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China 2016

View from The Bund on the overcast day we were there.

View from The Bund on the overcast day we were there.

“There are some birders,” said my son, Dave, as we walked along The Bund, a famous waterfront area in central Shanghai.  Birding is unusual in China, so I could hardly believe it, but two men and a woman had binoculars and scopes fixed on gulls in the river.  We walked up to them and introduced ourselves.  Surprisingly, I was familiar with Craig Brelsford, an American birder living in Shanghai with his wife, Elaine Du, and their friend and fellow birder, Michael Grunwell, from the Facebook group Birding China.  We all marveled at the coincidence of meeting there and had a great time talking about China, birds, websites (a common interest of Craig and Dave), and travel.  Elaine was surprised that Dave has been to Baoshan, in the western province of Yunnan, and they compared notes on their trips there.

Dave - all dressed up and ready for the awards presentation, the reason that we were in Shanghai.

Dave – all dressed up and ready for the awards presentation, the reason that we were in Shanghai.

I had arrived in China a week earlier, on March 4, for my fourth trip to visit my oldest son who has lived in Shenzhen since January 2008.  We were in Shanghai for one of Dave’s occasional jobs as an awards presenter for an organization similar to Guinness World Records.  The Chinese take these awards very seriously and about 200 people attended the presentation.  Three awards were given that day, including one for the world’s largest enamel floor.

Images of fish and other oceanic creatures were scattered about the beautiful blue and gold enamel floor.

Images of fish and other oceanic creatures were scattered about the beautiful blue and gold enamel floor.

Dave was done with his responsibilities shortly after noon, so we spent the afternoon exploring The Bund.  Craig and Michael showed me a little group of Black-headed Gulls that I hadn’t picked up with my binoculars and we talked about the identity of the big white-headed gulls, which Michael was confident were Mongolian Gulls.

Probable Mongolian Gull on the Huangpu River.

Probable Mongolian Gull on the Huangpu River.

Dave and I had planned to go to Shanghai’s Century Park the next morning and Craig confirmed that our plan was a good one.  He said that I could expect to find Pale Thrush there and I was pleased that I did find one right away.  Life bird number one for this trip!  A short time later Dave pointed out a bird perched on a branch of a nearby tree.  When I started taking photographs, a young Chinese woman walked right over to where my camera was pointed and flushed the bird.  All I’d seen was a crest like a tit or bunting and yellow on the throat.  But that was enough to identify the bird as a Yellow-throated Bunting, another life bird.

The most interesting bird at Century Park was this Red-flanked Bluetail.  After working with a millipede for quite a while, he finally swallowed it whole.

Red-flanked Bluetail in Shanghai's Century Park.

Red-flanked Bluetail in Shanghai’s Century Park.

Dave and I did a little more sightseeing, had a nice dinner, and flew back to Shenzhen the next morning.

Dim sum for Dave, Amber, and me.

Dim sum for Dave, Amber, and me.

My previous trips included serious birding; this time I focused on spending time with Dave and my three-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter, Amber.  A bonus was meeting Dave’s girlfriend, Rachel, and her family.

I had arrived on a Friday evening, just in time to join Rachel’s family for their traditional Saturday dim sum the next day.  The American equivalent of dim sum would be a family style meal consisting exclusively of shared appetizers. Dim sum originated in Guangzhou (formerly called Canton), just an hour from Shenzhen.  It just may be my favorite type of Chinese food; I love trying so many different dishes.  Food is an important part of Chinese culture and there is an abundance of it at every meal.

Making dumplings with Amber and Rachel's father.  It's harder than I expected.  Mine barely held together when they were cooked.

Making dumplings with Amber and Rachel’s father.  It’s harder than I expected.  Mine barely held together when they were cooked.

Shortly after we got back to Shenzhen, I spent a weekend with Amber and her mom, Trissie.  We went to Evergreen Resort, a place we had visited in 2014, but this time we stayed overnight.  The resort has lots of outside activities for kids, but it was hard to get Amber away from the hanging bridge.  She is absolutely fearless and walked back and forth on the bridge until dark.

Amber and Trissie crossing the hanging bridge at Evergreen Resort.

Amber and Trissie crossing the hanging bridge at Evergreen Resort.

After the weekend, I was back at Dave’s and we quickly settled into a routine similar to my last visit.  I usually went for a walk to nearby Shenzhen Central Park by myself each morning.  Dave, Amber, and I did something together in the afternoon, and then Rachel joined us for dinner.  Dave is the primary caregiver for his daughter and he works from home, so we had a lot of flexibility with our schedule.

Amber loves climbing trees.

Amber loves climbing trees.

The park was usually busy with people as the Chinese walk, talk, sit, dance, and generally enjoy their parks.  Between the people and obsessive cleaning up, I thought that I might not see many birds.  Still, I managed to see 30 species in Shenzhen Central Park.  I can recognize the songs or calls of only a handful of birds, so I couldn’t bird by ear like I do at home and had to actually see the birds.

Sweeping up fallen flowers in Shenzhen City Park. I have observed this "cleaning up" in all of Shenzhen's city parks.

Sweeping up fallen flowers in Shenzhen City Park. I have observed this “cleaning up” in all of Shenzhen’s city parks.

I was thrilled with Masked Laughingthrushes on my first visit to China.  I saw them again on my second visit.  By my third trip, I realized they were one of the most common birds in Guangdong Province.  Regardless, they are one of my favorites.

Masked Laughingthrush, a very common bird in Southern China.

Masked Laughingthrush, a very common bird in Southern China.

Asian Koels symbolize city birding in China for me.  I loved this proud, bold male singing from a treetop on the edge of the park with apartments in the background.

Asian Koels could be heard calling at nearly every park I visited in Shenzhen.

Asian Koels could be heard calling at nearly every park I visited in Shenzhen.

Unidentified damselfly.

Unidentified damselfly.

Dave and Rachel knew how much I loved going to parks, so they planned fun and interesting outings farther from home on the weekends.  Shenzhen may be the greenest city in China with its many gorgeous parks.  But in spite of much time spent outside, most Chinese seem rather removed from nature.  When we found this little damselfly, Rachel’s first reaction was “get it away from me!”  But, she saw my delight and was soon right there beside me getting as close as possible to get a photo with her iPhone.

Our most exciting nature find was these Clearwing Tiger Moths at Fairy Lake Botanical Garden.  We spent quite a bit of time admiring and photographing these mating moths.  We were on a narrow path and it wasn’t possible to pass us without seeing the objects of our attention.  These gorgeous creatures caught the interest of everyone who came by.

Clearwing Tiger Moths at Fairy Lake Botanical Garden, perhaps the nature highlight of the trip.

Clearwing Tiger Moths at Fairy Lake Botanical Garden, perhaps the nature highlight of the trip.

I was able to plan one day dedicated to birding.  Mike Kilburn, who had guided me for a day on my first trip in 2009, no longer works as a guide, but he generously invited me to join him for some birding in Hong Kong.  Since I had spent very little time in Hong Kong, Dave and I decided to go a day early and do some sightseeing.  We stayed in the area most tourists flock to, Tsim Sha Tsui in the central area of Kowloon.  We enjoyed walking the streets, Kowloon Park, and the Science Museum.

The next day Mike took us to Lantau Island, the largest island in Hong Kong, which is less densely populated than the other Hong Kong islands and primarily consists of mountainous terrain.  First we went to Tai O, a three-centuries-old fishing village which is famous for its waterways, stilt houses, fishing boats and scenery.

Stilt houses at Tai O.

Stilt houses at Tai O.

This was where I got my third and last life bird of the trip, Gray-faced Buzzard, when five birds flew over.

Next, Mike took us to Pui O, a more agricultural area on Lantau Island, which has a resident population of water buffaloes.  Pui O is one of the few remaining areas where they still occur in Hong Kong.

Water Buffalo and Cattle Egret at Pui O.

Water Buffalo and Cattle Egret at Pui O.

I had my best look ever at Intermediate Egret here, which is just like its name suggests – an egret intermediate in size between Little Egret and Great Egret.

Intermediate Egret at Pui O.

Intermediate Egret at Pui O.

It was great to catch up with Mike and especially to hear about his new job as Senior Manager, Environment, Air Port Authority of Hong Kong.  I was impressed that the airport had such a position and knew that no one could be more effective in that role than Mike.  After an enjoyable day, it was all too soon to thank Mike and head back to Shenzhen.

The last few days were filled with family time and visits to the nearby Shenzhen Central Park.  I was fascinated by three White-shouldered Starlings that arrived at the park just before my trip ended.  I had seen them once before (during the Zoothera bird tour that was part of my 2012 trip), but I found these by myself.  That always makes birds special to me and I had time to really study these birds.

White-shouldered Starling. Many species of birds were attracted to these trees with huge flowers.

White-shouldered Starling. Many species of birds were attracted to these trees with huge flowers.

I was in China for nearly the entire month of March, but it went quickly.  After four trips, it now feels familiar and comfortable.  I miss Dave and Amber and the birds of China, but not the seven flights of stairs to Dave’s apartment.  I expect another trip is in my future, but for now it is good to be home and back to even more familiar and comfortable surroundings.  More photos can be found in my Flickr albums China 2016 – Birds & Butterflies and China 2016 – People  & Places.

Amber the explorer.

Amber the explorer.

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Diane and I headed to Kenai after a couple of wonderful days in Homer.  This area is the heart of salmon fishing country.  At a couple of river crossings, the fishermen were standing shoulder to shoulder in the river in their hip waders.  We took a short detour through Anchor Point SRA on our way to Kenai and we found these gulls on the river beside Slidehole Campground.  In Alaska, Glaucous-winged x Herring Gull hybrids are common and I suspect that at least one of these birds is a hybrid.  Regardless of their identity, the birds were beautiful on their nest on the rock in the middle of the river.

Nesting gulls at Anchor Point SRA

Nesting gulls at Anchor Point SRA

We found this Northwestern Crow when we stopped for gas.  It looks just like an American Crow, but it’s a different species, so it adds to a birder’s life list.

Northwestern Crow

Northwestern Crow

We also had time that afternoon for a stop at Kenai NWR and a walk on the trail behind the headquarters in Soldotna.  This part of the state was quite different from Homer and we found the wooded trail just beautiful.  There was much lush mossy vegetation like that in the photo below.

Along the Kenai NWR headquarters trail

Along the Kenai NWR headquarters trail

Early the nest morning, July 1, we met our guide for the day, Ken Tarbox.  Ken and his wife Connie are largely responsible for the Kenai Peninsula Wildlife Viewing Trail Guide.  Ken is also one of the friendliest and most generous people we have met.  He told us that he likes to go out with visiting birders whenever his schedule allows.  Ken took us to all the birding hot spots around Kenai and Soldotna – the river flats, viewing platforms, the landfill, and even his yard and a friend’s yard.  We felt like we’d made a new friend and hope to go birding with Ken again.

Bonaparte’s Gulls were one of my favorites that day.  We watched this adult swimming and foraging by plunging into a little stream.  Here it is with the little fish that it caught.

Bonaparte's Gull

Bonaparte’s Gull

And, I saw my first juvenile Bonaparte’s Gull.

Juvenile Bonaparte's Gull

Juvenile Bonaparte’s Gull

One of our target birds for this part of the state was Spruce Grouse.  On our way to Seward the next morning, Diane and I drove Skilak Lake Road and enjoyed Pine Grosbeaks on the side of the road and Common Loons and Common Goldeneyes on the lakes, but we failed to find a grouse.  We decided that this was another good reason to go birding again in Alaska.

Ken had given us several tips on where to find American Dipper.  We did not find any at Tern Lake, but we found this cooperative bird at the next location we tried, Ptarmigan Creek Campground.

American Dipper

American Dipper

Diane had found the adorable and comfy Abode Well Cabins for our stay in Seward.  In addition to being clean and cute, birds were literally right outside our door.

Our Abode Well cabin near Seward

Our Abode Well cabin near Seward

Just a couple of blocks away was a yard with juvenile Varied Thrushes.  They were fairly easy to see with our binoculars, but they hid in the grass just well enough to make getting a photo a challenge.

Juvenile Varied Thrush

Juvenile Varied Thrush

There were also beautiful butterflies and wildflowers near our cabin.  This is an Arctic White butterfly on fireweed.

Arctic White butterfly on fireweed

Arctic White butterfly on fireweed

On July 3, after a little birding near our cabin neighborhood, we ventured into town.  Seward’s population of 2,500 swells to about 30,000 for the Independence Day festivities.  Main Street is completely blocked off to traffic and the streets fill with people.  Most come to run in or watch the Mt. Marathon Race, which has quite an interesting history.  According to legend, it began with two old guys arguing about whether it was possible to run up and down the rather steep Mount Marathon in less than an hour.  The first official race was in 1915 and it has since become an important part of the July 4th celebration in Seward.

Seward Harbor

Seward Harbor

We drove Lowell Point Road, which runs along the edge of the harbor, where we enjoyed dozens of gulls, a couple of Harlequin Ducks, and Pigeon Guillemots.  We drove the road a couple of times, hoping to get close enough to the Marbled Murrelet to get a photo.  We had stopped at the end of the road closest to town and were watching the gulls.  And, then things started happening so fast that I’m not entirely certain exactly what happened, but here’s how I think it went.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

A group of about eight young people were standing about 20 feet from where we were, also watching the birds.  Suddenly there were two Bald Eagles right in front of us.  One of the eagles caught a fish, the other tried to steal it, and the fish was dropped.  One eagle flew away.  One of the young men picked up the fish and threw it for the eagle.  The eagle swooped in to within 10-20 feet from all of us, but missed the fish.  This happened several times, the young man throwing the fish and the eagle attempting to catch it.  Excitement and enthusiastic shouts filled the air.  With one throw, the eagle came in especially close and the young man shouted “Hello America!”  And, we couldn’t imagine a more American place in the county than Seward, Alaska, on that gorgeous sunny Independence Day eve.

Shelley and Diane enjoying a seafood dinner

Shelley and Diane enjoying a seafood dinner

After a delicious dinner with a view of Seward Harbor at Ray’s Waterfront Restaurant, we ended the day with a drive on Nash Road to see the family of Trumpeter Swans that are regulars there.

Trumpter Swan family

Trumpter Swan family

The next morning it was time to head to the Anchorage Airport again, this time to fly home.  I will forever be grateful for 28 summer days in Alaska, truly the “trip of a lifetime.”  And, I’m especially grateful for the last week with Diane on the Kenai Peninsula.

Bald Eagle in tree

Bald Eagle

This is the sixth and last post about my trip to Alaska.  The other posts are:

Alaska 2015: There’s no place like Nome
Alaska 2015: The Pit Stop is Cancelled
Alaska 2015: Kenai Fjords and Denali National Park
Alaska 2015: To the Top of the World
Alaska 2015: Bird Nest Habitat

The birding trip with Bill Drummond and Dave Hursh was great, but it was rigorous with early starts and no down time.  I found myself looking forward more and more to the relaxing week with Diane on the Kenai Peninsula.  I didn’t expect to get any additional life birds, but it would be wonderful to spend time with a friend and we wouldn’t have to get up at 5:00 AM every morning.  After Diane and I both arrived at the Anchorage airport on June 27, she from Minneapolis and me from Barrow, we spent the afternoon birding close to the hotel.

To Homer and Seward

The next morning we set out for Homer.  It was only a little over four hours, but we had all day.  Our first stop was at Potter’s Marsh just outside of Anchorage, where the highlight was a Greater White-fronted Goose, a life bird for Diane.

Greater White-fronted Goose

Greater White-fronted Goose

We could have stayed there all day, but after a few hours, we got back on the road and continued on to the Kenai Peninsula.

Kenai Peninsula

The drive to Homer was breathtaking and ended with a warm welcome at Paula’s Place, our bed-and-breakfast home for the next two days.  We had the entire beautiful and comfortable lower floor to ourselves.  Paula’s warmth and hospitality made us want to stay forever.

Paula's Place, Homer, Alaska

Paula’s Place, Homer, Alaska

The following morning, June 29, was one of the best of the entire trip.  We spent the morning at Mossy Kilcher’s Seaside Farm.  It’s a real working farm with a hostel and guest cabins.  The place had a hippie atmosphere which made it feel a little like magically stepping back into the 1960’s.  Underlying it all was an incredible respect and love for all the animals who call the farm home.  We were especially touched by a very old horse who was given a large enclosure, food, and loving care even though he was too old to ride.

Seaside Farm

Seaside Farm

Mossy spent some time with us and we enjoyed meeting her as much as seeing her farm and birds.

Mossy and Shelley

Mossy Kilcher and me

She amazed us by knowing every bird and it’s history.  She pointed out one singing Fox Sparrow and told us where his nest was last year as well as this year.  She recognizes each individual bird by subtle differences in his song.  Mossy protects these birds by not allowing free-roaming cats or dogs on her property.

Bird Nest Habitat at Seaside Farm

Seaside Farm

We were delighted by baby birds everywhere.  Mossy told us that many Alaskans think of wild celery as a weed and cut it down, but she lets it grow because it’s good bird habitat.  We caught this pretty fledgling Hermit Thrush flitting around under wild celery.

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush

We were also treated to our best looks ever at Golden-crowned Sparrows.  Below is a cute baby followed by a photo of it with a parent.

Golden-crowned juvie

Juvenile Golden-crowned Sparrow

Golden-crowned Sparrows

Golden-crowned Sparrows

After spending the entire morning at Mossy’s Seaside Farm, we tore ourselves away to check out some other birding spots near Homer.  After lunch, we went to Beluga Slough where we enjoyed a pair of Sandhill Cranes with their young colt.

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

Song Sparrows are common across North America, but the sub-species in Alaska is much darker than those in other parts of the county.

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

We finished the day with dinner and a drive down the 4-mile Homer Spit, a world-famous birding hot spot.  The shorebirds for which it’s best known had passed through in May, but in June there were still many birds including thousands of gulls.  The photo below shows a flock of Black-legged Kittiwakes, a species we saw all over Alaska.

Black-legged Kittiwakes

Black-legged Kittiwakes

The Glaucous-winged Gulls in Homer were very accommodating photographic subjects.

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull

Diane and I fell into bed that night tired and happy after an amazing first day in Homer.  We were up early the next morning for our boat trip with Karl Stoltzfus, owner and operator of Bay Excursions.  Karl is a serious birder and the local expert on Kachemak Bay wildlife. His small yellow boat was perfect for getting close to the birds. 

The Surfbird’s golden highlights glowed in the sun.

Surfbird

Surfbird

Sea otters were so cute floating on their backs.

Sea Otter

Sea Otter

It was great to get an up-close look at a pretty Black Guillemot.

Black Guillemot

Black Guillemot

And, while I’d seen many Common Murres in Alaska, we got closest to them on Karl’s boat trip.

Common Murres

Common Murres

The three-hour Kachemak Bay trip was perfect.  Karl stayed close enough to land that the seas were smooth, a blessing for those of us who get seasick.  And, it was long enough to visit Gull Island and other highlights of the bay.  Most exciting for me was getting a good look at Kittlitz’s Murrelet, my last life bird in Alaska.  I had missed this bird on the Northwestern Fjord trip out of Seward, but with his small boat and excellent skills Karl got much closer to the birds.  Karl is very knowledgeable about the local wildlife and he shows respect for them by stopping his engine at a good distance and letting the boat drift towards the birds, and sea otters, so as not to endanger or alarm them.

Diane and Karl

Diane and Karl aboard the Torega.

Our time in Homer had been wonderful, but we had more places on the Kenai Peninsula to visit, so we packed up and headed on towards our next destination after lunch.  On the drive to Kenai, Diane and I both talked about our dreams of visiting Homer again.

Next story about my trip – Alaska 2015: Hello America!

Our days in Alaska were going quickly and it was soon time for the last segment of the trip – Barrow, the northernmost city in the US.  Barrow is about 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle and roughly 1,300 miles south of the North Pole.  As you might expect, it was cold, and windy too, so we were often chilly even in our warmest winter wear.  Barrow is small with a population of about 4,400; approximately 61 percent are Iñupiat Eskimo.  Like Nome, no roads connect it to any other city in Alaska.

Anchorage to Barrow

Anchorage to Barrow

Our flight from Anchorage on June 25 arrived in the early afternoon and we checked into the Airport Inn hotel.  We started seeing birds before we even got on the bus to go birding.  A Snowy Owl was perched on a tall pole just down the street from the hotel.  Snow Buntings were nesting in a box attached to the side of the house across the street.  We learned that these nest boxes are common because Snow Buntings are thought to bring good luck.

To the Top of the World

Our main targets in Barrow were eiders (sea ducks) with all four of the world’s eider species breeding there.  For many birders, Spectacled Eider is the holy grail of waterfowl.  And, we did see them, although we had only distant scope views.  I did not get a photo, but here is Cindy Shults’ postcard.  More about Cindy later in this story.

Spectacled Eiders

Spectacled Eiders

The most beautiful duck turned out to be Steller’s Eider and we did get good looks at several pair of this species.

Steller's Eiders

Steller’s Eiders

On all of Bill Drummond’s trips, he has everyone vote for their top five birds using whatever criteria they choose.  Steller’s Eider was voted the top bird for our Alaska trip with Spectacled Eider coming in second.

We also saw our first Red Phalaropes of the trip, life birds for me.  Just like the Red-necked Phalaropes that we saw earlier in the trip, the females are more brightly colored than the males.

Red Phalarope

Red Phalarope

After seeing our target birds on the first day, we were free to just enjoy Barrow and more birds for the next day and a half.  During the days leading up to Barrow, trip co-leader Dave Hursh had enthusiastically talked about the booming of Pectoral Sandpipers and how special it would be to hear it.  I didn’t anticipate that it would be all that special.  But I loved the call when I heard it.  I failed to get a recording, but I found a good description of the call in the September 1898 issue of the periodical “Birds and All Nature.”

“The note is deep, hollow, and resonant, but at the same time liquid and musical, and may be represented by a repetition of the syllables too-u, too-u, too-u, too-u, too-u.”  The full text of this short article can be found here Pectoral Sandpiper.

Pectoral Sandpiper

Pectoral Sandpiper

Another bird that I really enjoyed seeing in Barrow was Long-billed Dowitcher.  While most of the others were scoping distant birds on the water, I enjoyed some quality time with the phalaropes and this bird.  I had never seen a Long-billed Dowitcher at such close range and I usually see dowitchers in winter plumage rather than breeding plumage.  Additionally, there was no chance of mistaken identification because the very similar Short-billed Dowitcher does not range as far north as Barrow.

Long-billed Dowitcher

Long-billed Dowitcher

The Barrow community is traditionally known as Ukpeagvik, “place where snowy owls are hunted.”  This words on this sign surprised me a little, but it was a stark reminder of the challenges of life in the far north.  Everyone is just trying to find enough food to survive.

Where we hunt Snowy Owls

I enjoyed more quality time with a few special birds again on our second day.  In Barrow, these birds were as common as robins and chickadees are at home, but I had no idea when or if I would ever see them again.  The two birds below were seen from a long boardwalk out over the tundra along with a Semipalmated Sandpiper on her nest and a female Pectoral Sandpiper.

Lapland Longspur (female)

Lapland Longspur (female)

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting

A sea watch was the plan for our last morning and I almost didn’t go thinking that all the birds would be out so far that I couldn’t see them.  But, this morning turned out to be a wonderful end to our stay in Barrow.  On our way to the ocean we stumbled into Cindy Shults’ yard, the only one that we saw in Barrow with bird feeders.  The yard itself was interesting and we enjoyed the birds including several Hoary Redpolls, a just fledged Snow Bunting, and an unexpected Pine Siskin, which is rare that far north.

Hoary Redpoll

Hoary Redpoll

Cindy came out to talk with us and we thoroughly enjoyed meeting her and talking about life in Barrow.  Cindy is a freelance photographer who owns Windows to the World Photography.  She was also the manager of the Barrow Job Center until recently when the job center was closed.

Cindy Shults

Cindy Shults in her yard

After visiting with Cindy and her birds, we tore ourselves away and went to watch for sea birds.  That turned out to be more fun than I’d expected.  I did see birds and I learned how to identify White-winged Scoter and Black Guillemot at a great distance.  We also had fun talking with a young man who had recently graduated from high school.  We think that his friends dared him to come talk to us, but he seemed genuinely interested in what we were doing.  He was very personable and smart and he shared his dreams of going to college elsewhere and then returning to Barrow.

Soon, it was time to catch our plane back to Anchorage. We packed up and said goodbye to our new friends, Andrew and Nancy, managers of the Airport Inn.  They hope to buy the hotel and we joked about how it would help business if we returned in February and brought friends with us.

Andrew and Nancy in the Airport Inn breakfast room with their daughter, Ellie

Andrew and Nancy in the Airport Inn breakfast room with their daughter, Ellie

Dave Hursh had left the night before with a few members of our group for Dutch Harbor.  Once the rest of us arrived back in Anchorage, everyone would go different directions, most heading home.  But, my adventure in Alaska was not yet over.  My friend, Diane, would fly from Minneapolis to meet me at the Anchorage airport and we would spend a week on the Kenai Peninsula.  That story is next – Alaska 2015: Bird Nest Habitat

After returning from St. Paul Island, we stayed within driving distance of Anchorage for the next week.  On June 18, most of our group drove 175 miles up Glenn Highway to the Tolsona Wilderness Campground where a family of Great Gray Owls had been observed for several weeks.  I would have liked to see the owls, but I opted to go with my roommate, Ellen, to retrieve her car from a friend’s house in Wasilla.  Ellen’s car would be part of the caravan transporting our 22 birders for this part of the trip.

Seward to Denali 2

We got the car and then headed on up the highway to meet the others.  Ellen and I found the only Northern Flickers of the trip while searching for a Northern Hawk Owl.  The flickers were the yellow-shafted sub-species rather than the red-shafted form of Northern Flicker found in the west.  The photo below was shot by wildlife photographer Michael Quinton in Alaska.  For more of Michael’s beautiful work, see his blog, Journal of a Wildlife Photographer.

Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker

Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker

I was surprised to see the yellow-shafted form of the Flicker, but trip co-leader, Dave Hursh, explained that many birds in Alaska are the eastern sub-species. The eBird map below for Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker shows how the range sweeps west and north.  The red-shafted form occurs in the west and does not go as far north as Alaska.  Yellow-rumped Warblers show similar range patterns with our eastern “Myrtle” warblers common in Alaska and their western “Audubon’s” counterparts staying farther south.

Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted) eBird range map

Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted) eBird range map

We met the rest of our group a little later just after they had found the Northern Hawk Owl sitting on a telephone wire and everyone got great looks.  The day ended with a delicious dinner at Sheep Mountain Lodge and the drive back to Anchorage.

The next day we drove to Seward, birding along the way.  One of my favorite stops was just outside of Seward at Ava’s Place, a yard with numerous feeders and an owner who welcomes birders.  There was constant activity in the yard with an estimated 30 Pine Siskins and about a dozen other species.  I especially enjoyed the Pine Grosbeaks – males, females, and juveniles.

Pine Grosbeak (male)

Pine Grosbeak (male)

Pine Grosbeak (female)

Pine Grosbeak (female)

The reason for our visit to Seward was to take the 9-hour Northwestern Fjord tour.  It was a wonderful cruise, 150 miles round trip that went deep into Kenai Fjords National Park.  I have to confess, though, that the Northwestern Glacier itself was underwhelming, even downright disappointing.  I think that I had expected it to look like it did 100 years ago, but the glacier has retreated over 6 miles in the last century.  The photos below show the view in 1909 and again in 2005.  Most other glaciers in Alaska and elsewhere are also rapidly melting, evidence of global warming accelerated by human activities.

Northwestern Glacier in 1909 and 2005

Northwestern Glacier in 1909 and 2005

The day was very overcast and I had visual difficulty with my transitions lenses that darkened too much.  But, I couldn’t see well without them either because they had the prisms that corrected my double vision.  Even so, I enjoyed the wildlife and beautiful landscape.

The highlight for me was a Humpback Whale that we observed “pec slapping.”  We speculated about the behavior, but back home a little research suggests that it’s a form of communication.  The whale swam on the surface of the water slowly and repeatedly lifting and slapping it’s massive 15-foot pectoral fin on the surface of the water.  It was quite impressive!  We also observed the whale breech, almost completely clearing the water, for a thrilling finale.

Unfortunately, I did not get a photo of the whale, but I did get a photo of the Steller’s Sea Lions below.

Steller's Sea Lions

Steller’s Sea Lions

After Seward we made the long drive to Healy, our base for exploring Denali National Park for two full days.

Denali National Park

Denali National Park

Wolves in Denali National Park

Wolves in Denali National Park

We saw birds in Denali, but the highlights there were mammals.  We saw all of the “Big 5” – grizzly bear, caribou, moose, Dall sheep, and wolf.  Four of the five are pretty reliable, but we were very lucky that most of us saw two wolves right on the road.  The wolf population has declined in Denali in recent years.  Numbers reached a record low this spring with an estimated population of just 48 in the park’s 18,820 square kilometers of wolf population area.

We saw several caribou, most scruffy like the one in the photo below.

Caribou

Caribou

Arctic Ground Squirrel

Arctic Ground Squirrel

I also enjoyed seeing smaller mammals like the Arctic Ground Squirrel.  I asked the bus driver to stop so that I could get this photo.  He seemed to think that I was the only one who was interested, but I saw several other cameras come out for this cute little rodent.

Wildflowers in Nome and the Pribolof Islands had been mostly small tundra species except for the lupine and wild celery.  Larger showier flowers were common around Denali and on the Kenai Peninsula.  I loved the beautiful Fireweed.

Flower Fly on Fireweed

Flower Fly on Fireweed

I never got tired of Ptarmigans.  We watched this female Willow Ptarmigan scramble up a hill followed by several small chicks.

Willow Ptarmigan (female)

Willow Ptarmigan (female)

Mew Gulls were very cooperative photographic subjects.  This one perched atop a car in a parking lot and I was able to walk right up to it.

Mew Gull

Mew Gull

And, here is a female Mew Gull on her nest by the side of a river.

Mew Gull

Mew Gull

Black-billed Magpies were big bold subjects for the camera.  This one was in a parking lot.  They were rather common, but they were always fun to see.

Black-billed Magpie

Black-billed Magpie

Gray Jays were bold, too, and we enjoyed several near a picnic area at one of the stops on our all-day bus ride in Denali National Park.  It is illegal to feed the birds, but based upon the way they were looking for handouts, I’m sure that they had previous experience with snack-sharing law-breaking visitors.

Gray Jay

Gray Jay

As in every part of the trip, it was over all too soon and we drove back to Anchorage.  In the photo below, taken on that drive, you can see the ubiquitous wild celery in the foreground.

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This is the third of six posts about my month in Alaska.  Next – Alaska 2015: To the Top of the World

ABA bird #600

News flash – I just saw my 600th ABA bird! Please pardon this interruption to my series of Alaska posts, but this is just too exciting to not share now. Birders, feel free to skip ahead while I attempt to explain to my non-birding friends just what an “ABA bird” is. ABA is the American Birding Association, a wonderful organization that serves birders with publications aimed at improving birding skills, promotion of conservation, summer camps for teens, and lots of other fun and important birding stuff. It is also the official keeper of LISTS. Avid birders love lists and ABA members can report theirs for comparison to other birders. The “ABA area” is basically all of North America north of Mexico. So, a birder’s ABA list is the list of all the birds that he or she has observed in the ABA area.

Green Heron - The ABA

Green Heron – The ABA “Bird of the Year” for 2015

Back in the 1960s, it was quite an accomplishment to join the “600 Club.” But, the Internet, email, listservs, eBird, Facebook, and cell phones have totally changed birding from a few decades ago. Now, news of a rare bird travels fast and within hours dozens of birders may see a rarity. This rapid communication has enabled many to see 700 species in the ABA area and some have even observed over 800 ABA birds, but that achievement requires a lot of time, money, energy, and ambition. To put these numbers in perspective, there are only 671 regularly occurring birds in North America and many of those are found only in small numbers in particular locations. Another 308 species are rare and many of those have been observed in North America only a few times.

Whooping Cranes. Photo: International Crane Foundation.

Whooping Cranes. Photo: International Crane Foundation.

I was getting close to 600 ABA birds when I left for Alaska in June. I needed 42 more and there were 42 birds on last year’s trip list that I had not seen. I had a chance! But, birds change from year to year and I got only 40 ABA birds in Alaska. I needed two more birds. And, then I learned that the non-migratory Whooping Cranes that I had seen in Florida last year were now countable. I needed only one more bird! Of course, I was excited about the possibilities, but this wasn’t going to be easy. I would figure out a plan for #600 later.

On August 11, I left for Gainesville, Florida, for a family visit. I planned to just drive down, visit family, and drive back home. I didn’t even take my scope or hiking shoes. Since I got back from Alaska a few weeks earlier, I had not paid much attention to what was happening outside my home county. But, after I got to Florida, I discovered that Smooth-billed Anis were being reported at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge every day. There was mention of a nest, so I expected the birds to continue to be there for a while. I had seen Anis in Ecuador, but not in the ABA area. This could be my #600! I altered my plans so that I could drive to South Florida and see the Anis after visiting with my family.

Smooth-billed Ani

Smooth-billed Ani

I didn’t know if a scope was required or not, but I wanted to be sure that I’d have the best views possible. Fortunately, Angel & Mariel Abreu of Nature Is Awesome Birding & Wildlife Tours were available for the day. They would also try to help me get Black-whiskered Vireo for #601 and we could spend the remainder of the day looking for South Florida specialty butterflies.

On August 16, we arrived at Loxahatchee at 9:00 AM and found two Smooth-billed Anis right away. They could not have been more cooperative and we had fun watching the birds preen and fly around a little, but never out of sight. We could see detail in every feather with the scope and we got good photos.

Mariel and I celebrating my 600th ABA bird

Mariel and I celebrating my 600th ABA bird

We also saw the first two of six new butterflies for me that day, Phaon Crescent and Ruddy Daggerwing.

Ruddy Daggerwing

Ruddy Daggerwing

Phaon Crescent

Phaon Crescent

Finally, we tore ourselves away from the Anis and drove down to Key Largo to look for the Black-whiskered Vireos that Angel and Mariel had scouted the previous day. They both saw three birds after just a few minutes, but it took over two hours for me to get a satisfying look. Angel and Mariel never once complained while we stood there in the August heat. Finally, I got a good enough look at one of the birds and we moved on to look for more butterflies.

Florida Purplewing

Florida Purplewing

We went to an area of the Key Largo Hammocks State Botanical Site that requires a backcountry pass, which the Abreus had obtained the previous day when scouting for the vireo. We saw a few birds and a Florida Purplewing, a rare butterfly that is officially listed as a “Species of Special Concern” due to its declining population and disappearance from most of its historic range. I’m sure that the beautiful Purplewing was the highlight of the day for Angel and Mariel.

Florida Purplewing

Florida Purplewing

Our last stop was at a pine rockland preservation in Homestead. At first glance, it looked like any other Florida pine forest with saw palmetto understory. But, as soon as we stepped off the path and carefully walked through the rocks, I could see how different this was. Pine rockland exists only in southern Florida and parts of the Bahamas. It is typically a savanna-like forest on limestone outcroppings with a canopy of Florida Slash Pine and a diverse understory of shrubs and herbaceous plants. Pine rocklands are home to a significant number of rare plants and animals found in no other habitat, including several Federally Endangered plants. Its delicate beauty becomes apparent once you really look at the life it hosts. Sadly, pine rockland is an endangered ecosystem with only a few fragments remaining in South Florida and some of those are slated for development.

Baracoa Skipper

Baracoa Skipper

Ceranus Blue

Ceranus Blue

Butterflies we found there were Baracoa Skipper and Ceranus Blue.

Curve-lined Cydosia Moth

Our last sighting of the day, just before dark at that same location, was the Curve-lined Cydosia Moth in the photo to the left, which is found from southern Florida south to Argentina. This beautiful moth is not very common and it was new to all of us.

I could not have asked for a more cooperative or interesting bird for ABA #600.  Thanks to Angel and Mariel for another fun day. As always, I left South Florida looking forward to returning again soon.

My next post will be another on Alaska.  Follow along with me on more birding adventures.

Angel Mariel and me

Angel, Mariel, and me