Monday, January 30, 2012 Humpback Whale and Yellow-billed Loons

 Seward, Alaska Sporadic Bird Report

Sunrise 9:17 am, sunset 5:05 pm, length of day 7 hours, 47 minutes; tomorrow will be 4 minutes and 56 seconds longer. Waxing half moon rides with Jupiter across the cloudy sky.

Weather: Ahhhh. Winter relaxed its frigid grip overnight and temperatures rose steadily throughout the day into the 20sº.  Intermittent light snowfall didn't add much more that a thin white topcoat. And best of all, the wind took a nap. What a difference!

I dashed out of the house just before noon today and drove my snow-crystal- studded car to the Lowell Creek waterfall. Climbing up on the snow bank, I heard the loud exhale first and then saw a long, beautiful dark back and craggy dorsal fin arc out of the water just off shore, then gracefully submerge. A humpback whale! Again and again, the paired nostrils, the powerful blow, long back, small triangular dorsal, and smooth submerge.

Nervous rows of COMMON MURRES paddled out of its way, looking very small in comparison. Then, the blow, the fin, and an ever so smooth, tight arc followed by a dripping butterfly-shaped tail, and down it went for a deep dive.

Numerous, heavy explosive exhales disturbed the calm, gray water as a large pod of Steller sea lions burst up for air. It was hard to count the milling, diving, surging sea mammals; there may have been 20 or more. After a minute or two of heavy breathing, down they went and all was calm and very still for several minutes. A casual passerby would think there was nothing to see and move on, when everything was happening.

"Booooohhhhhh!" The mighty whale was back, surface diving, a bit farther out. "Paaah! Paaah! Paaah!" The sea lions boiled back up, rolling, panting, and snorting. The percussive interlude continued, the whale providing a steady deep bass, the sea lions their higher, faster staccato, until everyone dove.  Then all that remained were the gentle waves lapping rhythmically on the shore. It was a fascinating, riveting, spectacular performance with many encores. I still do not know what, whether herring, needlefish, or other food, is attracting all these sea mammals and seabirds to the inner bay, but it must be abundant and nutritious.

Mixing with the murres, were 2 YELLOW-BILLED LOONS, a PACIFIC LOON, a RED-NECKED GREBE warming up its loud breeding voice, and a few GOLDENEYES. A flock of COMMON MERGANSERS flew by low over the water. Notably absent were the gulls. I probably missed a few species, but I had a good excuse to be distracted.

What a place, Seward!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Friday, January 28, 2012 Sea smoke and early Valentines

Seward, Alaska Sporadic Bird Report

Sunrise 9:21 am, sunset 5 pm (yes!), length of day 7 hours, 38 minutes; tomorrow will be 4 minutes and 51 seconds longer.

Weather: Partly cloudy and minus 4 this morning, warming ever so slightly to plus 4 in town. Fortunately, the wind seemed to be too cold to blow much. The gray sea smoke towered in the bay, writhing and swirling like a witch's cauldron. Very spooky! Ghostly gulls sifted in and out of the mystery-shrouded sea.

Flashes of raptors in the 'hood including NORTHERN GOSHAWK and two SHARP-SHINNED HAWKS.  NORTHERN SHRIKES reported from Mile 7, at Ava's off Nash Road, and in town, an unusual number for January.

The flock of about 30 GRAY-CROWNED ROSY-FINCHES dined from a flower pot feeder in town, unconcerned about a PINE GROSBEAK. They all fled when an unwelcome STELLER'S JAY joined the happy feast.

Three pairs of RAVENS cozied up in a cottonwood, side by side like Valentines. One very handsome bird made loud proclamations while his lovely sweetie preened.

Four SNOW BUNTINGS spotted briefly at Lowell Point Beach; Robin C refound the flock of 20 yesterday, including the single McKAY'S. Robin also reported two BOHEMIAN WAXWINGS in town yesterday, the first seen since January 1. There aren't many Mt Ash berries left for them to eat.

A momma moose and her yearling bull calf browsed the willows at the beach this afternoon. Their tracks wander all over town, even high on piles of snow to reach willow twigs. I wonder if they too eat bird seed?

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

 Goshawk flies through tiny spaces video:

Tuesday, January 24, 2012 Common Murre spectacle

Seward, Alaska Sporadic Bird Report

Sunrise 9:30 am, sunset 4:49 pm, length of day 7 hours, 19 minutes; tomorrow will be 4 minutes and 37 seconds longer. The days really are noticeably longer.

Weather: The sun burst over a dark gray cloudbank this morning, spreading smiley faces and little hearts over the sparkling snowy landscape. By noon the blanket crept up and smothered the light, instantly changing the scenery to a monotone of grays and whites. Temps up to 21º but the brisk 18 mph north wind with gusts to 28 mph says brrrrr! If this extensive cloud cover chances to pull away, watch for a spectacular aurora show tonight from the recent massive solar storm.

Today I saw hundreds and hundreds of seabirds from the Uplands at the Seward boat harbor mouth. It was jaw-dropping! Initially, the blue-gray sea looked fairly empty, except for choppy waves and surf scoters. But the more I looked, the more I saw, first with the binocs and then with the scope. Most of the birds were COMMON MURRES, swimming in a long and wide band. They seemed active, alert, and healthy, bobbing in the waves. There were so many hundreds, it was impossible to count.

Mixed in with all the action I found HORNED GREBES, more COMMON LOONS, BARROW'S and COMMON GOLDENEYES, MARBLED MURRELETS, RED-BREASTED MERGANSERS, COMMON MERGANSERS, PELAGIC CORMORANTS, and GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS. A tight group of around 8 Steller sea lions (really hard to count!) boiled to the surface, flippers flashing, splashing and creating quite a commotion. Just as quickly, they all submerged and remained underwater for long periods of time.

What is everything eating?!

Surprisingly, there were no bald eagles anywhere in sight. I would have thought several would be perched on the dolphins, picking out the next meal.

In a separate closer raft a COMMON LOON led at least 10 sleek PACIFIC LOONS and several RED-NECKED GREBES. SURF SCOTERS formed several other exclusive rafts. HARLEQUIN DUCKS, and more COMMON MERGANSERS hugged the shoreline.

For comic relief, at least 50 GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS crowded together on a large ice raft like clowns in a phone booth, some sitting, most standing in a few inches of ice water, preening nonchalantly as they drifted backwards from the mouth of the boat harbor out to sea. Another group of about 7 Steller sea lions surged past, snorting and splashing, but the gulls didn't even flinch. Surf scoters flew up and relocated when the sea lions got too close.

If anyone knows what is attracting this mass of seabirds and sea lions, I'd be very interested.

My attention was diverted when a SONG SPARROW flew up to inspect the interior of my car and both the rear view mirrors. I assume it passed, as the inspector soon flew off, apparently satisfied.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Sunday, January 22, 2012 Great Gray Owl!

Seward, Alaska Sporadic Bird Report travels to Homer, Alaska

What a thrill to finally find a long-anticipated Life bird, the GREAT GRAY OWL!

I decided to drive the 176 miles to Homer instead of waiting for possible local delivery. On Friday evening just before sunset, Alice the good dog, and I walked along Beluga Lake to the Calvin and Coyle Trail observation platform, following hardened tracks of snowshoers, skiers, and snowmachines to avoid post-holing. In addition to the numerous snowshoe hare tracks, I found delicate wing brush traces and foot plunge marks where the hare tracks ended. I assume these were made by owls hunting hares traveling at night.

BALD EAGLES perched at the tops of the spruce crying out to each other; a small flock of REDPOLLS swooped overhead, and I heard the "peek!" of a woodpecker. I trudged back as the red-orange sun melted into the horizon, a treat not ever seen in mountainous Seward. 

Saturday afternoon I snowshoed the C&C Trail to the platform itself, wondering if any owls might be resting in view. Snowshoe hare tracks covered almost very square inch of snow; an incredible population boom! The dog was very interested but we didn't see any hares. Moose tracks wound through the birch/spruce forest; I saw numerous places where the huge mammals had bedded down and loads of droppings. Fortunately, I only saw one moose in a meadow, watching us plod away.

Around dusk at 4:30 pm, I set up the scope at the Beluga Lake observation platform past the airport. Aaron kindly stopped by and pointed out where the owls have been seen, just east of the C&C platform. He also pointed out a HAWK OWL sitting quietly, hunting, on a spruce tip nearby. We watched for a long time, the cold penetrating deeper and deeper, until Aaron had to leave.

I watched intently, scanning back and forth with my binocs. Alice woofed and I turned around to see a huge moose on the other side of the cul-de-sac! Whoops! I quickly loaded Alice in the car. The moose seemed uninterested in me and ambled over to a well-browsed bush nearby to feed. I then scanned the lake and the moose alternately. Finally around 5:30, just when the light began to fade for good, I saw two dark shapes dive down from dead snags far across the lake. It was very possible that these were Great Gray Owls, but I couldn't really count them. Regardless, it was wonderful to know they were there.

The bright sunshine disappeared by Sunday, replaced by 2" of fresh snow and dark clouds. I decided to try for a closer view of the owl along East End Road and headed out just after dawn at 9:45 am in a light snowfall.

It was silhouette time: eagles hunched in the naked trees, ravens perched on spruce branches. Suddenly, just east of Kachemak Drive, there was the unmistakable silhouette of a bulky owl with an enormous, sleek, helmet-shaped head. I turned around as quickly as I could and parked as far over as possible without going into the snowy ditch. The GREAT GRAY OWL perched in the top of a tree by a clearing, hunting intently, peering and listening, scanning the whole clearing below for voles.

I could not believe that I was watching North America's largest owl, the Phantom of the North. After all the reports from the Tolsona Campground, Anchorage, Kenai, and Homer, I finally found one!

After a bit, the magnificent owl dropped off the branch and sailed across the clearing, stalled, then landed lower in a bush. It seemed so strange to see a such a flat face without a prominent protruding bill like other birds. The corvids were waking up by now, and first a magpie, then a raven flew over to harass it. The owl merely looked straight up at them and sat firm, minding its own business. Once again the owl flew, this time across the road and into an alder. I quickly drove up and into a conveniently located driveway.

Now I could really see it even though the light was still dim. What an elegant owl! The facial disk of concentric light and dark feathers framed piercing yellow eyes accented by large vertical light gray arcs and smaller dark arcs, almost like shaggy sideways eyebrows. The small orange beak rested just above a surprisingly flashy white "bowtie" with a black "knot." Long loose feathers concealed the feet and long fluffy feathers extended below like a layered skirt above the darker brown tail feathers. The tail feather tips looked quite ragged and worn.

All too soon, the owl flew off to perch on a power line nearby. A few more ravens detoured from their errands to dive and harass it. A NORTHERN SHRIKE boldly made a swift pass at the owl but did not slow down. The owl faced them all, but made no aggressive moves. It sure was hard to focus on breakfast with all these disruptions! The owl made several swoops over the snow, returning without success to the power pole. Finally, it flew back across the road to hunt from the trees below the clearing. Satisfied with my incredible 40 minutes of good fortune, I left. While I would love to see the owl in better light, it was time for the long drive home to Seward.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Friday, January 20, 2012 McKay's Buntings!

Seward, Alaska Sporadic Bird Report on the road to Homer

On the journey to Homer, I detoured to the beach at Ninilchik to stretch and walk the dog. The first thing I noticed was the beach rye grass poking out of the snow in the day use area. The second thing was a small group of BUNTINGS riding the seed heads to the ground. Almost incidentally, I did notice the spectacular scenery featuring rugged snowy volcanoes across Cook Inlet. I slipped into my winter gear as the north wind was brisk, and grabbed my cameras and binocs.

I eased past the five Buntings to get the sun behind me, then turned and started clicking away. Two of the group (40%!) were stunningly white McKAY'S BUNTINGS! By walking slowly, at times sinking past my knees in the soft snow, I managed to get quite close. The plucky birds left interesting, erratic tracks, pushing through the light snow like little plows.

The two McKay's posed together at times, but seemed to mingle freely with the other 3 SNOW BUNTINGS. What a show!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter