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-40ยบ, 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

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