There’s No Place Like Nome

Our visit to Nome has started out even better than we had hoped!

First, the flight up from Anchorage is only about an hour and 20 minutes and it passes over some of the most awesome scenery on the face of the planet. So that was a really cool way to start the trip.

The Alaska Range as seen from the plane.

Next, we arrived to temperatures in the upper 50s and low 60s, a balmy day by Nome standards, and the bright sunshine lasted until long after we went to bed at 11 pm. In fact, with the long periods of twilight before sunrise and after sunset, it never gets dark at all at this time of year. It takes a little getting used to, but it is cool to be in the land of the midnight sun. (Actually, we are not quite in the area of 24 hour days but it’s close enough.)

Reality hit this morning as we awoke to a cold and drizzly day, but the birds and other wildlife more than made up for it. Our first full day in Nome produced three new species for the 8 to 800 list. It has been a very long time indeed since I have had three new species in a day! (We were not actually in Nome itself. We drove out of town on the Teller Road for our first birding trip.)

Speaking of new species, our first lifer was actually a mammal and we saw it even before we had left the proximity of Nome. We saw two small herds of Musk Oxen on the side of the road as we headed up toward Teller. The light was very dim and my photos came out blurry, but the baby Musk Oxen in the second herd were so cute I just had to include a bad photo here.

Shortly after seeing the oxen we had another first. We saw our first Brown Bear for this trip. It saw us first and was on the run before I could get any photos, but it was nice to finally see a grizzly.

Birding started out as quite a challenge. It was cold and rainy and not much of anything was out and singing. We did manage to spot our first Gray-cheeked Thrush of the trip and there were plenty of Golden-crowned Sparrows, Wilson’s Warblers, and redpolls flying around but we could not find any of our target species.

Soon, however, we climbed up into some higher tundra and started to see quite a few Willow Ptarmigan. We kept hoping to spot a Rock Ptarmigan and after an almost imperceptible change in the habitat (less shrubs and more grass), they suddenly appeared. In the next few minutes we had seen several as we continued up the road ,,, and then they were gone. Willow Ptarmigan dominated the scene once again. So, just one short stretch of road produced our first lifer bird for the day.

We had met some birders the day of our arrival and they told us of having seen an Olive-backed Pipit along the road to Wooley Lagoon. We made our turn onto that road shortly after seeing the Rock Ptarmigan and were almost immediately greeted by our second lifer, a Northern Wheatear. We knew to look for this bird here because of its mention in our bird-finding guide for Alaska written by George West. This book has been out of print for some time and we had not had much success with it up to this point, but in this case it was spot on. Unfortunately, the dark, cloudy skies conspired to make my pictures decidedly less than spot on, but they show the field marks of this bird quite well.

We dipped on the pipit but toward the end of the road, as we approached the edge of the lagoon, we had a fly-by by three godwits. We got a good enough look but it took some time to determine that they were Bar-tailed Godwits, our third, and final, lifer for the day.

The rest of our trip up to Teller produced lots of Long-tailed Jaegers and a bunch of Hoary Redpolls but there were no other new birds for our trip list.

As the day wore on we grew tired of fighting the wind and rain and gave up on our search for bluethroats and wagtails and decided to head back to the B&B. We are very fortunate to have found the Angel Camp By the Sea B&B. It is truly a delight, especially after spending the last six or seven weeks living in our Sprinter van!

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s Off to Nome We Go!

We spent a few days in the Mat-Su Borough, the area north of Anchorage where the Matanuska and Susitna Rivers come together, and made a foray into the alpine tundra at Hatcher Pass. Unfortunately, we have nothing new to report in the way of birds.

The Hatcher Pass Road is usually closed at this time of year, but the below average snowfall of the past winter means that most of the road is open this year. We were able to drive far up into the tundra looking for ptarmigan. The gate at the Summit Lake Recreation Area was closed, however.

The alpine tundra was gorgeous. (I wish I could show you a picture or two, but we have already packed everything for the Nome trip, including the laptop, so I’m writing this on the Kindle which is a bit of a pain when it comes to posting pictures). We did a couple of fairly long searches for Rock Ptarmigan but came up empty. Hiking over the rocks and tundra vegetation was exhausting, but we did get to see arctic ground squirrel and hoary marmot for our trouble.

Renee thought she saw a Northern Wheatear and that possibility kept our hopes up for quite a while. The habitat of barren, rocky hillsides and tundra vegetation was perfect, but we were never able to verify the sighting.

On our way back from our last hike in search of ptarmigan, we finally saw a pair of male Willow Ptarmigan engaged in some type of dispute. One bird was chasing the other back and forth over a distance of at least a couple of hundred yards. The birds would appear, flying a few feet above the ground, from behind a low hill and then disappear over a rise into a small valley. A few moments later they would come up out of the Valley and retrace their path. At first they were too far away for us to hear if they were calling. But, at one point, they flew within about 50 yards of us and we did not hear any calls. They never came close enough for close observation or photos.

The rest of our stay in the Mat-Su area was spent exploring the deciduous forest habitats along streams and lakshores. The weather was very warm and we expected to see lots of returning breeding birds. There were some, especially a nice influx of Northern Waterthrush, but most of the birds of summer still have eluded us. For example, we have yet to see a flycatcher in Alaska. Timing is everything, and we are still too early, despite what the thermometer says.

Tomorrow, we head to Nome for 10 days. We hope our timing there is better.

Since leaving Seward we have not had much to report.

Hence, no reports. ;-)

We have spent some time doing photography and general sightseeing and have been on a mission to find and photograph a bear. So far, that mission has been a bust. Bears are heavily hunted here and some of the local folks we have talked to say they are not surprised that we haven’t seen them. The season for bears is always open and it is legal to shoot up to four each year, including three black bears and one grizzly. Still, we have not given up our search.

One place in particular looked good, the hills beyond Hope. (I just had to use that phrase.) Hope is a small mining ghost town on the shores of Cook Inlet. It sits at sea level, but the surrounding mountains rise to over 1500 feet and reach into the alpine tundra. What better place for bear?

Indeed, on our way up to the high-country campsite we saw several piles of bear scat on the road. We drove in as far as we dared on the access road to an old gold mine and hiked still farther, but no bears were found. In the evening, we scanned the hillsides and spotted a moose feeding high on the slope, but no bears.

We camped by the road and settled in, hoping to look some more in the morning. But, during the night other vehicles went by and we even heard some gunshots. Early in the morning a truckload of fully camouflaged hunters went by. Obviously, we were not the only ones who thought the area was good for bears!

Needless to say, we left that area early and headed for less disturbed locales. Unfortunately, we were fairly close to Anchorage, at the start of the King Salmon run, and in the run-up to Memorial Day weekend. Less disturbed locales were very hard to find! Those we did find were not in bear country. Our search for bears will have to wait for another time.

We have been having trouble with our phone service and our internet and we are heading into some fairly remote areas, so you may not hear from us very much. Plus, we have extended our trip to Nome to include 10 days instead of eight. We’re not sure how much connectivity we’ll have during that time.

So, if you don’t see much in the way of blogging from us, be patient and we’ll try to get caught up as soon as we can.

Resurrection Bay and the Chiswell Islands

Our stay in Homer turned out to be mostly about shorebirds. Our first couple of days in Seward has been about seabirds, including three new lifers for the 8 to 800 list!

Seward is very different from Homer. We have seen almost no shorebirds in Seward whereas Homer had thousands. We saw almost no puffins and few murrelets in Homer whereas Seward has produced thousands. Seward’s impression on us has been helped tremendously by the fact that we were able to take our scheduled boat trip out to the seabird colonies, whereas our trip from Homer was cancelled. Also, Seward seems a bit more upscale, with better city campgrounds and more options of things to do, whereas Homer had some dreary city campgrounds on their spit and their life revolved almost exclusively around fishing. If you are coming to Alaska and you can’t visit both towns, make Seward your must see destination.

Make a trip (or trips) to the Chiswell Islands part of your must see list as well. Our trip was excellent. We saw lots of whales, plenty of Steller’s sea lions and harbor seals, and many, many birds. We even saw some interesting land-based animals, including black bear and mountain goat. Our only complaint about the trip was that it was conducted from a very large vessel and it was hard to know what was being seen where. For example, I got a fly-by glimpse of a Thick-billed Murre and never knew (until it was far too late) that several of the birds were seen sitting on the rocks on the opposite side of the boat.

We had a great day for the trip. In fact, the weather was too nice. There was too little wind to suit the tubenoses that were on my list. We got exceedingly long looks at what might have been storm-petrels in the Gulf of Alaska, but there were no confirmed sightings of any petrels, shearwaters, fulmars, etc. during the entire trip. The good weather and lack of swell made it very easy to see all the other birds that we did get close to, and there were plenty of them.

Our favorites were the puffins. At a rocky island called the beehive, there were thousands of Horned and Tufted Puffins buzzing about as thick as bees. The Horned Puffins were a lifer for both of us and we got excellent views and even a few good photographs.

Along the way between bird and mammal hotspots we saw some Red-faced Cormorants. We had seen one in Homer but it was a non-breeding bird and we put it on our BVDlist. This time we saw some birds in breeding plumage. They were moving fast and far away so I did not get any good pictures, but it’s always nice to clear up a BVD bird.

Speaking of mammals, our favorite of those was the Steller’s sea lion. One bull in particular put on a howling show to scare the boat away from his females!

At other points of the trip we saw thousands of gulls nesting on an island, thousands of Black-legged Kittiwakes clinging precariously to their thin nesting ledges, and rafts of murres and puffins floating at sea.

In one spot, as the captain maneuvered the boat for a better look at some puffins, he mentioned that the area was a good spot for Parakeet Auklets. Almost immediately, I spotted a pair of small, gray alcids with orange bills diving to avoid the boat and a small group took flight from just in front of the us. I fired off a few wild shots with the camera to confirm what I was seeing and the blurry shot below is the best I could do. It’s enough to confirm a second lifer for the trip.

One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to the face of Holgate Glacier. This is a tidal glacier that calves ice into the sea. We arrived at a low tide and there was little activity but the glacier was an impressive sight with its 300 to 400 foot wall of towering ice. The meltwater below a tidal glacier is prime habitat for Kittlitz’s Murrelet and I saw a pair of murrelets flush in front of the boat as we approached. Unfortunately I could not confirm the id.

Our return trip from the glacier did not produce much new (After all, I already had two lifers from the trip.) until near the end when the captain heard a report of a pod of killer whales. He dropped everything and headed that way and, sure enough, we got a nice long look at several orcas.

The next morning, as we were walking on the rocky beach looking for sea life, we noticed a group of murrelets feeding fairly close to shore. After a while we saw that there were four pairs of birds and one lone straggler. We studied all the birds with the scope and it became obvious that the lone straggler was somehow “different” from the rest. Careful examination convinced us that the differences included a smaller bill and white outer tail feathers. I took some photos but the lighting was horrible and we could not “prove” the white tail feathers, but the smaller bill was enough for us to conclude that we had finally found a Kittlitz’s Murrelet. None of the photos is good enough to show here, so you’ll just have to take our word for it. Haha!

All-in-all, our first few days in the Seward area have been spectacular.

Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival Wrap-up

Despite our early fears that wintry conditions might prevail, the shorebirds arrived for the festival right on time. Unfortunately, so did some nasty weather.

We saw a very good variety of birds, including a couple of lifers. There were some truly spectacular assemblages of birds and we saw and were able to photograph some species of which we had only glimpses before.

But, (There’s always a but.) I fell far short of the number of new birds I had expected to see. Our best chance for new birds was the pelagic trip to the Barren Islands that was cancelled due to weather. Plus, we did not see any species from any of the festival boat trips we took that were different from those we saw from shore on our own. In short, the festival events did not produce anything new for us. That was very disappointing.

Still, there were plenty of highlights from the week+ that we spent in Homer. Two new birds for the 8 to 800 Life List were Red-faced Cormorant, on which I already reported, and Aleutian Tern. We spent a great deal of time looking for the tern for seven days and missed it every time. Then, on our last morning in Homer, we found four of them! It is likely that they had just not arrived in any big numbers during most of our week. I did not get any great photos of them, but the following image shows the field marks well. Note the “headlight” of white on the forehead and the dark bar on the trailing edge of the secondaries as seen from below.

Another highlight was the large flocks of birds that we saw. We have never seen so many shorebirds at once! At some times,Mud Bay was simply crawling with thousands and thousands of peeps. Flocks of Surfbirds numbered in the thousands as well. Not to be outdone by the shorebirds, Common Murres congregated by the thousands near Gull Island. The following two pictures show a small sampling of these flocks.

Mixed in with the murre flocks was a scattering of Tufted Puffins. One of the photographic highlights of the festival was getting a close shot of this incredible bird in its full breeding plumage.

There were plenty of other photo opportunities, especially during the breaks in the nasty weather and immediately following the festival when the sun made extended appearances. (Full sunshine is rare in Homer!) The photos that follow show a small selection of the birds we saw.

and we can’t forget the Sea Otters!

 

The final highlight was Renee’s lifer Lapland Longspur, or should I say her lifer flock of 200 longspurs? We had missed Lappies during our Big Year and Renee was not with me when I added them to the 8 to 800 list later, so we had been looking for them for quite some time. There had been several reports of them during the festival but it was not until we had left Homer and were heading north that we stopped at Anchor Point and found a flock in the dune grasses along the beach. They were in full breeding plumage and Renee got great looks at them. I was even able to get one to sit still long enough for a photo.

All-in-all, despite the disappointing number of lifers for the 8 to 800 list, the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival was a fun and educational birding experience.

The Best Laid Plans …

No matter how much you try to plan nothing is guaranteed.

For us, the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival was really a seabird festival. Our targets were eiders, alcids, tubenoses, etc. In fact, we did not commit to coming to the festival until we had made sure we had reservations for as many pelagic and bay trips as we could. One trip in particular was our top priority, the 100 mile round trip to the Barren Islands.

Would you care to guess which of these trips was cancelled? That’s right, our main reason for driving up early through the freezing temperatures of the Yukon, through the lack of wildlife of winter, was cancelled due to a forecast of heavy seas. To make matters worse, the festival had no provisions for a rain date. We are just out of luck.

This setback will make it very hard to reach my goal of 20 – 25 new species in Alaska. We might be able to arrange for alternative trips later on, but not at a good price. The budget will take a hit or the list will.

Other than that major downer, things are looking up at the festival. The same weather system that cancelled our trip also dropped thousands of new birds, mostly shorebirds, into the area. I was even able to get a few good photos.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any more lifers yet.

Another Up and Down Day

Weather and lack of information about the local birds were downers but new lifers and the arrival of decent flocks of sandpipers were uppers.

First, the lifers. The day started with some rain and we found a spot at the far end of the Homer Spit where we could sit in the car and watch Kachemak Bay in comfort. The bay was quite a distance away due to low tide. (Tides here average about 20 feet and huge stretches of beach are exposed at the low tide.) A cormorant was feeding in the bay and despite the rain we had to get out of the van to set up the scope. Almost as soon as we did, Michael spotted a Tufted Puffin. This was a lifer for Renee and she jumped out of the van to see it.

While watching the puffin, we lost track of the cormorant. Fortunately, the rain stopped and we could hike down to the water’s edge to find it again. Once there, we were much closer and could find and study the bird quite well. It was a non-breeding Red-faced Cormorant; a lifer for both of us! This brings the Eight to 800 list to 702 species.

After that great start to the day, the weather turned nastier and we quit birding to check in at the registration desk at the Kachemak Bay Birding Festival. We tried to get more info to help us find some of the local specialty birds there and at the Islands and Oceans Visitor Center. Surprisingly, neither the festival nor the wildlife refuge had a checklist available nor any info on expected arrival dates of the migrant or summer resident birds. It may be too harsh to say this, but it seems the festival timing is more about extending the tourist season than taking advantage of natural phenomena!

The wind was howling and Michael figured we might have a chance to see a pelagic bird out in the bay under those conditions, so we headed back out to our earlier vantage point. No storm-petrel or shearwater made an appearance but a large flock of kittiwakes was feeding on bait fish near shore. Gulls, grebes, loons, murres, and even sea otters rounded out the feeding frenzy. It was quite a show.

On the way back to our RV park we stopped at Mud Bay for what seemed like the umpteenth time. Mud Bay is supposed to be a shorebird hotspot but we had only seen one flock of shorebirds there despite passing and glassing it multiple times. This time was different. There were several large flocks of birds. Most of them were fairly far away and we did not spot anything new to add to our trip list but it was nice to see lots of shorebirds … finally.

On that positive note, we’re ready to start the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival tomorrow.

Home Sweet Homer

We have arrived in Homer a couple of days before the bird festival. Here’s an update on the last few days.

For a few days we were still experiencing wintry birding more than spring-like, even though the weather was like spring. At least that was true for the inland areas. But lately, and especially along the coast on the Kenai Peninsula, it has felt more like spring. The birds have started to catch up to us as they migrate north!

We have continued to add new species to our list and we now have 315 birds since leaving the RGV. We even added a new lifer, the Boreal Owl. That makes 701.

The story of the owl is another case of following a tip from a birder. We have met very few other birders on the trip, so when we ran into George and Beverly at Kenai NWR it was a welcome change. They provided us with some very good info to help us plan our next few days. Among that info was some hints on where to find Boreal Owls.

We drove to the Swanson River Road canoe landing and set up to wait for dark. That’s harder than it sounds up here. Between a very late sunset and a full moon, it was after 11 pm before it was getting dark enough to do some owling. At first, all we heard were Wilson’s Snipe. Their wing-winnowing sounds are easy to confuse with the call of an owl. We had been fooled before so we were very careful to weed out any snipe sounds from our possible owl calls. As it turned out, we were able to identify two separate Boreal Owls calling along a three mile long section of the road.

Other sites near Soldotna and the City of Kenai were a mixed bag. Some produced nice birds for us and others were dead. There were several new additions to the trip list, but there are still plenty of things we haven’t yet seen that we expected to have by now.

In Homer, we have had a good first impression but it is too early to give a report on that birding.

700 Species!

“My List” has just reached 700.

This is the list of all the species of birds I have been able to identify in the ABA area since January 1, 2012. “My List” is not an “official” list. Some of the species on “My List” are not ABA birds yet, and some will probably never be, but “My List” has them included. That’s because it’s “My List” and I can do what I want.

There are many stories associated with the list but almost all of them boil down to three main ways of finding birds: research a species and go find it, ask someone and get directions to a species, or get lucky. The first method has not worked out for us very well on this trip yet, but the second and third methods added the two species I needed to reach 700.

Species number 699 was the Willow Ptarmigan. I got directions to the great ptarmigan spot that I wrote about in the last post from one of just two other birders that we have met since leaving Washington. It was very fortunate for us that we met him and followed his advice on where to look for ptarmigans.

Species number 700 was the Bohemian Waxwing. We had been looking for waxwings for a long time without success. I finally found them completely by accident and dumb luck. A flock of about 20 Bohemian waxwings was using a water-filled pothole in the road as a source of drinking water. It was just luck that we drove by just as one of the birds was landing to get a drink.

I hope to see about 20 more new species on this trip, whether by luck, hard work, or by getting help. Wish me luck!

Canada Birding Update … and into Alaska

We have made our way through Canada and into Alaska. Now that we have internet coverage again I can update you on the progress of our adventure.

Our trip through British Columbia and the Yukon Territory was a scenic spectacular full of snow-capped mountains, huge expanses of forest, frozen lakes, and sparkling rivers. Birding was good but not nearly as spectacular as the scenery. As I have said in several earlier posts, we are just too early in the season for many of the birds we had hoped to see. As we continued north through theYukon, we did manage to find most of the “winter species” we had missed in B.C. Common Redpolls and White-winged Crossbills became common and easy to see all of a sudden after we had been expecting them for a week. Northern Shrike finally made an appearance and we caught up to the waterfowl migration and saw hundreds of ducks, geese, and swans at Swan Haven near Whitehorse.

Our best birding day of the Canada portion of the trip was an excursion down the Haines Highway from Haines Junction to a section of alpine tundra. We had been told of this area by Jukka, a naturalist at Swan Haven. His description of the area included a phrase something along the lines of “the ptarmigan are so common it’s not a matter of whether you will see them but of how many you might hit with your car.” Given that, we just had to go see, even though it was about a 200 mile round-trip detour for us.

We were not disappointed. We saw about 50 Willow Ptarmigan and got a glimpse of what we thought was a Rock Ptarmigan (not confirmed for our list, however) in just a couple of hours.

The trip down through the Kluane National Park was equally rewarding. This area, along with sister parks in Alaska, comprises the single largest area of protected lands in the world. It is a magical place of north-country beauty and beasts.

The last 100 miles or so of the frozen Yukon was rather dull (We only added a fly-by Sharp-tailed Grouse to our list and had a close encounter with a Hawk Owl.)

but as we descended down into warmer, lower-elevation habitats in Alaska we immediately saw an increase in the numbers of birds and mammals at the edge of the road. Renee spotted a Great Gray Owl near a roadside pond while I was off photographing a moose and the area around our RV park was all a-twitter with the calls of crossbills, redpolls, and our first Gray Jay.

We continue west toward the Kenai Peninsula today. We still have a week before we need to be there so we’ll be doing a lot of exploring along the way.