Sunday, September 11, 2011

Alaska continued...and another whack of lifers (#157-162)

I had planned to include Seward in this post it looks like it's going to need to wait again; after going through the pics I'm realizing just how much we saw! So, I would now like to welcome you to the odd little town of Whittier, Alaska. Odd because in order to access it by road, you must wait to go through a one-lane, 2.5 mile tunnel through a mountain, which alternates between cars and trains in each direction. Also odd because 90% of the population of just under 300 people all live in the same apartment building (there are no houses there). The other building that dominates the landscape is an abandoned military complex.
An Alaska train that runs back and forth in front of the town from the huge container ships at the port to the trains going through the tunnel. The infamous apartments in the background.
We visited to catch a Prince William Sound cruise boat to see some glaciers and wildlife.
The colour of the water in Alaska's rivers and glacier-fed harbours is unreal - a sort of turquoisey-slate
One of the first things that we noticed arriving were the eagles right overhead, sitting on the lamp posts and squeeling at each other. Eagles are EVERYWHERE in Alaska but we were able to get closest to them here. We did also find the nest with 2 juveniles.
We loaded onto the boat but Matt came and pulled me off because he spotted a little bird swimming around near the breakwater, and the crew said we had some time before departing, so we went off in search of it. It was hilarious to watch (wish I had a video), and turns out there were a bunch right outside our hotel room, which opened right out over the water and overlooked the harbour.

 #157: Red-necked phalarope (winter); Whittier, Alaska; August 24, 2011
Our first stop on our day cruise was incredible. It wasn't just a birdwatching tour, but we did tell the crew that we were especially interested in birds, and some of them would come find us when they saw something they thought we would be interested in but that wasn't announced over the loudspeaker. Actually, the crew was amazing, and I would absolutely recommend these cruises, and not just because the served the best, hot, fresh, aromatic, gooey chocolate chip cookies I have ever had in my life (I think in my chocolate-chip cookie induced stupor I actually said "this is the best thing that ever happened to me").

Well, I just got derailed but the first stop was a black-legged kittiwake rookery right across from Whittier. And what do I say? "OMG those weren't just gulls?!??!" Always have to remember to look closely and not assume anything! It was pretty neat that it's close enough to Whittier that some people were out there observing them up really close in sea kayaks. 
Rookery from afar. All those little white specks are kittiwakes! A bald eagle was sitting in the centre at the top, trying to choose lunch.
see 'em?

Guess I'll go ahead and count those now, but I have better pics of them in Seward so I'll include a close-up then. The captain gave a great commentary, explaining how they nest and the different plumages. I was just in heaven!

#158: Black-legged kittiwake; Whittier, Alaska; August 24, 2011.

A little farther into the sound we saw a bunch of sea lions hauled out on some rocks. An amazing thing to see (and to HEAR!).
So yeah that was great, but what was REALLY great was one of the crew members tracking me down on the boat and pointing out the little black oystercatchers also on the rocks! I totally would have missed them otherwise!

#159: Black Oystercatcher; Prince William Sounds, Alaska; August 24, 2011
Look at those bright red bills!
The sea otters were another favourite to watch. They are so sociable, playful and snuggly with each other you can't help but go crazy for them. The captain explained that their fur is so dense so they don't get cold in the water, but they roll around in it to trap air bubbles to help insulate. The only part of their bodies without this fur is their nose and feet pads, which is why they float around on their backs with their feet out--so they don't get hypothermia.

On this cruise we saw 26 glaciers (or so they tell me...I didn't count), lots of wildlife, birds and a salmon hatchery. It was a really positive experience despite the pretty awful weather. Awful weather (and being way too far from these tiny little birds) was what contributed to these terrible shots of these 2 birds, which is terribly annoying since I know they would both be LIFERS!!
marbled murrelet? hmmpppph.
On the way back in, I noticed a bunch of kittiwakes flocking around the fishing boats...they must have been throwing the guts out, or something.

We stayed in Whittier for the night and got going the next day. We stopped at one spot to get a glimpse of the salmon of the highlights of Alaska in August.
Bright red, spectacular fish!
At this spot in the drizzling rain we also saw this little guy. In breeding plumage he would have stuck right out, but less so in his drab winter plumage. Luckily I looked closely and determined he's a lifer!

#160: Golden-crowned sparrow; Near Whittier, Alaska; August 25, 2011
I would have assumed savannah, but he has a totally buff breast. Sparrows are all in the details!
Our drive continued south from Whittier to Seward where we were to board our cruise. All along the way? Mountains, valleys, creeks and streams, hiking trails, ocean and pristine, untouched green absolutely everywhere. I've gotta say, I felt pretty much at home in Alaska. Unfortunately, if I actually wanted to live there I would need to channel Sarah Palin and learn to shoot and carry a giant gun because I would live in constant fear of grizzlies. (On most of our hikes, about 5 minutes I begged to turn around because I was being consumed by fear!)

We actually passed by Tern Lake barely noticing it, but about 10km later we decided to turn around because we missed a geocache we really wanted to do. SO GLAD we did, because I got several lifers there!!

The first:
#161: Trumpeter Swan; Tern Lake, Alaska; August 25, 2011
We stopped along the main road to look at these ducks, which I still haven't identified (totally coulda been 162!). Not sure---redheads or ring-necked, or something else? Anyone want to weigh in?
As we're looking at the ducks, I see this other one swimming around in the background, and oh my dear goodness...!!! It's pretty great seeing the Western birds, but it was also pretty great being able to tick off a few that I can't seem to find in my own backyard!
#162: Red-necked grebe; Tern Lake, Alaska; August 25, 2011.

We also saw a chickie!
Well, that was just a ton of excitement for a few days, and I was warming up to Alaska quite nicely (even though it was so damn cold). Don't miss my next post covering the following day in Seward, which I spent exploring before boarding the Radiance of the Seas for the next leg of our Alaskan will include a few bird sightings that are up there in my favourite all-time sightings of my birding career thus far!!


Tiffanie said...

Alaska looks amazing! Lots of lifers is exciting....and so are the sea lions and otters! Great shot of the Bald Eagle! Just wondering, did you stay in that apartment building in Whittier or is there a hotel?

deepdowndawn said...

Hey Tiffanie,
No we didn't stay in the apartments. There is a really nice hotel called The Inn at Whittier. It's right on the water.

Funkysandman said...

I bet the bears are probably trying to fatten themselves up for the winter hibernation, so maybe your fears are justified, lol!
btw, you'll have to post some bird dance videos sometime!

dwaynejava said...

Great posting... this trip is awesome so far. Great pics and stories!

Jeremy Medina said...

Wow, awesome place! Great photos.