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!!

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.