopped in the car and followed them as they paralleled Lowell Point Road. Standing at the side of the road with many other entranced viewers, I jumped at the unexpected and explosive sound whenever they surfaced and blew. Though they were both huge, one was noticeably enormous, likely a mother and calf. What an exciting sight and sound! 

Crowds of screaming Gulls dove, paddled, and flew over unseen bait balls, fleeing as the mammoth mammals surfaced. Quick Harbor Porpoises arched and dove like black and white wheels, occasionally bursting with speed after the fish. A pod of Steller Sea Lions splashed and roared. Harbor Seals popped up like periscopes and quietly submerged. A Sea Otter nonchalantly paddled backwards in the background to round out the marine mammal check-list. An incredible finale to a wonder-filled day!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Monday, May 13, 2019 Bald Eagle melee

Seward, Alaska

I just happened to be passing by the waterfront when I saw BALD EAGLES diving from the sky and nearby tree perches to the beach rocks. I quickly parked and grabbed my camera. A large female sat on a rock with what appeared to be a rockfish carcass. A brave NORTHWESTERN CROW invited itself to the adjacent table, just out of reach.

Other Eagles piled in, crashing the party, much to the consternation of the beleaguered diner. Six or seven hungry, powerful Eagles jockeyed for a strategic position for thievery or reallocation. She fended them off, and even grabbed one by the foot, talons to talons. Then she snatched the fish and flew off, accompanied by a fiercely determined Eagle intent on theft. Exit entangled screeching pair stage right.

Enter more magnificent Eagles stage left, one with another fish carcass. Another stressful dining experience ensued, as dive-bombing Eagles replaced one diner after another. Each managed only a few bites before being bumped. Of note, one Eagle had a fractured upper beak on the right side. Finally, one female managed to subdue all comers and gobbled down chunks of fish. When she finally flew, not much was left.

GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS circled warily, unwilling to risk landing. After a sufficient eagle-free time passed, the Gulls finished it off with as much lively discussion and squabbling as possible.

Quite a show!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Monday, May 6, 2019 Whimbrels, Plovers, Spring!

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 5:42 am, sunset 10:08 pm for a total daylight of 16 hours and 25 minutes. Tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 4 seconds longer. Temps remain stuck in the high 30s overnight and 40s daytime, but warm enough that every bud is unfolding and expanding in Nature’s incredible origami explosion.

Tough migrants continue to trickle in, after battling countless storms and hazards. Rufous Hummingbirds are officially late, as according to Ava, they “normally” arrive by April 27. Only a few have been reported. Greet them with fresh sugar water, 4:1 ratio, no food coloring please.

May 1: FOS SWALLOW reported, unknown ID. BLACK BEARS are emerging to feed on the greening mountainsides; I spotted my first from the Exit Glacier parking lot. Also received a report of a MOUNTAIN GOAT kid, about ten days earlier than usual. Report from the ‘hood of a small and determined raptor (MERLIN or SHARP-SHINNED HAWK) “chugging along, clutching a STELLER’S JAY” flying about 5 feet off the ground. I’ve been hearing said raptor for several days, but as all I could find was a Steller’s Jay, decided that I had an excellent imitator in my yard. Now, I’m not so sure. Maybe the real raptor didn’t like what the Jay said…

May 3: FOX SPARROW singing in the ‘hood. Lots of ARCTIC TERNS ricocheting and rabble-rousing around the boat harbor, easily dodging sailboat masts and catching small fish (herring?) What a joyful sound of spring! I watched one expectant female waiting on shore for her beau to deliver the goods. He had one all right, a nice fat fish of which he was immensely proud. He circled around her, bragging loudly about his expertise, professing his undying love and devotion. But after a time, I could almost see her tiny red webbed foot tapping impatiently. He seemed to be more infatuated with the gift than the girl, so she ditched him and went fishing.


May 5: 5 GODWITS, possibly HUDSONIAN, hungrily feeding in the spitting rain in the dim distance.

May 6: 8 WHIMBRELS, 50+ GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE still feeding at tidelands, 2 VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOWS, 1 NORTHERN HARRIER female, BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER flying overhead, calling, ARCTIC TERNS courtship continuing, hopefully with fresh fish. 

Fourth of July Beach: first COMMON LOON of the year for me, a handsome loon in full breeding plumage, fishing and preening. Also, a single WHIMBREL walking up and down the rocky beach, gleaning tidbits from amongst the rocks quite a way above the high tide line. So fun to have it walk towards me, closer and closer! Off shore, two BALD EAGLES launched from their perch together; one swooped down and grabbed a talon-full of small fish. The other was unsuccessful.

I checked Scheffler Creek for Wandering Tattlers and instead found a RIVER OTTER swishing downstream as fluid as a fish, right under the bridge and out into the bay. So cool to see it swimming underwater, bubbles trailing behind! I was surprised it was all alone, as usually the family swims together. Maybe it was a displaced dad as the moms usually hang out with the pups.

I topped off the afternoon with a visit to the amazing Alaska Sealife Center. The highlight was two spectacular KING EIDERS males in full breeding plumage. Both cooed their beautiful musical song, courting a very interested female. Happy spring!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter