Monday, June 27, 2011

Homer Alaska

Two days ago we made the 460 mile drive from Denali NP to Homer. With a short lunch stop it took about 9 hours. Our "home away from home" while in Homer is the Two Sisters bakery and B&B. The bakery is open during the day beginning at 7 AM except Sundays when it opens at 9. It is a hot spot in town based on how busy it has been throughout our stay. On the drive down we saw quite a few bald eagles including the one in the photo just below. I also have posted below the eagle a shot of one of the willow ptarmigan chicks we saw at Denali--remember to click on any photo to enlarge.

The sun was shining as we pulled into Homer but most of the time since we arrived it has been cloudy which makes the mountains and glaciers surrounding Kachemak Bay all the more breathtaking. I am not sure that I have been anywhere that has as dramatic a setting as Homer based on the proximity of the mountains to the town and the bay, and the clarity of the air.

The main purpose for visiting Homer was for us to take a morning boat ride out onto the bay to look for seabirds. Our trip was not scheduled until this morning, so yesterday after sleeping in and eating breakfast at the Two Sisters, we drove down the Homer spit which is 4+ miles surrounded by water. There were not all that many birds about but we did see pacific and common loons, black-legged kittiwakes and white-winged scoters.

After dropping my wife back at the B&B, I drove out East End road to look for boreal species and had the good fortune to locate a northern hawk owl shown in the photo just above. This is a bird that is seen more here in the winter than in the summer, but is never common. I also found some pine siskins feeding with the male common redpoll in the photo just below.

This morning we were up before 7 to have time for a quick breakfast before heading down to the Homer Spit to meet Karl Stoltzfus, the captain of the Torego. There were 2 other couples from New York and Ohio respectively who joined our trip out onto the bay. It was windier than yesterday which made the water a bit rougher than normal, but nothing to keep us from getting across the bay to reach the better seabirding spots. The first was a group of rock islands on which mostly black-legged kittiwakes breed, but also red-faced cormorants--an Alaskan specialty bird. You can see 2 perched on the rocks in the photo just below.

We then began a slow meander up the bay in search of kittlitz's murrelets. On the way we ran into the tufted puffin in the photo just above, plus 100's of common murres some of which you can see on the water behind the puffin. For the next hour we would check out all the murrelets we came across in search of the kittlitz's. We found lots of marbled murrelets, and then finally located a single kittlitz's that flew away confirming by its outer white tail feathers that it was a Kittlitz's. Its quick departure precluded my getting a photo.

We returned to the dock just before noon wishing we had seen more than one Kittlitz's, but still pleased to have seen the one plus the red-faced cormorants. All in all I have to feel good that I was able to see both of these birds plus the gray-headed chickadee last week which are all life birds for me.

I was asked by Aaron while on the raft trip how many ABA area breeding birds I had left to see. I realized I had never thought about that question. Now that I have seen these 3 birds, and having done some research on Aaron's query, I can say that I only have 6 remaining breeding birds that you would reasonably be expected to see in the ABA area. The group includes McKay's bunting, red-legged kittiwake, spectacled eider, whooper swan, common snipe and whiskered auklet--all Alaska birds that will require some additional effort to see on some future trips to Alaska.

There is also the aplomado falcon and CA condor to see again once they are back on the ABA acceptable list. Finally, there are five code 4 (white-tailed eagle, Eurasian dotterel, white-winged tern, eared quetzal, and Eurasian jackdaw) and one code 5 (lanceolated warbler) birds that have been known to breed in the ABA area but seeing them is another matter. For now my wife and I are looking forward to visiting Seward tomorrow before heading back home. Stay tuned!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Denali National Park

My wife and I drove up to Denali NP on Wed. afternoon. We had dinner at 229 Parks Restaurant and Tavern which is named for the mile marker on the Denali Hwy. My sister had eaten there last fall and highly recommended it. We started with fresh local pacific oysters and a garden salad. The buckwheat flour braided bread served with lemon/dill butter was particularly good. Next up were some outstanding duck confit tacos. We followed them with a fine halibut bouillabaisse that included paper thin fresh pasta strips, manila clams and green lipped mussels. Dessert was a chocolate trio, and a custard tart smothered in fresh blueberries, raspberries and blackberries. We drank a bottle of Nautilus sauvignon blanc from New Zealand. It proved to be a great starter meal for our time in Denali. We were so hungry and attentive to the food that I spaced out taking pictures of the dishes.

After dinner we went into the reception area at the McKinley Chalet Resort where we were staying to use the wifi. As we were leaving we ran into our friend and neighbor Brian who works for Aramark which manages the resort. He had helped set up our reservation. It turned out that he was "in town" for a couple of days on business. We had a drink with him and his business colleagues before begging off to get to bed since we knew we had to be up at 5 AM to catch the shuttle bus into the park.

The alarm rang all to quickly, but we were excited about taking the shuttle bus into the park. Denali NP was created in 1917, and has been expanded over the years to include a total of 6 million acres with one road that crosses thru the center of the park. The road is 90 miles long ending at Kantishna where gold was found in the early 1900's. Only the first 14 miles are open to private vehicles unless you have a permit to travel into one of the campgrounds. The vast majority of the visitors ride the shuttle buses past the 14 mile point in order to see the park and the big animals--grizzily bears, moose, caribou, Dall's sheep and wolves--plus Mt. McKinley which is our highest mountain at over 20,000 feet. 1 in 4 tourists to Alaska visit the park each year.

The shuttles are school buses and do not travel very fast on the gravel road. Most people buy a ticket that takes you as far out as the Eielson visitor center at mile post 66. Whenever a big animal is seen the bus stops for everyone to get a good look, and take pictures if the animal is close enough. While not one of the big animals, the red fox just above was a nice sighting on our way out. This particular coloration is called a cross fox--click on any photo to enlarge.

Because Mt. McKinley is so huge in both heighth and width, it creates its own weather system. As a result, it is often surrounded by clouds. They say you can only see part of the mountain 1 out of 3 days, and the top is only visible about 1 in 10 days. As a result the question is often asked as to whether the mountain is "out today". The photo just below shows the double top of the mountain barely visible in the small blue horizontal opening.

It took us 4 hours to make the drive out to Eielson. We then walked another mile down the road in hopes of finding the gyrfalcons that are nesting near mile marker 67. They put up signs wherever key birds of prey, or animals may be trying to raise young. When we arrived at the signs we only found a golden eagle taking sticks to a large nest site. Soon after we were fortunate to see a pair of gyrfalcons circling nearby but very high overhead.

We walked a bit further down the road and found some more signs. As we walked up a male gyrfalcon flew down towards us, and then circled briefly before flying about 300 yards back up the mountain where it perched. We had lunch while we waited hoping it would fly down closer to another perch that was obvious because of the white bird poop splattered below it. Instead the bird just stayed where it had landed, preening and checking out the scene. Unfortunately it was too far away to get a good photo. So instead I have added the 2 pics just below of first a white-crowned sparrow and then a golden-crowned sparrow. I was particularly glad to see the golden-crowned because I had not seen one in breeding plumage.

After over an hour of waiting for the gyrfalcon to come closer, we gave up our vigil and walked back up to the visitor center to catch a bus back. While there I did the "tourist" thing by holding a pair of caribou antlers up so my wife could take a picture. On the way out we actually saw a caribou walking in the river bed (second photo just below). During our bus ride we also saw a couple of moose, a total of 6 grizzly bears, including 3 fairly close by, and lots of Dall's sheep on the mountain sides. The only big animal we missed was a wolf. When we finally returned to the Wilderness Access Center about 5:30 we were more than ready to be off the bus.

We had bought tickets to ride the bus again yesterday, but decided to go to plan B. We slept in, and then drove out to the Savage River parking area which is where private vehicles have to stop. As we were approaching the parking area we were very lucky to have a lynx walk across the road in front of us before disappearing into the brush.

We walked 2 miles further down the road to a point where a trail cut thru the dense low vegetation allowing us to climb up to Primrose ridge. I was hoping to find up on the ridge some of the alpine breeding birds such as rock and white-tailed ptarmigan, lapland longspurs and northern wheatears. After climbing about 1500 feet in elevation we reached a long plateau that we hiked across. No birds were to be found anywhere, but instead we had a lengthy observation of the Dall's sheep in the photo just below. On our way back down we did see a golden eagle and a male northern harrier.

Since we did not find any ptarmigans on the ridge we went down to the river where we saw this male willow ptarmigan in its summer attire. Nearby was the female who had 5 chicks that rushed to hide under their mother. After about 8 miles of hiking we were ready to call it a day once we saw the ptarmigans.

We ate a second meal at 229 Parks which proved to be less impressive than the first nite. The food was still quite good, particularly the halibut tacos, but overall we felt the dishes were less inspired than on the first nite. This morning (Saturday) we were on the road by 8:30 to make the 460 mile drive down to Homer which is on Cook inlet on the Kenai peninsula. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Gray-headed Chickadee Raft Trip--Entry 3

On day 6 we woke up to little wind, strong sun and very mild temps. After breakfast we loaded up the rafts and went over to the other side of the river to look for the arctic warbler that we heard calling all morning. We quickly located it but the bird was not really close and tended to hide some in the leaves as it sang. Eventually everyone got to see a bird that is found only in the summer in Alaska where it has traveled to from its wintering grounds in Thailand.

We started on down the river (photo above) again not knowing what kind of water conditions we might find. After some more mild rapids, it turned out to be much like day 4, mostly floating with some places where we had to pull the raft when it would bottom out. We stopped for lunch at a large spring that came right out of the side of the mountain. The photo just below shows some of the waterflow plus in the middle of the picture is a small round mound with a hole in it. It is the nest made from moss by a dipper which is one of north america's most interesting birds because it walks on the bottom of fast flowing creeks and rivers looking for food. The second photo below is of Richard, Marty, me and Craig standing in front of the spring flow.

After another roughly 10 mile float we arrived at our evening campsite which was at the base of mountain and just above the confluence of the Marsh fork and the main Canning river. By now we were feeling more competent as rafters, and confident that we would make our takeout point the next day. Dinner as always was prepared by Aaron and Bob. Many of the ingredients used for all our meals were air dried veggies and herbs that Bob and his partner Lisa had prepared the previous fall to use on the raft trips run during this summer by WBA.

We woke on Day 7 to another sunny, warm morning. By now everyone had adjusted to it never getting dark, waking at times to see either full light, or even the sun peaking over a low mountain. As we were packing up the boats the skies darkened with very ominous looking clouds. Soon after hitting the river it began to pour down rain--the heaviest of the trip. We quickly floated into the main fork of the Canning river which had much more water in it. While it was nice to have deeper water for floating, unlike the Marsh fork whose water was crystal clear and a most beautiful light hue of aquamarine, the Canning was milky. For 20-30 minutes it rained hard and then let up but stayed overcast. A second downpour came but stopped before long. During the rain a mother moose and 2 calves came walking across the river in front of us.

After the rain ceased we took a break to have a quick lunch, and then floated a short distance to our final campsite for the trip where the next day the bush plane would come pick us up. By the time we had camp set up the sun was out shining brightly. We had seen a red-throated loon while floating, and it plus the arctic warbler had raised the bird trip total to 45.

Since the afternoon had turned so pretty, Bill and I asked Aaron to hike up with us to the low plateau just above our campsite to see if some more new birds might be on the lakes we could not see. We spent the 2+ hours walking over the tundra and found 10 more new birds for the trip including a flock of hoary redpolls. The photo just above is of a pair of horned grebes in full breeding plumage--the male is on the right with bigger yellow "horns" and more black on the neck (click on it to enlarge). The photo just below is of Aaron, and the one below him is of a full breeding plumage american golden plover.

When we returned to camp we all had our last dinner of the trip. It began with margaritas using ice we had chipped off an ice mass along the river. It was Marty's birthday, so we also drank some 21 year old single malt scotch from the Isle of Jura. The dinner was capped off with a dark chocolate tort/cake that Bob had made at home and packed carefully to survive the weeklong trip.

Sunday dawned almost totally clear with light winds. We packed up in stages depending on who was flying out next. We said goodbye to Bob first who took almost all the gear and rafts on the first shuttle flight back to our put in point so that he would be there to meet his next rafting group. Among the new group would be two 80 year olds and two 70 year olds, and they would be taking a 17 day trip that floated all the way to the arctic ocean. The photo just above is of the bush plane landing on the gravel bar to pick us up.

Next out were Jim, John and Sue who made the 45 minute trip back to Arctic Village. After they were dropped off, the bush pilot delivered 3 of the group heading in to meet Bob. Next out for us was Bill, Richard and myself. The photo just above was taken flying back up the river valley which let us see from above where we had floated over the past 6 days. Finally Aaron, Craig and Marty made it back to Arctic Village where we all boarded the bigger plane to make the 90 minute flight back to Fairbanks.

We all said our goodbyes as the group split up to return to their lodging. Craig, Marty, Richard and I returned to our B&B, looking forward to having a shower. We were tired and a bit sore from all our efforts but very thankful to have been able to make a raft trip in such a wild beautiful part of the world. We walked into downtown Fairbanks for dinner, and strolled thru the summer solstice festival. Seeing the booths and people reinforced that Fairbanks is definitely a unique place. I am now in Anchorage where my wife flew into yesterday to meet me. We are about to begin our drive up to Denali NP. Stay tuned!

Gray-headed Chickadee Raft Trip--Entry 2

On our way back from seeing the chickadee on day 3, we walked thru an area looking for another arctic specialty bird, the smith's longspur. I have only seen this bird in its drab winter plumage in Oklahoma so I was excited about finding it in full breeding attire. The photo above is of our group after checking out a smith's--Bob is in the red shirt next to the scope and Aaron is the very tall guy with the dark cap. We were not able to get close enough to take photos but thru the scope we all had good looks at this very colorful bird which is the size of a large sparrow and tends to stay close to the ground.

On day 4 of our trip we loaded up the rafts again (photo above) not sure what the water depth would be. The weather was pretty good, not too hot or cold or windy. We ended up being able to float most of the time with occasional raft hauling. After a long day including some rapids/boulder dodging at the end of our float, we made our preferred campsite by about 7 PM knowing that we would have a 2 nite layover. The 2 niters are great because it takes at least a hour to set up camp in the evening, and at least 2 hours in the morning to break down and reload the rafts.

At this site we also hoped to see wolves at a den that WBA had discovered last year, but the wolves had not returned to it this year. Instead we saw 2 foxes in the same area. Sue also briefly saw a wolverine when she went down to the river to brush her teeth, but when the wolverine saw her it ran off before anyone else could see it.

On day 5 we had a chance to look at a second chickadee nesting site that was located in a narrow side canyon about a quarter mile off the river. The canyon has a pretty stream flowing out of it (photo just above). We headed up there after breakfast to see if the chickadees were back this year. Sure enough they were nesting very high up on the canyon wall in a cliff swallow "house" which you can see in the photo just below--the upper hole had a cliff swallow living in it, but the hole just below to the right was the home of a pair of chickadees (click on photo to enlarge). We watched them actively flying in and out of the "nest" feeding their young.

After watching them for a time we headed further upstream to go look at a cave. As we were crossing the stream we noticed a partially eaten caribou carcass and decided to turn around in case a grizzly bear was in the area. We returned to camp and spent the rest of the day enjoying the beauty and serenity of the Brooks range which reminds me of the highlands of Scotland. During dinner we saw a red fox stalking a rock ptarmigan who of course eluded it by flying away. It landed not far away back upstream, and sat there throughout our meal, giving us good looks at it thru our scope.

While in this area we continued to see new birds for the trip including several say's phoebes which I think of as a desert bird since I usually see them in the southwest, but the arctic is in fact a cold desert. We finished the day with 43 different bird species seen so far on our trip. I have added another photo taken on day 3 of the gray-headed chickadee since on day 5 the chickadees were far too high up to get a good photo. We had been hearing an arctic warbler calling on the other side of the river all day, and planned to look for it on day 6 before heading further down river. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Gray-headed Chickadee Raft Trip--Entry 1

This is the first of my postings on the 8 day raft trip I completed last week with Wilderness Birding Adventures (WBA) in the Arctic NWR located in the northeast corner of Alaska. The trip is run each year between June 10th and 20th with the primary goal of seeing gray-headed chickadees--arguably the most difficult breeding bird to find in North America because of the challenge of locating it in the wilds of Alaska. Because of the vast area in which it lives, finding it while it is nesting makes it somewhat easier to see. However, since it begins nesting in late May, being able to float the rivers in the Arctic NWR in mid June can be problematic due to ice and snow. As the photo above shows, we woke up to snow on our first morning which was a harbinger of the quickly changing and erratic weather we experienced during the trip--but I am getting ahead of myself.

Eight "hearty adventurers" joined Bob Dittrick and Aaron Lang from WBA on Sat. evening June 11th in Fairbanks for a pre-trip briefing. The adventurers included 3 of my closest friends--Craig, Marty and Richard--plus 4 others--Bill, Jim, John and Sue--all birders that I had run into at least once during my big year in 2010. Info was shared, and gear was checked to be ready for our early Sunday departure.

We all arrived at the airport for the 1st of 2 plane flights to be told by Bob that floating the river might not be possible due to very low water levels. Having been on a wait list for 3 years already, and after some anxious discussion, all agreed to go ahead in hopes of being able to get down the river. We flew out to Arctic Village first, and then were shuttled on a smaller plane to a backcountry "landing strip" on the Marsh fork of the Canning river where we set up camp. Soon after arriving we found a mother grizzly with 2 cubs feeding at some distance on a mountainside on the other side of the river. We kept checking them out until we went to bed.

The next morning with snow still falling we hauled the 2 rafts, and all our equipment over a 1/4 mile of ice/snow to the main channel of the river. As we loaded up the rafts the snow finally stopped, but we still had a fairly strong wind blowing up river in our faces. We proceeded to float when possible, and walk/pull the rafts thru the shallows where necessary. While jumping in and out of the rafts, 3 of our group slipped and fell into the river, but no one was injured or exceedingly soaked. After 4 miles we reached our evening's campsite, putting up our tents in a light rain. Fortunately the rest of the evening was clear allowing us to eat comfortably, to sing happy birthday to Bob who turned 65, and then gladly to crawl into our sleeping bags.

The next morning dawned cool but mostly clear. After breakfast we began hiking up a side valley to check various trees in which WBA had found gray-headed chickadees nesting in prior years. The first 2 trees with nesting cavities proved to be empty this year, but the 3rd was the charmed as documented in the series of photos just below (click on any photo to enlarge).

When we first arrived at this tree Aaron heard a chickadee calling. It flew in near us, so we moved back and saw it disappear. When we walked around to the other side of the tree we found the nest hole about 4 feet off the ground, and then sat down in the soft moss about 30-40 feet away. Over the next hour we watched as the 2 parents came and went intermittently to feed the hatchlings, which we could only hear in the hole. In the photos above you will notice that the parent is flying out with a poop sac.

We also saw other birds including northern shrikes, gray jays, and 2 golden eagles high in the sky being harassed by 2 ravens. With the "target bird" well seen and thoroughly enjoyed, everyone was elated and felt hugely relieved because the pressure was now off to find the chickadee. Stay tuned!