Friday, March 30, 2018 Spring Swan Drama

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 7:29 am, sunset 8:37 pm for a total day length of 14 hours and 33 minutes. Tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 29 seconds longer.

The “big winter storm” never materialized, though the north wind certainly did with occasional, much-appreciated breaks. Freezing temperatures at night and above-freezing temperatures in the day have spirited away much of the ice and snow without the mess of breakup. Spring is here, tidying up after Winter, nice and easy with a smile.

My crocuses are just peeking above the leaf mulch, and Sitka willows are starting to bloom. I even saw the bright yellow stem of a skunk cabbage confidently emerging along a small stream. More sun with temps continuing in the 20s to low 40s is in the forecast until Wednesday, then a chance of rain or snow showers.

Tasha reported a BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER at Afognak Beach on March 19, and refound it on March 24, all alone. A BALD EAGLE struggling with the wind while hauling a huge stick for the DYI nest project was reported on March 20. That evening, a pair of WESTERN SCREECH OWLS was reported hooting in the Lost Lake neighborhood. I heard the red FOX SPARROW singing on March 22, and sporadically since then, so sweet! On March 25, I saw and heard just one SNOW BUNTING, though two were also reported, also a pair of GADWALL which may have been here since the Christmas Bird Count.  On March 26, I received a report of a RAVEN plucking a grapefruit-sized wad of stuffing for a nest from a dog’s toy left in a yard. I watched a Raven tearing up gobs of moss in the same yard a bit later; maybe the toy was safely tucked back inside.

Seward is extremely fortunate to have resident TRUMPETER SWANS, a new record of 15 overwintering here, including five cygnets. With so many, it’s hard to differentiate them. One family seems to have only one adult and two cygnets. Another family has two adults and two cygnets. The remaining eight contain at least two solid pairs. They have survived this alternately bitter cold and relatively mild winter by feeding near eel grass beds in Resurrection Bay and at the mouths of streams at the head of the bay. It’s remarkable that they have found enough food to survive.

As a tiny bit of open water appeared at the back of the Mile 1 Nash Road wetlands on March 24, a pair of Swans was reported staking it out. However, on March 25, I counted two adults and two cygnets feeding there. Last year’s family? The next day, I only saw two adults, but it is far and it is easy to miss napping or hidden cygnets. Now it seems there are just two adults there consistently, not the Swan family. Previous residents?

The Swan family of 4 was spotted with a pair of adults peacefully sharing a small pond on the afternoon of March 27. That evening around 7:15 pm, I happened to be driving by the Lagoon on my way to listen for the Western Screech Owls. I glimpsed a swan through the trees, so I pulled in to the Benny Benson Memorial Park to count. As I quietly opened the door, I heard trumpeting. I didn’t think it was an alarm about me, so I continued to quietly approach.

The Lagoon remained mostly frozen, but this north end was partially open. I crept into view and instantly took in the scene: one cygnet rested on the ice on the west side, one parent rested on the ice on the south side, and the other parent and cygnet fed near the ice on the southeast side. A pair of agitated Swans bobbed heads and trumpeted on the north side. Were they discussing flight plans to head out for the evening?

The trumpeting, that wild and thrilling music, got louder and more frequent as did the deep head bobs. Suddenly, one Swan took off, giant white wings stroking, black webbed feet splashing across the calm water aiming straight for feeding parent Swan. The alarmed parent didn’t wait to discuss the situation, but wisely shot off and landed on the ice a safe distance away. The attacker, satisfied, broke off the chase and landed on the ice.

O my! What a magnificent display! He looped his neck back, puffed out his chest, and held his gorgeous angel wings out stiffly, tail bent down. Turning slowly, still displaying and impressive, oozing with aggression, he faced the pond and the remaining parent. Dropping the display, he raced across the ice with giant strides, flying directly at his target. That parent beat it out of there and landed far away on the ice.

Veering course, the triumphant Swan landed in the water and, trumpeting, swam towards his adoring mate, who trumpeted right back. Facing each other, they bobbed their heads up and down, excitedly replaying the great roust. After congratulations and meritorious awards, they settled down and paddled slowly in the pond, side by side.

Meanwhile, one parent cautiously reentered the pond on the far southeast side. A very docile cygnet that had watched the whole show decided to paddle across to join his parent. As he eased past the pair, ever so innocently, it seemed that this would be OK. They watched, he paddled. But then, BAM! The adult erupted over the water after the cygnet. The poor little Swan fled for his life just ahead of the avenger. I wonder if he had EVER been threatened like this! Off they went, the attacker’s splashy footprints overstepping the cygnet’s before splash had even settled.  

The cygnet landed on the near ice, the attacker paused, then kept coming. The cygnet dashed off. The rest of the chase continued by foot with wing assist until the cygnet was far down the ice. Again the adult held out his mighty wings in that impressive display, facing the vanquished, and then turned slowly to face the others and his beloved. After a minute or two of glory, he flew low, back to celebrate with head bobs and trumpeting. Afterwards, they both preened unperturbed on the shore.

Again the parent eased back into the water, followed by the smart cygnet that knew not to rustle a feather during the battle. The vanquished cygnet preened on the ice; the other parent took a nap on the ice nearby with one eye open.

By and by, the aggressive pair paddled serenely across the open water to feed by the ice on the south side. First one cygnet, then the other, and then one parent swam back in the middle. Nothing happened. The five Swans tipped up and fed while the remaining parent napped on the ice with one eye open. After twenty minutes of high drama, all was peaceful. Wow. I slowly eased away, so elated to have witnessed this powerful drama.

I wondered why the pair was so fiercely defending this area; it has never been a nesting habitat. There are very few suitable sites in the Seward area: Nash Road mile one being the best, and Bear Lake subjected to harassment by people and marauding Eagles. The Lagoon would not be optimal, but when the killer power lines are finally buried underground, maybe a floating nesting platform would be a possibility.

I continued my trip to listen for the WESTERN SCREECH OWLS with Louann and was not disappointed. After the barking dogs went home, and the Ravens finally said their final goodnights, there in the dusk came the bouncing ball call. After a short time, the low call was answered by a similar but higher call. We thought we heard yet another low call across the road.

Quite close by, a NORTHERN SCREECH OWL began beeping, alternating low and high pitches for a very nice composition. There was a possibility of a BOREAL OWL as well, though I didn’t hear it well enough to count it.

Quite the evening!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold

Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Monday, March 19, 2018 Spring?

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 8:03 am, sunset 8:10 pm, for a total day length of 12 hours and 7 minutes. Tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 30 seconds longer.

It seems Winter is defrosting the freezer and tossing out leftovers that need to be used up before their imminent expiration date. Over the past 10 days, we’ve received a hearty helping of a blizzard featuring horizontal snow seasoned with sleet and west wind, a dash of new ice, scraps of blue sky peeking between snow squalls, rolls of somber gray morning skies giving way to warm sunshine by afternoon, bits of warm sunshine (42º!) turned to an illusion by the cold north wind, a soup of calm and cloudy days with light rain, followed by a blast of high wind, and mixtures of every combination thrown out for good measure.

Time for this chore is running out as the lovely Spring Equinox nears her 8:15 am arrival on March 20 (Never mind we are already past 12 hours of daylight.)

The forecast is for sunshine with a side of wind for the most of this week. Then as a huge storm approaches, about a foot of snow is forecast for next week with temperatures bouncing around freezing. Winter sure doesn’t want to leave unnoticed!

Snow still covers most of the ground, pushing the birds to feeders, but patches of brown grass are emerging. Above the constant background clamor of hundreds of PINE SISKINS and COMMON REDPOLLS, I heard the tiny bells of the DARK-EYED JUNCOS singing their spring song.

Away from the racket, BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEES sang their sweet “fee-bee!” VARIED THRUSHES, here all winter, ring their telephones ever louder and more skillfully with practice. SONG SPARROWS piped up from brush piles with enthusiasm.

But the sweetest song, was that of the Red, interior subspecies of FOX SPARROW. This extraordinarily dapper male overwintered in my neighborhood, causing much excitement. I did not recognize his full, rich voice at first as he sings a different song from our usual “Sooty” Fox Sparrow. Luckily, I saw him in action; his concert freely given made me smile all day.

The SHORT-EARED OWL, first spotted on March 5th is still here. On March 12, I spotted four GRAY-CROWNED ROSY-FINCHES, though one has been reported intermittently in town this winter. Also on March 12, I found 15 TRUMPETER SWANS, one more than usual, including five cygnets! Now I wonder if the family with one adult and two cygnets is the Nash Road family, or is it the family with two adults and two cygnets? We will never know, but how exciting to have so many swans overwintering here!

The tiny RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET has survived the winter so far at Ava’s, sustained by her suet feeders. Ava also had at least 10 ROBINS on March 15, a WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW, hundreds of Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls, several CHESTNUT-BACKED and BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEES,  and a DOWNY WOODPECKER.

A caddisfly adult landed on the side of my sun-warmed house March 15; I wonder where it hatched as not much of the local lakes/ponds are open. That night, I finally heard the soft hooting of a nearby GREAT HORNED OWL around 9 pm. The next night, I heard the steady beeping of the SAW-WHET OWL far up the mountainside.

See-saw goes the weather, but Nature knows Spring is on her way.
Hang on for the wild ride!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Friday, March 9, 2018 American Three-Toed Woodpecker!

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 7:33 am, sunset 6:45 pm for a total day length of 11 hours and 12 minutes. Tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 30 seconds longer.

A huge storm blew in on Thursday, delivering at least a foot of snow to Seward and double that to Moose Pass and points north. No more exposed dead grass! The birds are feeding hungrily at feeders, attracting feathered bird feeders. More snow and sn’rain is in the forecast for the next week as temperatures dance around 32º.

An odd chatter caught my ear this morning. At the top of a cottonwood perched an adult NORTHERN SHRIKE, casually assessing the possibilities for breakfast at a nearby bird feeder hot spot.

Later in the day, I flushed a dark bird from a tree at Two Lakes Park. Fortunately, it flew to another tree nearby and landed on the trunk. Despite the blowing snow and dim light, I was able to get a decent look and photo: a female AMERICAN THREE-TOED WOODPECKER! This species is more typically found north of Seward, such as the nesting pair at Mile 12, so it was quite a treat to find her here.

This evening, while shoveling snow off the back deck, the local renter showed up at her usual check-in time of 5:30 pm, scolding me about the racket and disturbance below. I was surprised that the BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEE wanted to roost with more than an hour of daylight left. But the PINE SISKINS and COMMON REDPOLLS had also mostly disappeared from the front yard feeder, so maybe 5:30 is bedtime for many birds.

But not for the Shrike. I heard him chattering across the alley and while I hoped he had a successful day and a full belly, I also hoped that he had not noticed my little Chickadee. I’m rather fond of him/her!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Monday, March 5, 2018 Short-eared Owl!

Seward, Alaska

Just above the tall bleached grass stalks waving in the chilly north wind, a SHORT-EARED OWL floated and pirouetted, hunting.

While April and May are more common months to spot this magical migrating owl, one stopped by in mid-January 2010, mid-February 2014, and early March in 2009 and 2013. On March 4, 2013 there were two Short-eared Owls.

I’ll be looking!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Sunday, March 4, 2018 wild birds and Alaska Sealife Center seabirds

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 7:48 am, sunset 6:33 pm for a total daylength of 10 hours and 44 minutes. Tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 29 seconds longer.

After bouts of high winds and angry seas the past week, and the briefest of snowfalls yesterday, the ground is alas! once again bare and khaki brown. It looks like April. Temps bounced around from the high teens to high 30s, with similar temps and a mixed forecast of partly cloudy and snow/snow showers for the next week.

On Wednesday, February 28, a single GREATER SCAUP female (first of year) popped up in the lee of the boat harbor uplands near resting BARROW’S GOLDENEYES and COMMON MERGANSERS. She took a little bath a short distance away. I haven’t refound her since. 

The RED-BREASTED SAPSUCKER was reported at a different, private feeder within a half-mile of the first sighting. Nice to know he is still around!

On Friday morning, March 3, I heard three VARIED THRUSH singing somewhat feebly, but singing nonetheless. A short time later, I received a report of an injured Varied Thrush in the same area, likely mauled by a loose neighbor’s cat. So irresponsible and sad! Bird Note on public radio just happened to feature this handsome thrush that morning. They erred in implying only the male has a black breast band; both genders do but the female is overall much more subtle.

The beeping SAW-WHET OWL seems to have relocated farther north on Mt Marathon, so I don’t hear him as often. It was tough to hear anything when that north wind roars.

I’ve enjoyed visiting the Alaska Sealife Center to check on the baby beluga and the seabirds. Most of the birds are now in breeding plumage and looking mighty fine!

I watched a TUFTED PUFFIN carefully gather bits of dried grass scattered around the habitat, walking with that endearing bobbing gait. When she had a beakful, she seemed so pleased. It must be a challenge to pick up successive pieces of grass without dropping the others, but she managed just as she does with multiple tiny fish for her babies.

Unfortunately, another Tufted Puffin sidled up and tried to steal a temptingly long piece. That resulted in a splashy escape. When she surfaced, she only retained a few pieces of her fragile prize. She paddled around with her few strands and such a serious and protective demeanor. The grass attracted the attention of a COMMON MURRE who also tried to swipe it. Mercy! What’s a Puffin to do? She dove and in the process, lost it all. Ah, too bad. But, it’s only March; she has plenty of time to get the job done.

After enjoying the King Eiders, Puffins, Rhinoceros Auklets, and other beautiful birds, I was just in time to watch the staff feed the Beluga calf his bottle. So cute! He’ll be going to SeaWorld San Antonio, Texas sometime very soon, so I feel lucky every time I get to see him.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter