Tuesday, December 31, 2013 Seward Swamp Sparrow still here!

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 10:01 am, sunset 4:00 pm for a total length of day of 5 hours and 59 minutes. Tomorrow will be 1 minute and 55 seconds longer.

After several sunny, mild, spring-like days, the clouds returned laden with gifts of rain as the temperatures rose steadily into the high 30s. The wind woke up on the wrong side of the bed, gusting from the south. The forecast calls for snow showers for New Year's Day through Friday.

I checked for the SWAMP SPARROW at 2:30 pm today. The setting looked hopeful with a few SLATE-COLORED and OREGON JUNCOS hopping about on the snow, sifting through the sunflower seeds scattered in front of the deck. BLACK-CAPPED and CHESTNUT-BACKED CHICKADEES cheerily announced their arrival; the loud whirring of the HAIRY WOODPECKER'S wings preceded his claim on the suet feeder; a DOWNY WOODPECKER sounded off with a big "peeenk!" as she scaled up the Mayday tree. RED-BREASTED NUTHATCHES "yank-yanked." But no Swamper.

Perhaps it was Killdeer time. I hoped the tide would be out far enough at Afognak Beach so I drove to the pullout at Mile 3, Nash Road. With the new moon, the tide had been quite high, 13.0' at noon. Three hours later, the choice intertidal rocky habitat just offshore was still underwater. No sign of the Killdeer, but as the grocery store was still closed, there was really no reason for it to be there yet. It would be dark before the saltwater receded far enough; morning would be a better time to check this beach.

I thought it might be too late at 3:30 pm to recheck Ava's, but as dusk descended, so did the sparrows at Ava's. First the JUNCOS hopped out from under her deck, then a TREE SPARROW or two. Then, ta-dah! out came the SWAMP SPARROW! Compared to the petite TREE SPARROWS (now numbering five), it looked chunky. Even the JUNCOS looked more svelte. All fed ravenously in preparation for the long, wet, night. Soon, it was too dark to see much, and it was time to go home.

I hope the Swamp Sparrow, Killdeer, Brambling, and White-throated Sparrow will be here next year, especially this weekend when several birders are planning to bird in Seward. Safe travels!

Wishing you all a very Happy, and Birdy, New Year!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Sunday, December 29, 2013 Seward meanderings

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 10:02 am, sunset 3:58 pm for a total of 5 hours and 55 minutes. Tomorrow will be 1 minute and 35 seconds longer.

Without the wind rattling around, it seemed quite mild and very pleasant today with temps from 32 to a high of 37ยบ.  The sun shone wanly behind pewter-colored clouds as it rolled across the southern sky. More impressive were the brilliant white, snowy peaks to the north etched into a backdrop of blue-gray clouds. Winter light, a symphony of blues, is so subtle and special.

Around noon, I checked the spruce-willow-alder hedge at Madison Street and Second Avenue. A glimpse of DARK-EYED JUNCOS on the ground and in the branches gave me hope. Soon, a droopy-winged VARIED THRUSH popped out, as bright as a pumpkin. I wondered if it was injured. As soon as it disappeared into the undergrowth, the female BRAMBLING flew out and briefly sat on a branch as if to say, "hello," then "later!" as it flew off across Second Ave.

I checked the feeders in the alley between Second and Third Ave, just a few houses north.  An OREGON JUNCO flew back and forth from a branch to the suet feeder, feasting as it twirled around. Juncos are usually content to scavenge on the ground, but at least some know how to feed at the source.

Dairy Hill featured a ruckus of RAVENS, parading around, horns up, their magnificent, iridescent shaggy throat and pantaloon feathers ruffled out. They didn't care for company and most leapt into the air and away, jousting and cracking jokes. The one that lingered paused to look at me; his eye seemed to hold the wisdom of many years. Awesome ravens!

Ava's was quiet except for a few BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEES, RED-BREASTED NUTHATCHES, and a HAIRY WOODPECKER. No sign of the Swamp Sparrow. I headed for Mile 3, Nash Road to look for the Killdeer. The tide was fairly high, but receding. Hmmm. I could rush around and look for other birds at the end of Nash Road, or just stay and enjoy this place at this time. What a delight to relax, to stop wishing I were some place else, and to savor the moment and place at hand.

I wandered down the beach, following the retreating tideline, and found myself at the head of the bay on the east side of the Resurrection River. I spotted the large flock of about 70 SNOW BUNTINGS in the distance, feeding in the gravelly tide flats. Perhaps they were getting grit, or marine invertebrates out there. I took several distant images, content to watch them without disturbance. After a while, they took flight to the beach ryegrass amidst the snow along shore, busily feeding on seeds.

I turned my attention to the astonishing number of MEW GULLS at the tide's edge and along Salmon Creek and Resurrection River. Where were they during Count Week and Count Day? There may have been upwards of 200 packed along the tide line. NORTHWESTERN CROWS worked the beach alongside them, pulling out marine invertebrates and mussels.

Suddenly, I heard a whirring of wings and high cries; the SNOW BUNTINGS flew all around me then settled to feed nearby. How amazing to have them come to me! After enjoying the show, I meandered along the ocean floor, now far from shore as the tide continued its retreat.

The Mew Gulls and Crows leap-frogged along, foraging the recently revealed banquet that only they could find. As I watched, a small flock of tiny shorebirds joined the gulls. I slowly approached, counting 9 ROCK SANDPIPERS feeding furiously, their bills busily probing in the shallow water.

As I reached the rocky intertidal area in front of Afognak Beach around 2:30 pm, I listened and looked for the KILLDEER without success. Visiting birders from Soldotna and Kodiak (!) had not seen it either. I hope it's still around, but one never knows with birds.

As the sun slipped behind the western mountains, it was time to head home.
What a treat to be content to travel widely in such a small space!

Of note: the visiting birders finally did find the SWAMP SPARROW. Yea! 

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward, Alaska

Saturday, December 28, 2013 Seward Update

Seward, Alaska

Yesterday, the Burkes briefly spotted the SWAMP SPARROW at Ava's with 6 AMERICAN TREE SPARROWS and JUNCOS. This bird takes some patience and perhaps several attempts. I did not see it today, and did not receive any reports of it being seen today.

Today Kit and Janet reported the female HOODED MERGANSER swimming with COMMON MERGANSERS in the stream along the north side of NASH ROAD west of Salmon Creek. This is a new location for this bird.

Tasha spotted the KILLDEER around 2 pm today followed by several birders. It was feeding in the tidal rocky habitat straight out from shore, at Afognak Beach, Mile 3 Nash Road.

I found one RED-FACED CORMORANT, 2 males and 1 female LONG-TAILED DUCKS, and a MARBLED MURRELET at the SMIC Boat Basin, Mile 5 Nash Road. A COMMON LOON dove far offshore with 2 SURF SCOTERS.

Kit and Janet reported the BRAMBLING with JUNCOS feeding in the Mt Ash trees in the alley south of Madison Street between First and Second Avenue; BOHEMIAN WAXWINGS, ROBINS, PINE GROSBEAKS nearby.

No reports of the WHITE-THROATED SPARROW at Lowell Point.

Towards sunset, I found three GADWALL feeding south of the Uplands by Scheffler Creek.

Thanks to everyone for your reports.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Sunday, December 22, 2013 Seward Christmas Bird Count Highlights

Seward, Alaska

The most unexpected bird of this year's Seward CBC was a KILLDEER!

All the Count Day results are not yet in, but of the 55 species reported thus far, here are the other highlights for the Seward CBC:
American Wigeon
Hooded Merganser
Spruce Grouse
Great Blue Heron
Northern Goshawk
Rock Sandpiper
Herring Gull
Northern Shrike
Pacific Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
European Starling
Fox Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrow
Gray-crowned Rosy-finch

Three more days remain in Count Week.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward CBC Compiler

Monday, December 16, 2013 Seward Swamp Sparrow!

Seward, Alaska

Thanks to Luke DeCicco's alert analysis of my recent photos, the LINCOLN SPARROW I reported at Ava's is really a SWAMP SPARROW! He noted that the gray nape, unstreaked flanks, and back pattern match a drab Swamp Sparrow better than a Lincoln's. He believes this is the fourth southcentral record and second for the Kenai. I assume it's a first for Seward, and a Lifer for me. Good eye!

I included two photos from March 2013 of the very gray and drab LINCOLN'S SPARROW for comparison.

Feeding with the Swamp Sparrow were six AMERICAN TREE SPARROWS.

Thanks to Ava for feeding her fabulous flock. She always appreciates donations of black-oil sunflower seeds chips if you come down to see the Swamp Sparrow. Directions: turn east on Nash Road, then left on Salmon Creek Road. Drive over Salmon Creek bridge and immediately turn right past the bridge down her long driveway. Her blue-roofed home is at the end. Park and enjoy the show. No need to knock.

Also spotted today at Lowell Point, the WHITE-THROATED SPARROW, Zonotrichia albicollis, and its cousin, a WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW, Zonotrichia leucophrys, and two SONG SPARROWS, Melospiza melodia, related to the Swamp Sparrow and Lincoln sparrow. Note the sun sets on the west side of the bay by 1 pm, plunging everything into shadow.

It's a great sparrow show this winter in Seward!

32 BOHEMIAN WAXWINGS churred at the top of a cottonwood towards dusk for a fine finale to the blustery, short sunny day.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Sunday, December 15, 2013 Seward Sparrows du jour

Seward, Alaska

Note: This post was updated on December 16 to correct misidentification of the Swamp Sparrow.

Sunrise 9:56 am, sunset 3:49 pm for a total length of "day" of 5 hours and 52 minutes. Tomorrow will be 59 seconds shorter.

The recent storm dropped about 4-5" of snow just in time for a white Christmas. The hyperactive north wind soon got to work sculpting it into hard-packed drifts. With the ground now buried, the songbirds are concentrating at the feeders more than ever.

After a two-day visit, the clouds departed this morning making room for the slug-a-bed sun. It finally crept over the eastern mountains in the southern sky, cast its sheepish smile on the bright snowscape for a few hours and then snuck behind the western mountains for a long night's sleep. The waxing round moon enjoyed a long sail across the sky, creating magical moonshadows.

The forecast for Monday and Tuesday is clear with temps from 5 to 15 above, north wind 20-30 mph with gusts to 40 mph, and wind chill from 5 below to 20 below in the mornings and at night. Brrrr!!! Keep those feeders full!

I refound the reclusive female BRAMBLING with many SLATE-COLORED JUNCOS and several OREGON JUNCOS today in the 500 block Second Ave. I hope she sticks around for our Dec 22 Christmas Bird Count. Many more flocks of JUNCOS are reported around town. 

Eight ROBINS materialized in a nearby Mt Ash tree and gobbled down the whole, frozen berries. A male DOWNY WOODPECKER checked for invertebrates and insects in a peeling tree. BLACK-CAPPED and CHESTNUT-BACKED CHICKADEES sang and called cheerily as if they hadn't a care in the world.

Over at Ava's, the first bird spotted was an AMERICAN TREE SPARROW. It was soon joined by 3 or 4 others; hard to tell with the activity back and forth under her deck. A SWAMP SPARROW hopped out from under the deck and soon traced the source of the ground seeds to the tray feeder on the deck railing. I estimate it spent 10 minutes sitting there, eating sunflower seeds.

After a while, it flew back down to the ground to rummage around in the snow with the JUNCOS and TREE SPARROWS. One spot must have been desirable; the SWAMP SPARROW and SLATE-COLORED JUNCO duked it out. The little sparrow fluffed up as big as possible as they eyed each other, then it made a sudden hop towards the Junco who leapt up into the air in surprise.  Upon landing, the Junco judiciously moved away, keeping an eye on the cranky puffball.

Fearless HAIRY and DOWNY WOODPECKERS flew in, landing on nearby trees for a look-see before heading to the generous suet feeders swinging from the porch. It is likely that several of these woodpeckers were hatched and raised nearby.

The RED-BREASTED NUTHATCHES chased just about every bird away from their desired feeder selection. Remarkably dominant little bits! BLACK-CAPPED and CHESTNUT-BACKED CHICKADEES daintily selected one sunflower seed at a time, then flew off to a tree branch to whack it open between their tiny black feet.

The sun was rapidly exiting stage right. I headed over to Lowell Point Beach as my car couldn't clear the drifts blocking access to the beaches on the east side of the bay. The patient good dogs enjoyed a frolic and a refreshing swim, emerging with frosty fur coats. Cold? Bah!

Two GREAT BLUE HERONS flew overhead, heading to their evening roost. In the fading light, I was lucky to photograph a WHITE-THROATED SPARROW! Its white throat and patterning was very distinctive, but it was the tail that stood out. It looked peculiarly narrow. I realized after I got home and checked the photos that half of the tail was missing. There must have been an accident or a narrow escape from a predatory attack. Here's another bird I hope sticks around for the Seward CBC. It's way out of its normal range, but it's not unusual for one to show up. Good timing!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Friday, December 13, 2013 Wait a Bit…

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 9:54 am, sunset 3:49 pm for a total daylight, theoretically, of 5 hours and 55 minutes. Tomorrow will be 1 minute and 20 seconds shorter.

Sideways-blowing snow abruptly ended the streak of bright sunshine of the past three days. Visibility plunged to nothing at times making driving very hazardous. Temps rose from the mid teens to low 20s.There's a winter weather advisory for the Anchorage area through Sunday. The Anchorage CBC is scheduled for tomorrow; that will be hard! The Seward CBC is December 22; hopefully this storm will be spent by then.

Fortunately, I was able to go birding on a beautiful blue sky winter day yesterday. Tantalized by the possibility of studying the RED-FACED CORMORANTS again, I headed for Mile 5 Nash Road and the Seward Marine Industrial Center boat basin. My challenge was shooting into the sun; no complaints, just very challenging!

At first, I was a bit disappointed. No cormorants on the pilings, and only a few COMMON MERGANSER hens, and a small group of about 5 BARROW'S GOLDENEYES. Wait a bit… So I pulled up in my car blind, and started experimenting with exposure and metering variations on the cooperative birds, trying to shield my eyes from the blinding sun and its undulating reflection.

Suddenly, a RED-NECKED GREBE popped up out of nowhere, and paddled closer and closer, lured in by the tolerant Goldeneyes, no doubt. I should toss out some decoys! Two pairs of little red-eyed HORNED GREBES steamed in, creating a small wake, then dove in synchrony as they sensed or spotted tiny fish below.

The seabirds paddled close then away, following their prey, and their varying opinions of the human clicking away. It was so interesting to watch their afternoon unfold. I must not have been paying attention to the wider view, as again, seemingly out of nowhere, two very regal PACIFIC LOONS surfaced in the middle of the boat basin. There is something arresting and commanding about a loon; they definitely have a Presence without fanfare.

A very short time later, one loon quietly surfaced very close by, snorkeling along with its head underwater, checking the underwater menu. Raising its head, and without missing a stroke, it observed me for several long seconds, and then calmly disappeared in a swirl. The two reappeared once again in the middle of the basin, joining 4 RED-FACED CORMORANTS, the RED-NECKED GREBE, and 2 HORNED GREBES.

All was quiet once again. Wait a bit…Then up popped a special seabird, the fascinating forest-roosting, MARBLED MURRELET. I am always thrilled to see one of these amazing birds, especially up close. Water droplets beaded up on its black and white waterproof coat. When it dove, its tiny pink webbed feet momentarily flashed in the air before it flew away underwater. I watched this little guy for quite some time, surprised at how long it stayed above water, just floating tranquilly. Usually this bird is identified by "the one that just dove."

I left just after a male COMMON GOLDENEYE pulled his head out from under his wing, nap ended, and time to preen. Their body has so much more white than a Barrow's, but it's nice to see those round "Os" on the face to confirm the ID.

Over at Spring Creek Beach, a first winter GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULL cruised over the breaking waves by the beach, surprisingly alone, looking competent for a youngster.

It was past time for the good dogs to get out, so we headed into the teeth of the northwest wind for a walk down the beach. A Steller's Sealion swam with power and purpose, parallel to the shore, breathing rhythmically. Not long afterwards, a curious Harbor Seal poked up its shiny head to watch us, then silently submerged.

On the way back, a flash of white caught my eye. SNOW BUNTINGS! I eased over to watch them ride the beach rye grass stalks down to the ground, then scurry about to gather up the flying seeds. It was like watching a little bird rodeo. The low rays of the sun illuminated their lovely brown and tan coloration. When they all flew up, I estimated about 50 before they settled back down.

Back at the car, it was almost 2 pm and the sun was hurtling towards the western mountains. Just enough time to visit Ava's amazing feeders. I pulled up, and once again, it seemed pretty quiet. Wait a bit… A BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEE flew in and landed in a nearby Mayday tree, showing off, before heading to the homemade suet and sunflower seed feeders. Another one followed, then several DARK-EYED JUNCOS. The usual RED-BREASTED NUTHATCHES claimed several feeders, as the CHESTNUT-BACKED CHICKADEES tried to get in for a single seed at a time.

A small sparrow perched in the Mayday tree: an AMERICAN TREE SPARROW! It soon flew to the ground to rummage through the green grass and scant snow for seeds. Ava reported she has had up to 7 Tree Sparrows recently. A different little sparrow appeared, a LINCOLN'S SPARROW. It seemed to prefer the spilled seeds by the deck, sitting at times, all fluffed up like a feathery ball against the chill. By 2:20 pm, the sun disappeared, and blue shadows crept into the yard. As Ava's birds stocked up for the long night ahead, I headed home.

Aware of the impending snowstorm, I detoured for one last bird check in the alley behind my house. My feeder was hopping with Juncos, Chickadees, and Nuthatches too. At the top of a nearby cottonwood, a BOHEMIAN WAXWING sat like a Christmas tree angel. Several PINE GROSBEAKS decorated the tree below. Across the alley, about 20 ROBINS gobbled down Mt Ash berries, chunky silhouettes against the darkening sky. Whether or not they knew about the approaching storm, it was a good idea to load up.

And now, as the wind whistles and rattles the frozen trees, spinning snow in wild patterns, I enjoy my photos and relive yet another fabulous day birding.

In other news, Robin C refound the BRAMBLING in the storm today with an army of JUNCOS in the 500 block of Second Ave. Also spotted along Lowell Point Road, 6 RED-BREASTED MERGANSERS.

A SHORT-EARED OWL was reported at the airport uplands on Saturday evening, December 7, but not refound (yet.)

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter