Sunday, May 29, 2016 Combat fishing

Seward, Alaska

It could be herring, euchalon, or some other species returning in large numbers to spawn in the area rivers. Or salmon smolt trying to swim to the ocean. Whatever it is, a bazillion gulls and BALD EAGLES knew all about it.

While well-spaced humans were trying to snag red salmon at the head of the bay, over 60 BALD EAGLES stood in the shallow tidal streams, wing to wing, toe to toe, beak to beak, combat fishing.

A screaming feathered cloud of mostly GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS, with some KITTIWAKES, and a few MEW GULLS flew above the tide flat streams en masse from one hot spot to the next like gold miners racing after rumors of rich strikes. I don’t know how they managed to fly, immersed in beating wings, outstretched webbed feet, and sharp, open beaks. The cacophony was deafening.

Whenever an eagle took to the air, the gulls nearby instantly rose up in swirls like a down-filled pillow shaken loose in the wind. The dark Eagle flew through the temporary clear space ahead surrounded by a white blur of gulls that instantly filled in behind it.

It was astonishing to hear and see this living, breathing, screeching, flying, chaotic kaleidoscope of feathers. And the mystery of it all, was the fish I never saw.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold

Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Saturday, May 28, 2016 Exit Glacier

Seward, Alaska

Eighth sunny day in a row! Sure seems like summer!

This morning, I visited Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park. It’s so easy to go, I often forget there’s a spectacular national park virtually in my back yard. My target species were the NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH, SWAINSON’S THRUSH, and GRAY-CHEEKED THRUSH.

After I drove over the Resurrection River Bridge marking the park’s boundary, I heard the NORTHERN WATERTHRUSHES calling from the willows and alders near the wetlands alongside the road. I parked and walked, looking in vain for this loud ventriloquist. My main bird remained hidden in the dense thicket as he rhythmically called and listened for the responding Waterthrushes, never moving to reveal his location.

A nearby ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER was easy to spot as it flitted through the spruce, willow, and cottonwood trees. YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLERS proved harder to spot, but sang their slow warble near the creek.

Traffic was surprisingly light, so I could drive slowly with my windows open, listening to more Waterthrushes singing along the road as long as there was water nearby.

Birdsong continued in the parking lot. I chose the 0.4 mile walk on the paved path to the Outwash Plain. In the distance, I could hear the upward spiraling song of the SWAINSON’S THRUSH. Yea! I soon located the songster at the very top of a leafy cottonwood. He also sang and listened, as another Swainson’s responded in turn, a beautiful duet.

WILSON’S WARBLERS sang their rapid “sewing machine” song all along the path. Just past the shelter and junction to the Edge of the Glacier path, is a nice grove of willows. A YELLOW WARBLER flashed from tree to tree, a little yellow tropical splash, singing his little heart out.  

I walked to the start of the outwash plain where I once heard a Gray-cheeked Thrush. No luck this time.

Turning back, I then took the Edge of the Glacier path (formerly the Nature Trail). Exit Creek is fairly loud along the trail, making it hard to hear the birds, but the view of the glacier is excellent. Once the creek is left behind, the birdsong returns. I traced a loud, rapid drumming to a little DOWNY WOODPECKER. He had found a perfect drum, an old, dead cottonwood.

Throughout my walk, I also heard VARIED THRUSHES, ROBINS, HERMIT THRUSHES, RUBY-CROWNED KINGLETS, a BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEE, and more WILSON’S, YELLOW, ORANGE-CROWNED, and YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLERS. I did not hear the other common warbler, the Townsend’s.

I recorded many of the bird songs using the video option on my point-and shoot camera. A smart phone recording would work as well. Playing the recordings later is a great way to review and remember the songs. A plus is the video of the habitat, and if you’re lucky, a glimpse of the bird singing.

Go early if you can to beat the noisy crowds. If you can’t go early, go anyway. The birds sing all the time and often there are breaks in the people parade. I expect this concert will continue until early to mid June and then it will diminish as nesting and family duties intervene.

The glacier is still impressive and there’s always something interesting to see no matter when you go. Visit YOUR National Park soon!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold

Seward Sporadic Bird Reporter

Thursday, May 26, 2016 Swan cygnets and baby Dippers

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 4:54 am, sunset 10:56 pm, for a total day length of 18 hours and 2 minutes. Tomorrow will be 3 minutes and 46 seconds longer.

Warm, sunny weather continues with highs in the upper 60s to lower 70s, and lows in the upper 40s. Without the breeze, it would be hot! The season seems accelerated by about two weeks: wild iris, chocolate lilies, and lupines are already starting to bloom. The first bumper crop of dandelions is almost over as they go to seed. And it’s still May!

Today I was lucky to photograph the resident TRUMPETER SWAN family at Nash Road. Each parent sheltered some 12-day old cygnets under their protective wings while as they napped in the thick water horsetails and sedges near the road. By and by, first one parent then the other decided it was time to eat. As the magnificent giant swans walked slowly to the open water, taking baby cygnet-sized steps, the little white cygnets bounced after them.

The adults modeled grazing on the water horsetails, and the cygnets did their best to copy them. When the adults reached down to scoop up a drink of water, the little ones did the same. Everything was of interest, and many items were sampled in hopes that they might be edible. The tiny swans with their pink bills, short necks, stubby wings, and big eyes were, of course, adorable.

The swans spent quite some time paddling and feeding at the edge of the wetland pond. When it was time to move, one adult would bob its head a few times and instantly, the message was received and obeyed. Off they went at a stately pace, ever watchful of the babies doing their best to keep up. What a pleasure to observe these resident swans in their third consecutive summer raising a family!

I was also lucky to observe a DIPPER family with four hungry babies in the mossy nest. Both parents worked hard to find food in the nearby stream. It was phenomenal how fast they found macroinvertebrates clinging to the submerged rocks, along the stream bank, and hidden in the detritus. Caddisflies were very popular, and apparently abundant. But first the parent shook off the cases before delivering the larvae to the extra-wide open yellow mouths of the babies. I don’t see how the parent knows which baby gets fed, it’s all so quick. Maybe it’s up to the babies to push their way to the front row and be the biggest, loudest, easiest-to-feed target.

It was interesting to see backwards-facing “barbs” on the roof of the babies’ mouths. I suppose these help to keep the squirming insects and invertebrates down the hatch. Also, the well-mannered youngsters did not foul the nest; instead they backed to the edge and fired away.

Two of the four babies actively hunted food around the nest opening while they waited patiently for delivery. One pecked at a fly and actually caught it. Another sampled a bit of moss that was not as successful, but good eye-beak coordination training. Soon they will fledge and peck at a whole lot of inedibles as they discover the difference. It’s a journey of discovery and they are ready to graduate!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter