Sunday, November 15, 2015 Yellow-billed Loon and Wacky Murres

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 8:56 am, sunset 4:27 pm, for a total day length of 7 hours and 30 minutes, and total night length of 16 hours and 30 minutes. Love those stars and planets! Tomorrow’s day length will be 4 minutes and 40 seconds shorter.

Sunny, cold, and clear with a low of 9º and a high of 21º, strong NNW winds 15-35 mph, thankfully calming down by nightfall. Forecast for continuing wind and colder temperatures until Wednesday when clouds  might deliver warmth and a chance of snow or sn’rain.

First bird of the day was an immature BALD EAGLE hauling a COMMON MURRE to a breakfast bough near my house. I’ve noticed Murres are a favorite dawn feast for Eagles, an easy grab and go for a large, hungry raptor now that salmon are under ice.

At noon, a smaller raptor, a SHARP-SHINNED HAWK, chased a BLACK-BILLED MAGPIE around and through a tangle of alders, almost succeeding several times. The chase was absolutely silent, and deadly serious. Several times, the Hawk stopped to rest and reconnoiter with the audacious Magpie sitting a tantalizing 3 feet away, watching. Then, off they went again, up and down, threading through the maze of branches, both birds demonstrating phenomenal aerial skills. The last I saw, the Hawk had no lunch and the Magpie lived to taunt again.

Along the beach, several small flocks of Murres flew in large circles over land and water. This seems very unusual, a huge expenditure of energy, and exposure to predation and cold. Why?

Some Murres were napping in the shelter of the breakwater, not very alert, and likely prey. Another Murre dove in a freshwater stream as the tide rushed in laden with jellies. That seemed unusual too, but at least it was trying to find food.

More unusual Murre behavior occurred mid-afternoon south of the harbor Uplands. I was so excited to find a young YELLOW-BILLED LOON! The first of the year for me.

Close by was a Murre. Very close by. In fact, the Murre was fearlessly close, and was either very friendly, curious, or possibly a bit aggressive, reaching out with its bill to the Loon. A pest? A menace? The Murre paddled around the perplexed Loon, who turned to face it. Finally, the Loon reared back and stretched its wings as if to show how big it was. The Murre watched, and then wandered off.  That was strange!

Back at home, three Magpies were busy working over a very fresh Murre carcass. It could have been from the breakfast bird. Or it could have been an injured Murre that a neighbor reported on my answering machine at 11:30, possibly dropped by an eagle in the alley behind my house, and later retrieved.

I thought the Murre adventures had ended for the day, but at 9 pm I received a call from another neighbor who had spotted a bird standing like a penguin in the snow by the side of the highway at Mile 9. What excellent vision! He turned around, assessed the situation, then threw a light blanket over the bird which calmed it immediately. His wife held the quiet bird in her lap all the way home in the warm car. All excellent first responder techniques for a victim in shock.

The bird was soon delivered to my house. I carefully unwrapped it, found nothing obviously wrong with it, rewrapped it, put it in a box, and drove it to the boat harbor. A couple other Murres floated peacefully in the calm water, illuminated by a nearby street light. I opened the box, loosened the blanket, and tilted the box. It hopped out, walked a few steps, and entered the water.

First thing, a little drink. It stretched its wings, shook off, and started paddling slowly, watching me watching it. In the dim light, I could see a small whitish bird flying quickly underwater. It surfaced and collided with the Murre, startling them both. The MARBLED MURRELET and Common Murre swam off, side by side into the dark. A happy ending for that Murre! But why was it at Mile 9, in the snow, at night?

Why are so many Murres behaving so strangely?

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

UPDATE: Three groups of Murres totaling 10 birds, were observed flying north over the Seward Highway between town and Mile 12 around 3 pm today. How very strange! Sounds like one lucky bird of this flight was rescued.

UPDATE: In addition to the murre that was rescued at 9 pm, 8 other people rescued Murres from as far a Mile 12 and took them to the Alaska Sealife Center. Lucky birds!

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