Monday, June 17, 2013 Trumpeter Swans and Rusty Blackbirds

Seward, Alaska Sporadic Bird Report

Sunrise 4:31 am, sunset 11:26 pm for a total of 18 hours and 54 minutes. Tomorrow will be only 31 seconds longer as we roll towards the Summer Solstice.

HOT! A new all-time high temperature record was set today in Seward, 88º! The previous record of 87º was set on July 4, 1999, when Mt Marathon racers passed out from heat exhaustion and some had to be hospitalized. But hey, Talkeetna set a new record of 94º! Go jump in the Susitna!

The sky is hazy; the remaining snow on the mountains looks beaten, resigned to join the swollen rivers rushing to the sea. Despite the heat and dryness, almost everything but lawns is green and blooming. Coolling sprinklers provide welcome relief to humans while enticing robins, sparrows, Steller's jays, and warblers.

This afternoon, a friend and I drove north to the Seward Highway Mile 15 pullout. Immediately upon exiting the car, I heard the unmistakable piercing whistle of a RUSTY BLACKBIRD. The glossy black fellow with a white eye was perched on the top of a spruce tree quite near the parking area. He posed for a minute or more, then flew down and out of sight on the other side. Throughout our visit, he whistled from that grove of spruce several times. I saw two birds flying at one point, but not well enough to see if it was a female. It would be wonderful, and is likely, that they would be nesting near this wetlands.

The nesting TRUMPETER SWANS attracted a lot of visitors armed with optics from spotting scopes and professional cameras with telephoto lens, down to point and shoots and camera phones. When the rush cleared, we walked slowly onto the boardwalk. One swan incubated the eggs or kept them cool in the sweltering sun, but the other one started swimming towards us. We froze every time the swan's head was above water, then moved quickly when it fed, its head deeply submerged. In this stop-and-go fashion, we easily moved into position without scaring it.

Soon, it was just yards away, tipping it pure white body tail-up to the blue sky among the blooming yellow pond lilies. At times, its powerful black webbed feet flailed the air, the bird perfectly balanced and probing the depths. I should have timed these dives; it sure seemed to hold its breath a long time! When it emerged, the pure-white head was streaked with brown as if combed by a beautician. Lovely even when dirty!

After a while, the swan paddled even closer, nipping the emergent water horsetails and eating the long, coarse stems. The ancient horsetail is loaded with silica, good for scrubbing pots at camp; I didn't realize they had any nutritional value. The swan knew otherwise and ate voraciously. The long reddish stripe along its glistening black beak showed serrations on the edge, helpful for cutting the horsetails off at the joints.

As we were leaving, several cars pulled in and many people piled onto the boardwalk. Too bad they didn't know the "stop and go" method; the swan studied them and then majestically paddled far away.

Of note, the RED-NECKED GREBES' nest is now well concealed by tall green horsetails. One parent incubated (or shaded) the nest while the other popped up briefly in the pond. A single CANADA or CACKLING GOOSE sat, perhaps on a nest, to the right of the swan and grebe nests. I heard a SWAINSON'S THRUSH in the distance. This is a really worthwhile place to stop and spend some quality time birding.

On the way home, we stopped at the Bear Lake weir. The red salmon were jockeying for position in Bear Creek below the culverts. On the other side of the road, salmon erupted out of the foaming white water and flew through the air, flinging themselves against the metal bars of the weir. Such tremendous strength and power! Others, that found the opening in the weir, were lifted up in a "fish elevator" and sorted by sex for further processing by hatchery workers. 6000 of each sex will be released into Bear Lake to spawn, and others will be egg and milt donors for the next generation of hatchery raised salmon.

Tourists probably did not see the little gray bird, standing quietly on the iron grate above the cascading waterfall. The DIPPER family is out and about with at least two babies fledged. Watch for them along the creek as you enjoy the spectacular red salmon.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Very Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

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