Friday, August 28, 2015 Different kind of Ospreys and Hawks

Seward, Alaska

The rumors are true: President Obama is coming to visit Seward on September 1st! The grapevine is buzzing with even more rumors, but the details have yet to be revealed.

As if to confirm the astonishing news, four impressive Osprey Tiltrotor Aircraft thundered over the Seward Airport today. They had flown from Anchorage with their twin prop-rotors in front like an airplane but on approach, the prop-rotors tilted vertically like a helicopter to allow them to hover. The gnarly winds did not faze them and they landed with ease and precision.

According to various websites, the Osprey can cruise at 290 mph and travel more than 1000 miles. Once airborne, it can rotate the prop-rotors horizontally in as little as 12 seconds. The prop-rotors are 38 feet in diameter.

Joined by somber Blackhawks and gleaming green Whitehawk helicopters, the taxiway rumbled and roared with restrained power. Men in Black watched as did many lucky Sewardites. Cars swerved over to the side of the highway at the unexpected sight and cameras clicked. Then, one by one, they taxied a short ways and effortlessly lifted off, up, up and away into the blue sky. What a sight!

The unusual Ospreys stole the show, but the two presidential helicopters also tested the approaches and landings at the Seward Airport in the brutal, gusty wind.

The green and white Sikorsky VH-60 helicopter becomes Marine One when the president is on board. If only the vice president or other high-ranking members are on board, it is known as Marine Two. When Marine One is in service, there are usually several other decoy helicopters flying with it to protect the president. This fleet is air-transported with the president anywhere in the world.

The VH-60N White Hawk is 64.83' long, 53.67' wide, and 16.83' high. It can travel 183 mph with a maximum range of 1379 miles, and climb 700' per minute. It looks very impressive!

Happy Birding, even if this flock of unusual birds lack feathers!

Carol Griswold
Seward, Alaska

Thursday, August 20, 2015 Hummingbird Alert, and Orange-crowned Warblers

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 6:23 am, sunset 9:37 pm for a total day length of 15 hours and 13 minutes. Tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 19 seconds shorter.

Third straight day of summer with temps in the 70s and a nice breeze from various quarters. Chance of rain for tomorrow then more sunshine. Quite a nice finale for August.

Hummingbird alert! Kerry reported seeing a hummer yesterday in his neighborhood, but was unable to discern if it was a Rufous or Anna’s. This late in the year, it is likely to be an Anna’s or other unusual species as the Rufous don’t linger. Watch the bright nasturtiums and other flowers, and keep that hummer feeder clean and filled. You too may have a special guest!

I heard an ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER singing in my yard this morning, quite unusual for August. They are among the last warblers to migrate, and generally are fairly quiet this time of year. I found several over by the Lagoon, chipping in the alders.

Salmon continue to migrate up area streams, mostly sockeye/red and humpy/pink in the heart of Seward, and chum/dogs and pinks at Tonsina Creek in the state park south of Seward. It’s an exciting time, and silvers are on the way.

The SOLITARY SANDPIPER, the one with swollen legs, was back catching blow flies on a salmon carcass this morning at the Lagoon. Two KINGFISHERS rattled around, chased by MAGPIES now and then. MALLARDS  paddled discretely after spawning salmon, hoping for fresh eggs. RAVENS and EAGLES flew high in the blue sky, circling over the mountains.

Over at the head of the bay, GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS also circled high overhead and SAVANNAH SPARROWS gathered. I wonder if they are getting ready to migrate? It’s about time to bid adieu to the remaining summer birds and welcome the south-bound migrants.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Tuesday, August 18, 2015 More Avian Predators on Blow Flies

Seward, Alaska

The forecast missed again; instead of “partly cloudy” it was a blue sky, summery day with temps in the mid 70s eased by a delightful south breeze.

I checked on those fascinating salmon carcasses again today at the Lagoon and was not disappointed. The Spotted Sandpipers were away, but young BLACK-BILLED MAGPIES were busy at work on a King salmon carcass, expertly picking off the juicy blow fly larvae. The iridescent blues and greens of their tail feathers and wings exploded in the sunshine; they looked like tropical birds of paradise!

At one point a few Maggies gathered on the quiet road and hunted flies. One juvie crept up to a sunning Flower Fly just a few feet away from me and managed to grab it; a pretty decent job, I thought, for a youngster. Its eyes were still a baby blue, and the feathers around the head were still emerging. Looks like they know where to find food but I hope they understand cars.

Over in the Lagoon, a GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULL ripped into the belly of another salmon carcass. At first, I thought it was just tearing off bits of salmon to eat. Then I looked closer and saw it was excavating into a blow fly larvae hideout. Once the cavity was opened, it gobbled up several at a time, gull style.

Several young NORTHWESTERN CROWS had also figured out the bonanza lurking inside the salmon carcasses.  Standing on or beside the carcasses, they plucked off and ate adult blow flies and larvae with ease.

Author and naturalist Bob Armstrong, who alerted me to blow fly predation by birds, noted that my observations of the Black-billed Magpies and Glaucous-winged Gull bring the documented total of predatory bird species to around 14. There may even be a book forthcoming about salmon and blow flies in Alaska by blow fly experts. Who knew there was such a thing?

The more you look, the more you see!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Monday, August 17, 2015 Two Harlan’s Hawks, Spotted Sandpiper Antics

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 6:16 am, sunset 9:45 pm for a total day length of 15 hours, 29 minutes. Tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 18 seconds shorter.

The clouds rolled in on Saturday, delivering much needed water for this coastal rainforest. Temperatures fell to the mid-50s, which feels normal. However, the forecast calls for partly cloudy this week with temps in the high 60s to low 70s.

Yellow leaves contrast with the otherwise green landscape; can it be fall already?

Today at the head of the bay, I heard a raspy, descending “KEEERRRRR!” and looked up in time to see a HARLAN’S HAWK launch from a spruce treetop and execute a wide circle. The vocal hawk did not sound quite like the robust Red-tailed Hawk used to speak for the Bald Eagle in the movies. The sound reminded me more of that made by blowing across a blade of grass stretched between one’s thumbs.

Another hawk cried from another treetop. This one was mottled with white and looked like a juvenile. It flew to closer to the adult and another perch, out of sight. Six or more FOX SPARROWS flew between willows. A dozen ROBINS clucked as they crossed from spruce trees to elderberry bushes.

This spring, I watched a Harlan’s gather fistfuls of grasses, ostensibly for a nest, but after that burst of activity, no one reported seeing any hawks the rest of the summer. The first Harlan’s Hawk I spotted since then was on August 4, vocalizing loudly as it flew just above treeline on Mt Marathon. It is possible the hawks nested here, undetected, but maybe they are just migrating through.

Yesterday, I checked out the Lagoon by Dairy Hill Lane across from the boat harbor. It’s always interesting there, and especially in late summer, when King, Chum, Reds, and Pink salmon are returning to spawn. Silvers will be coming soon. Carcasses litter the shallow areas, their primary mission completed.

Now their mission is to feed the birds, then fertilize the Lagoon, streams, and nearby forest. I did not see any Eagles, Ravens, Crows, or Gulls feasting on the carcasses. Instead, I watched a motionless SPOTTED SANDPIPER standing intently on a large, smelly specimen. I wondered, do Spotted Sandpipers eat rotting fish? In an instant, I got an answer. At least for now, this bird was nabbing and feasting on blow flies.

Another li’l bobber came walking along the shore, trying to catch random flies on the sand. The obvious success of the other lured him over, but the first sandpiper would have none of it, and gave chase. That one salmon was not the only carcass and surely there was no shortage of flies, but sharing was not on the agenda.

The second sandpiper continued to follow the first from one carcass to the next, but was always chased away. Maybe it just didn’t quite understand how to catch a fly. There is an art to fish flying.

Of interest as well, is whether birds eat the blow fly larvae/maggots. It seems the maggots flee the light and are well hidden, unlike the adults. Perhaps a more aggressive bird like a gull, crow, or raven would be able to find this rich food source inside the carcasses. When it looks like they are eating salmon, look closer.

Incidentally, blow flies may infest certain bird nests. Check out this website for more information

A splash! drew my attention to a BELTED KINGFISHER, that successfully caught a small fish and flew up into a nearby willow to eat. Nearby, in the shallows, a GREATER YELLOWLEGS and a GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULL tried their luck at fishing too.

It was great to see the Kingfisher. A resident at Bear Lake recently reported four Kingfishers chasing off a MERLIN. Might have been the whole family.
Lots happening on the Nature Channel!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Saturday, August 8, 2015 Molting Seabirds at Alaska Sealife Center

Seward, Alaska

The Alaska Sealife Center offers an intimate peek into the lives of select seabirds, mirroring their brethren in the wild. Many of the sea ducks are in eclipse plumage now, in a constant state of shedding feathers and growing new ones. Wings are stubby, their new primary and secondary feathers sheathed in papery wrappers, growing longer every day, ready to unfurl.

If you’ve been wondering where all the wild HARLEQUIN drakes went, leaving only females, wonder no more. A closer look reveals that, while both genders resemble females, the drakes are darker.

The KING EIDER drake, the most popular bird (after the puffins) when in breeding plumage, looked awful at the end of July. His once colorful face was pocked with green fuzz and white splotches. A week later, soft brown feathers replaced them, pleasing but unremarkable. It must be humbling for such an exquisite bird to be so drab.

The SMEW drake, also a stunning bird in his “cracked ice” breeding plumage, closely resembled his female. The short, sheathed primary feathers were easy to spot on both birds.

One HORNED PUFFIN sported a skinny, fuzzy neck that made his head appear enormous and quite comical. Most of the other puffins and RHINOCEROUS AUKLETS seemed to be hanging on to their various tufts and bill sheaths for now.

The RED-LEGGED KITTIWAKES have no trouble flying. One pair is raising a fat little chick high up on their cliff side nest.

It’s hard to leave the fascinating seabird habitat, but there is much to see and enjoy. The “Summer of Sharks” special traveling exhibit featuring the “Buzz Saw Sharks of Long Ago” and artist/scientist Ray Troll is on display until September 7th. The fossils, sculptures, artwork, and videos are on both floors. It is an incredible exhibit!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Wednesday, August 5, 2015 Raven Rescue

Seward, Alaska

This morning around 11:30, I received an urgent call from Ozzie, a friend who had spotted an unusual, dark object dangling from a branch about 50 feet up near the top of a spruce tree. When a wing moved feebly, he realized it was a RAVEN, and this bird was not being playful. He was in dire distress.

I dropped everything and rushed to the scene. It was hard to determine the why or how of this poor Raven’s predicament. His legs were crossed, and his useless feet were suspended just below the branch, trussed like a chicken. He spun slowly, back and forth, a wing protruding now and then to try regain balance. Fishing line entanglement?

With considerable effort, the Raven craned his head to look at us from his awkward position, a long, long look, then let his head drop back down. He was utterly helpless. How long had he been hanging upside down, dangling from that branch? How did he get so tangled up, and how did he land so awkwardly to get so stuck? How much longer could he last? We had to try to help this unfortunate bird.

And thus began the Raven Rescue. I started calling people who might help, left messages, and waited. When the person finally called back, it was a similar message: no access to anything to reach that high and no one available to assist.

Lunch hour proved a dead zone of inaction. The long hour passed as my stress mounted. I imagined the life of that magnificent, intelligent, playful, mischievous, and stoic Raven ebbing away. More phone calls, messages, and waiting after lunch finally led to the local tool rental guy. Yes, he had a 56’ lift and when he had a break in business he could meet me on site.

I rushed back to the site, equipped with a branch trimmer, nippers, heavy jacket, gloves, and towels, hopeful but fearful of what I would find 3 hours later. Was the bird dead? No! another Raven perched at the top of the tree, a few feet higher, giving him moral support and company. A wing opened up in a pitiful wave. Did they know that we were going to try to rescue him?

The high-lift had just arrived and upon assessing the situation, found that the bird was not 50 feet up but 75 feet! Was it possible to get closer to the barrier of alders below the spruce to stretch higher?

Ozzie also returned to the scene bearing a long-handled brush saw. We quickly loaded up in the high-lift’s blue metal basket and up we went. When the lift stopped at 56’, our hearts sank. So near, yet too far! Even with the extensions on the saw, the tree was out of reach. The upside down Raven calmly watched the crazy people in the weird machine below, wielding a long yellow pole. Was he disappointed? Did he know?

Down we went, so dejected, but wait! The lift moved over to a slightly more advantageous position and even higher up the bank, closer into the alders. Once again, we rose up into the sky. Yes! By stretching to the max above his head, the saw just barely reached the tree. Ozzie cut first one small branch, then other to gain access to the main trunk. He could not reach the Raven’s branch, but would have to cut the skinny trunk and let the bird fall.

The saw bound on the up stroke, making each cut even more strenuous; DOWN! reach up, DOWN! reach up, DOWN! Finally, the saw cut through the treetop trunk and in a flash, crashed into the alders below, branch, bird, and all.

Down we went again, jubilant this time, hoping that the crash didn’t kill him. We thanked the lift driver and dashed off into the alders to see what happened. The 5’ treetop was stuck in the alder canopy, as was the bird on a branch. After cutting the branch from the trunk, it was easy to reach up and grab the Raven. He in turn grabbed Ozzie’s finger and held on just to let him know who was Boss; fortunately it was only a pinch, cushioned by the thick glove.

Back in the open, we placed a towel over the prone Raven. Just like magic, he stayed still. I cut off the branch and then the looped string freeing his legs. Then it was time to untangle the feet. The first foot was clenched tight. It was hard to pry open the black, scaly toes equipped with sharp claws to access the string. But after carefully cutting the first few strands, the toes suddenly relaxed and opened up. Oh no! Did the stress just kill him?

No time to look; we kept cutting and unraveling what appeared to be kite string wrapped around and around and through. Bit by bit, the string fell away, leaving deep cuts especially in the palm. The other foot did not have as much string left, but the lacerations on the leg were bloody and numerous. Poor bird!

Operation completed, Ozzie carried the Raven bundle to a more open, grassy area and gently set him down. Released from the towel, the Raven immediately tried to fly, but fell forward, tail up, unable to use his feet. Then he just rested in a little bed of grass. After hanging upside down for so long, he needed to get the blood circulating again and get his brain reorganized.  We watched from a distance, wondering about his chances of survival with bum feet. What an ordeal!

I ran home to get some Betadine and water, thinking he would be easy to recapture and treat in his exhausted state. But just before I left the house, Ozzie called to say the Raven had flown a short distance away and landed, his buddy or mate by his side. I abandoned the supplies and raced back.

What a beautiful and touching sight! The two birds were standing side by side in a nearby creek. The rescued Raven scooped up beakfuls of water to rehydrate while the cold, clear water soothed his swollen legs and cleansed his cuts. Raven had found his own medicine. High fives all around! Yippee!

The next day, Ozzie walked back to the site, wearing the same clothes. Now there were 5 Ravens. As he walked, one flew about 2-3 feet away at shoulder level. Then the bird and another Raven flew ahead and perched on nearby rocks, waiting for him. As he walked right up to them, they hopped off and coasted to the next rock to wait. Ozzie said this has never happened to him before. Although he couldn’t see the legs well enough to check for cuts and identify the Raven, he felt that the Ravens recognized him and they were thanking him.

Who knows? All is possible with Ravens.

On behalf of the Raven, his family, and friends, I thank all the people who provided leads and took time to make phone calls; Rolf for taking time off his busy schedule to provide the lift and for his skillful maneuvering; and especially Ozzie, who cared enough to call me, and without whom this misfortune would have certainly ended in tragedy.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Reporter