Sunday, June 4, 2017 Yakutat Tern Festival field trips

Yakutat, Alaska

The skies cleared last night and brilliant blue greeted the day. Now, instead of peeks at the majestic snowy mountain range cradling Yakutat, we could see the Mt St Elias and Fairweather Range. Mt St Elias, also designated Boundary Peak 186, is the second highest mountain in both the US and Canada as it sits on the International Border. Big it is, rising 18,008’ vertically in just 10 miles horizontal distance from the head of Taan Fjord, off of Icy Bay. Mt St Elias was first sighted by Vitus Bering on July 16, 1741 on his expedition to find the New World. (Wikipedia)

Mt Fairweather to the east, at the head of the Alaska Panhandle, rises 15,325’ twelve miles east of the Pacific Ocean on the border of Alaska and British Columbia. It is also designated at Boundary Peak 164. It was named by Captain Cook on May 3, 1778. (Wikipedia)

The morning songbird field trip to Towah Creek found a YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER, a Myrtle variety with a white throat, singing in a spruce. ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLERS sang from the alders. Two LINCOLN’S SPARROWS exchanged territorial boundary information with their bubbly songs. TREE SWALLOWS zipped past, catching insects. MALLARDS quacked from the wetlands. A SONG SPARROW piped up.

A RAVEN carried a possible wood frog to its babies in the forest. WILSON’S SNIPE winnowed in the distance. A PACIFIC WREN sang its long cheery song from the forest accompanied by HERMIT THRUSH, RUBY-CROWNED KINGLETS (“chimney-chimney-chimney-SWEEP!”) The ever-present BALD EAGLES circled overhead.

At Cannon Beach, we walked along the bluff and added a BANK SWALLOW flying over the beach. We heard and saw the usual LINCOLN and FOX SPARROWS, VARIED THRUSH, and HERMIT THRUSH, then added a WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW and a YELLOW WARBLER. A ROBIN perched on the tip of a driftwood root, surveying the beach.

The blue Pacific Ocean landed against the sandy beach with booming surf and green rollers as far as one could see in either direction. PARASITIC JAEGERS, a fleet of PACIFIC LOONS, WHITE-WINGED SCOTERS, SURF SCOTERS, HERRING GULLS, GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS, and BONAPARTE’S GULLS dove, swam, and flew over, among, and between the lines of breaking waves. I took photos of a number of far-off mystery birds that I am still trying to figure out, including an exciting Jaeger attack on a small gull. Maybe Sabine’s? Probably Bonaparte's.

A brick-red beetle flew awkwardly past and easy to corral. I researched it later and found it is a Net-winged Beetle, Dictyoptera, family Lycidae. Adults eat nectar and honeydew, or may not feed at all. They are toxic, as their warning color notes. Birds do not eat them. The fine texture on their soft wing covers is uncommon in beetles. Most larvae feed on small invertebrates and fungi in leaf litter. (various websites)

The most surprising sighting was a flock of 10 SNOW GEESE that flew low and directly overhead, honking! Wow! Seems late for them to still be here! Add BALD EAGLES (of course!) All too soon, it was time to head back to the high school headquarters for the 9-1 pm field trip to Ankau.

Nate Catterson led this van trip. Heading out to Ocean Cape and the Ankau Salt Chucks, we stopped at the bridge over the Ankau River. ALEUTIAN and ARCTIC TERNS flew up and down the river, diving with a splash. We saw a large school of sand lance, which Nate found unusual, and spotted sockeye salmon from the bridge.

Our next stop was at a broad sandy beach where Nate found more Grape Ferns, but few terns. We followed moose and calf tracks, then deer, and faded brown bear tracks. Four moths landed on the sand, seemingly far from their forest home. A small flock of SANDERLINGS trotted along the shoreline, picking quickly through the thin wrack line. They passed right in front of our group, their little black legs carrying them as fast as possible past the strange giants. The scenery was spectacular on this sunny day.


Back on the road, we stopped to watch a young Brown Bear feeding on the luxuriant vegetation near the road. It seemed unusual to see a bear in broad daylight, and alone. After a bit, he ambled off and disappeared.

At Ocean Cape, high on a bluff, we enjoyed more spectacular views of Mt St Elias, Yakutat Bay, and out to the Gulf of Alaska. The Malaspina Glacier, the largest piedmont glacier in North America, and possibly the world, spilled out of the range and formed an apron around the mountains.  I was pleased to learn later that the Seward Glacier is the main source of ice.

After a lunch stop, we drove to a beach access so we could walk on the sandy beach appropriately named Sandy’s Beach. The surf crashed against the rocky shore and giant boulders (glacial erratics?) Nate spotted two whales, possibly Gray Whales, very exciting! We also watched two Steller Sea Lions surfing, and a sea otter swimming backwards as usual, on his back. An amazing raft of over 50 PACIFIC LOONS popped up in the waves. Long lines of SURF SCOTERS flew past. At least four DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANTS dove in front with one COMMON LOON. GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS cried overhead. A PARASITIC JAEGER scoped out pirating opportunities.

In the distance, a local fishing boat trolled for king salmon. It was dwarfed by a passing foreign-flagged cruise ship (aren’t they all?) that had just visited Hubbard Glacier and was now headed back south. This ship can accommodate 684 pampered guests and 400 “professionally trained European staff”; the population of Yakutat is 635. Yakutat derives nothing from visiting cruise ships.

OREGON JUNCOS trilled from the surrounding woods, ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLERS, WILSON’S WARBLERS, and HERMIT THRUSHES sang as we departed, heading back to headquarters. What a tremendous field trip!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Travelling Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

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