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

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