Saturday, February 24, 2018 Anchorage Audubon Seward Field Trip!

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 8:11 am, sunset 6:12 pm for a total day length of 10 hours and 1 minute. Tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 28 seconds longer.

The north wind worked hard today to redistribute last night’s 2” of light, new snow, shredding it into streamers and swirls from the mountain tops, roofs, roads, yards, and beaches with 17 mph winds gusting to 28 mph. The temp rose only slightly from 24 to 32. Midday, the sun pantomimed an illusion of warmth when it peeked between the clouds. But overall, it finally felt like winter again.

A flock of about fifteen Anchorage Audubon Society birders braved the blowing snow to drive to Seward for the annual Seward field trip. With ten stops between 10 am and 3 pm, the group collectively spotted 35-36 species.

Hundreds of PINE SISKINS mixed with much smaller numbers of COMMON REDPOLLS chattering in the trees greeted us at our first stop at Ava’s Place. The male RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET, still alive through the winter, darted in for suet when traffic slowed. An AMERICAN TREE SPARROW, immature WHITE-CROWNED and a GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROW hopped through bleached grass stalks and under an alder nearby. A handsome male ROBIN perched up in the alder, cautiously waiting to approach the feeders. Ava said this Robin has learned to eat suet directly from the feeder by gripping it with its feet and flapping its wings for balance. It takes a lot of effort, but beats waiting for suet scraps to fall.


The flocks of Siskins suddenly rose like a swarm of bees and buzzed away. We quickly looked for the reason, as it wasn’t us. There in a cottonwood behind the house perched an adult NORTHERN SHRIKE, peering around. That pretty much cleared out the busy bird feeders except for a few daring Chickadees.

Next stop was Afognak Beach at Mile 2.5 Nash Road. After donning ice creepers for the icy slope to the beach, we scanned the nearby bay and found the twelve TRUMPETER SWANS, including the two cygnets that hatched at the Mile 1 Nash Road wetlands in June. We all wondered what they are finding to eat this winter in the ocean, along the tide’s edges, and in the nearby streams. The area to the south of Afognak Beach has an important eelgrass bed, if they can reach it. These swans are tough!

Scope birds included MEW and GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS, a few BARROW’S GOLDENEYES, and a few COMMON MERGANSERS. An adult BALD EAGLE perched on a lookout tree on the point.

We looked for Western Screech Owls in the nearby spruce trees just in case; no luck.

Next stop, Spring Creek Beach at Mile 5 Nash Road. The new breakwater for the SMIC basin is done and provides sheltered water for boats and birds. In the bay we found the first PELAGIC CORMORANT, a few HARLEQUIN DUCKS, a few more COMMON MERGANSERS, and BARROW’S GOLDENEYES. A small pod of Steller sea lions surged past. A BALD EAGLE perched in a tree and called as another flew overhead. No Dippers were found in Spring Creek or the pond, but it’s a good place to look.

Next stop, Stash and Store Pond at Mile 3 Seward Highway. We had high hopes for the Hooded Merganser, maybe two, but no ducks were seen.

Next stop, the Benny Benson Memorial Park by the Lagoon in town, across from the former horse corral. The Lagoon has refrozen except for a small open area where we found a female BUFFLEHEAD, and two COMMON GOLDENEYE females. The creek is another good spot for a Dipper, but none were found. A small flock of Pigeons flew past. There is no doubt that one or two Bald Eagles were seen here too.

Next stop, the Cruise Ship Terminal just off Port Avenue. Up to 8 GREAT BLUE HERONS have been seen here recently. We lucked out and watched one fly awkwardly across to the cruise ship dock and perch on the railing. Then it flew back across to the coal conveyor belt chute and slid to a stop to land there. The heron looked especially forlorn in the blowing snow and wind. I hope his buddies are safe and out of the wind nearby.

Next stop, back to the Harbormasters for the half-hour lunch break. Some considered the $2 7-minute hot shower option, or the much cheaper hot air hand dryers in the restrooms, but most found revival in a heated vehicle and food. Our group checked out the Harbor Uplands and found four RED-BREASTED MERGANSERS, dozen or so COMMON MERGANSERS enjoying the lee of the Uplands, one COMMON GOLDENEYE fishing with several BARROW’S GOLDENEYES,  a large flock of NORTHWESTERN CROWS, a sea otter, and later, a SONG SPARROW.

At 1 pm, we regrouped and headed to the town hotspot at Second Avenue and Madison Street. The trees and shrubs along Second were literally hopping with birds: a hoard of PINE SISKINS and a few COMMON REDPOLLS, a bright, adult WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW, immature GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROW, SLATE-COLORED and OREGON JUNCOS, RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH, and BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEES.

A red, interior FOX SPARROW was a highlight but hard to follow in the underbrush, as was a bright, male VARIED THRUSH, orange as a pumpkin and so big in comparison to all the other birds, but hard to see. Heard but not seen was a scolding STELLER’S JAY. The Steller’s Jay numbers have recently plummeted in this neighborhood, noticed especially by the neighbors who feed them peanuts.

Suddenly, a SHARP-SHINNED HAWK swooped through the alders and small spruces, scattering all the birds to the wind. The hotspot owner has seen this bird frequently; yesterday it killed a siskin for lunch. Gotta eat! Perhaps this hawk is partially responsible for the lack of Steller’s Jays too.

After this exciting sighting and subsequent lack of birds, we headed out to Lowell Point. On the way, some spotted a sea otter eating a flatfish. This is unusual, especially since sea otters are not adapted to handle fish parasites. A few seabirds including Harlequins, Barrow’s Goldeneyes, and Common Mergansers, and Mew and Glaucous-winged Gulls were spotted from the road but it was difficult to stop to look. The storm surge and high tides at the end of December pummeled Lowell Point Road, reducing it to a one-lane road in several areas, so drivers, including birders, had to be cautious.

A quick stop at the sewage treatment lagoon revealed many handsome and quite impeccable COMMON GOLDENEYES, mostly males, diving and recycling the town’s offerings. Mallards are often found here as well.

Lowell Point beach at the State Park was somewhat sheltered from the wind, which was appreciated. We found two more Pelagic Cormorants fairly far out. Two MURRELETS, tiny and fast flew past, species unverified. A couple Ravens flew overhead and I’m sure there were a couple Bald Eagles here too. We listened for Crossbills, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, and Pacific Wrens, but found none. This is a good spot for all three.

This was the final official stop of the fabulous 2018 Anchorage Audubon Seward Field Trip. From here, birders wandered back to town, checked out other birding spots like the Alaska Sealife Center and Bear Lake weir for dippers, then headed back up the highway towards home. I checked out the Waterfront and found a small flock of hungry and hopeful gulls including what two immature THAYER'S GULLS.  Many thanks to gull expert Steve Heinl for his identification help.

He noted the first-cycle Thayer's is likely a Thayer's, although it isn't a very well-marked bird, meaning it doesn't have the barring on the scapulars and wing covers that most of them show. What I thought was a small Herring Gull is probably a second-cycle Thayer's with a darkish eye, slender straight bill, and nicely barred/vermiculated scapulars and wing coverts. Steve said pure Herring Gulls are actually pretty rare in Alaska in the winter.

As for the Glaucous-winged Gull, Steve noted some birds may have black on their bills for their entire lives, but it's commonly shown by younger birds, perhaps birds in their fourth of fifth winter. And the bright pink leg color may depend on what they are eating, or they're just variable.

There's always more to learn about gulls!

Thanks to Andrew Fisher for coordinating this field trip, and to everyone who took the time and interest to participate. A special thanks to Dan for zipping around, taking care of people and details like new batteries for the green laser, and connecting birders to birds. Thanks to the drivers who shared the ride. I appreciate the group’s cooperation to pose for the photos too. 

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

PS Let me know what I missed in my report.
Trumpeter swan
Harlequin duck
Common goldeneye
Barrow’s goldeneye
Common merganser
Red-breasted merganser
Pelagic cormorant
Great blue heron
Bald eagle
Sharp-shinned hawk
Mew gull
Thayer’s gull, two!
Glaucous-winged gull
Downy woodpecker
Northern shrike
Steller’s jay
Black-billed magpie
Northwestern crow
Common Raven
Black-capped chickadee
Red-breasted nuthatch
Ruby-crowned kinglet
American robin
Varied thrush
American tree sparrow
Fox sparrow
Song sparrow
White-crowned sparrow
Golden-crowned sparrow
Dark-eyed junco
Oregon junco
Common redpoll

Pine siskin

Saturday, February 10, 2018 Hungry Raptors

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 8:50 am, sunset 5:36 pm for a total day length of 8 hours and 45 minutes. Tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 17 seconds longer. After three sunny days, the clouds moved in yesterday afternoon. Light snow began today with temps hovering around freezing. Rain/snow and wind in the forecast through Monday.

Feeders around Seward are erratically packed wing-to-wing with PINE SISKINS mixed with smaller numbers of COMMON REDPOLLS, then eerily empty. At Ava’s Place this afternoon, I watched a living carpet of chattering Siskins and Redpolls glean fallen sunflower seeds on the ground. A lovely apricot-orange, first-of-year RED CROSSBILL guarded the hanging platform feeder from Siskins. CHESTNUT-BACKED and BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEES flitted in where they could.

Suddenly the first wave of at least 100 Siskins lifted up in a cloud with a whoosh of whirring wings and cries of alarm. Then another 100, and another. They swarmed overhead like bees, uncertainly swooping back and forth. Finally, a hundred or so settled like autumn leaves in reverse on the top branches of a nearby cottonwood. That didn’t last long; again they rose as one and swirled away.

My head swiveled around, looking for the source of this panic. There in a cottonwood down the driveway was the silhouette of a SHARP-SHINNED HAWK. Suddenly, a MERLIN dashed past, taking a close look at the unmoving Sharpie. No wonder the little birds were edgy!

A DOWNY WOODPECKER, caught in the rush, froze on the trunk of a mayday tree, willing itself to be a small burl. The perky RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET, however, perhaps deeming itself too small to be of interest for dinner, took advantage of the sudden absence of aggressive Siskins, to feast exclusively at the suet feeders in peace. He chattered loudly when perhaps he should have been a bit more discreet, given the circumstances. A few Chickadees popped up to enjoy the uncrowded sunflower seed feeders. Three HAIRY WOODPECKERS called from cottonwoods a bit farther away from the immobile Sharpie.

Ava reported a NORTHERN HARRIER visited her front yard recently, either passing through or hoping for a little fast-food.

No wonder the little birds are jumpy!

On January 27 just before dawn, I heard a hoarse squawking and followed the sound to the very top of my spruce tree where a juvenile NORTHERN SHRIKE perched. It seemed quite content, greeting the day with various blatts interspersed with chatty conversation. I watched the sunlight finally reach the Shrike, lighting its belly with a warm glow; its effective hooked bill quite plain to see. Its presence explained the absence of any birds at the feeders below.

On January 29, a small raptor riled up a flock of 132 pigeons in mid-town. It was too far away to tell if it was a Merlin or Sharpie.

On February 3, a juvenile SHARP-SHINNED HAWK blasted through Ava’s front yard scattering all the diners. It then perched on a branch and preened nonchalantly, as if unconcerned it failed at lunch. 

I received a report of a GOSHAWK around February 5 along Lowell Point Road.

On February 9th, a juvenile Sharpie perched near my house, watching and waiting. A BLACK-BILLED MAGPIE flew past, checked it out, then broadcast the news from the safety of a nearby spruce.

In between the excitement of spotting these bird predators, I enjoyed spotting the resident TRUMPETER SWAN family with two cygnets flying past on January 26, a COMMON GOLDENEYE drake fishing for gunnels in the boat harbor, a HERRING GULL basking in the cold sunshine, COMMON MERGANSERS napping, NORTHWESTERN CROWS bathing and sunning despite the cold, and a perky DIPPER plunging into ice water to eat.

The RED-BREASTED SAPSUCKER has vanished but the HOODED MERGANSER pair was spotted today at the Stash and Store Pond.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter