Saturday, February 25, 2012 Loon nabs crab

Seward, Alaska Sporadic Bird Report

Sunrise 8:08 am, sunset 6:14 pm, length of day 10 hours, 5 minutes; tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 27 seconds longer.

Weather: Today must be the veritable calm before the storm. The bay was so flat this afternoon, "Vs" from seabirds paddling in the middle of the bay could be seen from shore. The temp slowly climbed from 15º this morning to 27º by day's end. Somber snow-bearing clouds gathered in the Gulf of Alaska, then inched to town, scattering a few snowflakes shortly before dusk. The weather was mild mannered and slow as a sloth. Yet, an urgent winter blizzard warning is forecast in large alarming red letters, from 3 am to 5 pm tomorrow with high winds and snow. We shall see. Maybe it will stay up in Portage Valley and Turnagain Arm.

The seabird feeding frenzy continued just south of the boat harbor at the seafood processing outfall pipe: tidy lines of SURF SCOTERS, a few BLACK SCOTERS, many GOLDENEYES, COMMON and RED-BREASTED MERGANSERS, a scattering of HORNED and RED-NECKED GREBES and PELAGIC CORMORANTS, lots of crying MEW and GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS, COMMON MURRES paddling about, a few MALLARDS, and a couple sea otters. If I had my scope, I might have seen a few more species.

Of even greater interest, I watched an adult COMMON LOON pop up with a crab in its beak at the harbor mouth. I saw this phenomenon for the first time yesterday in the boat harbor. I did not know loons would eat Dungeness crabs. I wonder if their fish supply is dwindling? Or is this the same loon and it just likes a little variety and challenge?

Yesterday's common loon did not let me watch it eat the crab, but today's loon was far enough away for me to see it reposition the angular lunch several times and finally work it down. Amazing! All those legs and tough shell!

In the boat harbor, another COMMON LOON and a PACIFIC LOON preened and dove. A quiet "blip" announced that a HORNED GREBE had popped up nearby, surprised to find me there. A GREAT BLUE HERON stroked ponderously across the sky like a great ship headed for port. A skirmish erupted as a RAVEN gave chase to a NORTHWESTERN CROW. The crow managed to outfly its larger cousin and keep the coveted prize. Near the victor, a busy SONG SPARROW hopped along the breakwater rocks, investigating the crannies.

The usual flock of Barrow's Goldeneyes was absent, probably due in large part to the adult BALD EAGLE perched precariously on top of a sailboat mast. It suddenly threw back its head and let out a series of strident, fierce cries. I looked for another eagle; sure enough, a bald eagle over two blocks away was flying towards it. Apparently the message was not an invitation, and the other bird veered away.

Back at the car, more NW CROWS sat quietly on the snow bank. I noticed one with a slightly deformed upper bill, and another with a band on each leg, evidence of scientists trying to understand their world. 

Another interesting day, watching and wondering about birds.

A flock of 6 WILLOW PTARMIGN was reported yesterday morning along Nash Road just past the RR tracks.

Photos include two from sunny yesterday: the common loon holding a Dungeness crab, and a raft of beautiful Barrow's Goldeneyes as seen from Lowell Point Road.

For more information on deformed bills in Alaska go to:

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Saturday, February 18, 2012 Anchorage Audubon Seward Field Trip

Seward, Alaska Sporadic Bird Report

About 25 birders braved the winter roads to converge on Seward for the annual Anchorage Audubon Seward Field Trip. Both the weather and birds cooperated to provide a wonderful day of birding for all. Most folks more than tripled their annual bird list, several nabbed Life Birds. The list below totaled 44 species.

First stop: A YELLOW-BILLED LOON cruised in the boat harbor between the boardwalk and the ice, the first of several we would see during the day. A dying COMMON MURRE flopped and struggled on the ice, a sad sight.

We walked over to the Uplands to scan the numerous seabirds in the bay. I was amazed to see the male HOODED MERGANSER, looking handsome and relatively small, hanging out with the SURF SCOTERS, GOLDENEYES, MERGANSERS, and other seabirds. This is the first time I have seen him in salt water. We are assuming it’s the same one as he was not found in Clear Creek a short time earlier, but we'll have to keep cross-checking.  Other highlights: another YELLOW-BILLED LOON and a female GREATER SCAUP. Aaron B spotted a THAYER'S GULL and HERRING GULLS with his keen, trained eyes.

Next was a productive feeder for PINE GROSBEAKS, BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEES, RED-BREASTED NUTHATCHES, COMMON REDPOLLS, PINE SISKIN, and DARK-EYED JUNCOS. A talkative RAVEN attracted 6 MAGPIES, a sure sign of something interesting. Sure enough, they had staked out a loose black cat that was also birding.

On our way to Ava's along the highway, we passed a momma moose and her gangly yearling punching through deep snow to reach willows. The highlights at Ava's were two raptors; a MERLIN perched in its preferred location at the top of a spruce, and a SHARP-SHINNED HAWK sitting in another spruce and farther down.

I have never seen such immobile HAIRY and DOWNY WOODPECKERS. They were one with the tree trunks. The GROSBEAKS and REDPOLLS gathered silently in the cottonwoods, watching, watching. Suddenly the MERLIN, that had disappeared, sliced low overhead from behind, making an unsuccessful pass at lunch. Soon after the frozen birds became animated and relaxed a bit though they remained on alert.

Another momma and yearling rested in the snow next to Salmon Creek; if they saw a dipper, they didn't say.

At Mile 5 Nash Road we parked by the boat basin. It was amazing to have so many birders searching diligently, finding so many wonderful birds, and yet have more pop up. Highlights included 5 LONG-TAILED DUCKS, WHITE-WINGED SCOTER, a pair of BLACK SCOTERS, rafts of SURF SCOTERS, 3 PACIFIC LOONS, YELLOW-BILLED LOONS, COMMON LOON, 2 MARBLED MURRELETS, and many healthy-looking COMMON MURRES.

Directly under us next to the sheetrock piling, we enjoyed fabulous views of a COMMON MURRE snorkeling then diving. The water was so clear, we could see it "fly" underwater. A young sea otter floated calmly close by, looking at us with mild interest and total lack of concern, then turned and drifted slowly back for the paparazzi madly clicking away.

The last official stop was a downtown feeder. The nearby dense spruce and hemlock tree boughs concealed a very quiet STELLER'S JAY. We searched for raptors without success to explain this odd behavior. Soon, a tiny CHESTNUT-BACKED CHICKADEE flitted from the trees to the feeder, ringing up another Life Bird for several. As we watched and waited, a flock of about 18 GRAY-CROWNED ROSY-FINCHES circled overhead. They eventually settled in the top of the nearby cottonwood and ever so gradually worked their way lower and lower. Finally, they descended on the flowerpot feeders, giving everyone a great look at this beautiful finch.

Of note, was a brown-cheeked individual whose gray hood did not extend to the neck like the others. Thanks to Aaron Lang who confirmed that this is the "INTERIOR" GRAY-CROWNED ROSY-FINCH, subspecies "tephrocotis". It should be wintering in southern BC and farther east and south, but has regularly been found in Homer. He also pointed out that it has a more reddish-brown breast, belly and mantle, stout bill, and is slightly smaller.

For a nice tutorial with photos on the Gray-crowned Rosy-finch subspecies in Alaska, please visit his website at <>

As with most birding, there's a dose of serendipity and the more you look, the more you see. It was a pleasure to have the trained eyes of more experienced birders help others "see" the birds. Thanks to everyone for a very special day exploring Seward's birds!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

2012 Audubon-Seward Field Trip February 18, 2012
Greater Scaup, female                                                     
Black Scoter                                                     
White-winged Scoter                                            
Surf Scoter                                                     
Harlequin Duck                                            
Long-tailed Duck                                            
Common Goldeneye                                            
Barrow’s Goldeneye                                            
Common Merganser                                            
Red-breasted Merganser                                   
Hooded Merganser                                            
Pacific Loon                                                     
Common Loon                  
Yellow-billed Loon                                            
Horned Grebe                                                     
Red-necked Grebe                 
Pelagic Cormorant                                            
Bald Eagle adult                                                     
Sharp-shinned Hawk                                            
Mew Gull
*Herring Gull                                                     
*Thayer’s Gull
Glaucous-winged Gull                                   
Black-legged Kittiwake                                   
Common Murre                                                              
Marbled Murrelet
Rock Pigeon                                                     
Downy Woodpecker                                                     
Hairy Woodpecker
Steller’s Jay                                                              
Black-billed Magpie
Northwestern Crow                                                     
Common Raven                                            
Black-capped Chickadee
Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch                                            
Song Sparrow                  
Dark-eyed (Slate-colored) Junco                           
Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch                  
Pine Grosbeak                                                     
Common Redpoll                  
Pine Siskin                 
* only a few birders saw the scope birds (spotted by Aaron Bowman)

Friday, February 17, 2012 Black Brant

Seward Sporadic Bird Report

Giant swirling snowflakes halted for a bit at midday, revealing surprising blue skies and peek-a-boo views of gleaming snowy peaks. I was fortunate to refind the 5 handsome BLACK BRANT busily feeding at the tidelands, accompanied by 4 cautious GADWALL, and a sprinkling of MEW and GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS. Each BRANT sported a bright white neck patch that indicated they are all adults.

While there, I watched a BALD EAGLE snatch yet another hapless COMMON MURRE from the water by its neck and body, and fly to a driftwood perch. Another eagle invited itself to lunch and a loud screeching ensued from the indignant diner. The dispute moved too far away to see the finale, but at any rate, the murre did not win. COASST beach surveyors tagged 8 dead murres, a small portion of those that are live-caught, dying at sea, or scavenged from the beaches. This sad seabird die-off is aptly called a "wreck."

I checked Clear Creek and finally found the male HOODED MERGANSER with his COMMON GOLDENEYE sweetie. It seems highly probable that this is the same drake that was here last year, and possibly the same smitten Goldeneye hen. MALLARDS and oddball mallard-types preened and bathed by the bridge, enjoying the sunshine.

Back in town, 14 GRAY-CROWNED ROSY-FINCHES perched in a cottonwood; a flock of PINE GROSBEAKS commandeered the adjacent cottonwood, warily watching for raptors.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Thursday, February 16, 2012 Seward Field Trip Preview

Seward, Alaska Sporadic Bird Report

Sunrise 8:34 am, sunset 5:50 pm, length of day 9 hours, 16 minutes; tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 23 seconds longer.

Weather: Thermometer stuck on 34º most of this week with overcast skies and intermittent snow/rain showers. Despite the various blizzard watches for points north, the wind has mercifully stayed away this week.

Jim H kindly drove Kerry M and me to preview the east side of the bay for Saturday's Anchorage Audubon-Seward field trip. After a few hours of birding at North Dock, Ava's, and a feeder in town, we saw plenty to entice visitors, weather permitting.

Kit D got the prize of the day, 5 BLACK BRANT at the tidelands, verified by Robin C. It is very unusual to have these geese here so early.

Other perks: a large bull Steller sea lion lounged near shore, two more patrolled along the beach, and a sea otter happily munched on delectable seafood.

While scanning the bay, I watched a COMMON MURRE putzing along. A BALD EAGLE noticed it too and swooped down, grabbed it like a lunch box, and flew to a power pole to dine. Murres are in trouble all over the bay.
Dead, intact murres are dying and floating to shore; slow, starving live ones are easy prey for eagles and ravens. The other seabirds seem to be doing fine. It's a mystery!

Hope to see you at 10 am at the Harbor Master's building on Third Ave on Saturday. Help us find more birds!
(RED-NECKED GREBE spotted yesterday)
(GREAT BLUE HERON reported earlier in town)
(SHARP-SHINNED HAWK reported earlier at Ava's)
(MERLIN reported earlier at Ava's and yesterday in town)
(BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE spotted yesterday)
SNOW BUNTING reported by Kit and Robin

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Thursday, February 9, 2012 Rock Sandpipers

Seward, Alaska Sporadic Bird Report

Sunrise 8:52 am, sunset 5:31 pm, length of day 8 hours, 39 minutes; tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 17 seconds longer.

Weather: Sprinkles at dawn cleared by mid-morning and a balmy, sunny day was pulled out of the hat like a rabbit in a magic trick. The thermometers around town pegged out at 49, but mid 40s seem more likely. Today was another unexpected gift. Gotta love those gloomy but inaccurate forecasts!

I revisited the boat harbor and had better luck with a PACIFIC LOON surfacing close by. This species seems much more wary than its larger cousins and does not linger long at the surface. I spotted a COMMON MURRE resting on a small piece of ice; soon it, or other one that looked just like it (surprise!), paddled too close for my camera to focus, looking very peaceful and unalarmed. A BALD EAGLE managed to perch on top of a sailing mast nearby, probably looking for just such an innocent bird to take to lunch.

The YELLOW-BILLED LOON adult and juvenile, a COMMON LOON, and a RED-NECKED GREBE paddled around the middle of the harbor, quite a bit farther away than yesterday, but wonderful to see nonetheless.

Out at the tidelands, over 1000 gulls, mostly MEW GULLS swarmed like a highly localized blizzard. I suspect an eagle may have had something to do with this. Small groups of Mew gulls flew overhead and others floated serenely in the calm, golden water. A flock of about 11 COMMON MURRES flew frantically, looping far inland and then back out to sea. I found a carcass, partially eaten, by the highway. It's a dangerous business, being a murre.

Three ROCK SANDPIPERS suddenly flitted up and flew a short distance away. They landed right at the high tide line and began rummaging through the fresh seaweed, picking out the tiny pink and reddish Macoma clams. This clam seems to be a favorite of many shorebirds, and recent storms have washed many colorful shells on shore. The trio worked its way towards me, picking and eating. 

I moved away to swim the good dog and refound them on the way back. They rested on a log, head tucked under wing, until the rising tide nudged them higher. By slowly post-holing around behind them up to my knees in softening snow, I managed to avoid disturbing them. It was a very fine afternoon to take a snooze in the sun.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Wednesday, February 8, 2012 Red eyes: Loons and Grebes

Seward, Alaska Sporadic Bird Report

Sunrise 8:55 am, sunset 5:29 pm, length of day 8 hours, 33 minutes; tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 14 seconds longer.

Weather: As forecast, solemn gray clouds slid in late last night bringing light but steady rain all day. Temps rose to the high 30s-40º, the wind remained calm, and either ice skates or ice cleats became mandatory for those wishing to stand upright.

Three species of loons fished in the Seward Boat Harbor today: PACIFIC, COMMON, and YELLOW-BILLED. A juvenile yellow-billed loon approached and surfaced quietly nearby, regarding me calmly with its dark red eyes. An intricate, beautiful pattern of white scallops graced its brown back. The face was very pale, fading to white along the throat and breast. Its yellow-tipped bill faded to light blue-gray by the head; the nostrils were deeply inset below a strong middle ridge. It dove and resurfaced with a tiny fish in its bill, which it held for a long moment, and then tossed it down the hatch.

COMMON GOLDENEYES paddled past, glancing up at me lurking behind my temporary blind, some equipment on the dock. I eased my way farther down the finger towards the more open water as rain spattered the calm water. A harbor seal poked its periscope head up through thin ice and looked around; a black PELAGIC CORMORANT surfaced and dove. A pair of COMMON MURRES paddled silently past, side by side. How different they are in summer, nesting in noisy crowded colonies on steep rocky cliffs, diving down hundreds of feet to bring back fish for their single chick.

A pair of HORNED GREBES dove actively, one mirroring the other. They too surfaced nearby, close enough to see their red eyes and the thin red color line connecting the eye to the pale blue-gray bill. There was no sign of the dramatic breeding plumage yet to come on this dapper black-capped grebe.

I spotted two PACIFIC LOONS in the mid-harbor. One gradually approached as I hid behind a piling. It surfaced nearby, but moved off suspiciously. I could see its dark red eyes, slender pale blue-gray bill, and a small patch of vertical dark gray and white striping at the base of the long white throat decorated with a thin "necklace" by the chin.

Glancing towards the harbor entrance, I gasped inwardly. A majestic large loon paddled serenely into the harbor like the Queen Mary. It was much darker than the juvenile yellow-billed loon with a brilliant white prow. As it headed straight towards me, closer and closer, I saw it was almost in breeding plumage. What happened next was unbelievable! The adult YELLOW-BILLED LOON continued to paddle right to me, dove directly underneath and emerged on the other side where it stretched its magnificent star-spangled wings before paddling leisurely onwards. I was smitten with its beauty and regal bearing.

Seward is extremely fortunate to have such rare and exceptional guests.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Tuesday, February 7, 2012 Mostly seabirds and a snow bunting

Seward, Alaska Sporadic Bird Report

Sunrise 8:58 am, sunset 5:26 pm, length of day 8 hours, 28 minutes; tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 13 seconds longer. Full moon tonight; watch for Venus followed by Jupiter, then the red planet Mars shining in the Zodiac.

Weather: 20º in the morning, rising to 34º by mid-afternoon, calm, sunny, and spectacular. Not a cloud in the vast blue sky. People walked around like zombies on ice cleats, dazed by the bright and warm (!) sunshine. Hard to believe the forecast of snow showers and strong winds for the rest of the week. February is fickle, beaming one day and pouting the next.

I didn't see Robin C's SHARP-SHINNED HAWK in town or his LONG-TAILED DUCK at Spring Creek Beach. I missed Jim H's YELLOW-BILLED LOON in the boat harbor, diving under the thick ice. I missed a lot of birds these past few days; I don’t know where they all went.

There are, however, still a lot of COMMON MURRES in the inner bay, in long loose rafts. I observed several small groups of 4-6 flying. Their awkward landing as they smacked down created a huge splash. I wonder why they are expending so much energy flying? The BALD EAGLES target them like floating lunchboxes. Murres in Skagway are in trouble, dying in large numbers after a storm last week. The murres may be in trouble here too.

It's quite dramatic driving along Lowell Point Road. Somehow, the brave road crew carved a path through two towering avalanches that dwarf vehicles. Be alert for more additions to nature's sculpture when we get more wet snow!

Lowell Point Beach this afternoon featured over 3 feet of softening snow on the uplands, a section of sloping ice at the high tide line, and a tiny strip of beach. Two COMMON MERGANSERS paddled away, sunshine sparkling in their wakes. Along the wrack line, I found a single SNOW BUNTING, hungrily hopping along, gleaning tiny morsels from the seaweed. It was very tolerant, and passed quite close to me. The arrival of sun-starved people and their dogs soon crowded out this  unnoticed guest and forced it to seek a quieter place to eat.

I enjoyed watching one of my favorite sea ducks, the BARROW'S GOLDENEYE along Lowell Point Road. A HORNED GREBE struggled to subdue a long, skinny fish (gunnel?), and finally succeeded.

Two BALD EAGLES stroked overhead; one turned and graciously circled to give me a spectacular view of its enormous, broad wings against the pure blue sky as I madly took photos. Then they paired up and flew off down the shimmering bay on their secret rendezvous.

As the sun reached the western mountains, ever higher and later, the eastern mountains, anchored by Mt Alice, stunned me with their snowy grandeur. Shadows stole across the town, the icy tidelands, the calm bay, and finally reached the white hem of Alice's robe. Soon, Venus proclaimed the stage was set for the night sky. Watch for the full moon flanked by Jupiter and Mars.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter