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

1 comment:

  1. Great Captures/Blog Here! I initially noticed your "Cormorant vs Wolf Eel" shot. That looks like a huge (and pretty pattern!) eel staring down its captor's throat here! So could the bird really manage to win the struggle and gulp that whole thing down entirely okay?? Does the eel (aren't they endangered?) put up a good fight, if eaten, does the poor prey get swallowed wriggling all the way down as well??