Wednesday, December 7, 2011 the Dipper and the Whale

Seward, Alaska Sporadic Bird Report
The Great and the Small

Sunrise 9:45 am, sunset 3:53 pm, length of day 6 hours, 8 minutes; tomorrow will be 2 minutes and 25 seconds shorter.

Today's palette is mostly monochrome with an excess assortment of grays.

Weather: 100% low clouds, south wind, temperatures in the mid to high 30s. Heavy snow showers completely obscure the surrounding mountains and most of the bay. A scruff of crusty snow covers the ground, but greenish grass patches show under sheltering spruce. It's tricky walking without ice grippers as the snow conceals a lot of ice.

The weather is channel surfing, rushing from biting winds and subzero temperatures to rain on ice like a Zamboni, then a sunny, calm, mid-20s respite complete with brilliant stars, moon, and Jupiter at night, switching to a dash of snow showers to hide the ice and challenge optics, and repeat in random order.

The beach at Lowell Point today featured wet snow plastered onto my glasses, binocs, and camera. The two resident SONG SPARROWS hopped around in their favorite corner of the beach, rummaging though the seaweed, blending in with the dark cobbles. A BALD EAGLE cruised up and perched on the lookout at the top of Pinnacle Rock. A COMMON LOON and a female RED-BREASTED MERGANSER heedlessly chose to ignore it and continued fishing close by. One HORNED GREBE, one PELAGIC CORMORANT, and a few GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS bobbed on the waves, barely visible in the slanting snow.

Up by the beach houses, several DARK-EYED JUNCOS flitted among the Mt Ash trees and on the ground, their white outer tail feathers flashing. A MAGPIE stopped by to boss them around a bit. A good supply of Mt Ash berries remain on the ground, but sadly, no Redwing to gobble them up.

Back towards town by the waterfall, an eagle ripped into a freshly caught sea duck (goldeneye?) with gusto, dark feathers falling like snowflakes. One dies so another lives.

Robin C reported two PACIFIC LOONS feeding in the boat harbor.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Ah! The day of respite! Sunny, calm, mid 20sÂș. The short trip over to Fourth of July Beach on the east side of Resurrection Bay turned back the clock. Here, the sun does not rise over the mountains until well after 11 am, more than an hour later than town. Just as we arrived, the sun lit up that corner of the bay. Transient tendrils of golden yellow mist curled up and wafted seawards, the delicate balance of air and water temperatures suddenly disrupted. Inch-thick polygons of clear ice decorated the beach, stolen from the creek by the outgoing tide and just as casually discarded.

A flash of dark feathers caught my eye. Ah! A DIPPER paddled about the outlet of the little pond. As I approached, he flew, but towards me! Unconcerned, he stood on the nearby ice, totally dry. His bare pinkish legs and feet reminded me of a teen wearing shorts in the winter. After regarding me for a second, he plunged his whole head underwater, and peered around, short tail pointing skyward. Then he dove in the water and snorkeled, paddling around with his long skinny, web-free toes, resembling a very tiny, gray duck. After that short exploration, up he flew to perch on an ice-covered rock in the outlet waterfall, and leaned over to look under the murmuring water. Then up a bit higher to a dry rock to preen and adjust his remarkable dry suit, and finally back up again to the open water of the pond by the outlet. After a brief headlong dive off the ice edge, he caught a fine stickleback, repositioned it, and down it went, headfirst. I left him, dipping on the ice, completely content in his liquid and frozen world.

By now, the pale sun warmed the air just enough to absorb the ephemeral mist. Suddenly my son called out. A small whale surfaced just offshore! The water seemed inconceivably shallow to contain a whale of any size. Twin vapor clouds shot from its paired blowholes, then hung in the air, followed quickly by a craggy dorsal fin and a tight arc of its dark back. Then nothing remained but wisps of the blow. As they faded, another great exhale and shallow dive! It traveled quickly from one side of the bright sunbeams to the other. I snapped photos as fast as I could, dodging around the smiling sun.

We drove back to town, but now the sun raced ahead and it was almost twilight at 2 pm on the west side of the bay. What a time machine! As soon as possible, I emailed photos to marine mammal expert Kate Wynne. She identified it as a humpback whale, possibly a calf or juvenile that remained in northern waters while the adults migrated to Hawaii to breed and give birth. This theory has not yet been proven, but makes sense. And there it was, definitely a small humpback. She has observed whales swimming in water less than 20' deep and less than 20' from shore. Kate wrote that humpbacks love sand lance and it may have found a good supply there. How interesting that the diminutive dipper and the great whale were both feasting on tiny fish!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

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