Saturday, June 27, 2015 Ducks in Trees

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 4:34 am, sunset 11:26 pm, for a total day length of 18 hours, 51 minutes. Tomorrow will be 1 minute and 14 seconds shorter.

Squally today with periods of heavy rain, a good soaker. Hopefully the welcome rain will help knock down the forest fires on the Kenai Peninsula and help reduce the risk of new ones.

Driving down Nash Road this afternoon, I happened to see a female COMMON MERGANSER circling above the road. I found that odd and pulled over to watch. She flew around and around in wide circles with an air of desperation. Finally, she tried to land at the top of a dead cottonwood. Watching her webbed feet reach out to grab the skinny branches made me really appreciate the ease and grace of eagles and songbirds. Instead of deftly grasping the branches and landing, she awkwardly plowed through and kept flying.

After several earnest attempts, she managed to crash land against the tree and worked her way down to a horizontal trunk to catch her breath for a few seconds. Then she dropped off, circling, circling. After several minutes, she again approached the trees and in a controlled collision, slithered down the trunk, wings flailing away. That’s when I noticed the nest hole, a natural cavity formed where a large branch broke off the dead tree.

Her ducklings were probably recently hatched and hungry. As duck mommas do not deliver food like Robins, her day-old babies needed to climb up the steep sides of the nest cavity and leap about 60 feet to the ground. As light as ping pong balls, and probably about the same size, the drop would probably would be OK, except for all the branches in the way. Then, the tiny peepers could scurry on their minuscule webbed feet to the nearby stream, learn to swim, and look for food that they had never before seen or eaten. No small feat!

Meanwhile, momma stuck her worried head into the hole, flapping all the while for balance, her orange webbed feet grasping futilely for a toehold on the smooth, debarked trunk. Slipping, she then tried hovering like a kingfisher, a true helicopter mom, still peering into the nest cavity. But that too, failed. Airborne again, and circling, circling.

I can’t imagine how much energy she expended in this way, or how difficult it was for her to access her nest during the previous four weeks of incubation. Obviously, landing hadn’t gotten any easier with practice.

My amazement, admiration, and appreciation have skyrocketed for her and other female ducks in trees like the Barrow’s Goldeneye, Common Goldeneye, and Bufflehead. It seems so alien and difficult. 

The importance of dead trees with suitable nesting cavities near streams was also highlighted by this hard-working, devoted momma merganser. Suitable nest boxes along this stream and by the Mile 1 wetlands might help these cavity-nesting ducks.

It would have been extremely exciting to see the ducklings come tumbling down, and watch the proud but exhausted momma paddle down the stream followed by her brave darlings. But, I didn’t want to add to her agitation at this critical time, so I left. I hope she and all her ducklings succeed!

A short ways away, I heard an ALDER FLYCATCHER, but couldn’t find him in all the, guess what, alders. At the Mile 1 wetlands, the elegant TRUMPETER SWAN family with all SIX cygnets, paddled at the far end. The cygnets are growing rapidly and are now gray.

The male RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD sat on his snag, whistling and singing. Suddenly, he took off and mercilessly chased a juvenile BALD EAGLE far from the wetlands. I saw him harassing the swans last week. Jim Herbert reported spotting a female today, exciting news! I believe they are nesting here as demonstrated by his territorial behavior. Last week, I also saw him fly up and snatch a passing moth or small white feather, and carry it into the marsh grasses. Was this for his nest, mate, or babies? Stay tuned!

A PACIFIC WREN sang his long song from the spruce forest at the edge of the wetlands on the east side of the road. It is late for him to still be singing, but a pleasure, nonetheless, to hear. A tiny GOLDEN-CROWNED KINGLET worked his way down a fallen tree trunk. A WILSON’S SNIPE winnowed overhead; this courtship also seems late. Also heard a SAVANNAH SPARROW singing. TREE SWALLOWS swooped over the wetlands, and two male ROBINS took turns chasing each other off a favorite roost in the marsh. The drama never ceases in the bird world!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Wednesday, June 24, 2015 Bear Glacier kayak trip

Seward, Alaska

I was extremely fortunate to be invited by my daughter Katie, to join her on a kayak day-trip to Bear Glacier, 15 miles south of Seward in Kenai Fjords National Park. The weather forecast was excellent: clear skies with temps in the mid 60s sandwiched between clouds, scattered showers, and 7’ seas.

The only water taxi permitted to drop people off is the Seward Water Taxi, owned and operated by Captain Louis Garding. We and three other adventurers met him on the south ramp at the Seward Boat Harbor at 6 am just after the sun rose over the mountains to the northeast. While it was very quiet in town, it was already bustling at the boat harbor as fishing charter boats departed with their eager clients, and private boats launched.

Our single kayaks easily fit on the rack above the cabin. A double kayak, inflatable paddleboard, and gear rode on the deck. In short order, we were off, leaving sleeping Seward far behind. In about 50 minutes, we rounded Calisto Head and caught our first glimpse of Bear Glacier and the tops of gleaming icebergs behind the 2.5 mile-long, gravel recessional moraine.

This moraine was first reported in the late 1840s by the Russian Navigator I. Arkhimandritov who gathered and completed the most comprehensive coastal survey of the Kenai Peninsula outer coast and lower Cook Inlet in the 19th century. The results were published by the Russian Governor M. D. Teben’kov in 1852. (From David W. Miller’s book, Exploring Alaska’s Kenai Fjords, page 74.) Teben’kov seems to get all the credit for the work.

When first photographed by U. S. Grant on July 20, 1909, working for the USGS, the glacier was already slowly retreating. Tree-ring studies of the forest trim line above Bear Glacier indicate that recession probably began between 1835 and 1845, and that the glacier’s 19th century advance was its greatest since the early 1600s. (Williams, p 90)

The outlet to the large lake is on the far east side of the moraine.  Due to gravel bars, it can only be accessed at high tide by a skillful navigator like Louis. He maneuvered the landing craft around boiling standing waves into the strong current. Suddenly we were in the river heading for the landing place in a relatively quiet spot about a ¼ mile up. We offloaded the kayaks and gear, one waiting passenger got on, and the water taxi quickly departed.

It was cool in the shade of Calisto Head at 7:15 am as we sorted our gear and packed the kayaks. Due to the strong current, it was safest to line them up the river, and carry them over little peninsulas of unsorted rocks. We soon warmed up with all the exercise, and emerged from the shadows into the bright morning sun. Two BALD EAGLES sat on a piece of driftwood stranded on the moraine between the pounding surf and quiet river.

After about an hour of lining and portaging, the current eased up enough so that we could finally launch. Hurrah! Kayaking at last! The zig-zag reflections of the steep green and brown Kenai Mountains to the west on the calm river were so pretty. Crystal clear bergie-bits floated past. Smack between two islands ahead, enormous blue-tinged icebergs lay marooned and enticing.

The moraine and adjacent outwash plain became more densely vegetated with thick alders and willows, and even spruce. I must admit, I didn't pay enough attention to the plants in this exciting and distracting environment.


As we entered the lagoon or lake, we were greeted by a whole platoon of marooned bergs of fantastical shapes and shades of blue. We had been advised to stay at least as far away as twice the height of the bergs as they are unstable and could flip unpredictably. Some had flipped and were black with gravel from scraping along the bottom, or perhaps their source was one of the several lateral or medial moraines.

Not only were the shapes and shades amazing, but the sounds! Water dripping, splashing, sploshing, splooshing. Cracks, snaps, pops, groans, and percussive blasts, topped by thunder as occasionally pieces broke off and rumbled into the calm water. The berg then slowly rocked back and forth into temporary equilibrium. My daughter aptly called these bergs, “time bombs”, released from the glacier face to drift serenely away, armed and deceptively dangerous.

We beached the kayaks on an outwash plain island dotted with glacial erratics to enjoy breakfast with a view. What a view! Bear Glacier peeked through the icebergs, winding its way 12 miles from the 5000’ Harding Icefield.  Dark lateral moraines of gravel and debris striped the sides, and broad medial moraines ran down the middle where tributary glaciers merged. Refreshed by breakfast, we set off down a very wide channel heading straight for the glacier’s face. Using Motion-X GPS, Katie calculated that it was about 2.8 miles. Seven MALLARDS flew up and off.

As the sun warmed the land, the day breeze woke up. We paddled into the breeze and a slight chop, unprotected by the distant bergs. An occasional harbor seal head popped up like a periscope, cautiously surveyed the scene, then slipped silently down. One seal emerged quite close and hastily, without grace, dove with a big splash.

We paddled towards the west side where suddenly the water changed from its beautiful blue-green to mocha. A large (isn’t everything large here?) triangular slab of snow partially covered with gravel and sand protruded from the steep mountain slope. I do not know if it was from an avalanche, perhaps from our big snow year in 2012, or a remnant of the glacier, now isolated as the glacier retreated.

On the west side of the glacier face, the shorn off lateral moraine was black with debris. Inside, we could hear echoes of running water in ice caves as a very large and swift river ran under the ice. This seemed to be a very important part of the glacier’s plumbing and hydraulics, and source of the silt-laden water. I tasted the water and was surprised to find it a touch salty. There must be a lot of mixing with the tides even in the lake.

We continued paddling east, past the giant medial moraine, and then the secondary medial moraine. I was unable to estimate how high the jagged seracs were, or how far away we were. Far enough, I hope, unless the face dropped off and then even far away is too close. As the glacier is also moving deep underwater, there is always a chance of a piece of underwater ice breaking loose and surging to the surface. I just hoped for the best, and fortunately, this did not happen.

We reached the far east side just in time for lunch. Rounded boulders bore glacial striations going in every direction as the sandpaper rocky bottom of the ice described its complex journey.

SEMIPALMATED PLOVERS popped up on the rocky till, sparsely vegetated with low alders and willows. I stayed clear of the alert parents guarding their nests, not wishing to disturb them.

After lunch, it was time for a nap. It had been a very short night, and the sun was so delightfully warm. I drifted in and out as occasional cracks and booms woke me up to see a small piece calving with tremendous farewells into the lake. What a sight, that jagged line of dragon’s teeth!

At 2:32 pm, we felt the earth jiggle for a few seconds. Earthquake! There is nothing more certain when you are lying on the ground. Turns out it was a 5.8 magnitude, about 70 miles underground, with an epicenter 75 miles nw of Anchorage.

I watched and waited to see if the glacier was upset by the quake, and fortunately, nothing happened. Whew! We were too close to respond had it calved and generated a local tsunami. Back to sleep!

After a delightful nap, we packed up and paddled around the corner to the northeast where lots of giant icebergs were jammed in. Wide passages miraculously opened to allow passage between the behemoths, trying to maintain that 2x distance.

As the sun wheeled overhead to the northwest, we paddled back towards the low-lying opening in the vegetated outwash plain, happy to have that MotionX-GPS track to verify the route. At least a hundred GLAUCOUS-WINGED and MEW GULLS sat on various icebergs nearby. Others guarded nests just above the shore and cried loudly or flew closely overhead as we paddled past. One gull was a HERRING GULL, but I didn’t notice any others. The other party reported BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKES as well.

Back to the clear river, we were carried effortlessly downstream past one riffle to another. We passed three BLACK OYSTERCATCHERS sunning quietly on the rocky bank. I was unable to discern if one was a youngster as it was lying down, taking a nap with its head tucked in. It looked as large as the adults. About 17 HARLEQUIN DUCKS flushed and flew upstream.

In plenty of time for the 7:30 pm pickup, we hauled out at the landing spot and sorted the gear. A pack-rafter who had camped overnight joined our group.

I walked across the moraine to watch the surf rhythmically thunder onto the beach. Two WHITE-WINGED SURF SCOTERS, and three PIGEON GUILLEMOTS floated just past the breakers. The white bellies and black backs of several HORNED PUFFINS flashed in and out of sight. DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANTS flew low just over the water.

Right on time, Captain Louis cruised around Callisto Head, whizzed through the treacherous river entrance and met us at the bank. The kayaks and gear slid back in place and once again we were off.

In a few minutes, Bear Glacier slipped from sight. Her moaning, dripping, crying, rocking, ice berg babies will continue to weather and morph into other fantastical shapes until they too are reduced to bergie bits, and ultimately return to the sea and the hydrological cycle. What a place!

If you go:
I highly recommend Captain Louis for any water taxi destination; he is reliable, responsible, capable, and friendly, even after a very long day.
Seward Water Taxi 907-362-4101

15-mile taxi ride departs from the Seward Boat Harbor south ramp about an hour before high tide. The ride takes about 50 minutes. Departure from Bear Glacier moraine is at high tide. Do not pack any gear in the kayaks as they must be empty and light for loading and handling.

M/V Lori Sea is a 28-foot aluminum landing craft with 12.5 feet of deck space and storage above the cabin. The cabin seats 5-6 passengers.

Louis can take credit card payments on the spot. Be sure to tip him generously for his wonderful service!

Backcountry Safaris and Adventure 60 North are permitted on adjacent state land along the southeast side. For a lot more money, a helicopter will drop you off at their camp where you can rent kayaks and paddleboards, and a guide.

Cool sites:
Repeat Photography of Alaskan Glaciers: Bear Glacier

From a Glacier’s Perspective
Photos and discussion.

Iceberg sizes, shapes and classifications

Happy Adventuring!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter