Mar. 21 – Sandwiching the Day with Owl Searching

I began and ended the day out at the Anchorage Airport looking for Short-eared Owls. Unfortunately, neither search resulted in a Short-eared Owl sighting.

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After my morning birdless watch of about an hour (from 6:45 to 7:45 am) I birded along the road past the airport and did see a few birds, including Common Raven, Black-billed Magpie, Black-capped Chickadee and Northern Shrike.

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I then went over to Spenard Crossing, and saw the usual multitude of Mallards, a Black-billed Magpie and a Common Goldeneye.

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In the evening I repeated yesterday’s 7-9 pm watch. At least this time I was joined for part of the time by three other birders and had someone to share the vigil with, but they gave up too and left before I did. And importantly, I did actually see a bird in the evening, an owl, on this vigil, just not the owl I sought – a Northern Hawk Owl.

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Tomorrow I have other birding plans. I need a break from owling.

123 species so far

Mar. 20 – Vigil

Although I have walked out by the Anchorage Airport at dawn a couple of times without success, I have it on the best authority that Short-eared Owls have been hunting the Anchorage airport grounds lately.

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Tonight I did a vigil at the spot from which the owls have been seen by others. I had gone out there earlier this afternoon to plan exactly where I would position myself for my vigil, and had seen a couple of non-owl birds.

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For my evening vigil, I was there from just before 7:00 pm until 9:00 pm. It was a lovely evening with quite a nice sunset. It was interesting watching the planes come and go, but birds there were not. I will try again of course, and if I don’t see Short-eared Owls in Anchorage, I have been assured that I will indeed see one this year somewhere in Alaska. Meanwhile…

123 species so far

Mar. 19 – Big Anchorage Birding Day

The “birding day” competition started officially at 5 pm yesterday and continued to 5 pm today. This was the second annual such spring competition in Anchorage, an Anchorage Audubon event designed to be done as close as possible to the beginning of spring. Teams form themselves and bird anywhere and anytime during that period, so long as it is within the Anchorage limits, which extend for probably 50 miles to the south of downtown Anchorage and 25 or so miles to the north. A lot of that terrain is mountainous.

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Our team of 3 women, Louann Feldmann, Sue Westervelt and me (a subset of the previously organized “Twisted Listers” team, two of whom had serious issues that kept them from participating this year) decided to begin the competition south of Anchorage in the Portage area, head north to bird and eat dinner in Girdwood and finish the day owling in the Girdwood area, which we did. We were joined by Trapper Dan, who had a one-person team, for dinner and owling, which had also happened last year.

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We had covered the same area in last year’s competition and were stunned at how many fewer species we got this year. Last year had been cold and sunny, and this year was cold and cloudy and eventually snowy in the Girdwood area. Yesterday’s birds for our team, in order seen, were Common Merganser, Black-billed Magpie, Bald Eagle, Common Goldeneye, Common Raven, Black-capped Chickadee, and Mallard. This year there were no birds at all at the feeders that had been swarming with birds last year. The road where there had been Boreal and Great Horned Owl last year had no owls at all this year, and in fact our team did not get any owls for the count. We got back to Anchorage about midnight.

We began today going to Arctic Valley Road where we had had Willow Ptarmigan last year. This year it was snowing so hard that some teams did not attempt the mountain drive at all. We got to the top but we were in 6-8 inches of new snow, with more falling heavily and we probably could not have seen a ptarmigan unless it had landed on our car. The snow continued all day and in fact is still coming down as I write this at 8:30 pm. I’m not sure how much has fallen down here in Anchorage but probably 6-7 inches.

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We then visited a feeder that our Christmas Bird Count group had found in east Anchorage last year, where we added 6 more species today, nearly doubling our count total: Common and Hoary Redpolls, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Downy Woodpecker, American Robin and E. Starling. We were trying to act nonchalant about the miserable species list, not so secretly hoping the other teams were finding the same situation. Later in the day we saw another large flock of robins, which made the day seem a lot more birdy for a while.

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We visited a couple more places, adding 0-2 species per new place. The new birds added were: Canada Goose at Spenard Crossing (where there were many snow-covered Mallards), Rock Pigeon and American Dipper at Ship Creek, Steller’s Jay in the Turnagain neighborhood, Northern Shrikes in the Point Woronzoff area and Boreal Chickadee (after a forced march so we could get there before 5) in the Campbell Science Center area.

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At Westchester Lagoon, there was a small area of open water and more Mallards but no new birds for the day. The frozen lagoon and the little island that is so active when the lake is thawed looked even more desolate than they did when I visited there earlier in the week.

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We also visited Potter Marsh before trekking to the feeders at the Campbell Science center but had no new birds there, and just saw one of the Bald Eagles guarding the nest (possibly the mate was on the nest), a Red-breasted Merganser, and Black-billed Magpies.

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The result – grand total of 19 species for our team for the count, or about 1 species per hour of birding! When we met for supper tonight, we learned that all but one of the other teams had about the same number of species as our team, but our Anchorage Audubon president’s team had 29 species! Still about 10 fewer than last year. We all worked hard for our birds though and most of the hardy Alaskan types were so delighted that we were finally getting snow that nobody was doing much complaining. Skiiers were out and about and Alaskan winter was here for the day. Rumor has it that it will rain tomorrow and probably be above freezing and we’ll be back in slush and mud-land.

PS. Our need to find new birds for the day, especially owls, led to us getting a bit excited about a particular snowy lump on a post — maybe it was the back of a Snowy Owl?

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123 species for the year

 

Mar. 18 – Early Birding in Anchorage

With my mind on the recent reports of Short-eared Owls seen at the Anchorage airport, I drove out there substantially before dawn this morning. While constantly scanning the airport hills, I walked along the airport fence and watched the sun come up and turn to day without seeing or hearing a single bird of any species. Even driving the road back and forth a bit after the sun rose, there still were no birds to be seen.

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On my drive back toward town, I did see a Northern Shrike, and I stopped to take pictures of the Anchorage skyline.

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I spent some time at a couple of parks, ending with Spenard Crossing, where the usual passerines were around, plus Mallards, four Common Goldeneyes and two Common Mergansers.

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I decided I better stop birding and run a few errands and pack up gear and warm clothing for the upcoming evening of birding as part of the Anchorage big day that starts at 5:00 pm tonight.

123 species so far

Mar. 17 – Anchorage – Ducky in Winter

In winter there are only a few places in Anchorage where the water usually stays open and the ducks are always there. I visited most of them today on the off chance that something new had arrived. I didn’t find anything new but it still was fun birding.

Before I saw many ducks I stopped by Potter Marsh, watched the two Bald Eagles flying around and sitting on the nest, and then saw a Northern Shrike perched up right next to the highway. Northern Shrikes seem to be particularly common this winter and I see at least one nearly every day. Having lived in a few places where they were nonexistent (North Carolina) or very rare (Texas), I much appreciate seeing them so often in Alaska.

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The main two ducky places in Anchorage that I know of, about which I have been posting regularly, are Cuddy Pond and Spenard Crossing. The tiny spans of open water at Cuddy Pond were crowded with Mallards (over a hundred; I didn’t count) as was the sidewalk overlooking the little pond. If you look closely at the picture of the pond, you can see the one non-Mallard, a close-up of which is also below.

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At Spenard Crossing there were fewer Mallards but at least three diving Common Goldeneyes.

My final stop was Westchester Lagoon, which I had not yet visited this year. The reason for not visiting before is that it totally freezes over in winter. The reason for visiting today was to check if maybe there was some open water. Hope springs eternal. There was no open water that I could see and no birds. All that I could see was a vast expanse of ice surrounding a small grassy area out in the middle. During migration that grassy area is an active island where some migrating shorebirds can be seen and in the summer it is covered with gulls and terns and ducks.

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I will keep checking. Meanwhile, tomorrow at 5:00 pm begins Anchorage Audubon’s “Big Anchorage Birding Day”, a 24- hour team competition to celebrate the beginning of spring (at least on the calendar). I will try to post before then, but once it starts, I won’t post until it is over. I don’t want to risk letting the other teams know how well (or how poorly) our team is doing.

123 species so far

Mar. 16 – Checking Out Various Anchorage Sites

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I woke up this morning to almost two inches of new snow, which was very pretty and then much of it turned to slush in the above-freezing weather. Before the slush happened, I walked out past the Anchorage International Airport, the highlights of the mostly unbirdy walk being a Northern Shrike singing constantly and loudly.

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I then went to Ship Creek, saw one of the resident American Dippers, Common Redpolls working the branches of a sapling, Mallards, a Common Goldeneye, a Bald Eagle, and Black-billed Magpies.

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I then birded a couple of neighborhoods where there are feeders, and found a couple of American Robins, most of which seem to have departed town when the fruit trees were emptied.

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The highlight for me of the morning, however, was when I arrived home to find that the first copies of my new book, Birds in Trouble, had arrived at my doorstep! Should anyone reading this blog be interested in a signed copy, please contact me (dalybar@aol.com).

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123 species so far

Mar. 15 – Light Birding in Anchorage

My birding today was a little bit of yard observation and a short trip to Spenard Crossing.

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The main highlight in my yard was a group of five Steller’s Jays. All winter long they’ve been coming to the feeders in ones and twos, but they were a group today, including the half-beaked bird that I had only seen by itself before. Today they were mostly single-mindedly grabbing peanuts, flying to the back of the yard and pushing the peanuts down into the grass and soggy yard and returning for more peanuts. Before long they had emptied a couple of cups of peanuts from the jar.

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At Spenard Crossing, most of the usual winter birds were there (Black-capped and Boreal Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Steller’s Jays, a Bald Eagle, Common Mergansers, and Mallards). The Common Goldeneye numbers had increased from 1 or 2 to 7. The small neck-ringed Canada Goose that has been wandering around Anchorage was also there. New for the year to the area was a pair of Gadwalls.

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Although birders keep hoping for new species to arrive, realistically we do have a few more weeks (at least) of wintertime inactivity before we can expect many migrants. We keep hoping though.

123 species so far

Mar. 14 – Moonlit Night – and an Owl

I cannot (usually) tell a lie – sometimes I play tapes of bird calls and songs. And I did so on the night of March 14.

The plan had been for Aaron Bowman and me to go owling for Western Screech-Owls in the Portage area south of Anchorage, but Aaron found at the last minute that he was unable to go. So, about 7 pm with a beautiful sunset in my rear-view mirror, I headed out on the 50-mile trip. After a brief stop for gas, I drove the road toward Portage glacier and turned in at a fish-observing parking lot that leads to a campground (not yet open for the year for camping).

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As I opened the car door I heard the melodic song of an American Dipper. At the fish observing area where the water was gushing past were two dippers chasing each other around, the song telling me where they were as they passed back and forth beneath the little bridge where I stood. A couple of times I was able to see them in the half-light when one of them landed and before it dove under the water.

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I packed up my flashlights (two, in case I dropped one), camera, binoculars, and phone and walked down the paved road into the camping area. A beautiful half-moon in the clear sky meant that I really did not need either flashlight, even though I stayed until a little after 10 pm.

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I did not play the taped owl calls continuously or very often but about 9:00, when it was still quite light out and I had just played a few seconds of call, I glanced around, and there was a small WESTERN SCREECH-OWL staring down, silently silhouetted, from toward the top of a very close deciduous tree!! The bird’s head was sort of squarish (as opposed to the more round heads of Boreal and Northern Saw-whet Owls) and seemed to have little bumps at the two upper corners of the head – the “ears”. I tried to get a picture but as I was fumbling with the camera, the owl silently glided over my head and was gone.

After that I walked the campground for another hour, mostly listening to the total silence and the very quiet sound of flowing water. Only a couple of times did I hear what were probably distant owl calls, but none of them were clear or loud enough to tell me for sure what they were. It is a very strange thing to see, but not hear, an owl at night, a strangely incomplete feeling. Perhaps the silent owl was a female owl checking to see if a mate had arrived or perhaps it was too early in the season or in the night for owls to begin calling. Maybe Aaron and I will go back to check it out.

123 species so far

Mar. 14 – Sunny Day in Anchorage

This morning I birded out past the airport and then at Potter Marsh. It was a beautiful sunrise, both to the east as the sun came over the mountains, and to the west across the water with the mountains tinted pink.

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Although I hoped to see the reported Short-eared Owl out by the airport, my bird sightings were limited to the more usual birds – Common Raven, three Northern Shrikes puffed up in the cold, a Bald Eagle, a small flock of Common Redpolls, a Black-billed Magpie and a Black-capped Chickadee.

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Out at Potter Marsh, both Bald Eagles were first seen on the nest and then one of them flew low over me and the marsh. The only other birds at the marsh while I was there were a male Bufflehead sharing the small area of open water with two Common Mergansers, three Black-billed Magpies, one of which was carrying a huge beakful of grass, and a Black-capped Chickadee.

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122 species so far

Mar. 13 – Anchorage and Year So Far

I did not spend much time birding today, just an hour-long birding stroll at Campbell Creek Estuary Nature Area. The weather was mild (42 degrees) and sunny. The birds apparently had someplace else they needed to be while I was out there birding. I did have four species – Common Raven, Black-capped Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch and Brown Creeper, none of which I photographed.

All I have is scenery pictures where I birded – the open field around which the main trail circles, the estuary at a quite low tide seen through the trees and a closer view, and the forest trail :

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So, lacking much big year birding news, I decided to take the time to incorporate into this blog a summary of where I’ve seen new birds so far this year. Of course, these results, by the very nature of big-year birding in a state where the number of wintering birds is fairly low, are biased toward wherever the big year is begun. I began my big year in Kodiak so Kodiak is on top of the list with most birds seen first there. The list:

  • Kodiak – 52 species seen first for the year in Kodiak
  • Anchorage – 20
  • Ketchikan – 18
  • Juneau – 12
  • Homer – 9
  • Hoonah – 4
  • Areas away from cities/islands – 3
  • Sitka – 2
  • Seward – 1
  • Palmer – 1
  • TOTAL – 122 species seen so far