Saturday, November 21, 2015 Sandpipers, Swans, and Murres

Seward, AK

Sunrise 9:11 am, sunset 4:15 pm, for a total day length of 7 hours and 3 minutes. Tomorrow will be 4 minutes and 15 seconds shorter.

Mostly sunny today! Low of 20º, high of 37º with a mild north wind. Quite a relief from the recent minus 25º with wind chill. Snow showers and rain on ice in the forecast for the week.

I spotted the resident TRUMPETER SWAN family flying over the head of the bay. Even at a great distance, I could jubilantly count all four cygnets and both parents. I understand Bear Lake is not yet frozen, and they have been staying there for a while.

When looking for the Swans up close (without success), I instead found 18 shorebirds, including DUNLINS, ROCK SANDPIPERS, and a possible SANDERLING furiously probing for invertebrates in the silty tidelands. These shorebirds are not unheard of here in the winter, but it is always a wonderful surprise.

On the way back, almost to the car, I turned back to see a RAVEN hopping up and down in the stubby, dry grass. As Ravens are always up to something, I stopped to watch. A smaller black and white head popped up. A COMMON MURRE! What was it doing in the grass? Another poor choice by a distraught murre. The Raven proceeded to attack the poor bird, who fought back valiantly.

I pondered the options and considered the wisdom of interfering and perhaps returning the Murre to the bay. Just as I decided to let Nature take its course, an adult BALD EAGLE swooped in and nabbed the Murre. End of discussion. Instantly, a juvenile BALD EAGLE and two RAVENS gave chase. The predators and prey quickly flew out of sight behind the trees. 

I do not know who dined that afternoon, but can probably guess that there would be yet another headless, bloody carcass under a tree. I wonder why the head is so valued; can the eyes and brain with their associated fat be so important?

I watched another Raven parade around the precious head of a Murre, posturing and exclaiming over his prize before grabbing it and flying off. The pointy mandibles and bony skull certainly didn’t look that appealing to me.

It is very sad to see so many Murres suffering. As in the 90s, most of the Murres are starving. Why these superb divers are unable to find fish when the other seabirds seem fine, is a mystery. What drives them to frantically fly inland, up to at least 12 miles from the ocean, or crash in the grass is also baffling.

Meanwhile, the main predators, the Eagles, and the scavengers, Ravens (also sometime predators), Crows, and Magpies are feasting on this easy source of food. Except for the shocking brutality of the kill and fierce “preparation,” it’s not much different from us eating a sanitized, plucked, gutted, and headless plastic-wrapped rock hen or chicken. Bon appetite!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

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