Wednesday, September 30, 2015 Cackling Goose!

Seward, Alaska

Spectacular golden sunrise 10 minutes after its scheduled appearance of 8:00 am, (mountains to summit), sunset 7:33 pm for a total day length of 11 hours and 32 minutes. Tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 25 seconds shorter.

Last night’s hard rain and freezing temperatures resulted in a stunning new white coat for the mountains north of Seward, and a lacy, white shawl for Mt Alice and Marathon, but nothing farther south. We must have been just at the edge of the big cold front and storm that hit Anchorage.

Though the high was 43º, it was chilly in the brisk NNE wind by the white-capped bay, where many were watching humpback whales.

As one whale surfaced right off shore, I spotted a dark goose with a chin strap shoot past, flying north into the teeth of the wind. Looking at my photos, I noticed it had the short neck, stubby bill, and rounded head of a CACKLING GOOSE, but I am unsure of which subspecies. Seward did not have any Canada/Cackling Geese migrate through this fall, as far as I know, so this single one so late was quite a surprise.

It was a great day for a hike to Tonsina Point, mostly out of the wind. 15 BARROW’S GOLDENEYES paddled in Tonsina Creek with two pairs of HARLEQUIN DUCKS. A few pink salmon spawned in the clear water, surrounded by many carcasses of both pink and chum salmon whose mission was accomplished. Other birds heard or seen along the trail and beach included BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEES, GOLDEN-CROWNED KINGLETS, STELLER'S JAYS, BLACK-BILLED MAGPIE, DARK-EYED JUNCO, HORNED GREBE, BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKES, GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS, and a BALD EAGLE.

The resident TRUMPETER SWAN family of 8 was back at the Lagoon this afternoon. The cygnets are thriving under the attentive care of the watchful adults. Their pink bills are gradually changing to black from the base and tip inwards, but their overall outer plumage remains light gray.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Monday, September 28, 2015 Red-necked Grebe, Common Murre feeding chick

Seward, Alaska

Heavy overcast bordering on fog today with light rain showers, and completely flat calm. Gray skies merged seamlessly with the gray water; a monochrome day.

New to the mob scene today was a RED-NECKED GREBE that cautiously dove at the very edge of the melee. BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKES plunged recklessly into the boiling mass of herring, submerging then emerging triumphantly with 2 or 3 herring at a time. Dozens of COMMON MURRES, many more KITTIWAKES, and a handful of PELAGIC CORMORANTS floated all around, seemingly suspended in the grayness.

Through the din of screaming gulls, I heard a different sound, persistent and almost sweet. I sorted through the birds, discounting each until I zeroed in on a miniature COMMON MURRE in typical adult winter plumage. Up popped an adult COMMON MURRE still in breeding plumage, with a herring in its beak. 

This is the famous Murre dad who dutifully attends the chick after it leaves mom and leaps off the cliff nest. I have never observed this behavior, and so far from the seabird colony.  It is unusual, like all the herring and whales so close to Seward.

The dad held the herring for a bit, maybe to subdue it, then handed it over the waiting, begging chick and watched while the chick worked it around and got it down. Then he dove again for more while the chick waited and begged. It was all very charming to watch and hear. That murre chick is so cute! At one point, it dove, but I was unable to see if it successfully caught anything.

All this activity suddenly ceased as a powerful Humpback Whale cruised through the middle, swallowing the entire herring ball in one big gulp. All the birds scattered, nervous about being an entrée for the whale’s lunch.

May they all find more herring!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Sunday, September 27, 2015 More Humpback Whales, Goldeneyes, GBH

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 7:53 am, sunset 7:42 pm, for a total day length of 11 hours and 48 minutes. Tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 25 seconds shorter. Temps in the mid-40s, calm, frequent rain showers. More rain is in the forecast for Monday and Tuesday.

Supermoon lunar eclipse was totally obscured by a thick, gray blanket of clouds.

Today was whale day as Humpback Whales, from 2 to 5, feasted on herring right in front of town. Delighted visitors and locals alike stood in the mist and rain, waiting expectantly. We were not disappointed!

Hoards of excited BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKES plunged headfirst into the boiling bait balls, emerging with 2 or 3 herring in their yellow beaks. COMMON MURRES, MARBLED MURRELETS, and PELAGIC CORMORANTS dove and feasted nearby. The first BARROW’S GOLDENEYES, a small flock of 5, and HARLEQUIN DUCKS whizzed past. Three Sea Otters cruised past, paddling nonchalantly backwards. A Harbor Seal popped up and slipped quietly back down; a Steller’s Sea Lion porpoised past.

Then, WHOOSH! a Humpback surfaced nearby, startling everyone, including the birds, who instantly scattered. Sometimes the whale surfaced and blew in a predictable line; other times, it spun around, flukes flailing, water churning, throat pleats visible as it lunged for the herring. Finally, the whale presented its iconic tail and disappeared for long minutes, often reappearing a mile away.

Just as people began dispersing, back it would come, (or others) putting on another impressive show. Five photographers stood ready when suddenly a Humpback cleared the water, revealed its entire massive body, then slammed back with a fantastic boom and huge splash! Not one photographer got a photo. It was so fast, and so incredible! 

ASLC marine mammal researcher, Dr. Russel Andrews, noted the “North Pacific Super Blob” may be the cause of this unusual herring/whale activity in the bay. According to the NOAA website, the ocean is exceptionally warm, as much as 5.4º F warmer than normal, all the way across the North Pacific to Japan. Not since records began has this region been so warm for so long. The implications are huge.

On a sad note, later in the afternoon, a dead GREAT BLUE HERON was reported at the base of a power pole on the sidewalk near the Alaska Sealife Center. Cause of death unknown at this time. The ASLC staff collected the unfortunate bird.

Happy Whale Watching!
Carol Griswold

Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Friday, September 25, 2015 Humpback Whales, Thick-billed Murre, et al!

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 7:49 am, sunset 7:48 pm for a total day length of 11 hours and 59 minutes; pretty darn close to equinox. Tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 25 seconds shorter.

Our week-long streak of bright, sunny fall weather accompanied by a brisk northerly wind faded last night to cloudy skies with rain in the forecast. Daytime temps remain in the high 40s, but ice on shallow water documented the freezing temps recorded before dawn this morning.

It’s been quite an exciting week. On Monday, September 21, I spotted two humpback whales at a distance in the inner bay, one adult and one juvenile. I couldn’t believe my eyes at first when I saw the huge clouds of vapor rising up, one smaller than the other. Even from a distance, I could see splashing as fins and flukes whirled around, chasing their prey. I wonder what fish is now so abundant to support two giant whales? 

Update from ASLC Richard Hocking: herring.

Ten LAPLAND LONGSPURS flew overhead, calling, but not landing. A late, and dark, Dragonfly flew past and landed on a yellowing beach ryegrass leaf, folding its veined wings forward. Not much time left for dragonflies!

Tuesday, September 22: Within seconds of arriving at Fourth of July Beach, a humpback whale surfaced and blew right in front, about 100’ offshore! I was so not ready to take photos! The enormous body rose up as it swam powerfully past like a locomotive, then slid smoothly underwater, It was not to be seen again though I watched eagerly for at least 10 minutes, camera ready.

A solitary female WHITE-WINGED SCOTER tried to fill the vacated space, as did a flock of about 50 noisy BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKES, a few MEW GULLS, and a harbor seal.

Hundreds of jellies continue to die and wash up on the beaches. They are so beautiful, fascinating aliens from the ocean universe. Also of note, a small surge of Euphasiid Krill, something I usually see in the spring, not now.

Over at the North Dock, I snuck up on a juvenile PELAGIC CORMORANT paddling along in the green water, unaware. I watched a juvenile BALD EAGLE snatch up a fish from the bay, chased by a GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULL all the way back to shore. A MARBLED MURRELET dove just off Spring Creek Beach.

Wednesday, September 23: I returned to Fourth of July Beach to try for another chance at the whale, and to get out of the fierce wind. The scoter was still there, joined by two HORNED GREBES. No whale.

At 3 pm the resident TRUMPETER SWAN family of 8 took a nap in the sun at the north end of the Lagoon.

Thursday, September 24:
At 10:30 am, the resident TRUMPETER SWAN family was reported at the nest site at mile 1 Nash Road. Shortly afterwards, they all took off and were last seen heading towards Bear Lake.

At noon, I spotted a single adult TRUMPETER SWAN napping and preening at the north end of the Lagoon. I suspect that the single and sometimes two Trumpeter Swans hanging around the Lagoon are last year’s resident cygnets, all grown up. Their dad does chase them away without mercy, but they probably never migrated and know no other home. It will be so interesting to see if all 10 swans stay over the winter. Wow!

Back at the North Dock at SMIC, I again snuck up on an unsuspecting bird in the boat basin. Imagine my surprise to find that it was a THICK-BILLED MURRE! I’ve never seen one here before, or so close. The bill is definitely much shorter and thicker, hence the name, the white line along the mandible was visible, and the white breast curved up under the neck. Very exciting!

At least 50 screaming BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKES dove headlong into the water after a bait ball at Spring Creek Beach. Several COMMON MURRES and PELAGIC CORMORANTS feasted more cautiously at the edge of the fracas.

Update: While checking my photos for September 24, I discovered a PACIFIC LOON feeding near the Kittiwakes at Spring Creek Beach!

At 3 pm, the single adult TRUMPETER SWAN was back at the north end of the Lagoon, threatening the audacious NW CROWS when they got too close. I don’t think a migrating swan would feel so at home here with the traffic and people so close. Swan family not seen.

Today: What a relief this morning to lose the wind and gain reflections!
Swan family back at the Lagoon. Heard a YELLOWLEGS, possibly a LESSER, at the head of the bay, rather late for this shorebird. Also several SAVANNAH SPARROWS popped up and down in the beach ryegrass. A cloud of at least 400 gulls rose up off the tide flats. Lots of jellies still washing up, and pink salmon carcasses.

I spotted 8 Mt Goats high on the nearby mountains, feeding amidst the glowing fall colors.

Around 12:30, I checked out the mirror-calm bay in front of town by the community playground and skateboard park. BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKES, several BONAPARTE’S GULLS, COMMON MURRES, and PELAGIC CORMORANTS rallied around yet another bait ball. Suddenly, Whoosh! A humpback whale surfaced right in front, and I was ready! For several long minutes, it remained underwater, then Whoosh, again!

By this time, the little fish were frantic, boiling at the surface, trying to fly up, up and away. Even the birds were cautious, not wanting to get invited to a whale’s dinner. The whale blew and dove up and down the beach, thrilling all who saw or heard it. Eventually, it dove and surfaced quite far from shore, and seemed to be headed across the bay.

A PELAGIC CORMORANT caught a big fish and struggled to swallow it as another cormorant watched nearby with interest (or concern). The fish looked long and flattened, dark with a yellowish stripe along the lateral line. Richard Hocking at the Alaska Sealife Center identified it for me as the tail of a young wolf eel; the rest, including the head, was already down the hatch. Quite a catch!

While I was waiting for the whale, a sea otter paddled past, calmly eating something on its belly-table. Several KENAI SONG SPARROWS hopped among the beach rocks. One flew up into an alder not five feet away and sang a quiet little song, very contentedly, not even opening its bill. That was a sweet gift.

Later, at Lowell Point Beach, just before reaching the beach, I heard a squawk, looked up, and saw a SHARP-SHINNED HAWK chasing a young BLACK-BILLED MAGPIE. The Maggie flew over and landed on a piece of driftwood close by, using me for protection, I think. The hawk flew off, grumbling about its missed dinner.

On the way home, a Steller’s Sealion splashed as it tussled with a bright silver salmon. What a day, and what a great week!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Sunday, September 21, 2015 Harding Icefield Trail hike

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 7:37 am, sunset 8:03 pm, for a total day length of 12 hours and 26 minutes. Tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 24 seconds shorter.

Brilliant sun and blue sky today with a few scattered showers, low of 34º, high of 55º, north wind.

Today was a perfect day to visit Kenai Fjords National Park to hike the Harding Icefield Trail at Exit Glacier. Frost glistened on the benches along the main trail at mid-morning, but would soon melt. Yellow cottonwood leaves crunched underfoot while green and yellow leaves rustled overhead in the breeze, ready to fall. Bird-wise, it was pretty quiet.

The Harding Icefield Trail branched off the main trail, starting at mile 0, elevation 522’. The first bird I heard shortly after the Bridge at mile 0.8 was a SLATE-COLORED JUNCO chipping from an alder; two more hopped into sight. I noticed the alder male catkins tucked into their tight green sheaths, the female cones in their condensed balls, and quiet, brown, leaf buds, waiting patiently, ready to emerge next spring.

Next were the cheerful calls of busy BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEES as they flitted about the willows near Marmot Meadows at mile 1.4, 1558’ elevation. Many of the willows bore “willow roses”, evidence of tiny wasps at work. This is where I got the first good look at the spectacular blue ice of Exit Glacier. 

At the Top of the Cliffs at mile 2.4, 2475’ elevation, a cold wind blew off the nearby glacier, the long, fissured, blue tongue visible to the top. A group of German visitors spotted a black bear and two cubs wandering along the cliff edge below, causing much excitement.

A possible GOLDEN EAGLE sailed along the face of the ice, long tail, small head. Five mountain goats rested in ones and twos on the mountainside behind us, including a nanny with one kid. Two noisy RAVENS flew over the rocky terrain and in a flash were specks near the mountaintops.

As I continued hiking, 5 PIPITS flew up and swirled around, calling. They should be migrating soon. I didn’t expect to see Hoary Marmots this late, but an adult and youngster thrilled me, and a lot of other hikers, at times feeding right along the trail, or just a short ways down. They were eating lupine leaves and sedges when I passed.

Up and up. The green and gold grasses and sedges and maroon fireweed gave way to a barren, rocky landscape with patches of snow. The emergency shelter at mile 3.9 was a welcome sight, even in a non-emergency. The trail ended at mile 4.1 at 3,482’ above the valley, at the edge of the Harding Icefield. Smooth, seemingly endless ice and snow extended to the horizon, with snowy nunataks protruding like sentinels.

Tucked behind a ridge out of the chilly wind, I thoroughly enjoyed the amazing views, quite pleased to be there. Nearby plants like moss campion and Sibbaldia hugged the ground, also trying to get out of the wind. Their flowers are long gone and their seeds scattered to the future.

The sun continued to roll across the sky, and so I had to roll on as well. Shortly after passing the emergency shelter, I spotted a large black bear walking away from the trail (good bear!) I wondered why he was up here in the rocky, almost barren landscape, with apparently nothing to eat. But what a view!

Back at the Top of the Cliffs, I paused to watch a small flock of BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEES flit past. To my amazement, I heard the flutter of wings, and one tried to land on my hiking pole! I was sorry the top was so slippery, as it didn’t stay. What a nice surprise!

By now, the mountain goats were done resting and moved quickly up the incredibly steep slopes with sure feet. A nervous hiker on his way up reported a large black bear just off the trail below so I was careful to make noise. The only mammal I saw, however, was a red squirrel scurrying through the alders.

Soon I was back to the interpretive sign and register. There, I took note of the bear information: “If a grizzly bear attacks you, play dead. If it starts to eat you, fight back.” No wonder that guy was nervous!

On the way home, I screeched to a stop to take a photo of a brilliant rainbow on Mt Alice. What a place we live!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter