Saturday, January 2, 2016 CBC Postponed, Birding in the squalls

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 10:00 am, sunset 4:02 pm for a total daylight of 6 hours and 2 minutes. Tomorrow will be 2 minutes and 11 seconds longer. 

What a doozy of a day! All night, sleet pelted my south-facing windows, as if thrown by angry mobs. The power went out around 4 am. Thunder rolled and lightning flashed just before the next violent downpour erupted. It was a spectacular storm!

The 9 am Seward Christmas Bird Count meeting occurred during a lull between squalls. Despite the recent weather tantrum, birders with short memories and good rain gear were willing to have a go at the Count. The sage boat captain, however, was not. The seas were roiling with white caps and visibility was extremely limited. After much discussion about the logistics and options, we decided to try again tomorrow when the marine forecast was considerably more favorable.

It was only raining, a bit windy, and warm at 41ยบ, so many volunteers headed out anyway, primarily to find a CRESTED AUKLET, a Life Bird for many. Stopping and scoping along Lowell Point Road was successful.  Several single, all dark auklets flew frantically into the south wind and plunged into the waves, diving immediately. Then up they rose, back into the air for another leapfrog flight. It was hard to estimate how many but at least ten. Tomorrow we’ll pay closer attention.

Also spotted, a COMMON LOON flying into the wind, such a large bird by comparison, and so unusual to see one flying. Several small groups of COMMON MURRES flew past, as others paddled in the surf. Sprinkled along the bay were SURF SCOTERS, HARLEQUIN DUCKS, BARROW’S and COMMON GOLDENEYES, GLAUCOUS-WINGED and MEW GULLS. Several Steller’s sea lions poked their noses up and waved their flippers. A BALD EAGLE cruised out to grab a cold one from the refrigerator, likely a Common Murre, the snack of choice.

The sewage Lagoon proved a popular dining spot for many COMMON GOLDENEYES, MEW GULLS, and MALLARDS. The pond was remarkably calm, tucked away in the center of the Point.

By now, the sea was frothing madly, and the 33mph wind made it hard to hold any optics. Squalls of stinging rain and hail sent us back to the car. We found several more Auklets along the Waterfront, a small flock of Surf Scoters with Barrow’s Goldeneyes, Steller sea lions, Harlies, and gulls all riding the waves with determination. They have little choice. The best bird was a BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE slowing stroking its way above the beach into the wind. Another two were spotted farther out. There just haven’t been any Kittiwakes around recently.

Hoping for a lull, we next headed to Afognak Beach. A lone truck was parked there and no one in sight at the beach. Neither was the KILLDEER. The pink and blue-sprayed COMMON MURRE carcasses now stretched all along the beach after Tasha finished her COASST beach survey. Several live murres nearby sat lethargically in the sleet. When we returned a short time later, they were dead. Five Bald Eagles made short work of the bonanza lying at their feet.

A party of RAVENS cavorted joyfully in the wind, performing aerial acrobatics and other daring feats. The Raven seemed to be the only species actually enjoying the punishing weather.

Then we saw two others, birders, who had been out biking the beach, covered with sleet and smiles. Glad to survive that ride! Stoked, tomorrow they plan to fatbike their route out towards Exit Glacier, probably in three feet of slush. Sounds like fun!

Over at Spring Creek, Tasha and Sadie found 35 SNOW BUNTINGS and a bunch of other species I did not write down. I’ll get that list later for Count Week. From the shelter of the car, we managed to drum up four male LONG-TAILED DUCKS and one female, a PACIFIC LOON, a few more Auklets, more Common Murres, Harlies, Pelagic Cormorants, and Surf Scoters. I’ll do better tomorrow recording the CBC data.

It was impossible to get good, close looks or photos of any birds, much less the possible WHISKERED AUKLET. Several experts are mulling over my photos, trying to decipher the clues. Thede noted that it would be an incredible record since the species rarely moves between favored tide rip passes in the Aleutians. There are no Seward or North Gulf records. Martin R further noted that they are only rarely reported east of Unimak Pass. Did that recent tremendous storm pluck it out of its home and fling it to Seward? Standing by for the verdict!

We checked out a few more spots without anything to report, and headed home to dry out. It was a very interesting day, one that I probably would not have experienced without the company of my birding friends.

The squalls did not end with sunset. Instead they seemed to pulse in regular intervals, a rhythm of eerie silence, then the hammer of hard rain, sleet, or hail. More fantastic lightning ignited Mt Marathon followed by the thrilling thunder, then the mountains on the other side of the bay responded in kind, volleying back and forth. Thunder and lightning used to be so rare!

The marine forecast posted a small craft advisory for tonight, with the 30 knot south wind diminishing to 20 knots during the evening, seas 7 feet subsiding to 4 feet. Tomorrow, the south wind at 10 knots becoming north in the afternoon, seas 2 feet. I’ll let Captain Mike call the boat decision tomorrow at 9 am, but it sure sounds a whole lot less gnarly than it was today!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Sorry, no photos today!

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