Sunday, September 25, 2011

Cruisin' - Juneau and Skagway (#174-177)

We boarded the Radiance of the Seas at night on the 26th...which felt a little unreal having planned this cruise nearly a year prior. Here's a little map of where we went (red and yellow dots)
The first day was spent entirely at sea, with a stop to admire Hubbard Glacier. There was word that an albatross had been cruising with the ship for a while in the morning; alas, I did not see it. I had a little hope in my heart for the odd pelagic, but didn't really spent a ton of time on my balcony with my eyes peeled on the skies...too much to do on the ship!

Day 2 we hit JUNEAU, the capital of Alaska and home of Mrs. Palin. In case you didn't know, there are NO roads that go to Juneau, so you must fly or boat in (unless you are in possession of a teleporter). It was a rainy day, so that was a bit of a downer, but didn't stop us from going at it full force anyway. I didn't take the camera out with me as our plans got a little switched around and once I decided I wanted it, we were off the boat already. We spent the morning climbing up Mount Roberts (elevation 3819 ft - there's a tram that goes up too, but that's just too easy isn't it?).
At the top there was a "Raptor Centre," which made always makes me anxious and conflicted, because I obviously love to see birds, but I don't really support keeping animals in captivity so I don't visit zoos, aquariums or any of the like. Well, at the top of the hill there was a little coop with a HUGE adult eagle. I spoke to her supervisor, who explained that she was rescued and that made me feel a little better: she had been shot through her beak (WTF?!) and lost her left eye, resulting in a crash that broke her wings. I asked how long she had been there and when she would be released; she had been there 5 years and would never be released because she would not regain her full flight capabilities or eyesight so she could not survive in the wild :( So I guess there is no option but to keep her in captivity, but that little coop was so small for such a magnificent bird. I dunno...maybe there is something I don't know.

In the afternoon we headed to Mendenhall Glacier. These falls are just beside it.
 Didn't see a ton in the line of birds, except these guys at the visitor centre:

But wouldn't you know what we did see!

I may have mentioned once or twice how terrified I am of bears, but for some reason I wasn't scared at all seeing these guys. And yes I was as close as it looks.  There are 17 actively feeding bears in the area (we saw 2). But they were too busy stuffing their bellies with salmon to be interested in me. After my trip to Alaska, I determined that I'm not all that scared of black bears but I am that much more terrified of grizzlies.
so scary

In the town of Juneau outside the Red Dog Saloon, I got a great shot of a raven in the street. The ravens there are kind of like crows here; I've never really seen them this close, and they are absolutely stunning birds. Check out the blue on the back, and the schnoz on that thing!
Day 3 we got to SKAGWAY. We took the White Pass Railroad in the morning, which follows the route of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush. Some pretty spectacular scenery.

After our ride we sort of wandered around. There was a little path that ran behind the houses away from the main drag where all the tourists were. We saw this beautiful little juvenile thrush. The spots around its head ans shoulders are just lovely.
Not far away we found a backyard where there seemed to be a lot of activity and a bunch of feeders. Well, it was a little weird peeking into a stranger's yard, but we determined "there's lifers in that thar yard" (oh haha I made an Alaska joke).
We see some chickadees..."hey now, that doesn't sound quite right...hey now, they don't look quite right."

#174: Chestnut-sided Chickadee; Skagway, AK; August 2011

And then a Steller's Jay (you know, Steller, also of Steller sea lion fame--no, I didn't either until I went to Alaska), gets in the frame too. Holy bigeeessis! Then, wouldn't you know, the resident opens her door, gets a peanut, and that jay hops ONTO HER HAND to eat it. Well, why the heck haven't I tried to hand train blue jays?

#175: Steller's Jay; Skagway, AK; August 2011

In the same area there were some little yellow birds. I had also seen them in Seward and thought immediately, black-throated green warblers, NBD. Woops, then I started seeing this "Townsend's Warblers" mentioned everywhere and wondering a) what the heck are they and b) why haven't I seen one? I look in the book--black-throated greens aren't even in Alaska, they have a similar looking counterpart in Alaska. The markings on the face are quite different once you get down to looking!

#176: Townsend's Warbler; Skagway, Alaska; August 2011
We're sort of moseying along (because when we we're birding we don't seem to get anywhere very fast) and hear a huge bunch of little birds, and we follow them. And by huge flock I mean HUGE. We find them in the tops of the trees and this is the first time we've got pics of Pine Siskins. Not great pics, but pics nonetheless!

#177: Pine Siskin; Skagway, AK; August 2011

We saw a few varied thrushes over the course of the trip. I remember well the first one that we saw, and had one of those really awesome moments that don't happen too often anymore..."Omg I have no idea what that is, and I don't even know where to look for it in the bird book."
There's never enough time at any of the ports, and certainly not enough to get birding in with all the other things you want to see.  Even though we could have stayed longer, that boat would leave without us. So back on we got, and  more big adventures the next day at a new destination!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Seward (#163-170)

We arrived in Seward, where we would board our cruise ship, from Whittier at the end of the day. We had realized in Whittier that the most common gulls there were glaucous-winged, but this one posed for me soooo nicely in Seward.

#163: Glaucous-winged gull; Seward, Alaska; August 25, 2011
Glaucous-winged gulls have pink feet, dark eyes, red on the bottom of the bill, no black at the back.

The light was starting to go but we took our rental car for a last-chance ride along the shore where we tried to capture some very sneaky seabirds! Please excuse these rotten pics...I swear it gets much better after these!

#164: Pigeon Guillemot (juvenile); Seward, Alaska; August 25, 2011
*Mystery bird* (Marbled murrelet?)
*Mystery bird*(At a certain point I just got fed up with trying to figure these out!!!!)
I had the next morning in Seward to myself since the boys took a charter boat out to fish in Resurrection Bay. My plan was to hike up Mount Marathon in the morning and hit Exit Glacier in the afternoon. However, I was told upon leaving the hotel not to hike the mountain by myself (not just because it was very berry/beary, but also because the terrain is difficult and if I fell and broke my leg there would be nobody to get help). So I wandered around Seward in the morning, scouting the shore for birds and doing some caching.

The first bird I saw was a juvenile bald eagle in a tree beside the lagoon behind our hotel. Like I said, eagles are everywhere in Alaska, but always pretty special.

A little farther down I spotted a few cormorants drying out their wings. I noticed that people didn't say the word "cormorant" with nearly the amount of disdain as they do here.

Watching them dry their wings was so hilarious that I actually took a video. This is my first video here so I'm trying to figure this out...maybe next time I'll do it in YouTube so I can make it a little bigger. Anyway, they were doing this when I arrived, kept at it while I watched them, and were still going when I left! Too bad I couldn't lend them the blow dryer from the hotel.

I spent forever trying to get a good shot of one these guys. Once I looked closely, I realized that this is a lifer I could see at home!
#165: Orange-crowned warbler;  Seward, Alaska; August 26, 2011
Unfortunately the orange crown is rarely visible in the field. 
I noticed that the song sparrows all look very dark and "sooty" compared to ours at home! I kept seeing them, think they were a new bird (really hoping they were a water ouzel, or American dipper...never did see one).
Back at the harbour/town, there was lots to see.
This playful sea otter got lucky with some scraps of the pier (red snapper). He rolled around and ate to his heart's content as everyone watched and clicked, clicked, clicked. I took so many pictures and knew I had good ones but just couldn't stop myself from taking more! I have a feeling this guy gets pretty spoiled here. He's got a reputation!
The crows in Alaska are actually different, which took me a few days to realize. Once I realized I could easily mistake new birds for birds from home, I got to studying the range maps and knowing what to look out for. The crows on the West Coast are definitely smaller and can sound a little different. Luckily there is no overlap of northwestern/American crow ranges in Alaska, so it's a safe bet to call this 'norwester! It actually took me forever to get a decent shot of crow...most of them were SO mangy looking!

#166: Northwestern Crow; Seward, Alaska; August 26, 2011
The crows in Seward were grabbing little mussels from the water and cracking them on the rocky beach...neat to watch. Don't see crows doing that at home!
I've never seen a dark hare/rabbit like this at home?!
The previous day we had seen kittiwakes at the rookery in Whittier. I saw some up close and posing nicely on the roof of a building (I've also included some pics from the previous day). As you can see, they look a heck of a lots like a gull, but they have  no markings on their bills and their feet are jet black. The younger ones of stripes on the back of their necks and some have black ear patches too.

kind of an awkward pose...

The boys returned from fishing and reported that they saw puffins in the bay and knew that I would be so disappointed if I didn't see them too. We checked into the cruise ship and came back into town after dropping my dad off (he was in desperate need of a nap...poor dad, I always run him ragged) and picking up Matt's mom Mary. The charters were prohibitively expensive so Matt set to trying to get me out into the bay for those puffins. We were getting pretty desperate, but he ends up asking a random guy in the marina. It was the best thing that could have happened...he was a great guy and we all had an amazing time on this little "private tour" of Resurrection Bay. We headed out and it wasn't too long until what I was waiting for popped into view...


#167: Horned Puffin; Resurrection Bay, Alaska; August 26, 2011
OMG. OMG. OMG........just OMG.
#168: Tufted Puffin; Resurrection Bay, Alaska; August 26, 2011
OMG - I want a haircut just like this!
Horned and tufted puffins together!
Ken, who took us out, works on a research boat. He's currently doing stuff with sea lions (see the one that's branded in the middle?). These were smaller than the ones we saw in Prince William Sound, but still so great to see.
Steller sea lions
I took pictures of these swimming birds everywhere and didn't realize till we got home that they were all different kinds!

#169: Ancient Murrelet; Resurrection Bay, Alaska; August 26, 2011
(You can barely see it, but check out the white tufts of hair on the back of its head. Most similar birds have black bills, but this one's is lighter)

Ken took us out to another rookery, which was mostly kittiwakes...
look closely though and see some other things, like cormorants...
and more lifers!
#170: Common Murre; Resurrection Bay, Alaska; August 26, 2011
Here's one zooming along with a puffin!
this is Alaska?

Stunning scenery everywhere
With our captain, Ken, Mary, Matt, me.

By the end of the day, it was time to say goodbye to spectacular Seward and jump on board the Radiance. A big part of me felt really guilty about trading in pristine, rugged, beautiful Alaska for a packaged vacation on a mega ship.

And I was so flippin high on seeing those puffins that I was pretty sure that
a. I was never going to come down
b. there was no way the rest of the trip was going to compare.

Well, don't you worry...the rest of the trip was just as great, and there's lots more to come!
The town of Seward was dwarfed by our megaship.

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!!