Monday, November 24, 2014

Alaska Birds Day Five--Kachemak Bay and Gull Island

 Alaska 2014 continued:

Out on the open waters of Kachemak Bay, with the sun shining and a light breeze blowing, I felt like I could finally breathe. The drive down to Homer had been spectacular, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and volcanoes, and the blue waters of Cook Inlet. The views from Kachemak Bay were just as amazing.

We boarded Captain Karls' boat shortly after 11:00 am. I loved the sign which hung at front of the cabin. I had no doubt that I would find them all to be good birds.




As we were leaving the shelter of the marina we passed a dozen or so immature Double-crested Cormorants sunning themselves near the breakwater. They're all good birds.


Immature Double-crested Cormorants.

The waters out on the bay were fairly calm still, and soon we spotted our first firsts--a pair of Marbled Murrelets. These chubby-looking birds are listed as threatened, so I was very excited to get a look at them. They nest in trees, of all things, and, according to Wikipedia, this fact was not discovered until 1974. These two did not stick around long.


Marbled Murrelets.

We saw so many birds in the three hours we were out on the bay that I am skipping around a bit. I was godsmacked the entire time. Such a beautiful place! So many birds, most of which were new to me. I would be shooting off one side of the boat when someone would call out something on the other side of the boat. We did eventually reach Gull Island, which serves as a major nesting site for Black-legged Kittiwakes.


Gull Island and Black-legged Kittiwakes.

From the Alaska Department of Fish and Game: "As many as 20,000 seabirds build nests in the craggy rock faces and cliffs of Gull Island, on the south side of Kachemak Bay about three miles from the Homer Spit. Most years, 8,000 to 10,000 black-legged kittiwakes dominate the rookery, building mud nests perched in clefts and on ledges. 5,000 to 8,000 common murres nest amid the kittiwakes. Other birds seen in smaller numbers include glaucous-winged gulls, pelagic cormorants, red-faced cormorants, puffins and pigeon guillemots. The effect stuns the senses—the air is saturated with the odor of fishy guano and vibrates with the cacophony of crying birds. The sky can fill when a thousand birds take wing at once."


Gull Island

It really was quite a spectacle. There were birds everywhere, perched and nested on every flat surface. The older, more aggressive birds got the higher spots--younger birds were forced to nest closer to the waterline, making them more vulnerable to heavy seas. Guano dripped down the rocks like Spanish moss.


Nesting Black-legged Kittiwakes.

Many of the birds were busy picking up nesting material, mostly kelp that floated on the surface of the bay. I found these birds to be particularly striking. Their heads seemed sleeker than their other gull cousins, and that splash of red at the base of their bright yellow bills, called the gape, and around their dark eyes was stunning.


Black-legged Kittiwakes collecting nesting material.

The density of birds was staggering. In this image alone I counted 12 nests.

Nesting Black-legged Kittiwakes.

On our second time around the island many of the birds suddenly took to the air. We soon discovered why--an immature Bald Eagle soared up from the opposite side of the island.


A young Bald Eagle swoops over Gull Island.


The eagle left empty-taloned.

Birds were zipping and soaring and splashing all around us. A Pelagic Cormorant flew by, and I managed a few quick shots.


Pelagic Cormorant.

Directly south of Gull Island is China Poot Bay, an area surrounded by glacial outwash. There were several rafts of birds there, so we slowly motored over. A flock of about 30 Surf Scoters watched us carefully, then took to the air.

Surf Scoters.

I could see some Barrow's Goldeneye mixed in with the others but I couldn't get any shots of them, until this pair graciously flew right past the boat.


Barrow's Goldeneye fly past the boat.


I could go on and on, but I'll stop here and save some for next time.

Next:  Kachemak Bay birds continued.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Homer and Kachemak Bay--Alaska Day Five

Alaska 2014 continued:

 Tuesday, June 3rd, dawned clear and bright. We had a quick breakfast at the McDonald's in Soldotna (the restaurant by the hotel didn't open on time) then struck out on the Sterling Highway towards Homer. We were to take a trip aboard Captain Karl's Bay Excursions into Kachemak Bay, with our ultimate goal to see Gull Island. We would spend a couple of hours on the boat, just our group, and expected to see lots of birds in the Alcid family--puffins, guillemots, murres, murrelets--as well as kittiwakes, cormorants and terns.

The trip from Soldotna to Homer is about 1 1/2 hours, and the highway runs along Cook Inlet. On the western shore of the inlet is the Clark Lake National Park and Preserve. Within the park lie parts of two mountain ranges--the Aluetian Range to the south and the Alaska Range to the north. Along this line of peaks are five volcanoes, including the often active Mt. Redoubt. We made a brief stop at Anchor Bay where we looked for Bald Eagles on the beach. We only saw one, but we were treated to great views of the peaks of Clark Lake N.P.


Mt. Redoubt, (10,197 feet), across Cook Inlet from Anchor Bay.

We continued on to Homer, and while we didn't stop in the town proper, there was a quaint little community out on Homer Spit Road, where the marina is located. We sooooo wanted to take some time and shop, but there were birds to see, by golly, so all I managed was to snap a few photos of the place. Maybe next time!


Some of the businesses along Homer Spit Road. There was also a campground and RV park.


Flying the rainbow flag in Homer!

This is part of the trip I was the most excited about. I love the water, and knew that this would be an opportunity to not only see some birds I could not see elsewhere, but it also meant not being in the van. While it wasn't a big boat there was room to move around, and we had a beautiful day for a boat ride--clear blue skies and very little wind.


Marina at the City of Homer Port and Harbor.

The map below shows the relation of Gull Island to the spit. We departed and headed northeast for bit, up into Kachemak Bay, before heading down to Gull Island.

Map of Kachemak Bay. Homer is in the top left, across the bay from Kachemak State Park and Wilderness, which borders Kenai National Park.


Heading out into Kachemak Bay.

We were afforded great views of the glaciers in the Kenai Mountains. This is Grewingk glacier, the only one visible from the bay.

Grewingk glacier, Kenai Mountains, Kachemak Bay State Park.

The mountains were just breathtaking.


Kenai Mountains, Kachemak Bay State Park

Much of the water in the bay east of the spit is milky with glacial silt. Basically tiny bits of ground up bedrock, this runoff from melting glaciers is deposited into lakes and bays. In quiet waters it will stay suspended, and helps account for the turquoise color of some alpine lakes.

Glacial silt in Kachemak Bay.

With all the amazing scenery it was easy to forget that we'd come to see birds.

And oh my goodness, where there birds!




Thousands and thousands of birds!




Next: the birds of Kachemak Bay.


Monday, November 10, 2014

From Nome to Soldotna--Alaska, Day Four

 Alaska 2014 continued:

Monday, June 2nd dawned gray but dry. Our schedule had been so frenetic that we had not had time to spend in Nome. Even this morning several of our group went back out to Kougarok Road to look for the Bluethroat. Another birding group had seen one and told Bill where to look--and they found it. But I was beat. I had a raging headache, we were leaving Nome at mid-day, and I really wanted to see the town. I needed some room to breathe. So my mom and aunt and I stayed behind (along with another couple) and we walked around downtown Nome.


Aurora Inn, where we spent three nights. Nice place, with very friendly staff.  

The Inupiaq people inhabit much of the region, and it is thought that they had a small settlement where Nome is today prior to 1898, when gold was discovered in a nearby creek. The town sprung up quite literally overnight--by 1899 more than 10,000 people lived in Nome. That same year, gold was discovered on the beach along Norton Sound, which brought another wave of folks looking to strike it big. The census of 1900 counted 12,488 residents, making Nome the largest town in the Alaska
Territory. But as the gold was panned out people left nearly as fast as they'd come, and by the 1910 census there were only 2,600 residents. By 1934 the population fell below 1,500.  (Wikipedia)

Little is left of the original town, thanks to a couple of fires and a few bad storms (the main road in Nome is only about 50 feet from the Bering Sea). We did not have a chance to patronize the Board of Trade Saloon but we did stop by for a photo.


I can imagine the tinkling of a piano and breaking glass as a bar-fight begins.

Past the saloon and some other businesses is a small park with this welcome sign, commemorating Nome's history.

Prospectors, Eskimos and the dog sled define Nome.

When the Bering Sea is ice-free the port just west of town is quite busy, but the rest of the year the town is reachable only by plane.


Nome's port in the distance. Yes, that 10 foot high sea wall is all that protects the town. You can see here how close it is to the backs of the buildings on Front Street.


The famous Iditarod dogsled race ends here in Nome, and this sign is pulled out into the street to mark the finish line.


Un-mush!

 Behind Airport Pizza, where we ate twice, was this jumble of stop signs, which must be used during the Iditarod. It struck me as comical, with them facing every which-a-way.




Past the park, near the intersection of Front and Bering Streets (which becomes the Nome-Teller Road outside of town) is the Nugget Inn. We did not get to go inside this place either but it looked pretty...eclectic, what with the statues, Umiak frame, giant gold pan and a TREE, of all things.




These folks clearly had a sense of humor.





The closest place to Nome? According to the sign, it's the Arctic Circle, at 141 miles, followed closely by Siberia. (Take into consideration the 70 or so miles we drove north to Teller on day two and we were only 70 miles from the Arctic Circle.)


Putting things in perspective.

We ran into Ed and Katie, who had also stayed behind, and who pointed us to a coffee shop called the Bering Tea Co., a cozy little place with books and games and instruments to play. They had just pulled fresh blueberry muffins out of the oven and I had to have one. If you ever end up in Nome, you gotta stop by this place.



The Bering Tea Co. coffee shop and Vegetarian/Vegan restaurant.


We made our way down to the grocery store, where I picked up a couple apples and some other snacks for the flight back to Anchorage. On the way back to Front Street we passed this park, which had monuments to prospecting, umiak building (the large canoe-type boat used in summer to move people and supplies to hunting grounds) and the Inupiq people. St. Joseph Church is in the background.


The "Three Lucky Swedes" who discovered gold in them thar hills.

We stopped at a gift shop along Front Street (which I think was called Maruskiya's) that had amazing Native art that I could not afford. I ended up with a T-shirt off the clearance rack.

We made our way back to the hotel, gathered up our bags and headed to the airport. The airport in Nome is tiny, but it had the most thorough security of all the airports we were in. It was the only one with the full body scanner booth. The plane we flew was also unique in that only the back half held passengers--the front was all for cargo. We boarded from the tarmac, something I'd never done before.

Upon our arrival in Anchorage, we went right from the airport into another van, and started the drive to Soldotna along US 1 (Sterling Highway). This highway skirts the north shore of Turnagain Arm, off the north end of Cook Inlet, then cuts through part of the Chugah National Forest before entering the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

It was such an astonishing change from Nome and the Seward Peninsula. In two hours we went from drab tundra and gray skies to sun, lush green grass and trees. So much of the southern part of Alaska reminded me of the U.P. of Michigan (minus the mountains) that I felt like I'd gone home.

Before we reached Soldotna we made a stop at the Granite Creek Campground to stretch our legs and look for birds. I could hear running water from the campground and it wasn't long before I'd wandered off in search of its source. I was glad I did. Warm sun, blue sky behind snow-flecked peaks, dark spruce, clean fragrant air....ah......  I could have stayed here forever.


Granite Creek, Chugach Mountains National Forest

Due to all the traveling there weren't many birds on our list that day. We did spot our first Bald Eagles of the trip along Turnagain Arm, as well as Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Black-capped Chickadees at the campground. But for me it was a great birding day as I saw my first Boreal Chickadee!  


A Boreal Chickadee poses on a spruce. They're so dang cute!


We eventually made it to Soldotna, where we stayed at the Best Western King Salmon motel, and prepared for our trip to Homer and a boat tour of Katchimak Bay.

Next: Oh the things you'll see!


Saturday, November 8, 2014

Alaska Birds, Day Three

 Alaska 2014 continued:

Our third day in Alaska's Seward Peninsula was another grey, dreary day. We got some sun in the afternoon, up along Pilgrim Hot Springs Road, but otherwise it was drab, which made for difficult conditions to photograph in. My images from day three are less than impressive. It doesn't help that the diopter wheel that adjusts the focus of the eyepiece on my camera is located in a place where it is easily, inadvertently turned. This means that when I'm manually focusing (which I nearly always am with birds) the focus is going to be off, as nearly all of the shots early in the day were. It's very frustrating and I think a piece of tape or some glue is in order. Fortunately I figured it our before we saw the Bristle-thighed Curlew (see previous post).

The other issue is that many of these birds are very small and were at a great enough distance from the road that they're tiny in the images. All of these are cropped as much as I dared. In any case it was overall a good day for species numbers--I saw 38 species total, ten of which were new to me (as denoted with an asterisk).

American Wigeon
Wilson's SnipeRed-throated LoonRed-breasted MerganserGlaucous GullHarlequin Duck
Greater Scaup*Canada GooseCackling GooseWilson's warbler*


Wilson's Warbler. He was singing and singing about 30 feet from the road.
We will see another of these little guys in a future post.

Fox Sparrow
Wandering Tattler*


Wandering Tattler. This was one of my target birds and I was thrilled to see one. Driving down the road this bird flew in front of the van. Bill hit the brakes while I watched where it went, which was behind us on the opposite side of a creek. Bill backed the van up and I managed to get a few fuzzy shots before the bird took off again. So glad I was in the front seat!

Common Redpoll
Gray-cheeked Thrush*
Long-tailed Duck
Mew Gull
American Golden Plover


American Golden Plover. We saw this bird on day two but I like this shot better than the ones I got that day. I like how this also shows some of the tundra habitat.

Rock Ptarmigan


Rock Ptarmigan. Another bird we saw on day two but I like this shot better. Shot through Bill's open window.
Rough-Legged Hawk* (I'd seen one in captivity but never in the wild.)
Whimbrel
Bristle-Thighed Curlew*


Bristle-thighed Curlew. I know I did a whole post on this bird, but I have bragging rights!
Northern Harrier
Black Scoter*

Black Scoter.  Horrible picture but it shows the bird's red bill.

Yellow Wagtail*


Yellow Wagtail. I'm almost embarrassed to post this image it's so bad but the bird is recognizable. This one also flew in front of the van. There were several in the bushes but they were behind a house--one of the few along the road--and we decided against trespassing so we had to look from afar.

Greater White-fronted Goose*
Northern Wheatear


Northern Wheatear. After leaving Pilgrim Hot Springs Road we ran across this fellow. It was the closest we'd been to one so Bill stopped so we could get good looks.

Merlin


American Tree Sparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Savanah Sparrow
Hoary Redpoll
American Robin
Willow Ptarmigan

Willow Ptarmigan. Not a great pic but I wanted to show the bird in a willow. That's snow in the background.

Short-eared Owl* (Flew across the road in front of the van, no chance for pics.)
Northern Pintail
Long-tailed Jaeger
Red-necked Phalarope

Red-necked Phalarope. Female, I believe.

The one bird we did not see on day three was a Bluethroat, another species that breeds in the Arctic but winters overseas. Half of our group went back out Monday morning, before our flight back to Anchorage, but I sat that one out. I really wanted to see Nome, which we had not had time to do, and Monday morning greeted me with a terrible headache, so I didn't go. They did find the Bluethroat, so I missed out on that one. It's a good excuse to go back to the region some day!

Next: Day four, Nome, Anchorage and Soldotna.




Monday, November 3, 2014

In Search of the Bristle-thighed Curlew

 Alaska 2014 continued:

The big push for day three of the birding tour in Alaska was to search for the Bristle-thighed Curlew. This was one of the birds highest on our list, as it is a species that does not migrate through the United States, and therefore can only be seen in Alaska. The curlew only breeds on inland tundra along the Yukon River and the central Seward Peninsula, which is where we headed. The species' wintering grounds are on islands in the South Pacific. While not listed as threatened or endangered, it is a species of special concern as there are only about 10,000 of them.

We pulled off the Kourgarok Road near mile marker 72 around 11:00 am. I was hungry but Bill wanted to wait until after our hike to eat. I knew I couldn't wait that long so I snagged a banana and granola bar. Those of us who were headed up the hill found semi-private places to relieve ourselves, then gathered up our gear and began to trudge up the hillside.

The hike wasn't bad at first but the walking conditions quickly deteriorated. The tundra here was made up of clumps of grasses and forbs surrounded by muddy, wet depressions. Each step had to be tested for stability. Most people fell down, a couple more than once. You could not walk and look around at the same time, so we'd take several steps then pause to look and listen. It took forever to get up the hill. I was afraid I was overdressed, since I had my down coat on, but it was windy and chilly enough to keep me comfortable. It snowed on us a bit too, but it was short lived.

We all got excited when we spotted a tall, long-billed bird perched on a hummock near the curve of a small ridge, but Bill quickly determined it was a Wimbrel, and not our curlew. The two birds are remarkably similar, but Bill was confident this was not our quarry. I took some images anyway as this was a bird I'd only seen once before.


A Wimbrel stands atop a hummock on a high tundra ridge.

The Wimbrel apparently felt some discomfort at our presence and flew a short distance away. After going through my photos I could also confirm this was not a curlew. One of the best ways to ID the Bristle-thighed curlew is that it has a pale, buffy rump, which this bird clearly lacked.


Image showing lack of light rump patch, confirming it is not the curlew.

We trudged along the hillside for quite some time with no luck. Our group fractured and several of us fell behind or wandered off, myself included. I was fascinated by the plants growing on the tundra, and surprised by the amount of water that was held on the hillside by the hummocks.

After nearly an hour and a half we abandoned our search and started to trudge back down the hill. But then one of our group pointed out two birds on the ground, and we all grabbed our binoculars for a look. Shortly after that, one of them took to the air and began singing--at that moment, we knew we had our bird. The song of the Bristle-thighed Curlew is very distinctive, and Bill had played it for us, describing it as sounding like a short-wave radio. Have a listen here: birds.audubon.org/birds/bristle-thighed-curlew

At first the bird was little more than a speck on the horizon. But to my great delight, he banked and flew almost directly towards us.

A Bristle-thighed Curlew flies above the tundra.

Within moments the curlew was nearly directly above me.


The curlew flew in close, giving us great looks.


Then the curlew let us know exactly what he thought about our presence on his hillside.


Cries of "Look out, Bob!" rang out across the tundra as the curlew launched an assault. He missed.









The curlew continued past, then banked and flew by again, a little lower, giving us a clear view of his buffy rump.


The curlew shows us its buffy rump.


The bird eventually landed some way off, nearer to the rest of the group. Stunning how well the bird blends into the tundra.


Amazing camouflage.

He took to the air again after a few minutes, and we decided it was time to move away. It was not our intention to be that close and we didn't want to cause the birds any more stress.




As we began to move down the hill, Bill gave out a little yelp. Looking down he discovered that he had very nearly stepped on the bird's nest. Now, before you worry too much, keep in mind that these eggs were not yet being incubated. The Bristle-thighed Curlew lays a clutch of four eggs, and birds who hatch precocial chicks (ones that are hatched at an advanced state and are able to move around and fend for themselves) don't begin incubation until all the eggs have been laid. At that point the female will not leave the nest, no matter the threat. We hurried over for a quick look, and I took a few pics with my long lens, so as to not get too close to the nest, then we quickly moved away.


Bristle-thighed Curlew eggs, laid in a shallow depression among the lichens and moss on the tundra.

Thrilled with having seen and heard the bird and seen its nest, we stumbled, tripped and rolled down the hill back to the van, where we devoured our lunch and showed off the pics to the handful of people who had opted out of the difficult trek. Those few hours up on the high tundra is something I will never forget. And Bill was kind enough to say that mine were the best shots of that bird he had seen anyone on his tours take.


Next: the rest of the birds from day three.