Super Saturday, January 25, 2014 Fog, Fogbows, Kingfishers, Bait Ball, and Beached Fish

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 9:37 am, sunset 4:53 pm, for a total length of day of 7 hours and 26 minutes. Tomorrow will be 4 minutes and 41 seconds longer.

Fog. Eerie, mysterious, alive. All the rain from the past two weeks quietly wafted up today in a mesmerizing silky silver shroud. Attentive ravens perching on streetlights basked in the rare sunshine and enjoyed spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. A few feet below, the town was submerged in the dim and damp ocean of fog. Cars crept along, unable to see even with headlights on and the defroster blasting away. There was no need to defrost the windshield; it was clear.

Without the slightest breath of wind, the fog filled the valley and bay. Only well after noon, when the sun summoned all its January might, did the mist start to grudgingly clear up, but in a patchwork quilt of clear and fog. The thermometer hit 37º but with a dew point of 35º it didn't take much to quickly transform back and forth.

This evening, with the freshly washed, sparkling stars and bright Jupiter, it's hard to believe that the forecast is for heavy rain tomorrow and more rain until midweek. Carpe diem!

I knew it would be a really special day when the sun lit up the nearby peaks at dawn. A flock of DARK-EYED JUNCOS, including one male OREGON JUNCO burst out of a small spruce roost and headed to the feeder. PINE GROSBEAKS sang from the top of a cottonwood. BOHEMIAN WAXWINGS chirred from another cottonwood. About 14 ROBINS erupted from a spruce, heading for the bedraggled remains of Mt Ash berries for breakfast. CHESTNUT-BACKED and BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEES called cheerily as they snicked one sunflower seed at a time. Raucous STELLER'S JAYS proclaimed the dawn and possession of everything not already claimed by the pugnacious RED-BREASTED NUTHATCHES.

I checked a few other feeders on my way across the bay; nothing! At the intersection of Nash Road and Salmon Creek Road, I screeched to a stop to take photos of a handsome male BELTED KINGFISHER, patiently fishing from the powerline above the salmon creek.

At the end of Nash Road, at the SMIC boat basin, I found PELAGIC CORMORANTS sitting in the fog on the pilings. An unusual "fogbow" formed to the north, an amazing arc of white. Over on the north dock railing, the beautiful resident female BELTED KINGFISHER stood on her short little legs, diligently watching the water below.

A short time later, I met some other birders. We happened to glance down and discovered a fascinating, large, dark, oval shape in the water. It was alive! A dense mass of small Pacific Herring, the perfect size for the Kingfisher. "Bait ball" does not begin to convey the sense of wonder I felt seeing these fish. They had no place to hide except amongst themselves, and everything wanted to eat them. One gollump from a whale and all would be lost. But here, backs against the steel breakwater, only the Kingfisher and Cormorants seemed to be aware of them.

At the end of the north dock, five LONG-TAILED DUCKS drifted in the fog, two males and three females. A long line of SURF SCOTERS paddled among the flotsam of ghostly MEW and GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS.

Bright HARLEQUIN DUCKS, HORNED GREBES, and BARROW'S GOLDENEYES dove in the sunshine by Spring Creek Beach a short distance but a world away. The bait ball must have moved, for suddenly the gulls flew up and joined the sunshine seabirds, plunging headfirst into the water.

I headed over to Fourth of July Beach to walk the patient dogs. The green surf barreled out from the flat ocean and crashed onto the beach, a powerful, rhythmic force. They must be messengers from a storm far out in the Pacific. I only saw a few GOLDENEYES paddling in the distance, but found something else of great interest.

There in a dry sandy swale about 25' from the water, lay a beautiful glistening fish about 10" long, a Saffron Cod. I knelt down to take photos of its beautiful bright eye. Suddenly, its gills moved! Yikes! It was miraculously still alive! Who knows how long it was lying here, out of water. I picked it up and clumsily carried it back to the water and tossed it in, hoping for the best. After a minute, I didn't see it anymore. Tough fish!

I walked back wondering if there were any other fish in need of a lift. Sure enough, a sand-encrusted Masked Greenling, about 8" long, sat on the former ocean floor, facing the water, but O so far away! I picked this one up with more confidence and placed it gently in a calm pool that would soon fill with the tide. Its gills moved, but slowly. I hope it makes it! What a crazy situation; I've never noticed beached fish here before. I realized later that the fish were trapped by the ebbing tide in this low spot behind a gravelly berm without a channel for escape, and the water drained away leaving them behind.  

Another fogbow graced the beach with the snowy mountains behind. So unusual! This whole day has been so full of wonderful sights!

I stopped several times on the way home to revel in the beauty of the sun-bathed mountains contrasted with the fog-shrouded bay. As the sun reached the welcoming arms of the western peaks, the dew point dropped, and the fog leaped up to reclaim the clear gaps. Once again, it was necessary to have the headlights on, and I crept home, amazed by this fog phenomenon and all it had revealed and concealed on this Superlative Saturday.

Many thanks to Richard Hocking at the Alaska Sealife Center for the fish ID.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Thursday, January 23, 2014 Dunlins!

Seward, Alaska

In between the rain showers, I was lucky to find 5 DUNLINS feeding in the tide flats. #59!

Not much activity at feeders in town.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Tuesday, January 21, 2014 April in January

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 9:35 am, sunset 4:43 pm for a total length of day of 7 hours and 8 minutes. Tomorrow will be 4 minutes and 27 seconds longer.

Weather: Today's high was 44º! It seemed more like April than January. A warm south wind barreled in bearing sheets of rain from an ominous gray wall o' water blocking the bay. I found a soggy earthworm on top of a watery sheet of ice this morning. Much of the ground is free of snow, and tree roots may soon be thawing. Bird activity at feeders has dropped considerably as the ever-increasing bare ground offers other options.

Seward experienced a rare turbulent weather event on Friday morning, January 17: brilliant flashes of lightning, the low rumble of thunder, then torrential rain. More warm, rainy, spring-y weather is forecast for at least another week. February flowers?

Today, I added two more species to my 2014 list, bringing the total number to 58. All but the GREAT GRAY OWL, seen flying across the highway north of Summit Lake before dawn on January 12th, are from Seward.

At noon, a small flock of ventriloquistic GOLDEN-CROWNED KINGLETS flitted high in the spruce branch jungle on the north side of First Lake at Two Lakes Park. "Tsee-tsee-tsee!" 57.

After the quiet walk through the dim, mossy green forest, I headed for the gray bay and windy beach. Using my car as a blind and wind/rain shelter, I pulled up to Scheffler Creek just south of the Harbor Uplands. A handful of plucky and hopeful NORTHWESTERN CROWS flew over to see if I might have some tidbits to share. One had an overlong bill, but otherwise looked healthy. I haven't seen crows with deformed bills for several years, so this was unusual.

Just out in front, two Sea Otters cruised around on their backs, munching with gusto, then dove for more. Suddenly, three River Otters tumbled out of the mouth of the creek and rolled around each other in the shallow water like a pile of puppies. They soon headed out to deeper water, facing forwards so they could see where they were going, unlike their carefree cousins.

Two small gulls took flight from the beach. One was a typical winter adult MEW GULL, the other was a mystery bird. It was likely a young MEW changing plumage. The darker brown coloration along the wings extended from the black and white wing tips into the gray mantle; the white tail had a black band edged in white; the grayish bill had a dark tip, and the feet were also grayish. Gulls, with all their plumage variations, are an intriguing and never-ending source of wonder and puzzlement.

Soon, more gulls arrived as if called by synchronous dinner bells: MEW GULLS, several GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS of various ages, and then a small bright gull with jet-black wingtips. A BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE! Then another. 58! These are the first of season for me.

The gulls cried in excitement, hovering over the water, pink, yellow, and black legs dangling, jockeying for position, then bam, bam, bam! In they dove with a great splash, completely submerged, or just showing bits of their wings. After what seemed like a very long pause, they shot straight up into the air, water streaming down. Some emerged with small silvery fish held sideways in their beaks; others either gobbled the fish down directly, or missed. Could these be salmon smolt, already heading to sea from the Scheffler Creek and Lagoon nursery?

An adult BALD EAGLE, attracted by all the crying, splashing, and action, swooped powerfully overhead, wheeled gracefully, and momentarily scattered the noisy crowd. The wary BARROW'S and COMMON GOLDENEYES, RED-BREASTED and COMMON MERGANSERS, SURF SCOTERS, and PELAGIC CORMORANTS magically disappeared.

After the eagle flew off, the show continued as the birds followed the invisible school of fish close to shore. Then abruptly, first the SCOTERS took flight, then the other sea ducks, and finally the gulls, heading towards the next great feast. I had forgotten about the gray sky, gray water, and pelting rain until they left, and then, that was all that was left.

I rolled up the window, mopped up the water on the inside, and headed for home, quite satisfied. Back in the 'hood, I spied 13 soggy ROBINS perched in a Mt Ash tree, eating the old shriveled berries in the rain. There aren't many berries left, but if this warm weather keeps up, they'll be feasting on earthworms instead!

Other bird notes:
Tuesday January 14: a dozen BOHEMIAN WAXWINGS "flycatching" invisible insects; WHITE-WINGED SCOTER by Greenbelt
Saturday, January 18: Immature GOSHAWK in the 'hood
Sunday, January 19: Scott Schuette and Nick Hajdukovich spotted the WHITE-THROATED SPARROW with JUNCOS and a GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROW at Lowell Point Beach access.
Monday, January 20: 30 BOHEMIAN WAXWINGS chirring in cottonwood
Robin C reported an adult NORTHERN SHRIKE at Lowell Point

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Check out Chris Maynard's Feather Blog, featuring fantastic, creative use of feathers: <>

Tuesday, January 7, 2014 Polar Vortex NOT

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 9:56 am, sunset 4:12 pm for a total daylight of 6 hours and 15 minutes. Tomorrow will be 2 minutes and 58 seconds longer.

Light rain with occasional fits of snow showers, and welcome calm continues with temperatures in the mid 30s. Big, bright green buds have emerged from my disoriented elderberry bush; I found an equally confused earthworm crawling on top of the watery snow crust this morning.

More rain and snow showers in the forecast for the next few days with temperatures decreasing to the mid 20s. Meanwhile the unusual Polar Vortex blasts the Lower 48 with bitter temperatures, heaps of snow, and horrendous high winds. We are so lucky!

It's been fun finding birds for the New Year; each bird species is special! First there's the low-hanging fruit like BALD EAGLES, STELLER'S JAYS, CHESTNUT-BACKED CHICKADEES, HARLEQUIN DUCKS, and BARROW'S GOLDENEYES. Check, check, check! Then, unusual species like the RED-FACED CORMORANT and TREE SPARROW. Check, check! Icing on the cake are rarities like the SWAMP SPARROW, BRAMBLING, and KILLDEER. More checks!

After a few days of easy pickings and good luck, it gets harder and more subject to serendipity. Several species on my "very possible" winter bird list remain elusive, including the WHITE-THROATED SPARROW and HOODED MERGANSER. The PACIFIC LOON today was my 42nd bird, a species that was here before the Christmas Bird Count, and then disappeared. A GLAUCOUS GULL spotted shortly afterwards in the company of a dozen GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS was my 43rd species, and a first for me this winter.

Tomorrow brings more opportunities to add a few more as the 2014 scavenger hunt continues.

Many thanks to Ava for keeping that SWAMP SPARROW and all her other wonderful birds happy at her feeders. She really appreciates the black oil sunflower seed and sunflower seed chip donations to help keep her operation going. Becky at Knots-So-Fast, mile 3.5 Seward Highway, has a great sale on sunflower seeds if you'd like to support a local business and Ava at the same time. Thank you for your generosity!

If you like to keep track of your Alaska Year Birds and date discovered on paper, download the 2012 Wings Over Alaska Checklist at

Alaska Dispatch has an interesting article on Homer's Rustic Bunting and the Big Year Birder, Neil Hayward at:

Check out Neil's well-written blog with great photos, including Alaskan sites and birders:
Accidental Big Year 2013 by Neil Hayward

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter in the Rain