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Archive for October, 2015

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!

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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

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