Saturday, February 21, 2015 Anchorage Audubon-Seward Field Trip

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 8:19 am, sunset 6:04 pm for a total day length of 9 hours and 44 minutes. Tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 26 seconds longer.

Unseasonably warm weather continued for the annual Audubon field trip to Seward with temperatures in the low 40s, mostly calm, and frequent rain showers. There is no snow or ice on the ground anymore, and some lawns look almost ready to mow. Local lake ice, including the Lagoon, is soft with open areas. More rain is forecast for the next several days.

An estimated 40 birders, including some who drove all the way from Fairbanks (!), Girdwood, and mostly Anchorage converged on Seward from 10 am to 4 pm. Even with carpooling and consolidating cars, we created quite a stir wherever we went. Trapper Dan volunteered at one point to explain to a State Trooper exactly what was going on with all the cars parked along the road and people bristling with surveillance optics. Apparently the excuse of a NORTHERN SHRIKE and BOHEMIAN WAXWINGS satisfied him.

We started at the Seward Boat Harbor where BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKES, MEW GULLS, GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS, COMMON GOLDENEYES, COMMON MURRES, and COMMON MERGANSERS dove for juvenile herring. A fine BELTED KINGFISHER flashed past on its own fishy mission.

A short walk south to the harbor Uplands produced MARBLED MURRELETS, more COMMON MURRES including a few in breeding plumage (very early for this), SURF SCOTERS, a COMMON LOON wrestling with a small but uncooperative flounder in the distance, PELAGIC CORMORANTS, BARROW’S GOLDENEYES, and HARLEQUIN DUCKS along the shore.

Next stop, the Lagoon, for the handsome male HOODED MERGANSER and a few COMMON GOLDENEYES in his wake. Across Dairy Hill Lane, we looked for the Rusty Blackbirds and a Dipper without success, but found DARK-EYED JUNCOS, BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEES, and a SONG SPARROW. Overflights of PIGEONS added another species, plus the usual RAVENS and NORTHWESTERN CROWS.

Then on to Ava’s Place where a quick stop at the intersection of Nash Road and Salmon Creek Road turned up the three surprises: the Trooper, the Shrike, and the Bohemian Waxwings. Ava’s produced the two PURPLE FINCH, PINE GROSBEAKS, PINE SISKINS, HAIRY and DOWNY WOODPECKERS, and RED-BREASTED NUTHATCHES.

The two parent snowy white TRUMPETER SWANS and their two surviving light gray cygnets stood on ice at the far end of the wetlands at mile 1 Nash Road, where four young ones hatched in June. Beautiful and tough birds!

Jonah and his mom scouted ahead and nailed down the KILLDEER at Afognak Beach, which was very cooperative and let everyone get good looks once located. For such a dramatic bird with two black necklaces on a white shirt and an orangish tail-light rump, it sure was hard to distinguish from the intertidal rocks where it dined on amphipods quite close to shore.
A pair of WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILLS flew close enough to just about touch while others sang from the treetops.

Then off to mile 5 Nash Road to check the boat basin, ocean, and Spring Creek Beach. A BLACK SCOTER male swam with the raft of SURF SCOTERS; 3 LONG-TAILED DUCKS, HORNED GREBES among the rafts of sea ducks added to the species list. The Steller’s Eider had been spotted here at 9:30 am, but was not refound.

At this point, some of the group headed back to town to get lunch while others headed to Fourth of July Beach where another COMMON LOON dove not far off shore and surfaced, fish in bill. A small commercial fishing boat seemed to attract a lot of attention as two BALD EAGLES circled nearby; one swooped down and grabbed, then dropped a large fish. After repeated circles, first one then the other stroked back to shore to rest after a tremendous effort, their beaks open wide, panting. A short time later, an eagle did grab a fish and stroked off to the eastern shore to dine in private. More Kittiwakes and gulls flew about; Common Murres, Marbled Murrelets, Pelagic Comorants, Horned Grebes, and Harlequin Ducks paddled in the distance.

Caitlin at the Alaska Sealife Center provided a very amusing and educational Puffin Experience for the group featuring both a Tufted and Horned Puffin, and a Rhinocerous Auklet. One young Tufted Puffin stole the show by padding about on the carpet, checking things out, quite content in this alien environment. She finally had to be scooped up and placed back in her little kennel so we could go watch the seabirds in the habitat fly underwater for fish.

We did not add the handsome SMEW and his demure mate, the regal KING EIDER, or RED-LEGGED KITTIWAKES, but it was sure nice to see them and the other seabirds up so close. No scope needed here! Many thanks to the Alaska Sealife Center and staff for this wonderful program!

Next, we looked unsuccessfully for the Brambling in town, finding more Pine Siskins, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Chestnut-backed Chickadees. Then we headed out to Lowell Point Beach. Add MALLARDS, if not already seen, en route at the sewage lagoon.

A MARBLED MURRELET swam and dove just 5’ from shore, giving everyone great looks at a very special seabird, usually a little dot that disappears when spotted. A female BUFFLEHEAD added to the species list. A sprinkling of other birds swam farther out: Common Murres, Pelagic Cormorants, Barrow’s Goldeneyes.

This was the official end of the fabulous field trip and everyone headed out. As soon as the last car disappeared, I heard VARIED THRUSHES singing in the spruce trees and spotted a pair in the alders near the beach. We had looked all day for just one, and now they pipe up! I followed a squawking STELLER’S JAY to the dense hillside spruce to join several more that were making quite a racket. I followed the noise, but the boughs were so thick, I was unable to see them, much less what they were so upset about. An owl?  A raptor? A squirrel?

The field trip ended for me at 10 pm when I heard the steady beeping of the SAW-WHET OWL on Bear Mountain, a delightful ending to a wonderful day. Thanks to Aaron Bowman for organizing and leading the trip, to all the participants for their interest and sharp eyes, and to the birds without which, life would be considerably less mysterious, magical, and fun.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Wednesday, February 11, 2015 Red Crossbills

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 8:46 am, sunset 5:38 pm for a total day length of 8 hours and 51 minutes. Tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 19 seconds longer.
Despite a gloomy forecast for snow turning to rain, the clouds took a little vacation today and let the warm sun roll unimpeded across a brilliant blue sky. The temp rose to a spring-like 41ยบ that nullified the north wind’s feeble efforts. By late afternoon, the tiniest, token light rain fell for a few minutes, heralding the arrival of a dark load fresh from the Gulf of Alaska. Snow showers are back in the forecast, but we shall see!
I searched unsuccessfully for the phantom Killdeer and ended up enjoying a walk on the ocean bottom/tide flats at low tide. NW CROWS noisily rummaged through the scattered, exposed blue mussel beds, extracting delicacies for lunch. One crow flew quite high and dropped its mussel only to swoop after it and adroitly catch it midair, then powered back up and dropped it again and again in a fine game of drop and catch. Very entertaining, I imagine, except for the reclusive clam.
A female BALD EAGLE stood in a tidal stream up to her belly. We unfortunately interrupted her fishing or bathing and she soon flew over to shore to join her smaller mate at the top of a spruce tree. It was amazing to watch her delicately preen her feathers with that massive, bone-crunching yellow beak.
In the distance, I spotted a flock of about 30 SNOW BUNTINGS flitting here and there, searching for grit and maybe grub. No luck spotting the small flock of DUNLINS which were seen on Sunday, or the ROCK SANDPIPERS.
I hated to leave, but one can’t argue with an incoming tide reclaiming its bed. So I checked out Spring Creek Beach from North Dock.
The STELLER’S EIDER and the female GREATER SCAUP were there with the usual HARLEQUIN DUCKS, BARROW’S GOLDENEYES, SURF SCOTERS, COMMON MERGANSERS, HORNED GREBES, PELAGIC CORMORANTS, MARBLED MURRELETS, a dozen or so COMMON MURRES, 2 LONG-TAILED DUCKS, a lone PACIFIC LOON, a few BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKES, MEW GULLS, and GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS. The seafood processing plant was not operating today, so the seabird and gull numbers are way down.
While scanning for seabirds, I heard some crossbills approach and saw them land in a nearby alder thicket. I slowly strolled over to find four RED CROSSBILLS! These are quite uncommon in the area compared to the abundant White-winged Crossbills.
Two greenish females obliged my curiosity by flying down to a rusty stack of pipes where they pried and poked at old barnacles with their phenomenal crossed bills. The two tropically-hued males watched from a cottonwood and one actually tried to drive the other away. Too soon, they regrouped and dashed off. Quite the treat!
Glassing the bay again, I spotted the characteristic rooster tails of 10-20 Dall’s porpoises as they surged after fish. There were many pods of these speedsters all down the bay. Even in the distance by Fox Island, the showy white spray was easy to spot, illuminated by the sun.
Tonight, I will listen for the steadfast beeping of the SAW-WHET OWL that has been calling the last several nights. Love is in the air as Valentine’s Day approaches!
Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Monday, February 9, 2015 TWO Purple Finches confirmed

Seward, Alaska

Ava noticed that her PURPLE FINCH seemed to be brighter every now and then and suspected there were actually two. Finally, she saw them both at the same time to confirm it. Subsequent birders also saw two simultaneously. Each was duly scrutinized for that faint eye ring and streaked undertail coverts that would identify a Cassin’s Finch instead. No deal, no matter how hard one squinted.

I was unable to photograph the two PURPLE FINCHES together, but after checking my photos, it’s pretty clear that one is much whiter and brighter. Stokes Field Guide to the Birds shows two females quite similar to these, with one much brighter, though juvenile males resemble females.

If you come to Ava’s Place, your chances to see a PURPLE FINCH have just doubled!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Thursday, February 5, 2015 Mystery diving duck and update

Seward, Alaska

BRRRRR! The northwest wind kicked into high gear today, a steady 19 mph with frequent gusts from 30 to 45 mph, but it seemed like the blasts were much stronger than that at times.  The bay boiled with whitecaps and anything that was not secured ended up in the mix. I’m glad I was able to get photos yesterday as it was much too windy at SMIC today.

The excitement began on Monday when Tasha spotted an odd duck swimming and diving in the melee of 1000+ gulls and kittiwakes at SMIC, feasting on the chopped up fish slurry from the seafood processor. The light was terrible and the birds were far, but she knew it was not a female SURF SCOTER, or a GREATER SCAUP, three of which had just shown up.

I was able to get photos of a hen and drake GREATER SCAUP with the mystery duck on Wednesday when they were much closer and in good light.
Tasha sent the photos around and got some very interesting opinions:

“Biologist: I would go with a female Ring-necked Duck x Scaup hybrid.  The bird seems to display some Ring-necked Duck characteristics (ring on neck and faintly on bill and a slightly trapezoidal head) and muted Scaup characteristics (smaller white patch at base of bill).  However, if it was a hybrid I would have predicted that the trailing white on the wings would have been a little more gray, like it is in Ring-necked, but this white is pretty bright in the wing stretch photo.  Anyways, a hybrid of some form would be my guess.”

“Waterfowl Breeder 1: Very strange, I have never seen a duck so asymmetrically Scaup on one side and Tufted Duck on the other. It’s not scientific but one way I tell Tufted from Scaup is that they always have an angry look to them.  Tufted hens look almost identical to pure-bred hens. Another thing to note is that hens never lose the white at the base of the bill while the males kind of outgrow it. In the photos the bill looks different on each side. Maybe, it could be a late hatch year bird since the plumage isn’t right?”

“Waterfowl Breeder 2: Overall shape and bill is very Scaup-like, though this particular bird is very young looking for this time of year.  Tufted Ducks are a lot smaller than Greater Scaup - I think of them as the Eurasian equivalent of Ring-necked Duck.”

“Aaron B: This is a pretty tough ID to pin on one thing, I agree with you!
Just looking at the photos I would think Lesser Scaup or Tufted Duck.
One general characteristic of hen Tufted Ducks as opposed to the Lesser Scaup is the more obvious contrast between a dark back (wings) and lighter side.  I think of the Tufted Duck head as having a more horizontally elongated circle and the Lesser Scaup being more vertically elongated.

Is there any sign of a tuft or rough feathers on the back of the head? This should be lower down the back of the head than the top "tuft" of a Lesser Scaup adding to the Tufted Duck's more wide instead of tall look. I suppose some birds may not show any, but this is usually behavioral. The deep brown back coloration looks good, did you notice a clear distinction in the back and side coloration? But I agree, it keeps my interest!”

Any other opinions? I'll post updates if Tasha or I get any. Thanks too to Sadie U and Robin C for their help tracking this bird.

A Tufted Duck would certainly be a first for Seward, but this little diving duck, however tantalizing, does not seem to be one. The identity remains a mystery to us humans, but we will be better prepared should a rare Tufted Duck ever appear. And why not? It could join the STELLER’S EIDER.

02-07-15 Update:
A few more opinions have ruled out Tufted Duck which has white on the secondaries all the way out to the tip of the primaries. In both TUDU and Ring-necked Ducks the bill is black-tipped as in “dipped in ink” that totally obscures the outline of the moderately sized nail. Greater Scaup have large nails.

The amount of white in the secondaries and lack in the primaries suggests a LESSER SCAUP, as does the small black nail on the bill tip. The head shape and body size are not typical for any of the four Aythya species mentioned above; possibly it is delayed in development or compromised by a heavy parasite load or something similar. It is most likely a juvenile male with the possibility that it could be a Lesser X Greater Scaup hybrid.

Happy Birding!

Carol Griswold