Monday, September 24, 2012 Silver Lining and Bugling Cranes

Seward, Alaska Sporadic Bird Report

Sunrise 7:48 am, sunset pm, 7:49 length of day 12 hours, 0 minutes; tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 25 seconds shorter. This is more like Equinox, (equal night), a bit out of synch.

Weather: Last night's wind died down leaving ghostly morning fog and mist with temps in the high 40s. After a short rain burst, the hose finally turned off. What a joy to have a break for several hours! I found the silver lining in the clouds when the sun somehow filtered through the squall-laden layers and ignited the ephemeral wreath hugging the mountains. More rain and wind are in the forecast with a surprise sunny day on Sunday, subject to recall.

Taking advantage of the break in the weather, I birded around the head of the bay, joining Robin C. Two GREAT BLUE HERONS fished in the salt marsh pond and two juvenile NORTHERN HARRIERS wafted over the flattened and sodden grasses and sedges while a juvenile BALD EAGLE hung its soggy wings to dry. A tight flock of DOWITCHERS flushed in the distance, too dark to tell which species. (Thanks, Buzz, for the ID!)

Shortly before noon, I heard the excited bugling cry of SANDHILL CRANES! Looking up, I saw over 200 cranes streaming south, funneled along the Kenai Mountain range. About a half hour later, another large flock of about 200 more cranes suddenly appeared out of the clouds, high overhead and aiming south. About a half hour later, around 1 pm, I heard yet another flock, but it was too high and obscured by the clouds. What a wonderful sound and sight!

Along the beach, we refound yesterday's peeps fairly far out at the tide's edge. Buzz again helped with ID: probably WESTERNS and maybe a SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPER or two mixed in. He noted Westerns have a hunched back or "bull neck" look, while Semi-palmated sandpipers are slightly sleeker with a slightly shorter and more blunt-tipped bill. Unfortunately, it was too dark and they were too far away to see or photograph these characteristics. I'll keep trying.

An unusual sparrow caught our eyes, hiding in the driftwood and grasses. Finally it stopped and posed: it had a bright white bib and an odd bright white patch on the back of its head. The only bird I can figure out is a GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROW with a weird hair-do. Robin C mentioned that he has seen a lot of golden-crowns around town recently. It was accompanied by a SAVANNAH SPARROW, doing its usual popcorn hops along the beach and in the beach rye grass.

A HERMIT THRUSH popped up too, an unusual sight along the beach. Then a small flock of around 7 other birds burst out of the grass and dashed away; perhaps Longspurs or Pipits?

As we neared the end of the debris-laden beach, two MERLINS shot overhead apparently chasing each other at top speed. We left after admiring the juvenile NORTHERN HARRIER perched on a stump. It then leapt aloft to resume hunting voles, around and around his route, enjoying the respite from the rain probably even more than we did.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter


Saturday, September 22, 2012: Extreme weather and Fall Equinox

Seward, Alaska Sporadic Bird Report

Fall Equinox arrived this morning at about 6:49 am. Happy Equinox!
Sunrise 7:43 am, sunset 7:55 pm, length of day 12 hours, 11 minutes; tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 25 seconds shorter.

Weather: Extreme weather events continue in the Seward area with heavy rain, massive flooding, storm surge damage, and periods of strong wind. The series of severe storms originated in the tropics, so at least it's warm, in the 50s.

Many roads are closed, neighborhoods are cut off, and homes flooded. Box Canyon levee was breached. Crews are working valiantly to protect infrastructure and save homes. Fortunately, power is on in all but a few areas. The Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor and the governor declared a disaster for Seward and other areas in the Kenai Peninsula yesterday. Travel is not advised. More rain is forecast for the rest of the week.

Avoiding roads with floods and rock/mudslides, I checked the tidelands today. Everything from twigs to trees was strewn up and down the beach, plundered by the mighty Resurrection River and slammed against the shore by the storm waves. The battered trees have peeled bark and splintered roots, evidence of a fierce battle lost. Even in their distress, the colors and textures are beautiful. A normally clear artisan creek boiled with gray glacial silt from the flooding river.

This changed landscape was juxtaposed over an eerie sense of normal: RAVENS commented loudly about their aerial inspection, BALD EAGLES, both adult and juveniles sat in the foggy mist on new perches of driftwood, and SAVANNAH SPARROWS picked through tidbits in the beach debris where a few ground flies still lingered. 

Two small flocks of WILSON'S SNIPE, one with 5 birds, one with 2, flew across the flooded salt marsh. The young (or female) NORTHERN HARRIER cruised low over the area, selected different perches and vantage points, then glided away. A flock of about 13 peeps, possibly WESTERN SANDPIPERS, settled down at the tide line to feed. A single YELLOWLEGS bowed vigorously and called. I think it was a GREATER, but visibility was terrible.

Yesterday, I refound the two GREAT BLUE HERONS, stealthily feeding in the shallow mudflats. They were invisible today.

Along the road, several dozen ROBINS and VARIED THRUSHES flew up from the grass. It was amazing to see so many thrushes erupting in waves as my car approached. They soon settled into elderberry bushes, clucking softly, to feast on the bright red berries. Such handsome birds!

Back in town, in between the hard rains, STELLER'S JAYS are busy from early morning to dark, plucking peanuts from feeders and planting them to replace the ones that drowned or floated away. I heard the SHARP-SHINNED HAWK, but raptor activity seems greatly reduced.

Challenging, serious times for birds, humans, and everything else in this dynamic ecosystem.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Saturday, September 15, 2012 Another storm and GBH

Seward, Alaska Sporadic Bird Report

Sunrise 7:27 am, sunset 8:16 pm, length of day 12 hours, 49 minutes; tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 25 seconds shorter.

Weather: Another massive storm is headed towards Southcentral Alaska. A high wind warning is in effect for the Anchorage Hillside, Portage Valley and Turnagain Arm with southeast winds up 55-80 mph with gusts to 100 mph, peaking overnight. In addition to a high wind warning for Seward, a flood watch is in effect with up to 4 to 7 inches of rain, and more than 9" in some mountain areas.

The last cruise ship of the year, the enormous Statendam, diverted course yesterday to dock in Seward a day early to get out of the approaching storm. Today, it rained hard and steadily all day with a south wind. This is not unusual; what is coming will be! Meanwhile, it's great to have the power on.
The forecast shows overcast with rain for the next week with temps continuing in the 50s.

This morning, I attended a members' event at the Alaska Sealife Center featuring the remote camera operation at Chiswell Island. It was really cool to operate the camera and zoom in on interesting behavior. Moms nursed their hungry little pups; a massive bull served as a pillow for another sea lion and as a cliff bumper stop for others of all sizes and ages jam-packed together. I spotted a BLACK TURNSTONE picking its way through the Steller's sealions napping and jostling on Chiswell Island. There may have been two.

It was a difficult day for optics with the blowing rain, but I spied a NORTHERN HARRIER working the soggy saltmarsh looking for flooded- out voles at high tide. It was either a female or a juvenile (brown); hard to tell. The RAVENS relished the wind and played incessantly with it and each other, performing daring upside down tricks and effortless steep ascents. A SAVANNAH SPARROW skipped along the beach ryegrass ahead of me, dodging in and out.

Over by the boat harbor entrance, a battalion of gulls rested quietly on the rocky breakwater, facing the rain and wind, waiting stoically. Most were GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS with a few BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKES. The double-crested cormorants left sometime in the past two weeks.

Wednesday, September 12:
It's about time! Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a GREAT BLUE HERON flying over the wetlands at the head of the bay, quite a distance away. It's been a long time between sightings. Where do they hide?

The heron landed on a dead branch of a Ghost Forest tree, then flew down into the grasses. It strode forward, wings outstretched, to greet another GBH! The first was an adult, the second a juvenile. Their reunion was joyous and heartwarming; both seemed ecstatic to see each other. First one, then the other stretched out its enormous wings. Then, with their necks fully extended, their open bills touched briefly like a kiss. I left them standing serenely, facing each other.

Later that evening, just a dusk, I heard a low "cronk, cronk" overhead. I looked up and saw the silhouettes of two Great Blue Herons flying over my house! What an unexpected treat! Perhaps they were seeking a quiet place to roost in a spruce for the night, but what a lucky coincidence I was still outside!

VARIED THRUSHES and ROBINS continue to gather on their migration. I saw 20 robins in one group flying with about 30 PINE SISKINS. The crazy WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILLS continue to sing as if it was still summer.

I heard, but did not see, GOLDEN-CROWNED KINGLETS in the spruce forest. CHESTNUT-BACKED CHICKADEES checked out my elderberry bush and perched on the clothesline to peer at me inquisitively. NW CROWS have begun to snack on the ripening red Mt Ash berries. I hope they, and the forthcoming winds leave many berries for our hungry winter visitors.

Two GREAT HORNED OWLS were reported on the trail to Tonsina Beach on Wednesday.

Abundant STELLER'S JAYS busily bury peanuts in yards, flowerpots, leafy debris collecting in gutters, everywhere. I even dug out a peanut that was jammed into my car's windshield wiper opening. There is no shortage of either jays or peanuts in my neighborhood. If these were viable seeds, there would be peanut bushes everywhere. Several neighbors have trained the smart jays to land on an outstretched hand to pluck a peanut, and know them by name. Such characters!

May the birds, and the rest of us, sail through this storm unscathed.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Tuesday, September 4, 2012 On the eve of a big storm

Sunrise 7:01 am, sunset 8:50 pm, for 13 hours and 49 minutes of daylight. Tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 24 seconds shorter. Temps in the low 50s. Unleaded gas shot up 11¢ this weekend to $4.38.

Weather: Ominous charcoal gray skies eased in this morning, bringing scattered showers and increasing winds. White caps roiled the bay ahead of a huge storm blowing in from the Aleutians. Strong winds and a flood watch are posted for the Seward area tonight as the trees toss and shake in the gusts and rain pelts the windows. It's an exciting time!

One little gift of the storm blew in this morning. In the upper sedge/grass meadow at the head of the bay, I spotted a single black and white shorebird sailing low, hardly flapping. Its behavior reminded me more of a tiny harrier than a shorebird. Finally, it landed in the grasses a short distance away. I carefully walked over and refound it. It seemed unafraid and flew just a short distance to a nearby puddle where it walked about, pecking at invisible food items. The juvenile RED-NECKED PHALAROPE preened quickly, then resumed walking about the puddle, often crouching low as if stalking its prey. These are very common in the bay right now, but I wonder how many are inland like this one?

A BALD EAGLE juvenile launched from a stump, scattering young GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS intent on feeding on salmon carcasses. Perhaps this eagle recently dined on breast of gull; the feathers and wings were strewn up and down the driftwood dining table. The cycle of life spins along.

On the eve of the storm,
Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Sunday, September 2, 2012 A Suite of Raptors

What a week for raptors! This morning I stepped outside into another raptor drama. The abundant STELLER'S JAYS were making a huge racket, sending out the alarm. An enormous GOSHAWK flushed out of the trees, then perched on a fence, providing excellent photo ops before stroking away. A tiny MERLIN dive-bombed it, adding its 2¢ to the Goshawk's exit. As for the photos, I only had my point-and-shoot, so there aren't any worth posting.

A short time later, an adult BALD EAGLE blasted through from the bay to the mountains, unconcerned about trifling jays and magpies, or other lesser raptors.

After a whole year of not seeing one, I finally spotted a PEREGRINE on August 31st. Its powerful, sickle-shaped wings sliced through the air as it stroked across the sky, flying far and fast.

Yesterday, it was the juvenile SHARP-SHINNED HAWKS' turn to chase each other around the 'hood and practice pouncing on STELLER'S JAYS. The jays and magpies seemed like willing coaches, giving tips on how to improve their technique and style. But I would not want to be the target of a stealthy winged tiger with piercing yellow eyes, peering through the cottonwood leaves, looking for lunch. 

One handsome hawk preened and posed on a fence post, enjoying a few moments of relaxation. Suddenly, it erupted into flight and almost pinned a too-cocky STELLER'S JAY that narrowly escaped. A short time later, both hawks perched about 50' apart on the cable line, warily watching each other and me before dashing off on yet another wild chase.

I don't know how long a hawk can go without food, but these two must be very hungry. Each swoop and a miss improve their skills; I hope they can survive long enough to figure it out.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter