Sunday, June 23, 2013

Circumnavigating Newnan's Lake

A family of Pied-billed Grebes in a retention pond.
I really enjoy The June Challenge.    This is a local "competition" that is sponsored by the Alachua Audubon Society.  The goal is to stay within the boundaries of a single county and see (not hear) as many bird species as possible during the month of June.  Every year I try to do a Big Day on June 1 or 2 in order to get the month started off right.  Well, this year I started the month in Alaska and returned in a state of zombie-like stupor.  So I really started my Challenge during the past week, and things have gone well, but not spectacularly so.  Most years I try to reach 100 species.  This year, getting into the mid-80s may be difficult, but I'll have fun trying.

My first stop today was a retention pond just off Main Street in Gainesville where others have found a family of Pied-billed Grebes.  It took about two minutes.  The whole family swam together enjoying the beautiful morning.

A Barred Owl who thinks he's an eagle.
The real goal for the day was Newnan's Lake.  Last year's drought made the lake a birding hot spot.  Early in the month the lake produced everything from shorebirds to pelicans and from ducks to Short-tailed Hawks.  This year the water level is remarkably high.  Last year I walked in places that are now fifty feet out into the water.  I stopped by the parking lot on SR 26 at the Newnan's Lake Conservation Area where a Yellow-throated Vireo has been very cooperative.  Not this morning.  It was nowhere to be found, so I headed to Windsor and Owens-Illinois Park.

As I drove into the park, I saw two Barred Owls scare up from the bank of the boat launch canal.  Odd.  It was about 10:00 AM, and owls are typically hiding in the woods, not out in the open at a public boat ramp.  I parked, hopped out, and reached for my camera.  Oh yeah, it's dead, victim of a salt water splash in the face in Alaska.  So, I grabbed my iPhone and attached it to my spotting scope, certain that the owls were no longer in the same tree.  I was right.  One of them had flown to the dock and perched on a pole.  Then he flew toward me and landed on a wooden piling right next to the water.  What happened next took me by complete surprise.  The owl leaped from its perch, swooped low over the water, and pulled a fish from the water!  What the heck?  Did it think it was an eagle?  Then, while I was trying to get my jaw off the ground, the second owl dove from the tree and repeated the fishing expedition, also grabbing a fish from the canal!  I've been birding quite heavily for the past 13 years or so, and I've never seen an owl go fishing.  What a thrill!  The Summer Tanager I spotted in the trees along the canal was also a nice find, but the owl was the star of the day.

Red-shouldered Hawk
Next I tried Prairie Creek, but only a single hummingbird flew by, so  I moved on to Powers Park.  Normally this is a really great spot, but I had little luck.  I scoped the lake from the dock, but saw nothing but Ospreys and Great Blue Herons.  I heard Limpkins calling from both east and west of the dock, but I couldn't see them, so they didn't count.  I walked back to the car just as a Red-shouldered Hawk flew into the tree above me.  I snapped a few photos and decided to check out the area near the small playground.  No birds.  In fact, the most interesting thing here was a gentleman from Hawthorne who told me that for the third year in a row he and his son rode their bikes from Hawthorne to Key West and back.  Wow!  Impressive.

I drove over to Palm Point and checked out the water's edge along the path, hoping to find a Limpkin.  I saw a few Double-crested Cormorants, an Anhinga, and a Little Blue Heron, but no Limpkin.  Grrrrr.

Limpkin in a tree

On to the next stop .... a small parking lot outside of a place I have recently learned is called Sunland Center State Park.  Who knew?  A small path led to the edge of the lake.  I stood there looking around, hoping to find a Limpkin, but I had no luck.  Then I heard one call ... from directly ABOVE me.  It was sitting in the tree directly over my head!  Am I a great birder or what?  I scrambled up the hill, grabbed my iPhone/scope and tapped away.  You can see the results here.

It was getting late, but I decided to return to the parking lot off SR 26 I had visited earlier and make one more effort for that Yellow-throated Vireo.  I played a tape and the bird flew right to me.  I figured that was a great way to end the day, so I gave it up and headed home.  I now have 72 species for the month and haven't gotten to La Chua Trail yet -- but that's coming!

See him?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Wrapping Up Alaska

For several days now I've been trying to figure out how to sum up my Alaskan experience.  The truth is, I can't.  It was way more than great scenery and great birds.  It was so much more than peaceful meadows, majestic peaks, and awesome glaciers.  In sheer numbers, I could have seen more birds by staying home.  In ten days of non-stop birding I saw 86 species.  My best single day in Gainesville is higher than that.  Of course, thirty-eight life birds is truly remarkable, but that is only a few ticks on a page compared with the total experience I had. So, with words failing me, here's the best I can do:

I couldn't help feeling that I was seeing the Earth as God intended it to be.  Its pristine beauty was almost overwhelming, so much so that I often got distracted from looking at birds because the background was so spectacular.  My lasting impression of Alaska will be looking southwest from an observation area on the road to Homer.  Kachemak Bay and Homer were to my left; Cook Inlet stretched out to my right.  Ahead of me was a break in the mountains that led to the Gulf of Alaska and the North Pacific.  Somewhere out there was Kodiak Island.  That opening was flanked by the Kenai Range on the left and the Aleutian Range to my right.  It was extraordinary

I spent nearly eleven days in Alaska and never saw darkness.  I was up at 11:00 PM and at 5:00 AM, and it was not dark, not even dim. 

A Trail at Exit Glacier
The people were wonderful.  If you've been "educated" on Alaska by episodes of Alaska State Troopers, you're getting a lousy impression.  These are great people, and especially on the Kenai, they live and die with tourism.  They want you there and they treat you accordingly.  Go.  You'll love it.

Perspective can be an eye-opening thing.  Every time I spoke to a local birder, the first bird they mentioned was Yellow-rumped Warbler!  To a Floridian, that's stunning.  The first sighting of the Yellow-rumped down here is greeted with loud laments.  For us, the Butter Butt (as we call it) is a sign that the fall migration season is at an end.  We live for the migration seasons when all of those great birds that don't live in Florida pass through on the way to their winter or summer homes.  Fall migration can be wonderful inland on the Florida Peninsula as the migrating warblers funnel through the center of the state, keeping close to the food sources of the interior forests.  The Yellow-rumped is the last of the warblers to come through, so when we see it, we know migration is done.  And then they stay here - all winter long - in their drab winter dress.  And just when they start to get gorgeous, they leave and migrate north.  And large numbers of them settle in Alaska where the local birders gush about them.  Harumph!

Bringing in a Boat at Anchor Point
I was fascinated by the boat launch and landing process at Anchor Point.  The tides are enormous there - usually at least 16 feet, so a dock built for low tide would be a dozen feet below water at high tide.  Build one for high tide and it towers above the boats at low.  So guys driving huge tractors with big, wide wheels tow boat trailers out into the frigid Alaskan water, hoist up the boats, and tow them up the steep hillside to a parking lot way above the sea.  There they pick up a boat wanting to launch and tow it and its trailer down to beach and out far enough into the sea to safely launch it.  That was so much fun to watch!

Based on ten days of vigorous birding I have come to believe there are no ptarmigans.  It's a carefully devised ruse by the local Chambers of Commerce to get birders from the lower 48 to rush to Alaska in search of a phantom.  They say Willow Ptarmigan is their state bird.  Yea, right.  By the time I left the Jacksonville airport I had seen five Northern Mockingbirds, our state bird.  So where were the ptarmigans??  I tried.  I really tried.  No ptarmigans.  I'm just saying ... I'm suspicious.

An actual frontiersman's cabin.  It would fit in my living room.
I have seen the "frontier spirit" of the old west played out commercially in a way that I think demeans the true hardships and unbreakable fighting spirit that marked the lives of those who tamed our frontier.  However, Alaska is still untamed.  There is a real sense of the frontier as soon as you leave the cities and towns precisely because IT IS the frontier.  It can be a really hard life, but the people seem to thrive on it.  I admire that.

The Captain's Choice pelagic trip out of Seward ROCKS!  Captain Sherry and her first mate Allie were wonderful.  They knew where the birds were, they could ID them, and they made me feel comfortable on a very cold and rainy day.  I stayed on the stern in the rain and salt spray as long as I could.  By the time I went inside, I was shivering and my poncho was in tatters.  Almost immediately, Allie had a cup of coffee in my hands and then she found a rain jacket I could use.  I know she did as much for many other passengers, but I couldn't possibly describe how much I appreciated that personal touch.  Many thanks to Ken Tarbox who recommended the Captain's Choice Tour.  It was fantastic!

For a variety of reasons I delayed my trip until after Memorial Day.  If I ever do it again, I'll go a few weeks earlier and attend the shorebird festival that is held annually in mid-May.  They reported THOUSANDS of shorebirds per day!  I'd love to see that.

I was actually surprised at how hard it was to find birds in some places.  Massive forests did not translate into massive numbers or varieties of birds.  I worked some areas along gravel roads in gorgeous forests for hours on end, and often came away with less than a dozen species.  Of course three of them might have been lifers, so I'm not complaining. It's just an observation.  I expected to see more birds.

Along the same lines, in all of the hours I spent in the field I saw four woodpeckers, three of the same species (American Three-toed) and one other (Hairy).  What's up with that?  There are millions upon millions of trees, and few woodpeckers!  Also, I saw only two raptors that weren't eagles.  Both were Northern Goshawks.  Where were the rest?  Mystifying.

Alaskan birds do not seem to perch on power or telephone lines.  The one bird on a wire that I saw was a Rock Pigeon in Palmer.  It probably learned to do that in the lower 48.

I tried really hard, but I could not see Russia from Wasilla.

I loved Alaska.  I really, really did.  When I first arrived, most local folks I talked to said, "Welcome to the Great Land!"  Great Land indeed.  I feel so blessed to have had the chance to visit Alaska, and I will do everything I can, support every cause or measure I hear of that works to keep Alaskan forests and mountains clean and unspoiled.

And with that, listed below are the 38 lifers I picked up during the trip. 

Cackling Goose
Black-legged Kittiwakes
Trumpeter Swan
Harlequin Duck
Barrow's Goldeneye
Spruce Grouse
Red-faced Cormorant
Northern Goshawk
Golden Eagle
Black Oystercatcher
Wandering Tattler
Black-legged Kittiwake
Mew Gull
Glaucous-winged Gull
Aleutian Tern
Common Murre
Thick-billed Murre
Pigeon Guillemot
Marbled Murrelet
Kittlitz's Murrelet
Rhinoceros Auklet
Harlequin Duck
Horned Puffin
Tufted Puffin
Boreal Owl
American Three-toed Woodpecker
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Gray Jay
Steller's Jay
Black-billed Magpie
Northwestern Crow
Violet-green Swallow
Boreal Chickadee
American Dipper
Varied Thrush
Townsend's Warbler
Golden-crowned Sparrow
Pine Grosbeak
Red Crossbill
Common Redpoll

In addition to the birds, there were also these delights:

River Otter
Mountain Goats
Dall Sheep
Black Bear
Harbor Seal
Steller's Sea Lion
Sea Otter
Dall Porpoise
Humpback Whale
Mountain Goat
Snowshoe Hare
Red Squirrel

So, now it's on to the June Challenge and some hometown birding.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Final Days in Alaska

Cook Inlet and the Aleutian Range

Bearing Tree
The rain in Seward forced several changes to the plans I had in mind before leaving Florida.  Now I had only one day in Soldotna rather than the two I had hoped for.  But plans (like records) are made to be broken, so you adapt and move on.  I left Seward on a bright, cool Wednesday morning and headed north and then west toward Soldotna. 

The first adaptation was an impulsive decision to turn into the Ptarmigan Creek Campground on the Seward highway.  The little trail there that parallels the creek is actually really pretty and quite birdy.  A Bald Eagle soared overhead, a Pine Siskin popped up on a spruce, and then a flycatcher landed just above the trail.  It looked like it was wearing a vest of some sort ... Olive-sided Flycatcher!  A lifer!  A bit further up the trail were a Wilson's Warbler, a Swainson's Thrush and a Boreal Chickadee that resisted all of my efforts to turn it into its Chestnut-backed cousin.  Next, a Spruce Grouse flushed from just behind where I walked and flew overhead -- another lifer!  This trail was great!  Then a few steps later I encountered a tree with a sign declaring it was a "Bearing Tree."  The kiosk at the trailhead had warned that bears were active in the area.  After a bit of thought, discretion won out over valor.  I had two lifers -- I didn't want to lose a life in pursuit of another -- so I bailed.

Headquarters Lake at the Kenai NWR.
I had already birded many of the stops along the Sterling highway which runs west across the Kenai Peninsula, so I drove all the way to Soldotna.  Actually, I had one stop to make.  That was at Wildman's General Store, a combination deli/grocery store/laundromat near the junction of the Seward and Sterling Highways.  I had stopped there on Monday and found four great things: the nice people who worked there, the good coffee, the clean men's room, and some delightful apple fritters.  So on Wednesday I stopped and enjoyed all four of these things again.

Finally I reached Soldotna, and I drove directly to the Headquarters of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.  This proved to be a great stop and a beautiful place.  Again there were clean restrooms and cheerful people including one ranger who spoke about where there might be some good birds.  The trail was steep - and after forgetting my scope I had to climb it an extra time.  Still, it was worth it.  There was a Hairy Woodpecker, a Brown Creeper, and an American Three-toed Woodpecker.  Then, at the lake at the bottom of the trail (pictured above, right), there was an Aleutian Tern, my third lifer of the day.

One of the Bald Eagles of Anchor Point
I wish I could say that the day in Homer was as successful.  It was not.  To be sure there were marvelous aspects to the day.  For one, the views from the highway of Cook Inlet, Kachemak Bay, and the distant volcanic peaks were extraordinary.  Anchor Point was a great stop.  One bush held a singing Golden-crowned Sparrow.  Around the parking lot were more Bald Eagles than I have ever seen in one day.  The Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor's Center is a wonderful place to spend a few hours.  The exhibits are interesting and entertaining.  One described the impact of a healthy ocean on our lives.  Another focused on the lives of sea birds.  Yet another detailed the work of the scientists who worked on the seas during the early days of the Alaska Maritime NWR.

Grazing Moose on Tustumena Lake Road
During early May, there may be no better place on earth to view shorebirds.  But this was early June and no shorebirds were to be found.  Someone told me that a plover could be found along the famed Homer Spit that cuts into the bay, but I didn't see it.  All I saw were Black-legged Kittiwakes; lots and lots of Kittiwakes.  I saw nothing on Beluga Slough, but the lake was a little better.   There were Mallards, American Wigeons, Ring-necked Ducks, and a Greater Scaup.  A Belted Kingfisher flew about looking for a meal.  But that was it.  Perhaps I didn't prepare well enough for this day, but I was out of luck.  I headed back to Soldotna but took one side road.  I drove a good distance along Tustumena Lake Road.  I found a few birds including a Common Loon in one lake and a Fox Sparrow, but the highlights were a couple of grazing Moose and a Snowshoe Hare.  The hare was mostly brown but still had its white feet.

That brought me to my final full day in Alaska.  Most of it was time spent getting back to Anchorage, but two stops are worth mentioning (aside from another stop at Wildman's).  The day started on Swanson River Road near Sterling.  I birded it for hours, hoping for a Red or White-winged Crossbill.  I really didn't want to leave Alaska with seeing a crossbill.  Among the species I found were Dark-eyed Junco, Boreal Chickadee, Gray Jay, and Varied Thrush.  I was about to give up but decided to try one more spot and I'm lucky that I did,  Four Red Crossbills perched on tall spruces long enough to give me a quick look.  That was the last lifer of the trip.

The lake at Portage Glacier
After that I drove back toward Anchorage.  After leaving the Kenai Peninsula, I pulled onto the road to Whittier and Portage Glacier.  This is a short, picturesque drive to the Visitor's Center.  There, large chunks of ice still float on a bright, startlingly blue-green glacial lake at the base of the glacier itself.  I watched Violet-green Swallows and Glaucous-winged Gulls swoop and soar above. Wilson's Warblers, a Swainson's Thrush and a Hermit Thrush sang in the shrubs near the road.  A Black Bear roamed the mountainside above us.  One trail next to the road led across a boardwalk and observation deck built for observing the salmon run up stream.  The photos above and at the bottom of the page don't begin to communicate the sheer beauty of the place. A couple of hours flew by while I soaked up the serenity and majesty of the surroundings.  And the next day I was on a plane heading back to Florida with its heat, humidity, and extraordinary variety of birds.

I'll have one more blog about my Alaskan trip.  I'll give you my trip list, lifers and non-avian species.  Also, I have a few observations that might be of interest, so come back in a day or two.  Meanwhile, it's on to the June Challenge!

Golden-crowned Sparrow
Kachemak Bay, Homer Spit and the Kenai Range

Portager Glacier and Its Lake

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Death (of a Camera) on the High Seas

As soon as I opened my eyes on Tuesday morning, I checked the weather ... rainy, cold, windy.  I really doubted that my boat trip would happen, and that caused me all sorts of consternation.  The second half of my trip would come apart unless this trip happened today.  I dressed quickly and headed to the tour group's headquarters.  I was prepared for the day (I thought), but feared the worse. 

Sea Otters at Play
However, I shouldn't have worried.  The trip was going ahead as scheduled despite the rain.  I had a rain parka, but the thought of wet jeans wasn't too pleasant.  I dashed into the company shop and bought some rain pants, put them on, and soon we were under way. 

At first the rain was no more than a mist.  True, it was a cold mist, but I could handle that.  The seas were calm in Resurrection Bay, and almost immediately we saw two Sea Otters frolicking in the waves.  They looked up as we passed by, and I got a nice photo of them checking us out.

A bit later I got my first lifer of the day, a Marbled Murrelet.  It wasn't long before I got another, a Pigeon Guillemot.  The Captain spotted it off the starboard side, and I was really pleased that I was able to pick out the right field marks as it flew past us.  Studying pays off!  Who knew?

Black Oystercatcher
After a visit to one of the glaciers we headed to a spot where the Captain thought we might be able to find a Black Oystercatcher.  Sure enough, it was standing out in the open as if it were hired by the tour company to pose for us.  That was the third lifer for the morning.

Throughout the day we visited small coves and inlets, looking for something rare and interesting.  Each stop seemed to produce something wonderful.  In one small, dark crevice we found Red-faced Cormorants.  We watched at least three Humpback Whales send geysers of water well into the sky before showing us their tails as they dove deep into the frigid waters.  We saw Steller's Sea Lions and Harbor Seals stretched out on the rocks, oblivious to the cold and rain.  Dall Porpoises swam with us, racing along next to the boat and diving into our wake.  Mountain Goats and a Black Bear roamed the mountains above us.  And then we heard the thunder of a glacier cracking and watched as a huge chunk broke off and fell into the sea.  All of it was breathtaking.

Horned Puffin
Meanwhile, as soon as we cleared Resurrection Bay and entered the Gulf of Alaska, the seas got rougher and the rain turned fierce.  Most people headed for cover, but I was enjoying the adventure of it all and stayed on deck as long as I could.

Eventually we reached the Chiswell Islands, part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.  There we found one island that was home to hundreds of Common Murres and a few Thick-billed Murres scattered among them.  Fortunately the Captain found one of the latter and pointed it out to us.  A second island held hundreds of Tufted Puffins while yet another held hundreds of Horned Puffins.  The puffins were amazing.  They literally threw themselves off of the cliff, then flapped their wings like mad until they pulled themselves out of their dive.  Sometimes they flew right at us, only to veer off at the last moment and jet away.   I have to admit that the puffins were my favorite part of the trip.

Harbor Seal
Soon the rain drove me back inside, but the birding didn't stop.  As I watched through a starboard window, a Kittlitz's Murrelet flew past the boat.  Fortunately, others on board saw and identified it too, so I was confident in counting it.

It was about that time that things started going bad.  First, I took a serious cold-water bath when the bow of the boat slapped into a wave, throwing seawater on deck.  I took the brunt of it while trying to aim my camera at a  bird.  The camera died on the spot and has not returned to life.  Fortunately I was able to retrieve a few photos, but it is generally pretty useless now.  Then I tried to wipe the salt water from my glasses which promptly broke in half.  So I had no camera and no glasses.  Fortunately, my bins were just fine.  I refocused them to my horrible vision and returned to birding just in time for my last lifer of the day - a Rhinoceros Auklet.  That made ten new birds for the day and 34 for the Alaskan trip.  I had a back-up pair of glasses in the hotel, so that wasn't a big problem.  Of course, now I would have to bird without a camera - but wait - I could go back to digiscoping with my iPhone.  So all was well with the world.

In fact, it was a fabulous day and I'll be thrilled by its memory for the rest of my life!

Mountain Goats
The last photo before my camera died.  R.I.P.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Extra Time in Seward

That's Exit Glacier behind me.  Note the blue ice.
Wow, the Seward experience was like the plot of a good novel.  It included highs and lows, successes and failures, some tragedy, but a very satisfying conclusion.

In my last blog I told you how I reached Seward on Saturday evening.  The plan was to bird the Seward area on Sunday, take a pelagic trip through the Kenai Fjords on Monday, and then get out of town, birding my way along the Sterling Highway until I reached Homer on Tuesday evening. 

Steller's Jay
Part 1 went smoothly.  I started at Exit Glacier, a portion of the Kenai Fjords National Park, and the only portion available by car.  Along the way I stopped at numerous scenic overlooks to admire Resurrection River and the glacier itself.  At one stop I saw something drop to the road about 50 feet away.  I got my bins on it and almost yelled out loud - Steller's Jay, another of my "Most Wanted" birds.   I crept a bit closer, wanting to get a good photo but not wanting to disturb the bird from his foraging,  I needn't have worried.  He seemed to utterly ignore me.  I snapped a few shots and then retreated toward my car.  Since November I've added Green Jay, Gray Jay and Steller's Jay to my life list.  That's a great trifecta, if you ask me.

The park itself is really beautiful.  The trail system starts at the headquarters building and there seems to be a trail for everyone. The lower trail is about a mile long.  It reaches an observation area where everyone can get a really good look at the glacier.  From that point there are a number of trails that include more difficult climbs up to the edge of the ice.  Unfortunately, the park wasn't very birdy, at least in terms of species variety.  There were Wilson's, Orange-crowned, and Yellow-rumped Warblers; Hermit and Swainson's Thrushes as well as several Fox Sparrows.  Despite the small number of species, I had a great morning in the park, and I'm thankful that I had the opportunity to be there

Trumpeter Swan
Next I tried Nash Road and Fourth of July Beach.  I had read that the area could be especially birdy during shorebird migration.  That time frame has already passed, so I wasn't expecting a lot.  In fact, other than a Trumpeter Swan on a pond near the beginning of the road, there wasn't a bird to be seen.

Later in the day I drove out to Lowell Point and was thrilled to find two Wandering Tattlers (Lifer!) and large numbers of Harlequin Ducks and Barrow's Goldeneyes.  That was a great way to end a day.

So that brought me to Monday and the long-awaited pelagic trip to the Kenai Fjords.  I got to the boat in plenty of time, but needn't have bothered.  A weather advisory out in the Pacific was keeping most tours inside of Resurrection Bay.  That's a very pretty area, but the birds are farther out and in other fjords.  I was offered a refund or a chance to go out on the same tour on Tuesday when the weather promised to improve.  I dashed back to the hotel and asked to extend my stay there an extra night and then requested that they call their sister hotel in Soldotna and reduce my stay there.  It took a little time, but all the details got straightened out.

Wandering Tattler
But there was the dilemma - the morning was all but gone and I had birded all of the hotspots around Seward.  So I drove 40 miles north eventually reaching the Sterling Highway.  From there, I took three different side roads - Quartz Creek Road, Snug Harbor Road and Skilak Lake Road.  Quartz Creek Road led to a gorgeous campground run by the United States Forest Service.  I went down to the lake and immediately saw some Pine Siskins and Wilson's Warblers.  On the shoreline, a Wandering Tattler wandered about looking for a bit of lunch. 

Later I found a flooded area next to Quartz Creek Road.  In the rushing water were an American Dipper and a pair of Harlequin Ducks.  It was so much fun watching the Dipper dip into the current and bob up a little later with something tasty.  Sometimes I feel really privileged to be a birder, especially when I get glimpses of these little vignettes that reveal so much about the lives of birds!  Then I got the topper for the day.  I was driving along Snug Harbor Road when I stopped the car quickly because I thought I saw a bird foraging on the road just ahead of me.  It was a Pine Grosbeak!  In fact there were two, a male and a female.  Another lifer; another long-desired bird.  Skilak Lake road wasn't very productive for me, but I enjoyed the drive anyway.  The scenery was spectacular, and a Pacific Loon in a pond near the end of the road made it a very worthwhile drive.

Tomorrow I'll try to write about the pelagic trip and wrap up the Seward portion of my time in Alaska.  It was quite an experience!

Pine Grosbeak
American Dipper

Sunday, June 2, 2013

From Palmer to Seward; Two Days on the Road

The View from Arctic Valley Road
Friday and  Saturday were pretty awesome.  Most of it was car-birding: Drive for a while then stop and bird near the car.  The scenery was just spectacular.  I saw one "postcard" vista after another.  Majestic, snow-covered mountains towered above me, their peaks shrouded in clouds.  Entire valleys stretched out in front of me from my vantage point near the top of one mountain.  In one valley I encountered the most gorgeous, most peaceful spot imaginable.  And then I walked in snow just for the fun of it!

Gray Jay
Friday started out with a drive along Arctic Valley Road near Anchorage. The road climbs high above a military base, and I didn't stop until I reached a spot just below the tree line.  The birding was slow in terms of numbers, but I found some really nice birds anyway.  In one spot was a Fox Sparrow, in another was a Gray Jay.  And high above the mountain top was a Golden Eagle, a bird I have long wished to see.

The drive was memorable for another reason.  I was wandering up the road about 50 yards from my car.  I looked back and there was something I didn't recognize ... a big dog?   a small deer?  I raised my binoculars to get a better look.  Holy mackerel!  It was a lynx!  A gorgeous cat from the same genus as the bobcat.  But it's a bit funky looking.  It has no tail and big floppy feet (the better to walk across snow).  It also has two little ear tufts that seemed to curl a little.  Really cool!  But all of these details occurred to me only later.  I have to admit that two thoughts hit me almost simultaneously.  First was, "Wow, that's a great looking cat!"  That was followed immediately by, "That big, honking cat is between me and my car.  This could get serious!"  Fortunately, the cat looked at me and thought, "Boring!" before sauntering away.

Boreal Chickadee in the center of the picture
Next I headed out to the Eagle River Nature Center.  I had no idea what to expect from this place.  I had just heard that it was "pretty."  Understatement of the century.  It was spectacular.  The river cuts a path through the Chugach Mountains, creating an idyllic setting at the bottom of the trail.  I sat in one spot for a while watching the Violet-green Swallows put on a fabulous aerial display and enjoying the serenity.  Then I heard a weird sound from just over my shoulder -- Boreal Chickadee!!  Next I wandered down the path to an observation platform.  It was incredibly beautiful and peaceful.  I thought I could spend forever sitting there enjoying the view.  Then I thought, "Wait, it snows A LOT here ... Never mind."

The day ended with a trip up to Palmer and along Maud Road to its end at a lovely lake.  Again, the birding was slow, but I did get a nice look at an Alder Flycatcher.  And at the end of the road on the mountain way above me I spotted a flock of Dall Sheep.  Very cool.

Harlequin Duck
On Saturday I made the drive down to Seward.  What could easily have been a two hour drive turned into an all-day affair as I stopped in numerous places along the way to bird and to soak up the scenery.  Unfortunately, I also got a big smudge on the lens of my camera that I didn't notice until evening, so many of my photos didn't turn out as well as I had hoped.  Still, it was a terrific day and it held a few great birds along the way.  First was a Harlequin Duck climbing up the rocks above the cold waters of Turnagain Arm.  A bit later I found another Harlequin that was easier to photograph as well as an American Dipper, both beneath a bridge over Indian Creek.

American Dipper
A bit later, I finally made the turn and moved onto the Kenai Peninsula.  At one pull-off area I was thrilled to hear the air filled with bird calls.  Among them was a Boreal Owl.  I heard it repeatedly and got one fleeting glimpse as it flew off its perch and disappeared from view.  There were also Fox Sparrows, Varied Thrushes, Hermit Thrushes, a Pine Siskin, Wilson's Warblers, Yellow Warblers, and Wilson's Snipe.  Fabulous!

Farther down the road another pull-off presented even more gorgeous views and a terrific bird - a Golden-crowned Sparrow!  Could this day get any better?  Well, yes, it could.  A pond just south of the junction with Alaska 9 produced a Barrow's Goldeneye.  Another pond held some Red-necked Grebes and a nesting pair of Trumpeter Swans.  The Goldeneye (left) and the Swan (right) are pictured below.

The day ended with a terrific pizza at Christo's Palace in Seward.  The waiter was a fellow birder who gave me a few hints on some good local birds.  But I'll have to save them for another blog.

Barrow's Goldeneye
Trumpeter Swans at their nest