Sunday, July 15, 2012

Resurrection Bay and beyond

We left Kachemak Bay enroute to Seward.  I thought I would have the opportunity to see a lot of Boreal Chickadees, but when we stopped for lunch at picnic tables by a small woods and lake just off a commercial road, we saw our only Boreal Chickadee (Poecile hudsonica) for the trip. The fuzzy photo below is the best I could get.  We also saw our only Lincoln's Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii) of the trip here.  

From the same spot along the small lake where we saw the chickadee and a few other birds, this pick-up truck pulling a sea plane was creating a small traffic jam.  Like the earth moving machine hauling a fishing boat out to the water at Anchor Point, this scene will remind me that, in Alaska, things are just done differently. 

We arrived in Seward and checked into the hotel and had dinner at a very nice restaurant called Chinook's Waterfront Restaurant.  The reviews on the link provided are mixed, but I thought it was very nice and the view over the marina was great.  After dinner we went to Ava's feeders where we saw redpolls, pine grosbeaks, siskins and our only really good view of Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius) for the trip.  I had seen Varied Thrush only once before with a wayward bird at Caledonia State Park in south central Pennsylvania.  I drove through a snow storm enroute to Michigan from Maryland to see it.  Such an attractive but relatively secretive bird.  It was one of my favorite small birds for the trip. 

The next morning we were getting on a boat for the Captain's choice trip with Kenai Fjord Tours to go the Chiswell Islands and Aialak glacier. The Captain's choice day cruise was on a small boat specifically for wildlife viewing.  We might have been lucky to have just our group on the boat, but we were joined by a photography club of six individuals who wanted to see mammals.  Word got around that they were not happy to have a group of birders on board with them.   

Before getting on the boat, this Alaska Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) perched on a sign and sang. This bird is in the bright sun which seems to wash out its color.  While it does look different from our eastern song sparrow, I don't think it resembles either the adult Aleutian or the adult Pacific northwest song sparrow represented in Sibley's Western guide.  I didn't look through all of the guides, but perhaps Peterson shows the bird in this photo best, although it's a much darker bird in that guide.  

Dall sheep with baby viewed on a cliff side from aboard
the Misty.

We were on the "Misty" (name of our captain's choice boat) for more than eight hours.  As all of the photos below reveal, the day was spectacular.  There were two captains and one young crew member aboard with us.  On June 7th this excursion was at the start of their tourist season.  The crew member was a post high school kid from Minnesota whose uncle had got him the job with the company.  He was an excited newbie thrilled to have this job for the summer.  He commented that it was the best weather day he had thus far in his new job.    

View of Resurrection Bay

Life bird Black Oystercatcher (Haematopus bachmani).
Black bird on white rock - disaster for a photograph.

Sea Lions

Life bird Horned Puffins (Fratercula corniculata)

Life bird Rhinoceros Aukelt (Cerorhinca monocerata)
cropped from the photo below.

From this photo, you'll just have to take my word for it;
life bird Parakeet Aulets (Aethia psittacula)

Floating log with Common Murres.  Later a closer, cropped
photo review revealed that there were four Thick-billed
Murres (Uria lomvia) amongst the Common.

Aialak glacier

Sea Otters with pups

The Misty

Leaving Seward on the morning of June 8th, our final minutes there found these Harlequin Ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus) floating along the shoreline.  

We moved on to nearby Exit Glacier where we saw a number of birds including singing Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) and the singing Orange-crowned (Oreothlypis celata) and Wilson's (Cardellina pusilla) warblers below.  But not, unfortunately, our target bird the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (Leucosticte tephrocotis).

My life morel mushrooms

Our first moose of the trip - a cow along a roadside pond

Perched at the tip of a tall spruce tree was a singing Varied Thrush. This was the second and last time we saw this bird on the trip.  But from time-to-time we would to hear them.  The Varied Thrush has a truly unique vocalization; I've linked the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recording.  Have a listen.

Now driving back to Anchorage, we again stopped at Summit Lake where two or three male Barrow's Goldeneyes (Bucephala islandica) had joined the previously unidentified female goldeneye of a couple days ago.  The Wandering Tattlers were gone.

A sooty Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) perched briefly for this photo. Then it was back in the van to Anchorage and beyond to Wasilla for our overnight stop at a hotel on Lake Lucille.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Kachemak Bay near Homer

Tuesday, June 5th we met up with Bill Sweetman of Bsweettours, LLC at the Coast International Hotel and is nearest the Ted Stevens International Airport.  It's the hotel where many birding groups stay to start or finish their trips.  It's across the street from Lake Hood which is the largest parking lot for small sea planes in the country.  I took the photo below for the dog as co-pilot in the sea plane.    

It was a hurried meeting at the hotel.  We loaded up luggage and set off immediately for the Kenai Peninsula with stops in between.  Our first stop was at Potter's Marsh where we saw, amongst other birds, these copulating Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor).  It's also where Bill lost the keys to the van and his wallet - thankfully both found quickly.  I think it must be hard to get off a plane after a long flight, gather a group together and begin a big trip.  

Landscapes like the one below are common in Alaska.  Throughout the trip, and as I learned when I visited the Grand Canyon over twenty years ago, the immense beauty of vast landscapes is nearly impossible to capture in a photograph.  I didn't allow this to stop me from trying.     

In 2009, I went to Montana and Idaho to look for my life American Dipper.  I saw two that trip - both in Glacier National Park and both flying up river and away from me.  Finally, this perched American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) under a bridge over Indian Creek was half of a pair and a viewing that I could count for my life bird.  The other dipper flew upstream before I could get a photo of both.  Not a good photo, but identifiable.  

The fast-moving water that interfered with focusing for a good still photo of the dipper can be seen and heard in the video below.  

The video is 0.57 seconds of the American Dipper under the bridge. 

Next stop enroute to our motel accomodations in Soldatna was Summit Lake where we found a female goldeneye species and, unexpectedly, two Wandering Tattlers (Tringa incana).  The tattlers were seen well through the spotting scope, but in the heavily cropped photo above is a gray speck.  We surmised that these birds were still in migration.  As can be seen by the grassy shoreline habitat, this is not exactly typical tattler nesting habitat.  When we returned to Summit Lake three days later the tattlers were gone.  As it turned out, they were the only Wandering Tattlers we found on the trip.  More about this later.

After our overnight stop in Soldatna, we were on the road again to Kachemak Bay with a stop at Anchor Point.  The photo above shows a boat being towed to water by an earth moving machine.  Because of the lay of the beach and the tide a boat launch cannot be built in this location.  

Northwestern Crows (Corvus caurinus) were common at Anchor Point. This bird was seen relatively often in the coastal locations we visited.

By now we were a little late to arrive at our destination at Kachemak marina for our trip around the bay with our privately chartered boat trip with the sole purpose of looking for Yellow-billed Loon (Gavia adamsii).

Above is our captain (blue jacket) and mate with Bay Excursions of Kachemak Bay.  For two to three hours we scanned the waters of Kachemak Bay for our target bird.

Above the two Aleutian Terns (Onychoprion aleuticus) floating on a log, so cooperative for close views and photographs, were thrilling to see.  We saw Aleutian Terns elsewhere but none so well as these.

Black-legged Kittiwakes (Risa tridactyla) are the most numerous, by far, gull on Kachemak Bay.  Along the cliffs of Gull Island they have a breeding colony of thousands.

Black-legged Kittiwake with wings "dipped in ink."

So did we see the Yellow-billed Loon?  The short and long answer is no. We roamed the bay chasing one Common Loon after another with the hope that it would reveal its long, up-pointed pale yellow bill.  No luck. 

Having already had such great views of the Aleutian Terns, we saw a lot of other birds too, including this great flotilla o' murres above.    

Along with the kittiwake, Common Murres (Uria aalge) nest by the thousands on Gull Island. 

Finally, the bay excursion gave me one of my nicest photo opportunities of the trip with this Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata).  The bird was one of a flock of five which allowed the boat to get close enough for this really nice shot.  What a great bird!

The little boat above was beautifully restored and for sale for $18,500, OBO.  When I was a child I read a novel about a little girl who lived on a boat with her father.  As I recall, conflict arises when the "authorities" want the little girl to live on the mainland so that she can attend school. Of course, and no surprise, she doesn't want to leave her father and her idyllic life on the boat.  The title and author of this children's novel is long forgotten by me, and not revived by a google search, but this charming boat for sale in Kachemak marina reminded me of illustrations I recall from the novel.

The photo above does not capture the beauty of the village of Kachemak so you'll need to take my word for the fact that this green haven, when viewed from the water, was breathtaking. 

I've lived and vacationed in Maryland for a number of years and watermen have a large presence along Maryland's extensive coastlines. In coastal Alaska, the term "waterman" took on new meaning for me as we plied the waters of the huge Kachemak Bay looking for Yellow-billed Loon.

Finally, just as we were leaving Kachemak, I picked up video of this singing Alaska subspecies Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) with one clear recording of the slightly different vocalization.  Then the bird got distracted by the activity on the ramp.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia), common as they are, seems a fitting way to introduce birding in Anchorage.  Magpies are all over - backyards, on the beach, on the coast path, downtown on building ledges, on street signs and in the trees.  In a city without house sparrows or starlings, Anchorage is the magpie's realm.  Of course, whenever I saw a magpie perched nicely somewhere I had to try for a photo.  It's just that kind of bird - big, bold, colorful, not shy and always busy flying around and being noticed.

If not so colorful, another bird that is everywhere is the Mew Gull (Larus canus).  This gull has the charming habit of perching on top of spruce trees.  A gull with a preference for nesting near fresh water habitat, it is the most common gull in the Alaska.  We saw this bird every day throughout our Alaska visit.

We saw few shorebirds in Anchorage, something which surprised me. But all that we did see were in breeding plumage which I don't get to see often. A single Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus) was on the Cook's Inlet mudflats.  Hudsonian Godwits (Limosa haemastica) nest, unexpectedly, each year in Anchorage around Westchester Lagoon. A single Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus) was with the godwits.  Both yellowlegs were present in small numbers.  This breeding plumage Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) was a pleasure to see. 

This shrubby tree in a weedy area very near to downtown Anchorage sported evidence new and extensive moose rubbing.  We saw these tree markings in many areas throughout the places we visited in Alaska. 

When we see American Wigeons (Anas americana) they are almost always in spiffier plumage than the Anchorage wigeons present in early June.  The wigeon below, while overall having quite dull feathers, has retained some of its shiny green head.

The grassy, tidal mudflats of Cook's Inlet seemed perfect habitat for shorebirds.  Aside from being beautiful to look at, they held few birds during my visit. 

Orange-crowned Warblers (Oreothlypis celata formerly Vermivora celata) are everywhere.  I can say that I have finally learned their song. I was thrilled to find this bird low and in good light where I could snap a few photos.  The second shot clearly shows the orange smudge on the crown for which the bird receives its name.

Being a lover of terns, Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea) was one of my most desired birds to see when in Alaska.  Little did I know how easy this would be.  Unfortunately, in the photo the wing tip is missing, but this tern was feeding over a small pond of the Westchester Lagoon - a place I went all three days of my visit to Anchorage.

Definitely not a common gull, this out-of-place second alternate Franklin's Gull (Larus pipixcan) was found by me on the morning of June 5th.  Although I suspected Franklin's Gull, I wasn't able to pin down the bird's identification with reasonable certainty until after I got home.   Kirk Zufelt, author of Larusology, helped me with the identification.  Kirk's most recent post to his blog dates back to January, but for anyone with specific interest in gulls Larusology is a must read blog.  Turns out that the bird was found again by Alaska birder David Sonne, who moved to Anchorage from Ann Arbor (go figure - but that's Alaska) in the 1970's - on June 7th.  I sent my four best photos to Thede Tobish, Alaska's editor of the breeding birds edition of North American Birds.  "Nice photos," was his only reply. Apparently, Franklin's Gull is showing up in Alaska with increasing frequency.  Of my four decent photos, this is my favorite.         

Nesting Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena) were frequently seen throughout the trip.  Two pairs were on floating nests on Westchester Lagoon.  This pair had their nest close to a busy bike path and not far from a busy road.    

Below is a view of Cook's Inlet taken from the balcony of our bed and breakfast accomodations, Susitna Place.  I would give two thumbs up to Susitna Place if one is planning a trip to Anchorage and needs accomodations.  In the middle ground of this photo, you can just see the pointy tips of spruce trees.  Mew Gulls would obligingly perch here to be scoped from our balcony.  

The first three days of our Anchorage stay was without the rest of the group having come early to extend our vacation and poke around a bit. Anchorage is a sprawling and interesting city where I thought that three days was plenty of time to see things of interest.  I spent most of my time birding, but we did make a Sunday morning visit to the Anchorage Museum.  I don't think of myself as someone who can confidently recommend museums to others.  I'm an outdoor person and visiting a museum is an indoor activity.  Nevertheless, the Anchorage Museum is well worth a visit.  Not overly large and not overwhelming, the museum is devoted to the history of Alaska, its landscape, native people and art. I thought it was spectacular and I was happy I went. 

Two of the artists I enjoyed most with paintings on display at Anchorage Museum were Sydney Laurence, apparently Alaska's most beloved artist, and considered by many to have made the most majestic paintings of Denali.  The other is Ruth Sorensen, an Alaska native and young, actively painting artist, whose painting Untitled landscape hangs in the museum's collection.  This may have been my favorite painting in the museum.

Tuesday, June 5th - we connect with our group and head off to the Kenai Peninsula.