July 31 – Sabine’s Gull Yesterday

I spent most of yesterday not being able to bird. I was aware that a Sabine’s Gull had been seen the day before out on the Anchorage mud flats, but assumed that it would disappear and/or I would not have time to go look for it and/or if I did look I would not be able to find it. I think that I have only seen one Sabine’s Gull before this in Alaska, and it was in Nome a long way from Anchorage.

Important, moving commitments filled yesterday morning and much of the afternoon. Not long after Dave came home from work, we went out to an early dinner to relax and for me to tell him about the day’s events. When I checked my messages on my phone while we waited for our dinner I saw that the Sabine’s Gull had been seen just after 6 pm. We ate leisurely – I still figured there was no point in going to look for the gull. Then as we drove home after eating, I decided to give it a try. As soon as we got home I rapidly got my birding gear together and raced out to the coastal trail by Westchester Lagoon, at what seemed to be the northern end of the beach area where the bird had been reported. I walked much faster than my usual pace along the coastal trail heading south, stopping to scan the mudflats with binoculars and scope wherever there was an opening. It was nearing low tide and the mud flats stretched out to the west a long way from the trail. There were hardly any birds and no other birders. The few gulls that I could see were flying and even I could tell that they were clearly not Sabine’s Gulls.

I passed the Audubon’s Bench and the Fish Creek bridge. Nothing. Along the way to Lynn Ary Park where the bird had also been seen the trail is crowded with alder brush on the inlet side for long stretches blocking any view so I just raced along without an opportunity to see if there were any gulls out there. At an opening not very far north of the park (maybe 5 minutes more walking to get there) there were gulls, many of them, some very close to me. Most were Bonaparte’s Gulls but there was one with the beautiful black, white and gray pattern of a Sabine’s Gull. It was flying low to the mud and puddles, periodically dipping down, and every now and then landing and immediately lifting off again. All the while it was rapidly moving south. I left my scope and raced along the path toward it, hoping to get near enough for a picture. At 7:16 I took two rapid sets of pictures and then there were bushy trees between me and the bird and it disappeared from view.

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As you will note, my pictures of the gull appear as if my camera were set to take black-and-white pictures but that was not the case, which can be seen in the next picture that I took of a sleeping Sandhill Crane that I saw as I walked back along the trail. The distant flats beyond the crane are mostly black-and-white but the grass and crane are in color. I kept hoping the gull would be seen again wandering the beach but it was not. There were other birds coming in to rest on the mud, including Bonaparte’s Gulls, a few Arctic Terns, Greater Yellowlegs, and Hudsonian Godwits.

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A very rewarding ending to a very filled day.

July 28 – Mostly Lake Birding

This morning I first went to Lakes Spenard and Hood. Bonaparte’s Gulls were eating on the water at Lake Spenard.

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Farther down the road at Lake Hood, the Red-throated Loon was sleeping and did not appear interested in me, so I left. When I came back past the lakes I stopped again because the loon was much closer to shore. When I walked to the shore, the loon swam rapidly toward me. When it got about 5 feet away, it turned around and went back out again, apparently to go back to sleep. If you listen closely to the video, you might hear me greeting the loon in sort of baby talk as it got close.

On the south side of the lakes, I could only find one of the Horned Grebes, with many scaup and goldeneyes (not shown).

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I then went to Westchester Lagoon. There were many Red-necked Grebes there, some of which were feeding half-grown young, others sleeping and one that seemed to be still trying to nest on what looks like floating vegetation in an area where people canoe. Probably not a good idea, especially this late in the summer. I also got a series of shots as one of the grebes dove.

At the pond between the Lagoon and the inlet, dowitchers and yellowlegs were also sleeping, and a Northern Pintail was periodically up-ending.

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Out on the mudflats, two Sandhill Cranes were walking around as the tide rose gradually (a lower high tide than a couple of days ago) when I first got there. The first picture below shows the Fish Creek mouth at near high tide and the next three pictures show the water gradually filling in over 1/2 hour or so. The last shows the distant cranes.

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About 40 Hudsonian Godwits were eating out on the mud flats and then took off for somewhere else with a yellowlegs.

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While I was looking out over the rising waters, a Merlin came from behind me and zoomed across the flats and disappeared. About 20 minutes later when I was walking back to my car, I was surprised and delighted to find that the Merlin was perched on dead snags in the pond next to the lake, above the dowitchers and yellowlegs. Although I did not get a picture of the action, I watched the Merlin fly off chasing a  magpie for a while before returning to perch in a distant evergreen across the pond.

 

 

July 27 – Anchorage Birds and a Bear

For a couple of rainy days I did not birdwatch except in our yard. Mostly I worked on revising my book manuscript in response to the reviewers’ comments and worked on client matters. When I did look out the windows I mostly saw (surprise) wet birds and hungry birds. Many were young birds. Photographed birds include Dark-eyed Juncos, White-crowned Sparrow (with junco), Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, Pine Siskins and Steller’s Jay.

Today I finally ventured forth, first to Campbell Creek Estuary Natural Area.

Three distant Sandhill Cranes, a young American Robin and a Lincoln’s Sparrow were photographed.

At Potter Marsh on the mud, there were at least 50 Greater Yellowlegs (mostly sleeping), a couple of Short-billed Dowitchers, a few Wilson’s Snipe (one also sleeping) and four Least Sandpipers (latter not photographed).

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As was true the last time I was there, many young Yellow-rumped Warblers and Dark-eyed Juncos were flitting about the boardwalk. I photographed an Orange-crowned Warbler and a calling Bald Eagle. I also had a fleeting glimpse of a Blackpoll Warbler but no photo.

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I was about to quit for the day but decided to drive the old highway behind the marsh. There were quite a few singing Alder Flycatchers along the road, one of which I photographed.

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It was a nice day so I parked the car and walked along the road. I was probably 300 feet or so from the car when I heard brush rustling along the road and there, about 50 feet from me was a BLACK BEAR, a pretty big bear! It was looking at me but did not seem nervous. I was nervous – nervous enough that I forgot that I did have my bear spray in my vest pocket. I didn’t have to worry about it though. I just backed away, getting one photo, and went back to my car.

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I drove forward to where the bear had been, and the bear was still there. It had climbed a few feet up the tree it had been near, but then backed down, and walked quickly back into the woods, letting me get a few more photos as it took a log trail. That was my first Anchorage bear encounter when I was not in my car.

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July 24 – More Stunning Than Watching Grass Grow

It was actually the opposite of watching grass grow – the grass (and mud) disappeared, as the waters rose both nearly invisibly and rapidly.

This morning I went to Westchester Lagoon and the coastal trail to the south of there by the Audubon Bench. It was maybe an hour before high tide, a very high tide of 32.6 feet (as compared to the previous low time of 1.8 feet). Hudsonian Godwits were accumulating on the island in the Lagoon, Short-billed Dowitchers were gathered on the pond just west of the Lagoon and Canada Geese were scattered across the lake.

Out on the mudflats water had started to cover the mud. Two Sandhill Cranes were strolling in the grass and mudflats. A couple of times they paused in their strolling to call loudly.

A few mostly Greater Yellowlegs were wandering about, and all seemed calm. But it was not. The water was rising, rising, rising, and it was almost impossible to see it happen. Gradually the cranes and shorebirds were forced closer to me and whole areas of mud disappeared. The shorebirds (yellowlegs, Least Sandpipers mostly) began to fly about with nowhere to land except in the water. It was clear that there was advantage to having the long legs of the cranes and yellowlegs but eventually they had to fly away.

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After the shorebirds had all departed for unknown more upland sites, ducks and Bonaparte’s Gulls swam in closer.

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Back in the Lagoon the shorebirds had also disappeared. As I walked the trail, all of a sudden a family of mostly grown Mallards came splashing wildly across the lake toward me and the shore. I was confused until I heard the cry of a Bald Eagle above. Maybe they thought I’d protect them from the eagle.

There were many Red-necked Grebes around, both half-grown young and adults. The oddest thing was that two adults seemed to be trying to build a nest on what appeared to be a floating mass of vegetation, since the water of the Lagoon had not before this had a little island at that spot. Very strange.

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July 21 – Way Too Many Grouse Pictures

I just could not stop taking pictures this morning. I was on a drive up Arctic Valley Road  and saw the round dark blob ahead in the road just under two miles from the upper end of the road. Although I have seen one Spruce Grouse this year in the Kenai area, this was the first one for this year in Anchorage, even though I have been looking regularly. I took pictures as I drove closer, and then parked and got out and walked toward him. Although he was clearly keeping a cautious eye on me, most of the time he was eating along the roadside or wandering out in the middle of the road for a while. When another car drove by rapidly and scared him into flying away, I drove to the end of the road and turned around. When I got to where he had been, the grouse had returned to the same roadside spot so I drove up to him and took pictures out the window. He never left while I was there, and eventually even I got tired of taking pictures. Below is a small (really) selection of some of my favorites. Such a beautiful bird, no matter what his pose! It’s very good they are digital pictures; taking old-fashioned slides would have bankrupted me.

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July 19 – Wet Birds, not Water Birds

It’s rained the last couple of days. That and indoor chores have kept me away from wandering around the Anchorage waterways. Instead, I have watched and photographed our wet yard birds.

The Dark-eyed Juncos have been out in force in the rain, usually at least 6-7 are around. One of them has a whiter than usual tail.

The Pine Siskins often outnumber the juncos, with 10 being on the porch and feeders a little while ago. They sometimes share a feeder with the juncos.

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Less numerous are the woodpeckers, although we recently have had multiple youngsters and parents of each species Today there were just a Downy hopping on the porch railing, and a single Hairy Woodpecker sometimes sharing a log with another Downy.

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The Black-billed Magpie that was just around appears to be a wet youngster with a shorter tail.

While some of the birds are looking a bit shabby in the rain, the fireweeds in the back yard are thriving and beginning to bloom. So far they uneaten by the neighborhood moose that we saw yesterday down the street.

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July 17 – Anchorage Water Birds

I checked out a few of my favorite Anchorage sites to see how they were doing after my weeklong absence. There were numerous duck families, Mallards, American Wigeons, Northern Shovelers and Green-winged Teal at  Lakes Spenard and Hood. Some of the ducklings were nearly adult-size, but there were also many tiny ducklings.

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There were two Red-necked Phalaropes at Lake Hood in the midst of the many ducks.

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The Red-throated Loon is still at Lake Hood, but seemed somewhat nervous about staying too near me and also seemed very sleepy. The only noises it made sounded a bit unhappy. Maybe it was a bad weekend at the lake.

I saw only one Red-necked Grebe when I drove along the north side of the lakes, also quite sleepy.

On the south side of the lake, I looked for more Red-necked Grebes, but instead found two red-necked Horned Grebes, my first of the year.

At Potter Marsh, the highlights were a noisy Spotted Sandpiper and a munching moose.

At a very brief stop at Spenard Crossing in the early afternoon, I photographed two tame young Mew Gulls.

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I did not stay long at Westchester Lagoon either, just long enough to take pictures of the Short-billed Dowitchers (with a couple Greater Yellowlegs) and some action shots of one of the Red-necked Grebe families, still actively feeding their young.

 

 

 

 

July 10-15 – Nome Birding Trip — Pied Wheatear and More

I’m back in Anchorage now and able to post pictures and more information about my  trip to Nome that ended yesterday. Yve Morrell, who is doing an ABA big year, invited me to join her in Nome, with the goals of seeing a first-ever hemisphere record bird, the Pied Wheatear, and of adding more birds to her year list. Missions accomplished. Yve, however, was delayed a day in getting to Nome.

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Some Nome scenes and flowers are shown, beginning with some downtown sites:

Below are highlights of the trip for me.

One of the most commonly seen birds was Long-tailed Jaeger. This picture was taken on Monday the 10th as I drove some of the Council Road before Yve arrived.

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While I was waiting on the foggy morning of the 11th for Yve’s delayed flight in, I encountered a Common Raven near the airport that seemed to want to tell me something.

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On most days we saw at least one Eastern Yellow Wagtail, usually not staying in one place very long. Usually they were seen in sandy/gravel areas on the Council Road.

Also on Council Road near Cape Nome were Yellow Warblers and Pacific Golden-Plovers (photos), Common Redpolls, American Pipits, Lapland Longspurs, and White-crowned and Fox Sparrows. Farther out were many Common Eiders and a couple of Tundra Swans (photos). We also saw many Red-throated Loons, and a couple each of Common, Pacific and Arctic Loons, but none of my pictures of the loons shows much detail so they are not shown here. On Thursday on our way back from a drive out Council Road Yve and I stopped at a gravel pit where Bank Swallows were nesting in holes high above us.

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Our main goal at Cape Nome was the Pied Wagtail. From Tuesday the 11th through much of Thursday, we did not have a single sighting that we were sure was our target bird, even though we spent about 4 hours there each day. Finally on Thursday (13th) afternoon when we saw the bird well-enough to confirm its identity, we realized that we had probably seen it earlier, darting from one rocky area to another and up to the alder-covered slopes, rarely pausing long enough to allow us to see it well. Photographs were even trickier, but finally, possible.

Of course we were elated!

Before we saw the Pied Wheatear, late on Wednesday morning we took a break from the hunt. Peter Burke from Colorado, whom we met while he was also looking for the wheatear, told us that he had found a Bar-tailed Godwit on Teller Road. In addition to seeing a godwit walking the river rocks as it ate, we saw a few Rock Ptarmigans on Teller Road.

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On Friday Yve, Peter and I went out Kougarok Road to try to find Bristle-thighed Curlew, a species difficult to find anywhere in the continental U.S. except in the Nome area. On the way there we found a family of the very similar Whimbrels along the road (picture of a young Whimbrel).

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Also along the road was a single caribou, probably the same animal that we saw on the back on the road later that day.

At about mile 72-plus on Kougarok Road we did the arduous climb up Coffee Dome, my 4th trip up it, much harder the older I get. We got to the top without sign of the curlew and hardly any other birds except a noisy American Golden-Plover. We were surrounded, however, by many hungry mosquitos and biting flies.

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We turned around to head back down the hill on a somewhat different part of the hill and all of a sudden were being scolded by two very irate Bristle-thighed Curlews, which sometimes dove at us as we progressed through their obvious territory.

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On our drive back into Nome we took a side-trip up toward Pilgrim hot springs. When we got to where we could walk out on the tundra, we went looking for Northern Wheatear and were delighted to find about seven of them, including some fuzzy young ones.

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Before evening that day Peter took us for a quick drive so we could see musk ox, which he had seen earlier.

On our last day in Nome, Yve and I drove all the way out to Teller (about 70 miles), with White Wagtail as our goal. It was a bit foggy and sometimes rainy (the first we’d had during the daytime on the trip) but beautiful anyway. We saw maybe 40 Willow Ptarmigan along the road, including many family groups.

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We did find two adult White Wagtails in Teller, and on the drive out of town had 3 or 4 young wagtails (photographed through the front window of the car; although unfocused the clear difference in color of the immature along the roadside can be seen in the photo).

It was definitely a trip to make us happy birders!

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I plan to go back to Nome soon!