April 17 – The Waiting Continues

The birds are waiting for the ice to melt, and I am waiting for more birds to arrive.

At Potter Marsh yesterday (April 16) there were Canada Geese, Mew Gulls (as well as a few larger Herring/Glaucous-winged hybrid types), Green-winged Teal and Northern Pintails out on small puddles or icy expanse:

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Again there were moose, this time five of them, two of which are shown here.

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The Black-billed Magpies were not waiting, and were working on a nest that is mostly obscured by branches, as are they.

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At Hood and Spenard Lakes, there was no open water, and no noticeable activity by birds or humans.

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Spenard Crossing, however, was busy. Close by the parking lot were the usual Mallards and Common Mergansers, along with both species of goldeneye.

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Resting Mew Gulls (and possibly a few larger gulls mixed in) were out on one of the big remaining expanses of ice, clearly waiting.

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The previously reported Canvasback was way out on a distant patch of open water. While I was watching it and trying to get photos, two Buffleheads appeared.

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My last stop was out at Ship Creek, where I was delighted to find my first American Wigeons of the year in addition to the Gadwalls, Mallards and Canada Geese.

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I’m trying to not just sit back and wait for new species, so right now I’m leaving my computer to check out a few areas and see if anything else has arrived.

April 13 – Early Spring Highlights

Most of the recent new birds for the year have been waterfowl, including Northern Pintails (Spenard Crossing and Potter Marsh), a Gadwall (Spenard Crossing), four Green-winged Teal (Potter Marsh), and Canada Geese (nearly everywhere there is water). Also shown in the photos below are Common Mergansers, one of the Trumpeter Swans, and some of our backyard Mallard visitors on the increasingly snow-free lawn.

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Other newcomers to Anchorage are more and more Herring-type gulls (Herring, and Herring x Glaucous-winged hybrids) and just today, my first Mew Gulls at Potter Marsh.

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Early this morning I drove to Girdwood, stopping along the road at Potter Marsh to photograph the sunrise.

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At Potter Marsh were 12 (!!!) moose all visible at the same time, spread out across the marsh. Yesterday at Potter Marsh a moose crossed the parking lot right behind me, walking between me and my car.

In Girdwood, the Northwestern Crows were collecting nesting material.

Although there have been reports of more than usual numbers of Red Crossbills in southern parts of the Anchorage Borough, a small flock of them in Girdwood near the gas station/intersection was my first sighting of the year.

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Also, just behind the Girdwood gas station, two American Dippers were calling and diving along the edge of the rushing river.

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On the road between Girdwood and Portage Road, I saw a raptor, much smaller than an eagle, sitting along the road as I whizzed by. I did a U-turn at the first opportunity. The bird was still there, but immediately flew as I slowly drove toward it, so I only got one picture. Its dark belly and black patterned wings made me conclude that it was a Rough-legged Hawk. I was worried that it might be a smallish immature eagle, but my picture of one of those from yesterday (picture below the hawk picture) was clearly different.

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At this time of the year, it is very difficult to quit birding and do chores – there are too many places to check for new birds, and likely new birds just around every corner. Each year it’s a new adventure.

 

 

 

 

April 6-9 – Nome Report, Part 2

This part of my blog covers everything non-ptarmigan from my recent trip to Nome (I checked my records and I actually took about 1700 pictures during those three days, a large percentage of which were of ptarmigan; see yesterday’s post for my all-ptarmigan post). I couldn’t resist including a couple more ptarmigan pictures here in which the birds blend in nearly completely with the snow:

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Following are pictures of some of the landscapes, including a view of the tiny area of the Nome River where I could see water flowing, landscapes with snow nearly covering everything, and landscapes with trees (yard-full plus one on distant slope):

On the second full day (April 8), I got up in time to be out on Kougarok Road as the sun rose on the cloudy morning (the other two days were mostly clear):

Periodically along the road, particularly near the ends, there were many parked vehicles and snow machines, but rarely did I see people near them.

The ocean view was mostly rather boring as it was all ice as far as the eye could see, except for a few dark bumps that turned out to be either distant people or apparently Christmas trees that had been placed on the ice to make a little open forest. There were also numerous tire and sled trails out there. With binoculars, it appeared that there was open water glinting way out, but nothing close enough to bring in visible birds if any were out there.

I had photographed the windmill-hill on the flight in, which I later found was located on Teller Road. On my second drive on the road I saw  dark lumps at the top, which turned out to be the wandering musk ox herd.

Other mammals seen were a single reindeer outside the nearby the empty reindeer pasture, and four moose wandering along the frozen Nome River, way out in the open (presumably it’s not hunting season).

Birds in addition to Willow Ptarmigan of particular interest to me were the continuing Snow (mostly black and white) and McKay’s (less numerous; nearly all white) Buntings at seeds put out on Round the Clock Road and flitting about in a plowed parking lot downtown where brown grass (and presumably grass seed), was protruding through the snow. Possibly it is only due to their whiteness, but it seems that the McKay’s Buntings are slightly larger than the Snow Buntings. I did notice that they often appear to be more aggressive and to chase away nearby Snow Buntings.

There were also a couple of Black-capped Chickadees, and dozens of Common Ravens, the latter mostly at the landfill on Kougarok Road.

I so enjoyed this trip, and so want to see the ptarmigan as their molt progresses and the land as it is gradually exposed and the rivers can be seen, that I have added a short trip toward the end of April. If I hadn’t booked so many non-bird activities in Anchorage and other bird-related trips away from Anchorage this spring, I would probably add even more trips to Nome, but I do have a couple more before summer is in full swing (such as it is in Alaska).

 

 

 

 

April 6-9 – Nome Report, Part 1 – White on White

It was only 3 full days for this Nome trip, but I took about 1000 pictures, most of them of Willow Ptarmigan, which will be the subject of this post. I will cover the other birds, mammals and general scenes in a later post (or posts). Most of my pictures taken on this trip were of mostly white subjects (Willow Ptarmigan, Snow Buntings, McKay’s Buntings) on the white snow background, requiring me to take as many photos as possible of course. Of course, most everything was some sort of off-white, blue-white, gray-white, etc. The ptarmigan were generally the most white things around. Even when no ptarmigan were visible, their tracks were everywhere showing they had been there (or as I called them in 2008, “ptarmigan ptracks”).

There are three main roads that lead out of Nome, all of which are still mostly snow-covered and impassable except by snow machine. With my rental car I went to the end of each where a sign (and big berms of snow) told me to turn around. That allowed me to go about 6 miles on Teller Road (from the subdivision where Round the Clock and buntings are to the Snake River), about 13 miles on Kougarok Road  (from the beginning of the road, where it is called “Beam” road, to the Nome River bridge) and about 4 miles on Council Road from Beam Road. So I drove each of these roads multiple times, more on the first two roads where Willow Ptarmigan were present. Usually there would be miles without ptarmigan and without much brush, but where there were clumps of brush protruding through the snow, there were often ptarmigan flocks.

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On my trips on the drivable length of Kougarok Road I counted 109, 72, 125 and 46 ptarmigan and on Teller Road, 75, 20 and 121 ptarmigan, depending on the day. On Kougarok Road the birds were generally found near the dump (where the ravens congregate) and at the Nome River, while on Teller Road the birds were often just past the high school and near the Snake River. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to when the birds were around, but it did appear that they came down to the road area more in the afternoon, and could be quite scarce or distant from the road in the early morning. Because of their color they were often extremely difficult to see, but usually when they weren’t snuggled in the bushes, they could be spotted by the white lumps that weren’t snow, often slowly or quickly moving lumps, out on the snow or up on the branches.

When they were on the road, they were much easier to see, of course, especially because they were usually on exposed areas of dirt (the vehicles are parked along the road, usually where someone has taken off on a snow machine or has a nearby house and an unplowed driveway).

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While they were feeding in the branches, their footing was usually quite tenuous, resulting in laughable poses as they reached for yet another bud.

Mostly when I slowed or stopped my car, they would look up and stay put, or sometimes would seem to ignore me and just scurry across the snow to get to a juicy bud.

But if they were on the road, which they often were, they sometimes flew. Very rarely I was able to get a flight shot that wasn’t through the front window.

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Without noticeable exception all ptarmigan seen the first two days, and almost all on day 3, had only white feathers with the only other feather color being their black tail feathers. On the last day, however, on Teller Road (but not on Kougarok Road), I noticed about 5 birds that were beginning to get their rusty-brown neck feathers (although I did not notice it when taking the picture, one ptarmigan had a red comb over the eye but no new colored feathers). Spring is coming to Nome.

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April 5 – Anchorage Waterfowl

Although most nights have been significantly below freezing lately, the temperature has gotten enough above freezing during most days so that much melting has occurred. In our back yard, this means we have actually had a very little “lake” (a big puddle really). This has delighted the Mallards that periodically descend upon our yard.

This morning I quickly birded a handful of Anchorage sites today before heading off to a morning meeting. All that appeared at Potter Marsh were distant Black-capped Chickadees, a Downy Woodpecker and a Bald Eagle. I expect that things may open up soon, but not yet.

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At Cuddy Park the only waterfowl were the zillion Mallards and the two continuing Common Goldeneyes, mostly invisible as they repeatedly dove.

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At Spenard Crossing the two Trumpeter Swans were still around, as were the goldeneyes and a couple of Common Mergansers. Nothing new, but soon….

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Tomorrow afternoon I am scheduled to fly to Nome for my second trip of the year. This time I’m staying more than a day, and hope to drive outside of town and at least add a few Willow Ptarmigan to my year list. From my review of prior records, however, few spring migrants are likely to have arrived. But that’s the point of these trips – to bring the past records alive to me and see what’s around, month-to-month.

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,

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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 invisible  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 glimpse 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.