March 31 – A Few Spring Things

I went to a few of my favorite Anchorage birding spots today to see if anything spring-like was evident. It was a crisp mostly clear morning when I got to Potter Marsh (17 degrees). I first drove along the road to see if there was any open water. Although I could not see any from the road, I could see a few unfrozen openings in the ice when I got to the boardwalk. I did see four distant moose, and then when scanning for more of them, I found two lonely swans sitting on the icy ground.

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When I got to the boardwalk, the swans saw me and took off to fly past me, heading north. I barely had a chance to turn on my camera and get a few pictures and they were gone.

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There were three Bald Eagles at Potter, two at this year’s nest tree, which unlike previous years’ nests there that I have seen unfortunately will be bisected by power lines in all pictures taken this year from the boardwalk.

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There also was an immature Bald Eagle that landed in the trees near the parking lot.

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At Cuddy Pond were the usual Mallards and two Common Goldeneyes, plus a zillion Black-billed Magpies, but no geese or gulls.

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There were two gulls, however, along Denali Street as I drove north, so I had to pull over to get pictures of one of them that sat on a light pole. It looks more like a Herring Gull than the one I saw last week, but it still could be one of the common Herring-Glaucous-winged hybrids. Comments are welcome.

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When I got to Spenard Crossing I found two Trumpeter Swans that first were perched on the ice and that then gradually lowered themselves into the ice water to join the single Barrow’s Goldeneye. Possibly they were the same two swans that I had seen at Potter Marsh.

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Behind them was a flock of sleeping Common Goldeneyes and a couple of Common Mergansers. Eventually they woke up and the Barrow’s Goldeneye joined them.

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At Ship Creek there was another pair of Common Goldeneyes.

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Just as I was leaving Ship Creek two gulls flew over. Although their wingtips were definitely not dark black, they were anywhere from grayish to sort of blackish as viewed from underneath depending on the light angle. Comments anyone on the ID?

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All in all, a good start to spring arrivals.

March 20 – Creeping into Spring

It is officially the first day of spring. Although the snow is indeed melting and skies are blue, we expect at least a few more snows and more cold weather. The Mallards are coming more frequently to our yard, sometimes in the broad daylight, which drives our dog crazy as he watches through the back window.

One sign of spring is the recent periodic appearances of two Hairy Woodpeckers in our yard, which have been absent since the summer.

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Also another apparent sign of spring was a pair of Brown Creepers talking and flitting from tree to tree at Spenard Crossing this morning. As usual they were difficult to photograph, but I did get a few shots.

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Another sign of spring was the increased numbers of Common Mergansers and Common Goldeneyes at Spenard Crossing, where the water was flowing briskly along in some large open areas that had very recently been covered with ice.

The pictures below are of Common Mergansers and Mallards there, the last one showing the arrival of one of the male mergansers from farther out on the water and his being greeted by two of the females.

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Finally is a picture of a Common Raven at Spenard Crossing. They usually seem to disappear when I point my camera at them, but this one was engrossed in getting across the ice to where the ducks were.

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March 17 – Non-green St. Patrick’s Day

Things are, as expected, very white here now. We’ve had a break from new snow, with melting, slush, messy muddy roads as some of our piled-up snow slowly sinks down, but more snow is expected tomorrow night, I understand. The birds around our house, as well as on the few local birding jaunts that I’ve recently taken, are also those that are expected. We wait for spring, but at least the daylight hours almost equal the nighttime hours.

Birds photographed around our house include Red-breasted Nuthatch and Downy Woodpecker.

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Probably due to the Northern Goshawk that was in our yard for a few days weeks ago, the Mallards from then until yesterday only came down before dawn and after dusk. So, no photos that weren’t dark. But yesterday, although they were very easily spooked, they came down when it was quite light out. As I typed this a large flock of Mallards was circling the yard gain trying to decided if it was safe. Not only do they have worries about the Goshawk, but of course, every now and then our dog is out in the yard, and he loves to chase ducks.

Places visited in Anchorage lately include Potter Marsh,

Spenard Crossing (birds in photos are Red-breasted Nuthatch, Mallards, Common Goldeneye),

Point Woronzoff,


and the Campbell Creek Estuary Natural Are, where there were beautiful mountain views across the inlet.

March 6 – McWonderful Nome

I only spent a day in Nome (March 5), and I only saw 3 bird species all day, but it was a great day. The trip started the late afternoon before that, and was a bit nerve-wracking, even though it was a beautiful clear day for the first half of the trip and we were able to get a view of distant mountains to the north and of Denali, partly obscured by clouds by the time the plane got close enough for me to get a picture.


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We flew to Nome via Kotzebue, which was almost invisibleĀ  in the foggy, blowing snow.

When the plane reached the Nome area, the visibility was even worse and the pilot came down quite a bit and then went back up and circled a couple of times, trying to see the airport. He told us that he would try to see the airport one more time approaching from the west, and if that didn’t work, we would have to go back to Anchorage. He apparently saw something as we got lower and lower, and decided to lower the wheels and wingflaps (I forget what they are called) for landing, but looking out the window I could not see anything until seconds before we landed. Even then everything was vague and blurry. There was much applause and cheering as we landed.

I stayed overnight at a wonderful airbnb, where I have stayed before, Remi’s – two friendly hosts and their cute pets:

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The next day had a bit more visibility, enough to see nearby birds anyway, although looking out to sea or across the land away from town all was white and frozen.

I drove to Round the Clock Road as it began to be light out, the traditional place to find my goal birds, McKay’s Buntings. Two residents there put out birdseed at the traditional site to find the buntings on the ground in the driveway near the road and another site with a platform feeder nestled in the few low trees near the end of the road (feeder of Jim Dory, who had posted his bunting sightings there on March 2, so I knew they were around this year, and whom I met as I did my bunting vigil). I added birdseed to the driveway site and periodically got out to try to remove newly fallen snow so the seeds could be found by the birds.

I spent the entire snowy day there sitting in my car waiting for buntings to show up, except for time spent returning in late midday to go to my room and then to go to an enjoyable visit with two new acquaintances, Pastor Charles Brower and his wife Janet, including discussion of the Poor People’s Campaign, a National Call for Moral Revival.

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As I said, birding was slow. It was a long morning, mostly birdless except for a few Common Ravens flying by and a very quick glimpseĀ in mid-morning of four buntings, one of which seemed to be a McKay’s Bunting. It was not until early afternoon when more buntings appeared, a very welcome flock of about 25, about half and half McKay’s and Snow Buntings. They did not stay long and only came back once before I left for my nonbirding activities. Later in the day after a short drive along the frozen ocean, I returned to find a mixed flock of about 42 buntings flitting between the two feeding areas and disappearing across the fields and reappearing.

Although both species are mostly white, they generally can be distinguished by the McKay’s having a white or at least a whiter back, and much less black and brown on them elsewhere. Because the species hybridize, however, and because the plumages of winter birds can be very similar, especially in the females, not all birds are easily identified as to species. My pictures show birds in quite a variety of plumages.

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As I sat there, listening for buntings and then watching and photographing them when they finally appeared, I was curious to see if I could hear any difference in the sounds of the two species, as none of my apps had recordings of the sound of McKay’s. Mostly I could not tell which bird(s) were making sounds, however, except when I got a short video of two McKay’s Buntings on a power line, but I still could not tell whether their sounds were different from those of Snow Buntings. In the video the sound unfortunately are very faint.

The above still photos of the buntings do not at all reveal how jumpy and constantly in rapid motion they were as they fed on the seed, as can be seen from video below:

Most people that go to Nome to bird go there around early June, and rarely at other times except to chase particular rarities, such as the Pied Wheatear that came there last summer. People interested in adding McKay’s Buntings to their year-lists or life-lists go there in winter, one of the best places and times to find them, which is of course what I just did. I am also interested in finding out what birding is like there at other times of the year. I have more trips to Nome planned in early April, mid-May and early June, and will add later summer and fall trips after that. Like doing big years, this Nome exploration is for me mainly a way to have an excuse to go birding somewhere interesting that is not just around my home. Stay tuned to find out what my Nome-year is like.

March 3 – Ceremonial and Other Starts

First, before I talk about three different starts, are photos of a very fluffy Common Redpoll that has been around our yard lately, for at least a week. The fact that it is all puffed up, as well as being very tame, makes me think it is sick, but it seems to be hanging in there.

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I have a few pictures of the start of a full moon evening recently as the moon rose over mountains east of our house:

Most of this blog post is on the ceremonial start of the Iditarod in downtown Anchorage this morning. Tomorrow the real race, which I understand goes for about 1050 miles, begins north of Anchorage, ending in Nome on Anchorage’s west coast. While there are what I understand to be valid concerns associated with the race and about the dogs about dog treatment issues, it still is exciting to watch the action. The crowd was huge, much larger than when I went to last week’s Fur Rendezvous race. They are kept from the dogs by ropes on both sides of the downtown Anchorage track, and by vigilant police and other officials, but the officials and the official press are allowed much closer to the action.

You will see from these photos that there are multiple people and sometimes two sleds being towed by the dog teams (all teams seemed to have 12 dogs on today’s ceremonial start). The real race only has the one “musher”. Today’s extra people got to ride in the ceremonial start race only, some paying to do so, some winning raffles, some as part of a “make a wish”. In the real race, the single sled is piled high with provisions for the cross-country trek.”

The first two videos below are dogs waiting for the action to begin (teams go one-by-one, with dogs, sleds, handlers, mushers all waiting impatiently, spread out for blocks, the teams advancing slowly as the teams ahead of them reach the starting line and are given the signal by the announcer to take off).


The other thing starting soon is my Nome birding for the year. Tomorrow evening I will fly there for a one-day stop, aimed at seeing what birds are around at this time of the year, which hopefully will include McKay’s and Snow Buntings, but probably not much more. On the way back to Anchorage on Monday evening I probably won’t fly over the Iditarod dogs, which will probably be north of where we fly, and it will be dark so I wouldn’t see them anyway. But I’ll be thinking about the rigors, for both mushers and dogs, in this grueling race. I won’t be in Nome when they end the race, which I think takes at least about 8 days. But I’ll be back each month through the summer and into the fall, to see what the birding and the birds are like there as the year progresses.