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.