Saturday, February 6, 2016 Crested Auklet, Killdeer, and other surprises!

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 9:00 am, sunset 5:24 pm, for a total day length of 8 hours and 23 minutes. Tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 12 seconds longer.

After a week of monotonous gray days with temps in the upper 30s to 40ยบ, the south wind picked up and slammed a torrential rain onto Seward Thursday night. That perked things up!

Friday afternoon, the white rain changed to actual snow, with big, fat flakes wafting down from the great snow maker in the sky. It was really beautiful! About an inch of the unusual white stuff covered the ground, barely in snow state. Although many areas under spruce trees remained clear and vaguely greenish, the feeble snow cover drove hungry birds to the feeders. Looks like snow showers for the next week, with an emphasis on “showers” as the temp is forecast to be in the 40s again.

As it only sprinkled part of the day, it was easy to be outside with the optics. First stop, Spring Creek Beach on the east side of the bay. 100s of MEW GULLS and GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS have discovered the recent seafood processing fish gurry outfall pipe, gathering in large rafts off shore. Nearby was a smattering of SURF SCOTERS, BARROW’S GOLDENEYES, PELAGIC CORMORANTS, and a few HORNED GREBES. HARLEQUINS patrolled the near shore.

The SMIC boat basin offered a busy Sea Otter, munching noisily on something hard, a stealthy and curious Harbor Seal, a RED-NECKED GREBE, two COMMON MURRES (yea!) a MARBLED MURRELET, a hen BARROW’S GOLDENEYE, and a dozen inquisitive NORTHWESTERN CROWS.

More gulls rested on shore at Fourth of July Beach. I spotted a female COMMON MERGANSER sitting alone along a little creek bank; what a big, round belly! She was slow to see me and slow to react, but eventually took off down the stream back to the ocean. I thought nothing of it until…

Five minutes later, my good dog suddenly caught a whiff of something and went ballistic, barking furiously. I looked over, and there was a beautiful Coyote, standing above the creek, her coloration a mixture of dried beach rye grass, weathered gray driftwood, and fresh snow, her ears the reddish color of wet spruce cones. If she was disappointed in losing the fat Merganser for lunch, she was too polite to say. Instead she calmly sat down, as if bemused by all the racket.

I moved slightly to get a better view, and she agreed to move as well. As she leisurely turned away, she stopped and gave us a long, lingering look, then slipped away into the alders and disappeared.

After she was gone, the dog and I walked over to inspect her tracks. So petite! At 30 pounds, she is half the weight of my dog. But tough and wild and free. I was thrilled to watch her, and equally grateful there was only one, so gracious and polite.

Crossing back, I spotted some bright orange rust on something in the stream and picked up an ancient, 4-sided spike. Wow! Did this drop out of a shipworm-riddled piece of hull from a long-ago shipwreck? Today was full of mysteries and surprises!

On the walk back, I found a newly emerged Stonefly, walking along a snowy log. Spring is early this year! A COMMON LOON popped up along the shore, intent on its quest for fish. Always nice to see a loon!

I next stopped at Afognak Beach at the ebbing tide, feeling very lucky. Sure enough! The KILLDEER was still here, probing and plucking tiny invertebrates from their hiding places in the intertidal rocks and silt. That bird, despite its brilliant white belly and dramatic black necklaces, is hard to see. Careful scanning with the binocs for its slow, deliberate movements helped to find it. A silent KINGFISHER flew past, heading for the creek and lunch.

The sun shot through the clouds now and then, illuminating the brilliant new white snow on the surrounding mountaintops. I headed for one last stop at the head of the bay. Mallards, about 100, watched me warily, and then flew off, quacking in complaint. Mew Gulls worked the receding tideline. A BALD EAGLE adult perched on driftwood, watching. The snowy mountains reflected their spectacular images in the mirror-like puddles, upside down.

As I came around a corner to the creek, several BUFFLEHEADS spotted me and flew. A lone female BARROW’S GOLDENEYE remained in the tidal stream. Suddenly, a small, brown bird appeared, paddling quietly near the opposite shore. What? Who?

Then I saw the perky little crest above its small bill. I was stunned! A CRESTED AUKLET! The last time these remarkable alcids were seen was during the January 3 Christmas Bird Count and few, if any, have been seen since. The amazing alcid paddled upstream with the Goldeneye, diving quickly now and then. It was fun to hear the quiet “blip” as it dove, spraying water in a big arc.

After a bit, it turned around and paddled back towards me. What an unusual bird, with its dashing plumes and tiny, smiling bill! I froze, enjoying this rare encounter, until it again turned and paddled/dove back upstream. Then I too, quietly left it to find enough food to sustain it through yet another long night.

Back home, in the diminishing light, I found at least 15 GRAY-CROWNED ROSY-FINCHES feasting on sunflower seeds below the bird feeder. What a combination of colors: raspberry pink bellies, chocolate backs, gray heads with black crowns and throats, and bright golden bills! Made me hungry for an ice cream sundae!

DARK-EYED JUNCOS hopped in and around the busy finches. A COMMON REDPOLL joined the flurry. BLACK-CAPPED and CHESTNUT-BACKED CHICKADEES flashed in to grab a sunseed from the feeder and flashed away to peck it open on a nearby branch. In between, the shy BROWN CREEPER tried to get a bit of suet before the much more dominant chickadees shooed it away. What a lovely finale to a most unusual and exciting day!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

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