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

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