September 29-30 Homer to Kodiak Pelagic Bird Field Trip

Seward Sporadic Bird Reporter on the M/V Tustumena

On Friday, September 29th, Joe Staab and I drove from Seward to Homer to sail on the M/V Tustumena ferry to Kodiak and back. Due to the massive storms on September 26th and 27th, it was running way behind schedule. The scheduled 9:30 am Saturday departure was rescheduled to 2:30 pm, and finally to 6 pm. At 5 pm, we met Gary Lyons of Homer, the only other participant in this pelagic adventure, at the ferry terminal. As daylight rapidly waned during an interminable vehicle loading process, we were finally underway.

There were so few passengers we had our choice of spots. The upper deck Solarium proved to be the best place to bird. From the dock to the bay, we found the usual BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKES, GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS, MEW GULLS, COMMON MURRES in both summer and winter plumage, PELAGIC CORMORANTS, a DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT, BALD EAGLES, ROCK PIGEONS, PIGEON GUILLEMOTS, HARLEQUIN DUCKS, and a smattering of BLACK, WHITE-WINGED, and SURF SCOTERS. As twilight deepened, a bright full moon rose rapidly over Halibut Cove, illuminating the glaciers and snowy mountains across Kachemak Bay.

In the moonlit waters, both Joe and Gary caught a glimpse of a very rare EVENING ALBATROSS, which can only be seen by the light of the rising Harvest Moon. At the Tusty's steady pace of 13.8 knots per hour, we didn't even make Seldovia before nightfall. As there were no birds attracted to the ferry's lights, we turned in, looking forward to a full day of birding on the return trip.

The loudspeaker awakened everyone around 4:30 am on Sunday. I looked outside to see dark, low-lying landforms slipping past. An occasional steadfast blinking light marked dangerous rocks and jutting headlands. Overhead, Jupiter shone above Orion and his faithful dog Sirius, the brightest star in the clear night sky. Luminous Venus preceded the sun. Ghostly white gulls flew alongside the ferry. It was going to be a great day!

At dawn, I was surprised to see snow dusting the rosy hills behind town. Six wind turbines graced the hillside, all but one turned effortlessly, cranking out electricity for the town. Mountain peaks south of town wore white halfway down the slopes. A BALD EAGLE soared over town, and an early morning RAVEN flew in to start its day. After a brief excursion into town for some wonderful local hospitality, we raced back to the dock and reboarded at 7 am. The bemused crew knew all about this "unusual" group of wacko birders who wanted to get right back on for another 9 ½ + hours of ocean travel and waved us on. After another hour of loading vehicles, we finally left the dock.

In addition to the numerous GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS, we found MALLARDS, HARLEQUIN DUCKS, BLACK OYSTERCATCHERS, NW CROWS, and another BALD EAGLE perched on the streetlight over the bridge. A BELTED KINGFISHER flew overhead. Across the channel on Woody Island, an enormous bull Steller's sea lion posed in the sun, admired by a group of juveniles piled up a respectful distance away. As the ferry turned around we saw everything one more time, and then we were underway.

Away from shore, BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKES seemed more numerous than any other gull. A PARASITIC JAEGER chased one relentlessly, living up to its name. COMMON MURRES dove in synchrony at the ferry's approach; HORNED PUFFINS in winter plumage paddled furiously to get airborne and finally bounced away or dove awkwardly.  There were far fewer TUFTED PUFFINS, all black with a huge orange bill and no tufts. A beautiful PACIFIC LOON flew alongside the ferry and then crossed in front. A short time later, a RED-THROATED LOON in winter plumage did the same.

Far off towards the eastern horizon, a flock of 60+ white birds in a long, long line flew south, migrating over the Gulf of Alaska. We guessed either SWANS, though the angle of flight did not show long necks, or possibly SNOW GEESE, but at that the distance they did not show black wing tips. Joe found two CASSIN'S AUKLETS, and Gary found two PARAKEET AUKLETS; tiny, tough birds to find in the rolling seas with the chilly wind shaking the optics.

On several occasions, Dall's porpoises eagerly raced towards the ferry and played in the bow and stern waves. It was easy to spot them coming as exuberant jets of white spray shot up in rapid succession.

More and more SHEARWATERS appeared; the larger, bulkier SOOTY SHEARWATERS showed more white than the SHORT-TAILED. Joe shouted, "BULLER'S SHEARWATER!" and there it was, gliding along showing its brilliant all white front.

Just before the Barren Islands, the ferry maneuvered between pods of humpback and fin whales. The white-capped, steely blue ocean simply erupted with white plumes as the whales breathed rhythmically. At times, I counted upwards of 50 spouts at once. The fin whales' long backs stretched a long ways, and we didn't see any tails. The tall, snowy Alaska Peninsula, including volcanic Mt Iliamna, provided a spectacular backdrop. NORTHERN FULMARS appeared in this area as well.

The pelagic birds dropped off near the treeless Barrens, and the usual gulls and kittiwakes returned.  Soon, we spotted the tiny community of Nanwalek, squeezed between the rugged Kenai Mountains and the sea. The scenery continued to roll past at the ferry's leisurely but steady pace. We entered Kachemak Bay with Seldovia to starboard, and inched upon the spit, past sea otters and patches of kelp. Around 5 pm, we docked and walked away, leaving the ferry to finish unloading the vehicles and get ready to depart once again.

All in all, it was a very interesting, fun, and inspiring trip. What an incredible, scenic, and wild place! Had we gone a week earlier, we may have seen more unusual species including petrels, shearwaters, and albatrosses. However, due to the same tropical storms that brought them north, birding would have been terrible from a storm-tossed ferry with a rock-and-roll ride. We were very fortunate to grab a window of clear, sunny weather with mild seas.

Interesting website for Sooty and Short-tailed Shearwater ID:

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter on the Alaska Marine Highway

PS I recommend bringing some glass cleaner and a small squeegee to clean the salt spray off the windows to improve viewing and photography from the shelter of the Solarium.

PPS: I appreciate any help with identification of unlabeled birds and corrections to any labeled photos. 

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