Monday, October 26, 2015 Rare Birds!

Seward, Alaska

The adventure started on Sunday for birder Luke DeCicco of Anchorage who was simply hiking back from a nice weekend at the Alaska State Parks Callisto Canyon public use cabin in Caines Head State Recreation Area south of Seward.

Close to the cabin, he spotted a Flycatcher actively hawking insects from various perches and got excellent looks at the cooperative bird. Luke identified it as a WILLOW FLYCATCHER, a rare bird listed as “casual” with less than a dozen verified sightings in Alaska. Much to his dismay, he did not have a camera to document the sighting.

Undeterred, Luke drove back to Anchorage, and accompanied by his camera and Scott Schuette, drove down to Seward on Monday morning. The public use cabin is only accessible by water, or by an intertidal Coastal Trail. The 12.7' high tide was at 12:52 pm, so the daring duo had several hours to wait for the tide to recede and uncover the beach trail.

Time to bird Seward! First exciting bird: a YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER at Benson and North Star in a Mt Ash. No sap wells were seen, and the bird flew off. This rare bird is also listed as “casual”.

On my way to try to find the sapsucker, I chanced on Luke standing along Dairy Hill Lane by the Lagoon. I pulled up, he pointed into the alders and willows, and I hopped out to see a Life Bird, a WESTERN PALM WARBLER! First Palm Warbler for Seward, and probably for the Eastern Kenai Peninsula. Very exciting find! The bird proved elusive, but did pop up briefly a few more times. 

A NORTHERN SHRIKE nearby, harassed by a couple of BLACK-BILLED MAGPIES, probably did not help. It’s a dangerous, scary world for a lost bird without any buddies.

Scott flushed a WILSON’S SNIPE from the nearby wetlands. Another Snipe has been reported at mile 3.5 recently. Very late for these shorebirds. Scott also found a YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER and a LINCOLN’S SPARROW with a mixed flock of CHESTNUT-BACKED CHICKADEES, RED-BREASTED NUTHATCHES, and DARK-EYED JUNCOS on a subsequent walk around town, between Madison and Adams, in the alley between First and Second Avenues. 

PACIFIC WRENS were heard or seen frequently; a ROBIN sang sweetly at the top of a cottonwood. PINE GROSBEAKS flew over and called melodiously.

At one point, I spread sunflower seeds from a handy little container in my pocket onto my outstretched palm and instantly attracted nearby Chestnut-backed Chickadees and a Red-breasted Nuthatch that took turns at the mobile bird feeder. What a thrill to feel their tiny feet on my fingers and look into their bright, curious eyes!

As the tide began to ebb, Luke and Scott headed for the Tonsina Trailhead at Lowell Point and starting hiking south along the 2.1 mile Tonsina Trail to the south end of Tonsina Point. By 3 pm, the tide had receded just enough for them to start hiking along the Coastal Trail on the slippery beach rocks.

Meanwhile, I was lucky to catch a ride with friends on a boat to Callisto Canyon. I was dropped off at 3:40 pm and started checking the dry stream by the cabin, surrounded by silent spruce festooned with green moss. After about 20 minutes when I reached flowing water without spotting a single bird, I called Luke. He and Scott had hiked the remaining 2.5 miles and were almost there! I turned back to meet them along the beach. Scott decided to scout the stream while Luke searched the leafless thickets of salmonberries and elderberries near the beach.

At 4:23 pm he spotted the WILLOW FLYCATCHER! It flew up a short distance to grab a flying insect, and went immediately back into the brush. Luke miraculously managed to get some decent photos in the dim light and obscuring branches. Yea!

Scott rushed over, but the bird was not to be found. We waited, listening and watching all along the beach as the daylight seeped away. Despite our best efforts, the bird was not to be found.

At 6:30 pm, when all hopes were dashed by the deepening dusk, we complied a list of birds for the Callisto Canyon Cabin journal:
Willow Flycatcher!, Harlequin Ducks, Surf Scoters, Barrow’s Goldeneyes, Horned Grebes, Pelagic Cormorants, Bald Eagle, Black-legged Kittiwakes,
Glauous-winged Gulls, Common Murres, Belted Kingfisher, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, Ravens, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Pacific Wren,
Golden-crowned Kinglets, Song Sparrow, Pine Grosbeaks.

It was dark by 7 pm when we spotted the green and red running lights of my friend’s boat zooming around the point. Dead low tide of -1.5' made for a tricky landing and departure, but after some effort, we were once again afloat and heading back to the lights of Seward, quite relieved not to have to hike back 4.6 miles in the dark.

I then dropped Luke and Scott off at the Tonsina Trailhead parking lot, and off they went, back to Anchorage, 120 miles away. Quite an exciting day and a wonderful adventure!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward, Alaska

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