Wednesday, December 30, 2015 Seward CBC Count Week Day One

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 10:02 am, sunset 3:58 pm for a total daylight of 5 hours and 56 minutes. Tomorrow will be 1 minute and 41 seconds longer.

Huge storm last night with strong south wind, lashing rain, and early morning rumbling, rolling thunder and lightning. High of 44º, two degrees cooler than yesterday. The snow has rapidly melted or washed away except where snowplows packed it along the roadside, or city dump trucks piled it up next to the beach. The bare ground is once again available for birds to scavenge for seeds and invertebrates, but feeders are very active.

Squally today with diminished south wind; more rain in the forecast for the next week or so.

Today was the first day of the Seward Christmas Bird Count Week. I ventured out for a look and found 35 species. After focusing on dead and dying Murres for so long, it was a welcome change to see the wider world.

Highlights included a brief glimpse of about 20 SNOW BUNTINGS during one of the squalls; refinding Seward’s resident TRUMPETER SWAN family whose cygnets show even more white as they mature; a COMMON LOON in the boat harbor holding and swallowing what seemed to be a clump of mussels; active COMMON MURRES also in the boat harbor, snorkeling and diving; a BALD EAGLE flying with a large stick, presumably for a little home repair job; a NORTHERN SHRIKE clinging precariously to the top of a snag, jostled by the wind; the handsome drake HOODED MERGANSER closely attended by an adoring COMMON GOLDENEYE hen; a single GRAY-CROWNED ROSY-FINCH foraging on the ground far from feeders; and SURF SCOTERS surfing the impressive storm waves close to shore.

Tasha reported finding seven storm-tossed CRESTED AUKLETS in the bay, 6 by Thumb Cove and one about a half mile south of Seward yesterday. I looked for it today without success. If refound during the CBC period, that would be a phenomenal first! The southerly winds and wild storms could make for a very interesting CBC this Saturday!

Snow Bunting
Black-capped Chickadee
Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Pelagic Cormorant
Northwestern Crow
American Dipper
Harlequin Duck
Bald Eagle
Barrow’s Goldeneye
Common Goldeneye
Horned Grebe
Pine Grosbeak
Glaucous-winged Gull
Mew Gull
Steller’s Jay
Dark-eyed Junco, Slate-colored
         Dark-eyed Junco, Oregon
Common Loon
Black-billed Magpie
Common Merganser
Hooded Merganser
Red-breasted Merganser
Common Murre
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Rock Pigeon
Common Raven
Common Redpoll
Gray-crowned Rosy-finch
Surf Scoter
White-winged Scoter
Northern Shrike
Pine Siskin
Song Sparrow
Trumpeter Swan
Downy Woodpecker

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Tuesday, December 29, 2015 Alaska Sealife Center Common Murre Mini-Rehab

Seward, Alaska

It’s hard to miss the bloody bird carcasses strewn about town, the black and white seabirds floating dead in the water, washed up at the boat harbor and on the beaches, or sitting quietly on snow, unable to get back to the ocean.

Travelers on the Seward Highway have found dead and live Common Murres from Mile 3 to Mile 12 and beyond since mid-November. Another sighting was even more unusual, a Common Murre swimming in freshwater Skilak Lake!

On Tuesday, 283 dead murres were counted along the beach at the head of the bay. Hundreds more littered the other beaches around Seward. Every storm from the south pushes more starving, weak and dying Murres to Seward from their normal wintering home in the Gulf of Alaska.

None of this is normal. They shouldn’t be here in the winter. Statistics of live murre numbers from the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count bear this out. From 1990 to 1996, 3 Count years had zero murres, 1993 counted 36 birds, and the other years had less than nine. In 1997 and 1998, strong El Nino years, there was a “wreck” of murres and 251 and 293 live birds were counted respectively. 1999 found no murres, 2000 had one murre. 2001 rose to 83, down in 2003 to 38, back up to 82 in 2003. Another spike occurred in 2004 with 311, but diminished to five in 2005. From 2006 to 2011, the numbers were in the two digits. None were found in 2012 or 2013, and only one was found last year.

Alarming numbers of seabird die-offs are also occurring this year from California up the coast to the Gulf of Alaska. The Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge (AMNWR) in Homer estimates thousands of dead murres in Kachemak Bay since this summer with a spike in July, and again in mid-November.

The AMNWR and the Alaska Sealife Center in Seward has sent murre carcasses to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin for evaluation. Thus far, the main cause is starvation. The reason is likely a very strong El Nino weather pattern that has warmed sea surface water temperatures above average in the Gulf of Alaska. This has changed the ocean ecosystem as cold-water species die or migrate north to cooler waters. El Nino was very strong in 1997-1998 when the murres wrecked. The 2015-2016 El Nino is forecast to become one of the strongest on record.

Another factor is the “Pacific Blob,” a mass off extremely unusually warm water stretching across the north Pacific from Japan to Baja. The Blob also wreaks havoc on the ocean ecosystem. El Nino and the Blob are formidable forces whose far-reaching impacts are yet to be fully understood.

Meanwhile, the staff Alaska Sealife Center is overwhelmed by the huge numbers. The facility does not have the staff or space to fully rehabilitate so many starving birds. Operating under a US Fish and Wildlife Service permit, they are doing the best they can to respond with a quick check-up, a meal of tasty fish, and then release back into the bay. Since mid-November, the staff ha received 87 murres, giving many another chance to live

The ASLC encourages people to leave both live and dead birds where they are found as capture, transport, and exam can be very stressful. Birds that are near the shore can be shooed back into the water where they are at least safe from predators like ravens and loose dogs.

If alert, live birds are found in unusual locations far from the water, the public should call the local Wildlife Response hotline at 224-6395 (or 1-888-774-7325 toll-free for Alaskan phone lines) before bringing in any murres to ensure that the staff will be available to help.

If you are walking the beaches with your dog, please keep the dog under control to reduce further stress on the live but beached birds. If you see dead murres with color-coded zip-ties around the wing, bill, or foot, please do not disturb. These birds are part of COASST, a citizen science seabird monitoring project.

Donations to the ASLC Wildlife Response Program are always greatly appreciated, either on line at or in person. The ASLC is open this winter from 11 to 3 pm daily, with free admission for Alaskans on Wednesdays through February 24. Come watch healthy murres flying around underwater. If you see Jane, Halley, Savannah, or Margaret, say “Thank You!” for a hard, heart-breaking job well done.

Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Wednesday, December 23, 2015 Murre Rescue

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 10:01 am, sunset 3:51 pm for 5 hours 49 minutes of daylight. Tomorrow will be 25 seconds longer.

Sunny all day with a blistering north wind bent on sweeping all the loose snow off the mountaintops. A high of 27 and low of 19. Snow/rain forecast for Christmas Day through the next week as temperatures climb to 40º.

A friend called yesterday at 9 am about two live COMMON MURRES at Mile 8. He was headed north and could not help them. I weighed the pros (maybe save a life, check out the situation) and cons (probably too late, deprive forest scavengers of a feast, road hazards, etc) and decided to drive out there at 10:30. I found two dead ones just past mile 8, one already scavenged, the other attended by two RAVENS. I pulled over and tossed the carcasses off to the side so the scavengers wouldn't get hit.

On the way home, I parked at the Airport Road and walked back to the Three Bridges to pick up a dead Murre I had seen on the way up. To my surprise, it was alive! I scooped it up, tucked it in my arms, and walked back to the car where I wrapped it in a towel and tried to warm it up by the front heater. I drove to the north side of the boat harbor to get it out of the wind, and set it down by the water's edge. It took a few sips of water and then just sat there, gently bobbing.

I walked slowly along the little beach looking for a dead herring or other small fish to feed it. A live Murre paddled right over and matter-of-factly walked out of the water, upright, a perfect northern penguin. It awkwardly walked up the steep bank a bit, peered at a very scavenged Murre carcass that happened to be lying there, then at me, and calmly walked back into the water and paddled off, mission accomplished. Hello? G’day to you too!

I didn't find anything to feed the dying Murre, and so left it at the water's edge. It was too far gone to recover. Poor Murre! At least it didn’t die on the cold, alien road.

Today, a friend and I happened to drive down Port Avenue north of the harbor. Many Murre carcasses littered the road, driveways, and yards. Suddenly, we spotted a live Murre, sitting on the snow, its head up and alert. We pulled over and managed to throw a sheet over it. Then we walked over to the dock, unwrapped the bundle, and tossed it to the water. It immediately dove and disappeared. Yea! 

Looking around, we found more live Murres, on snow banks, stuck behind pallets, under stairs and other obstacles. It seems they flew, hit the building and wherever they landed, they were stuck. We caught and splashed 9 more birds. It was so great to see them dive immediately, or take a sip of water, stretch their wings, look around and then paddle off. Huh. So here I am, back home!

In the gathering twilight just after 2:30 pm as the sun set behind the western mountains, we saw a live Murre sitting on the boat ramp. At least eight more Murres were lying on the cold beach, sitting on the concrete ramp, or hiding under the boardwalk. What were they doing there? It was so cold on the ground and in that fierce wind! So strange!

We picked up a few and splashed them. Others we were able to herd towards the water. Some just bobbed, no energy left, spent and dying. Others paddled off and seemed to revive.

Last call! After thoroughly checking the area, we spotted a Raven peering down from a car roof, between two cars. Below on the snow, a defiant Murre looked back up at the predator. We approached the Murre, one in front, one behind, caught it, and splashed it. Off it went. Yea! I think we splashed 18 Murres in all today.

It may seem hopeless, as so many seem bent on suicide, flying north into the teeth of the wind to land and die even as we were catching and splashing their kin. But, I hope it gave at least a few a chance to live another day.
Here’s a great story on the same theme, adapted from “The Star Thrower” by Loren Eiseley: <>
While walking along a beach, an elderly gentleman saw someone in the distance leaning down, picking something up and throwing it into the ocean.
As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, picking up starfish one by one and tossing each one gently back into the water.
He came closer still and called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”
The young man paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean.”
The old man smiled, and said, “I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?”
To this, the young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”
Upon hearing this, the elderly observer commented, “But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”
The young man listened politely. Then he bent down, picked up another starfish, threw it into the back into the ocean past the breaking waves and said, “It made a difference for that one.”
Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

Monday, December 21, 2015 Winter Solstice
Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 10:01 am, sunset 3:50 pm for a total day length of 5 hours and 49 minutes. Tomorrow will be ONE second longer. Enjoy that!

Beautiful Winter Solstice Day today, 25º with a bit of north wind. The luminous globes of Venus and Jupiter shone like brilliant ornaments with a much fainter Saturn and Mars strung on the same line arcing across the southern predawn sky.

A patchy quilt of blue-gray-gold clouds steadily crept north from the Gulf of Alaska, briefly sprinkling a few snowflakes. The sun poked through a few holes to spotlight the surrounding mountains. The cloud quilt didn’t quite tuck in the southern horizon, and there the sky glowed with the sun’s golden, shimmery, Winter Solstice dance.

I was again surprised to see even more COMMON MURRES flying in large numbers and many flocks. Many flocks numbered over 100, flying in long skeins low over the bay or high over the near shore like gulls. It was really unsettling to watch them frantically streaming north, then back south, back and forth, never landing.

I parked by Fourth of July Beach and intercepted waves of COMMON REDPOLLS flying from one alder patch to the next, stopping only briefly to eat a few seeds, and then off again. I estimate at least 100. A few minutes later, there were none in sight or sound. It’s easy to miss a lot of moving birds unless your timing is serendipitous.


Over at the Red-breasted Sapsucker location on Benson Dr, I did not see any action and the sap holes did not look very fresh. It sure would be amazing to find him, as did Homer for their recent Christmas Bird Count. How could sap flow and sustain a bird in this cold weather?

I spotted one GRAY-CROWNED ROSY-FINCH at the “Accentor House”, the DOWNY WOODPECKER, 2 WHITE-CROWNED SPARROWS, and the tail-less BLACK-BILLED MAGPIE, still looking lively.

Five ROBINS were reported in the 300 block of Second, the first anyone has seen in a long time. I’ll be looking for them tomorrow with my extra 1 second of daylight!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter