June 2, 2012 Yakutat Aleutian Tern Festival Part 3

Saturday morning: overcast, cool, and calm with just a few sprinkles.

The 7 am songbird field trip headed to the productive Tawah Creek at Cannon Beach Bridge. According to the Festival handout, this is a designated Watchable Wildlife Site with wetlands and open meadows next to a mature coastal spruce/hemlock rainforest. The muted thundering surf at Cannon Beach could be heard in the distance. Friday morning, many WESTERN WOOD-PEEWEES were first found here and a most unusual sighting of a CEDAR WAXWING. We looked and listened hard, finding many of the usual warblers (though not the Common Yellowthroat). Finally, one wood-peewee showed up and began "hawking" for insects from a willow. It was the same species I had seen Friday afternoon; very cool.

The 9 am songbird field trip started at the sandy shores of Strawberry Point. We walked along the sandy beach, threading our way through the jumbles of driftwood. One of the leaders, biologist Bill Lucey, noted that the black sand contained iron-rich minerals such as magnetite. It would be interesting to bring a magnet! He pointed out a huge dark cut log and remarked that it was probably mahogany, lost at sea in transit. The growth rings were almost indistinguishable due to the lack of seasons near the equator. He also pointed out coyote scat full of hair with its twisted ends. Farther down the beach, a shallow bed scooped out of the sand showed where a brown bear made a bed. Mounds of momma bear and baby bear scat, green with beach greens and seeds, adorned the adjacent bathroom. The playroom featured a discarded and flattened plastic container punctured by tooth marks for idle entertainment. Quite the home for this family; glad to see it without the owners.

SONG, SAVANNAH, LINCOLN, and FOX SPARROWS sang from the driftwood perches. BALD EAGLES decorated strategic perches all down the beach. A female NORTHERN HARRIER hunted voles in the beach ryegrass. SEMI-PALMATED PLOVERS searched for invertebrates along the sandy shore. ALEUTIAN and ARCTIC TERNS flew over the estuary, diving headfirst into the water for breakfast. Flocks of distant ducks, including COMMON MERGANSERS, MALLARDS, WIGEON or possibly GADWALL arrowed down the far beach. MEW and GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS watched for opportunity to knock as they flew up and down the river.

We then walked a short way along a road through mixed shrubs and a meadow. VIOLET-GREEN and TREE SWALLOWS swooped overhead. GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS sang their plaintive, "Oh, dear me!" The usual array of WARBLERS darted in the willows and alders: YELLOW, YELLOW-RUMPED, ORANGE-CROWNED, and handsome Mr. WILSON in his black cap. A RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET belted out his out-sized song. The ever COMMON RAVEN watched from the spruce, and STELLER'S JAYS chased after unseen targets.

Soon we reached the Situk River, an internationally famous fishing destination with the state's largest wild steelhead run in all of Alaska. Up to 12 feet of heavy wet snow blocked the road this spring until late April, when the road crews finally got it open. Snow still lined the shady side of the area's roads, but access was now easy. With all the greenery, it was hard to imagine so much snow.

We walked along a path in the moss and lichen-festooned coastal forest. A picnic table was covered in a thick layer of mosses with mushrooms on top. Got rain? Bill pointed out tiny Pink salmon fry stirring the river's shallows, probably trying to escape a fishy predator. These fry will soon leave for the wide ocean. A KINGFISHER rattled downstream and a handsome OREGON JUNCO poked his head out of the bushes for a look. A SPOTTED SANDPIPER dipped and tipped on a log across the stream. Nearby were the remnants of the fish train trestle from the late 1800s. This train hauled fish and supplies from the Situk River to Yakutat to be processed. Now this stream was quiet, but soon it would be full of sports fishermen from all over the world and local commercial fishers.

More info on the historic Yakutat and Southern Railroad at:

After the tasty fund-raiser lunch of chicken long rice for the HS Boys basketball program, I attended several very interesting programs:
a Photography Workshop presented by Bob Armstrong, a Warbler ID workshop by Melissa Cady assisted by Gwen Baluss, a lecture on the History of Yakutat by Bert Adams Sr., and a talk by Ted Schurr on his Genographic Project on the genetic diversity of SE Alaska.

Bob discussed his philosophy of nature photography, preferring to capture behavior rather than portraits, the merits of prosumer vs DSLR cameras, the advantages of digiscoping, his use of the amazing and affordable Raynox super macro lens and other cool equipment, and preference for Photoshop Elements instead of the pricey Photoshop CS series.

Melissa presented photos and songs of all the warblers possible to this area and noted a very valuable website for learning warblers and other birds:  Nature Instruct, at http://www.natureinstruct.org. Photos, songs, calls, and even quizzes are available on-line to sharpen both audio and visual ID skills.

More information on Ted's exciting project: http://www.adn.com/2012/06/06/2494049/genetic-researchers-hope-to-trace.html

We enjoyed yet another delicious fund-raiser dinner, this time for the Alaska Native Brotherhood/Sisterhood, again in the ANB historic building. Bert Adams Sr. shared the story of how clever Raven created the Yakutat and Dry Bay area for people. Next, keynote speaker Bob Armstrong shared his wonderful photos and observations of Arctic and Aleutian Terns, and Black Oystercatchers.

Back at the lodge by 9 pm, the sun shone in a peaceful blue sky, too nice to go to bed. Dianne T. and I walked along the rocky beach around the small peninsula nearby. Ahead of us, a small grayish bird flitted from one rock to the next, then hawked insects from the beach alders. Another WESTERN WOOD-PEEWEE! Fun to see again and watch in the golden rays of the evening sun.

Mount St. Elias dominated the view over Monti Bay. And no wonder; it's the second highest mountain in North America at 18,008'. It's also the highest peak in the world rising so close to sea level.

Birds crowded onto a small but extended islet in the bay, resting and preening: at least 50 HARLEQUIN DUCKS, MEW, GLAUCOUS-WINGED, and BONAPARTE'S GULLS, ALEUTIAN and ARCTIC TERNS. A pair of PIGEON GUILLEMOTS paddled nearer shore with a COMMON LOON, also in full breeding plumage. A rainbow lit up the dark sky behind the loon; what a beautiful sight!

Once again, I hated to go inside, but tomorrow would be yet another early start to a busy day.

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