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.

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