Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Orcas in the Gulf of Alaska

 Alaska 2014

Day six of our Alaska birding tour was another beauty. Calm winds and blue skies streaked with high white clouds provided the backdrop for snow-capped peaks and rugged granite cliffs covered with spruce. Much like the hike from Rock Harbor to Scoville Point on Isle Royale, everywhere I looked was a breathtaking scene.

Tiny islands dotted the shoreline along the edge of Kenai Fjords National Park.

As we moved down Resurrection Bay towards the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska, the Harding Icefield became visible.

Many of the regions glaciers no longer make it to the bay, but Bear Glacier is hanging on. Glacial melt in this part of the world is outpacing that of many other areas. You can read about the Harding Icefield at the National Park Service's site.

Bear Glacier and the Harding Icefield

Here's a map of the area showing the location of Bear Glacier, along with the Harding Icefield.

As we approached the mouth of Resurrection Bay, a commotion began off the starboard side. I hurried to the railing as the captain announced...

...that there was a pod of Orcas moving toward us!

Killer whales!

I could not believe our luck! This was a resident pod, meaning they were a family unit that pretty much stayed in the area. They differ from transient pods in a number of ways, including physical attributes such as rounded vs. pointed dorsal fins, as well as a difference in diets. Transients tend to eat marine mammals, while resident pods eat mostly fish. The two types do not intermingle, and on those occasions when they are in the same area they avoid each other.

Killer whales, or orcas, are not whales at all, but members of the dolphin family.

They were clearly a mother and calf. They swam quite close to the boat but I missed them. Someone told me others could be seen from another vantage point, so I ran off, only to have this pair come within 10 feet of where I'd been standing at the rail. By the time I got back I could see them by the boat, but could not get anywhere near the railing due to the crush of people. The boat was actually listing to starboard at this point. So I stood on a bench and watched them swim away.

Orcas in these resident pods are identifiable by the markings on their backs behind their dorsal fins. While I haven't tried to figure out which pod this was, I did find a website that lists each pod in the southern Alaska region, and has an entire photo identification catalog that can be downloaded.

Later that afternoon, on our return trip, we came across the pod again, still busily feeding near the Chiswell Islands. The afternoon sun backlit the mist from their exhalations.

I could have spent all day watching these amazing creatures. But there was a lot to see this day...

...including our next marine mammal, seen here swimming just below the surface.

Harbor seals swim just below the surface--bottom left. I did not see them when I took this photo.

Next: Harbor seals!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Seward and Resurrection Bay

 Alaska 2014

Now that the holiday madness, as well as some family drama, is behind me, I can get back to a regular schedule and start blogging again!

We left off in Seward, Alaska, where we had arrived after a drive from Homer, where we'd spent the afternoon touring Kachemak Bay. We stayed in a Holiday Inn Express in Seward, and we all met in the lobby the next morning for our continental breakfast. We weren't due to board our tour boat until around 9 am, so a couple of us took a walk across the street to do a little birding.

Directly across from the hotel is The Lagoon, a small body of water fed by Scheffler Creek, with a small park at one end. Right off we spotted a Wilson's Snipe exploring the mudflats.

A Wilson's Snipe tip-toes along the muddy shore of The Lagoon.

We continued down Dairy Hill Lane, looking for nothing in particular, enjoying the bright blue morning. Up the hill we climbed when one of us spotted movement on the underside of a transformer. We could see a little bird gleaning insects and spiders, but not until he flew down did we see we'd discovered a Chestnut-backed Chickadee! I didn't even know this bird existed, so I was pretty excited. (Bill took the whole group to this location the next morning so the rest of them could log this bird.)

A Chestnut-backed Chickadee! Who knew!

After about a half hour we headed back toward the marina, and spotted this Violet-green swallow preening on a wire.

Violet-green Swallow taking its morning bath.

The area around the marina is very touristy, with lots of cute shops and restaurants. We didn't really have time to look around much, but this would be a nice place to spend a few days and enjoy the scenery.

Seward Harbor.

Seward Harbor. Next time I want to kayak Resurrection Bay.

We eventually boarded our Northwestern Fjord tour boat, and motored out onto Resurrection Bay. I have to say that of all the amazing things we saw and did on this trip, this was my favorite part. Not only was it the most beautiful, but it was a very restful day, after so much running around. We spent the entire day out there, riding in the open air with the sun shining, able to move about the boat at will. We were served lunch, and the boat captain knew there were several groups of birders aboard and so made a point to linger in places we wanted to look. The captain sounded an awful lot like Jack Nicholson.

Seward Harbor from Resurrection Bay.

Our ultimate destination was Northwestern Glacier, part of the Harding Ice Shield. On the way we expected to see whales, sea lions, seals, otters, maybe orcas and porpoises, and, of course, birds.

We would not be disappointed.

Map showing our route from Seward.

It was such a glorious day!

We hadn't gone far--I believe the marina was still in view behind us--when a humpback whale breached off the port side of our boat. I wasn't ready with the camera but just to see it launch itself out of the water and come thundering back down was an astonishing thing. It only breached once, so if you didn't happen to be looking you were out of luck. But there were several right there in the bay, and we got to see--and hear--them come up for air.

Humpback whale!!

Then the one closest to the boat went tail up, the sign of a deep dive. I was thrilled to get a shot of the fluke before the whale disappeared. They can stay under for 15 minutes during a dive like this, so we did not linger.

A humpback shows its flukes as it dives deep.

Off in the distance another whale could be seen swimming south, the mist from its exhalations hanging in the calm Alaska morning.

This is one of my favorite shots of the trip. Such a beautiful sight on such a glorious morning.

And this was just the beginning!

Next: More from Resurrection Bay.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Homer to Seward, Alaska Day 5

Alaska 2014 continued:

Day five of our ten day birding tour of Alaska was a very full day, to say the least. We started the day at 7 am with a quick breakfast, then drove the spectacular Sterling Highway along Cook Inlet from Soldotna to Homer, where we were treated to amazing views of five volcanoes. Then three-plus hours on a boat in Kachemak Bay where we saw a stunning array of pelagic birds and, of course, sea otters.

We left Homer around 3:30 pm and drove back north along the Sterling Highway. There's no direct way to get from Homer to Seward as there are three large lakes and this little thing known as the Harding Ice Shield between the two. Then again, in Alaska, this is about as direct as it gets.

The route from Homer to Seward, mostly on Sterling Highway.

We stopped again at Anchor Point for a late lunch. The tide was out but there were still very few Bald Eagles on the flats. Fishermen use the launch here and often leave gut piles from their fish on the beach, but apparently the pickings were slim this day.

Some of our group getting ready to pose in front of the sign.

I took five minutes to just lay in the grass at the picnic area, soaking up the sun and relaxing, and to admire once more the view of Mt. Redoubt. I had never seen anything like it.

Mt. Redoubt revisited, because why not? Simply stunning.

I don't recall there being many songbirds around, but there were a number of crows. I didn't think right away to get pics until I realized this was a new bird for me. Duh!

Northwest Crow at Anchor Point.

The rest of the drive to Seward seemed to take forever. We got caught up in traffic as there was some construction on the two-lane highway. While we waited we rolled the windows down and someone heard a Townsand's Warbler on the side of the road. Bill wouldn't let us get out and I couldn't see it from where I was sitting, so I couldn't count it for the day.

We finally arrived in Seward around 7:30-8:00 pm. We checked into the Holiday Inn Express, then walked over to Chinooks for dinner. What an amazing view of the marina and the mountains beyond Resurrection Bay.

Evening in Seward, overlooking the marina.

After dinner about half of our group climbed back in the van to do a little late evening birding. There is a woman north of town who puts out many feeders and brings some interesting birds in, like the Rufus Hummingbird. On the way we stopped at a marshy area to look for waterfowl. The lush greens and dark spruce with the snow-tipped mountains and blue sky were painfully beautiful. We got out for a little while to enjoy the serenity of the place.

North of Seward.

We didn't see much here, just a pair of Ring-necked Ducks and a pair of Trumpeter Swans. Mama was on the nest but dad was a bit closer to the road, preening and stretching.

Trumpeter Swans have amazingly large feet.

There wasn't much to see at the feeders. We didn't get out of the van--who wants a group of gawking birders in your front yard?--but we did see a couple female Pine Grosbeaks, among some other more common (for us) birds like Downy Woodpeckers. But on the way back we stopped on the side of the road near some spruce and managed to entice a Varied Thrush to come for a visit. It's a lousy photo but it was a first, so....

Varied Thrush.

In all I saw 30 birds on day five, 15 which were new to me:

Black-capped chickadee
American Robin
Varied Thrush*
Yellow-rumped warbler
Pine Grosbeak
Pine Siskin
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Violet-green swallow*
Trumpeter Swan
Ring-necked Duck
Common Raven
Northwestern Crow*
Double-crested Cormorant
Pelagic Cormorant*
Surf Scoter*
Barrow's Goldeneye*
Bald Eagle
Spotted Sandpiper
Herring Gull
Glaucous-singed Gull*
Black-legged Kittiwake*
Aleutian Tern*
Common Murre*
Pigeon Guillemot*
Horned Puffin*
Tufted Puffin*
White-winged Scoter*
Marbled Murrelet*
Harlequin Duck

Next: Day six, and an all-day boat trip on Resurrection Bay!!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sea Otters on Kachemak Bay

 Alaska 2014 continued:

Going to Alaska was a dream come true. There's no question that Alaska, and the northern latitudes in general, are our most wild lands. When I signed up for the trip I was excited to see birds, but I was also hoping that I would see much more. The trip did not disappoint.

Shortly after we left the marina in Homer we could see several rafts of some critter floating near the north shore of Kachemak Bay. We were too far away for me to tell what they were, but I overheard Captain Karl mention they were sea otters.

No way. No way! I was so excited, yet bummed that they were so far away and that we were not moving in that direction.

Several rafts of sea otters float offshore.

But within 10 minutes, a dark shape appeared off our starboard side. I got the camera on it and began shooting. It finally looked our way before diving under the water.

My first up-close sea otter!

A few minutes later another one appeared--or maybe the same one?

And then this, much closer to the boat, laying on its back in the water, doing its otter thing.

We drifted closer, and we watched each other with fascination. The boat listed to starboard as everyone crowded around to get a look.

Oh my.

Here are some sea otter facts, as presented by Defenders of Wildlife: Sea otters live in near-shore environments in the northern Pacific, from Japan and up the Russian coast over to Alaska and down to northern California. They eat 1/4 of their body weight each day to support their high metabolism. The largest member of the weasel family, they have the densest fur of any animal, which is what keeps them warm--they do not have a layer of blubber. They must spend a great deal of time maintaining that coat. Their fur is thinnest on their feet, so when they are floating in the water they hold their feet up to keep them warm and maintain overall body temperature.

Sea otters are a keystone species, meaning they maintain good ecological balance of their habitat. Without otters eating the things that eat kelp, the things that eat near-shore kelp beds would multiply exponentially and wipe out the kelp. The kelp provides shelter and food for many other animals, so keeping a healthy population of sea otters protects the environment.

We made our way farther out into the bay and out of the shelter of Homer Spit. The breeze picked up a bit and the water got a little choppier. We saw the pair of Aleutian Terns on their log and then, on our port side, we came upon this pair, a mother with a pup. We could not have asked for a better view.

We floated alongside them, not more than 20 feet away. Mom held junior's head in her paws, and occasionally groomed the pup's head and neck.

It was absolutely a dream come true.

There are some things--many, many things--I never expected to see, never really thought I'd have the opportunity to experience. This was one of those things. To see these adorable creatures in their natural environment, to be out on the water on a cool, sunny day surrounded by snow-topped mountains with a group of like-minded people all in awe of what we were seeing.... This was one of my best experiences.

Next: Day 5 is not done! From Homer we travel to Seward, do a bit of birding in the evening, and prepare for a day on Resurrection Bay.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

More Birds From Kachemak Bay, Alaska

 Alaska 2014 continued:

For this post we stay in Kachemak Bay, Alaska, and take a look at some of the other birds we saw that afternoon. I knew this would be a big day, if not for total number of species, at least for number of new to me species. I was right. Life list birds just kept coming and coming.

As we puttered slowly through the bay we spotted a pair of Aleutian Terns perched on a floating log. I am partial to terns, with their long wings and short legs. They are graceful and acrobatic fliers, and I love watching them stoop and dive into the water.

Aleutian Terns rest on a log.

As we floated closer to the pair they took off, with one of them flying right by the boat.

Aleutian Tern in flight. 

We saw many species where just a few birds were present. This pair of Pigeon Guillemots watched us closely...

Pigeon Guillemots.

...until they too had had enough and took to the air. I felt kind of bad about disturbing all these birds, but it was nice to get to see them in flight--how else would we have seen those bright orange legs?

Pigeon Guillemot takes flight. I'm always happy when I manage to get these "action shots" in focus!

As the day moved on the breeze picked up a bit and the water got a little choppier. We were making our way to Gull Island when someone spotted these Tufted Puffins. I cannot tell you what a stir they caused. Such a dynamic and sought-after bird, their clown-like faces are a delight.

Tufted Puffins.

One of them was gathering nesting material. They too nest on Gull Island, although I did not see any on the island itself.

Tufted Puffin with nesting material.

A little bit later, as the bay became choppier still, a pair of Horned Puffins showed up. I couldn't believe our luck!

Horned Puffins. Notice the difference in bill color, lack of tufts, and the black "horns" around their eyes.

So now we're back to the cacophony of Gull Island. Last time I showed you kittiwakes, this time we will marvel at the Common Murres. Thousands of Common Murres.

A large raft of Common Murres floats near Gull Island, with the Kenai Mountains in the background.

The bay was thick with these birds.

Common Murres.

Looking closely at these Common Murres, one can see they are made for diving. They are often compared to penguins but I think they more closely resemble loons, with their super-smooth heads and stout bills. Much like loons, their legs are set back quite far on their bodies, which makes them good swimmers but not so good on land. The only time they're on land is to nest.

Here you can see their very upright posture, a result of their legs being so far back. Common Murres don't build nests--they lay a single egg directly on the rock.

Common Murres on Gull Island.

While we floated around Gull Island, more and more murres kept arriving. It was simply fantastic.

In all I saw 14 different species out on Kachemak Bay, 11 of which were lifers. It was a fine afternoon of birding. But the highlight of the day wasn't a winged creature--it had whiskers, big floppy back feet and floated around on its back, making us all squeal with delight.

Next: Sea Otters!!