Friday, November 30, 2012 Kenai Song Sparrow Study

Our Alaskan SONG SPARROW is so much darker and chunkier than the eastern subspecies. Since my subject posed so nicely today, I thought I'd share its photos in this Song Sparrow Study. It even showed me its pink tongue!

Ed Clark responded to my request for Song Sparrow comments. He noted there are SEVEN subspecies of SONG SPARROWS in Alaska.  The largest are on Attu in the western Aleutians and the smallest on Hyder in Southeast. This song sparrow (above) is a Kenai Song Sparrow.

Wikipedia sorts the 24 subspecies of this North American sparrow by geographic region. According to several scientific studies by Dr. Christin Pruett, there isn't enough genetic differentiation to make them into separate species, despite their obvious differences in body size, plumage coloration, and song dialects.

Thanks to Ed for his personal observations and to Wikipedia at

Here are the subspecies of Melospiza melodia and where they are found:

maxima, the Giant Song Sparrow: Attu, Shemya, Atka
         Very gray overall, long, diffuse streaks. Bill long and slender.

sanka, the Aleutian Song Sparrow: Dutch Harbor, Cold Bay, False Pass
          Similar to maxima; grayer still and bill even more slender.

insignis, Bischoff Song Sparrow: Kodiak Island and nearby islands
           Many migrate. A darkish grey, medium-sized form.

kenaiensis, Kenai Song Sparrow: Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound islands
         Some resident, some migrant. Smaller and browner than insignis.

caurina, Yakutat Song Sparrow: Cordova, Yakutat, Cape Yakataga, north Gulf of Alaska coast, many migrate to Pacific Northwest
         A smaller version of kenaiensis.

rufina, Sooty Song Sparrow: Sitka; Ketchikan, outer islands of Alexander Archipelago and Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands)
         A very dark, rufous, and small form.

merrilli: Merrill's Song Sparrow: Hyder, Stikine River corridor, also in N Nevada

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Friday, November 30, 2012 A great day to bird!

Seward Sporadic Bird Report

I returned to Lowell Point this morning, hoping to refind Louann's remarkable pair of Bramblings and maybe get a peek at her skinny black bear. I didn't find either, but it was a lovely time out of the increasingly stronger north wind.

I walked along Beach Drive. WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILLS sang from swaying spruce tops; PINE SISKINS zipped in voice and action between trees. A stately pair of BALD EAGLES roosted in another spruce, out of the wind and in the sun. They seemed well fed and content to sit there for hours. Two NORTHWESTERN CROWS perched in a Mt Ash, snacking on the frozen red fruit. The ever-present MAGPIES investigated everything, flamboyantly dashing here and there. One perched nearby as if to inquire exactly what I was doing, and did I happen to have any food? Such a beautiful bird, such an elegant tail! No Juncos and no Bramblings.

I walked back to the beach parking lot and watched "Sparrow Corner". Several WHITE-CROWNED, GOLDEN-CROWNED, and SONG SPARROWS hopped up and down from the ground to the shrubby spruce trees. One Song Sparrow graciously allowed me to photograph it, front, sides, and back. Now why, I wondered, not for the first or last time, couldn't a Brambling be as cooperative?

Perky little CHESTNUT-BACKED CHICKADEES busily went about their business. Chittering DARK-EYED JUNCOS flitted through. No Brambling. (s)

I checked the young spruce trees and alders by the beach with my able furry assistants happily fielding balls and sticks. I saw no seabirds at all in this sheltered lee while the whitecaps raged on the bay just around the corner. A BALD EAGLE flew past, silhouetted against the low sun and the golden hazy sky. Then a silhouetted NW CROW flew over to Pinnacle Rock with a berry in its beak, and just as his fellow crow arrived, dramatically gulped it down. It was amusing how a berry in someone else's beak was so much more desirable than the hundreds left in abundance on the trees.

The Bramblings escaped me once again, but the effort was not wasted.

Thanks to a tip, I found nearly 100 SURF SCOTERS diving quite close to shore along the Greenbelt in front of town. Two female BLACK SCOTERS swam at the front of their scraggly line. It's been a long time since we've had this many skunk heads.

Over by the Uplands, I spotted 2 pairs of MARBLED MURRELETS and a pair of HORNED GREBES swimming and diving in the waves. Four PELAGIC CORMORANTS, including a very brown juvenile, and several COMMON MERGANSERS swam in the boat harbor with BARROW'S GOLDENEYES.

Just before the sun set at 1:15 (on the west side of the bay), I refound several RUSTY BLACKBIRDS and ROBINS at the horse corral. Also PINE GROSBEAKS, PINE SISKINS, BALD EAGLES, RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH, DOWNY WOODPECKER, MAGPIES, STELLER'S JAYS, RAVENS, and NW CROWS.

Robin C drove back into the sunlight on the east side of the bay and found a COMMON LOON in the SMIC boat basin. Loons have been very scarce so far this winter. I'm happy he found one.

Brambling or no, it was a great day to bird!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Thursday, November 29, 2012 Agile Eagle Hunter

Seward Sporadic Bird Report

Cold (upper teens) and clear with a hazy sky due to glacial dust in the air. Very strong north wind!

On my way out to Lowell Point today, I spotted an adult BALD EAGLE swerving and wheeling just offshore, scarcely above the waves. I pulled over and watched in amazement.

After the brief flyover, it rose up a short distance and hovered, ponderously flapping its giant wings to remain in a fixed position, ready to pounce. I assumed this was the spot where a hapless duck dove. That duck held its breath a long time, longer than the eagle could hover. Breaking away, the eagle stroked upwards, framed against the snowy mountains, briefly caught its breath then soared back down. The clever duck watched carefully, probably catching its breath too.  The determined eagle swooped, rose up, deftly spun around and plunged. At the last instant, the duck dove, leaving nothing but a splash. Again, the eagle hovered then flew low over the waves, watching, watching. Nothing. The eagle's beak was open, breathing hard. I could feel its frustration and desire for that duck. Hungry!

This pattern repeated several more times, each time leaving the eagle with nothing but a splash of salt water. Finally, it broke off and stroked for a nearby spruce to rest and reconsider the menu. I don't know how long the eagle had been hunting before I arrived, but I watched the drama unfold for 7 minutes. What an agile athlete! I have never seen an eagle work so hard for lunch!

After the danger had passed, I finally saw the duck, a male BARROW'S GOLDENEYE. He must be much healthier than last winter's starving, sluggish Common Murres that seemed to have an "Eat me" sign on their backs. Still, I wondered why the Goldeneye was alone as they usually hang out in a large raft.

I continued to Lowell Point Beach to walk and swim the good dog. After I left the beach, I heard a loud whistling and whirring. I turned around to see a huge flock of at least 200 hundred BARROW'S GOLDENEYES flying from around the point to the protected area by Pinnacle Rock. I wonder if "Lunch" was with them, glad to be alive and an anonymous part of the crowd.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

November 28, 2012 Rusty Blackbirds and Kingfisher

Seward, Alaska Sporadic Bird Report

Sunrise 9:29 am, sunset 4:02 pm, length of day 8 hours, 20 minutes; tomorrow will be 3 minutes and 30 seconds shorter. Actual daylight is shortened to about 10:30 am to 2:30 pm in town due to the mountains. Venus shines bright every morning before dawn; Jupiter leads Orion over the same eastern mountains at night. The beautiful full moon reportedly experienced a partial eclipse today, but I missed it.

Weather: Clear and cold continues! Temps in the low 20s, wind from the north. The lack of snow insulation is driving the frost deeper and deeper. It must be very hard on animals like voles and shrews that depend on the snow for cover and warmth. And that in turn, creates hardship for owls and hawks.

On the other hand, the abundant spruce cone crop provides fuel for seed-eaters like white-winged crossbills, pine siskins, pine grosbeaks, and the bramblings. Fruit-eaters like the robins, waxwings, crows, ravens, juncos, and pine grosbeaks feast on the berry-laden Mt Ash trees. Watch for more raptor activity around these food sources and at bird feeders as they switch prey to survive. A chance of snow is forecast for early next week.

Unleaded gas dropped to $4.15/gallon.

The bird hotspot this morning was the horse corral, viewed from Dairy Hill Lane right across from Benny Benson Park. A juvenile BALD EAGLE soared and spiraled overhead, catching the low morning light. An adult chittered from its sunny perch in a spruce. RAVENS cruised overhead, likely on their way to visit local eateries/dumpsters for breakfast. Others enjoyed some leisure time, hanging out on one of the 1964 Earthquake ghost trees. One dazzling male courted his beloved, belly sucked in, neck extended, and iridescent throat feathers impressively fluffed up. In a wink, three more ravens joined the couple, and a little game of "I'm higher than you!" ensued on the perfectly placed, ladder-like branches.

A male KINGFISHER rattled overhead and perched on the powerline over the open water by the Lagoon culvert. It's always great to see a kingfisher! After a bit, he flew to another ghost tree, and then rattled away.

About ten ROBINS flew around the wetlands ringing the horse pasture. They spent most of the time on the frozen overflow and snow patches under the dead grasses. I'm not sure what they found to eat there. Frozen spiders? Insects? Seeds? They are tough birds! They too, took a turn in the sun on the ghost trees.

The finale was the talkative, creaky chatter of RUSTY BLACKBIRDS.  They were hard to count when they joined the Robins on the ice, hidden in the grasses. I saw at least 3 very dark, almost black, males, and at least 2 lighter brown females (or juveniles). Yesterday, Kit D. counted 6, but there could be a few more. Eventually 4 flew up into the ghost tree and warmed up in the sun.

It was interesting how every species, (add MAGPIES, STELLER'S JAYS, and even JUNCOS) used the ghost trees. The scenic old trees provide a nice roost in the sun and a vantage point, both as a place to see and be seen. Check them first when you bird the horse corral. Quietly watch the unfolding dramas for a while. You won't be disappointed!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Tuesday, November 27, 2012 Brambling, Lincoln Sparrow, and Rusty Blackbird

Seward, Alaska Sporadic Bird Report

Another cold clear day, with temps in the 20s and a north wind.

Robin C reported 6 ROBINS, 6 JUNCOS, and a single RUSTY BLACKBIRD at the horse corral this afternoon. WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILLS sang like it was spring from the tops of the cone-laden spruce trees at Two Lakes Park.

Lots of bird action at Lowell Point this afternoon too. While I was intently searching the alders and spruce along the road, looking for little birds like juncos and perhaps a brambling or two, a gangly GREAT BLUE HERON suddenly flapped from one spruce tree to another, then disappeared into the branches so only the tip of its long bill and a bit of lanky belly were visible.

The young spruce and alder clump across the road seemed alive with sparrows. The musical song of the WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW attracted my attention first. I found two, then a GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROW, and a DARK-EYED JUNCO. They took turns hopping up on a branch in the sun. Why couldn't the Brambling do that, I wondered. Then a LINCOLN'S SPARROW popped up for its turn. I haven't seen a Lincoln's for a while.

More action high in the spruce tops drew my attention to the PINE SISKINS, WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILLS, and JUNCOS. Ah ha! There was that colorful fellow! In the sun, mostly unobstructed, busily feeding on spruce seeds for more than a millisecond.  All my criteria except for close. Nonetheless, it was great to see the BRAMBLING again. Then off he flew, the sun went down, and that was that!

In other news, yesterday, Jim H reported a KINGFISHER in the north harbor around 10 am, 2 GREAT BLUE HERONS on the pilings by the Alaska Sealife Center, a pair of MARBLED MURRELETS at Caines Head and another pair at Tonsina around 1 pm.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Sunday, November 25, 2012 Harrier and Brambling

Seward Sporadic Bird Report

Another beautiful clear day! Optimistic that maybe it wouldn't be windy at the head of the bay, I returned to look for the snow buntings, hoping for better light. Wrong! While it wasn't quite as blustery as before, it was brisk. The good dog chose the stick-du-jour and blithely jumped in after it. After a lot of shaking off and snow-toweling, she trotted off with it and looked back to tell me once was enough.

I walked Frosty back to the car, and as I turned to pick up her stick, a NORTHERN HARRIER suddenly popped up and flew past! I watched the graceful flier swoop low over the waving grasses, angle up into the wind, then tuck one wing to stoop abruptly down and loop back. How I hope she (or possibly a juvenile) finds many fat, tasty voles to fuel her through the long night!

That little expedition was exciting but too short, so I headed for Lowell Point. Several PELAGIC CORMORANTS dotted the bay, spread far apart. In contrast, over 200 BAROW'S GOLDENEYES paddled in a long line like scoters, heading into the shallow waters by the Point. I pulled over as they bunched up and swam closer. Their golden eyes glowed in the sun and in that light, the handsome males' black heads turned a glossy purple. A few HARLEQUIN DUCKS trailed behind.

I found 5 female/juvenile BUFFLEHEADS and the lone first winter HARLEQUIN male at Lowell Point Beach while the good dog warmed up enough to swim again.  Then I joined Doug and Debi from Eagle River and Robin C. The rest of the short afternoon was mostly a study of JUNCOS when they could be found, and of alders and spruce cones when they disappeared.

The WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW sang its cheerful winter song, the FOX SPARROW, SONG SPARROW, and GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS all popped up. Streaky PINE SISKINS probed the spruce cones. Colorful male WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILLS and CHESTNUT-BACKED CHICKADEES ignited hope whenever they appeared, followed by disappointment. After several hours, it seemed this would not be an epic Life Bird day for D&D.

As the sun sank behind the mountain around 2:30 pm, the light faded and the temperature instantly dropped. Dave pointed excitedly at a bird in an alder. YES! He found it! It was bright, orange and white and black, patterned, and very unique. Robin refound it as it flew to the top of a nearby spruce and ate the tiny seeds. The light was abysmal and he was far away, but we did get some documentary photos.

Congratulations to Doug and Debi!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter