Wednesday, March 7, 2012 The Loon and Sea Mammal Show

Seward, Alaska Sporadic Bird Report

Sunrise 7:36 am, sunset 6:41 pm, length of day 11 hours, 5 minutes; tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 30 seconds longer.

Weather: A second stunningly spectacular winter day! Last week's storm dumped at least 8-10" of snow in town, more out of town. The brilliant white, thick snow blanket is heaped into jumbled mounds up to 10' high along driveways and street intersections. My dog is thrilled to run up our snow slide to play ball on the roof.  The snow reflects the high beam sunshine up into the clear blue dome; it's painful without sunglasses. With temps in the mid 20s, it's easy to walk without snowshoes, though ice grippers are still needed. The forecast includes the return of the brisk north wind, which I do not miss at all!

At 4:14 pm, the sun burst forth from the west side of Bear Mountain, which to me is an event as monumental as the Solstice alignment at Stonehenge. Though it soon dipped below the craggy mountain, every day will bring it up a little higher and longer until it soars free, high as an eagle.

After the sun set this evening, the sky turned a deep violet; bright Venus and sparkling Jupiter sailed side by side in its wake. The full moon rose over snow-cloaked Mt Alice, dimming the stars, red Mars trailed above her. The show continued into the night with a chance of northern lights.

Today was exhilarating, entertaining, educational, and exceedingly excellent! I wandered over to the boat harbor where a layer of ice restricted bird activity to limited open water. 

I spied a juvenile YELLOW-BILLED LOON and an adult COMMON LOON and crept closer to watch, partially hidden by the walkway. The yellow-billed loon paddled about, snorkeling and peering underwater, gradually getting closer and closer. Suddenly, it dove under the walkway beneath me. The water was so clear, I could watch it do the "frog kick" with its large webbed feet, wings tucked in, yellow-tipped dagger leading, so streamlined. It swam underwater for quite a ways and popped up close to a Steller sea lion.

The sea lion exhaled loudly then surged though the water and dove. Next, a sea otter appeared with a bright pink rockfish head and spent considerable time gnawing on the inside. I understand otters can get parasites from eating fish, but it's easy food here. The loon and sea otter drifted closer and closer until, much to the loon's and my amazement, the otter tried to catch the loon!

The poor bird frantically stroked away with its large, ungainly wings, barely escaping, and continued flapping awkwardly in terror long after the otter had given up. Sheesh! First fish heads and then a loon?

The adult COMMON LOON did not seem to learn from this incident and soon it too drifted near the otter, but fortunately the otter was busy with another fish head as big as its own and ignored the trusting bird.

A pair of BARROW'S GOLDENEYES, one female and the other a young male, shot under the walkway, wings whistling musically. How nice to create a song with every wingbeat! The birds circled several times and then landed with a brief splashdown skid. They seemed very wary and served as good watchbirds, if the less cautious loons paid attention.

A single RED-NECKED GREBE paddled over and under. I was in a very prime spot! It dove for a bit then took a snooze in the warm sunshine, ice notwithstanding.

The loons seemed companionable cousins, choosing to hang out together. It was interesting to see how much larger the yellow-billed loon is compared to the common loon. After the common loon struggled with a unruly fish part (apparently quite a selection of fish parts here) and finally got it down, it was nap time. The yellow-billed loon preened and then dozed off as well. What a magical moment, watching two magnificent loons drift lazily, eyes shut, just relaxing and digesting lunch. It must have been a power nap as neither bird tucked its head under a wing, and it didn't last long.

After a while, the yellow-billed loon revived, serenely paddled over, closer and closer, and once again dove right under the walkway where I could watch it swim underwater. I could never get tired of watching that! The common loon chose a different direction and cruised slowly away. I quietly left, wishing them well, grateful for such an amazing encounter.

In other news:
February 29: 2-3 GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS reported at a feeder in town. A SHARP-SHINNED HAWK watched from a fence and then dug into the snow after them without any luck.

March 1: Five SNOW BUNTINGS at the beach. I watched a RAVEN attack and kill, but not eat, a COMMON MURRE.

March 3, a NORTHERN GOSHAWK reported to have killed and eaten a JUNCO at a feeder in town.

March 4: HOODED MERGANSER male reported in Clear Creek.

March 6: I spotted five BRANT flying over the bay at high tide, but did not see them today. It's nice to know they may still be around. Also, I found one SNOW BUNTING picking through the wrack at the tideline. It's unusual to find just one of these flocking birds.

Two COMMON MURRES lay trapped in the ice in the boat harbor where they struggled and died overnight. Such a sad sight. The BALD EAGLES continue to feast on these starving birds, strewing carcasses on the ground. There should be a healthy population of eaglets come spring with such well-fed parents.

Robin C reported the HOODED MERGANSER male was once again in saltwater by the seafood processing plant bird feeder with the usual SCOTERS et al, but not many gulls.  He is pretty sure he saw a HOARY REDPOLL at Ava's, with a very white rump and overall light color.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

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