Bird of the Week: Pine Grosbeak

Pine Grosbeak

Pine Grosbeak. Photo by FOB.

Half again larger than the house finches usually at our feeders, this finch doesn’t leave the mountain forests for Cheyenne feeders unless there’s a shortage of seeds and fruits. In spring it adds buds of trees to its diet and will catch insects to feed its nestlings. Members of each small flock communicate with each other with similar flight calls, distinct from other flocks. Mated pairs have identical flight calls.

Published Nov. 25, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by FOB.

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Alaska birds add to life list

Sitka, Alaska harbor

One of the harbors in Sitka, Alaska. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published Sept. 2, 2004, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Alaska birds add to life list.”

2014 Update: We continue to make trips to Alaska to visit my brother-in-law—and find more Alaskan birds.

By Barb Gorges

“It’s easy to find. Stay to the right of that cruise ship until the entrance of the bay and then stay to the left. It’s cream-colored with green trim,” said the woman renting us her float house for two nights. We stood on the dock in Sitka, Alaska, our rented 18-foot skiff packed with provisions and fishing gear for our family of four plus Peter, Mark’s brother.

Luckily, Peter lives in Sitka and has fished the sound quite a bit. Also, from topo maps, we knew Camp Coogan Bay was only six miles away.

We found the small, isolated frame house on a barge moored to a dock which was anchored to the shore of a cove bordered by the deep green of Tongass National Forest.

While fishing and kayaking the mile-long bay, belted kingfishers and bald eagles were our most common companions. Small birds floating on the calm waters were marbled murrelets, my introduction to the alcid family, a group of ocean bird species that only come on land when they nest, in colonies, on cliff ledges or in burrows or rock crevices.

On shore, the forest floor was steep and deep in wood at different stages of spongy decay, with little undergrowth except for a thick layer of moss. Walking the trail-less ground was like climbing a pile of well-upholstered couches. Invisible birds twittered at the tops of 150 to 200-foot tall spruce and hemlock.

The day we chartered a fishing trip we came in behind St. Lazarius Island, famous for its bird nesting colonies. I was able to glimpse two more members of the alcid family, pigeon guillemots and puffins.

Later, I realized there may be two species of puffins in the area and I think what I saw (though I couldn’t stomach binoculars) were the all-black bodies and colorful heads of the tufted puffins as they skimmed the waves, rather than the white bellies of the horned puffins.

Between tours of historical Russian and Tlingit landmarks, we hiked forest trails and I finally caught up with the chestnut-backed chickadee, another new species for me. It was easier to find in the muskeg where stunted tree growth put the tops of lodgepole pines nearly eye-level.

On a particularly grueling hike up Gaven Hill we frequently paused for breath. It was one staircase after another, literally. Sitka-area trails seem to be either boardwalks across the bogs or wooden steps up mountains. Some tiny movement or sound caused us to examine shadowy tree branches and discover a robin shape which was actually a varied thrush, another new species for me, as was a winter wren we saw later.

I did spot one lonely robin in town after nearly a week—the same day I finally noticed starlings. The Northwestern crows were much more abundant. They are a distinct species and caw with a discernable accent. I noticed them and at least one raven stockpiling food and treasures in rain gutters.

There are no house sparrows or house finches in Sitka. Peter said he gets fox sparrows at his feeder. I think I saw some of them down at the waterfront. In southeast Alaska they are a very dark variety.

Gulls are an enigma to me. My pre-trip research had shown a possibility of glaucous-winged gulls, so I gave every gull a good look, but so many appeared to be murky-colored immatures or too far away.

Finally, I found a flock close in on a gravel bar and memorized the distinct markings of one bird: pink legs and red spot on lower mandible. These turned out to be perfect field marks for the herring gull—common on either coast. I should have been looking for an absence of black on the wing tips. However, I felt better after reading the note in the field guide which said herring gulls hybridize extensively with glaucous-winged gulls where ranges overlap, making them difficult to distinguish.

My shorebird identification skills are about on par with my gull abilities. One day we saw a handful at the water’s edge that Peter said were turnstones. Black turnstones have about the most distinguishable plumage of any shorebird that might be in Sitka, even in late summer, so I added them to my list of new life birds.

My complete Sitka bird list is not very long, even though I had help from Peter. But I’m happy about every bird I found while on what was essentially a family vacation rather than a birding trip.

For those of you interested, the fish species we caught included pink, silver and king salmon, halibut, flounder, rockfish and lingcod, plus crabs too small to keep. We also found starfish, mussels, squid and scallops and sighted humpback whales, sea lions, lots of red squirrels, but, thank goodness, no bears.

If we’re lucky enough to visit Sitka again, I hope we go earlier, maybe June. I’d sign up for a boat tour of St. Lazarius Island and look up local contacts in the American Birding Association directory.

Another trip might also give us a better feel for the normally cool and wet temperate rainforest climate. As it was, every day was sunny except one and our first day the temperature hit a record-breaking 89 degrees.

Since our return home, Peter reports that it has started raining again, which, he says, makes the salmon happy.

Feather

Feather along trail at Starrigavan, Sitka, Alaska. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Generosity of other birders improves travel experience

eagles

Young Bald Eagles fight over fish in Sitka, Alaska. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published Aug. 18, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Generosity of other birders improves travel experience.”

2014 Update: If you didn’t make it to Alaska this summer, start planning for next year. Go to http://www.eBird.org to research bird checklists, hotspots and recent sightings at your travel destination.

By Barb Gorges

Mark and I have yet to hire a birding guide or join an organized bird trip in our travels, but someday we may have to if we travel somewhere with unfamiliar birds.

Meanwhile, we find birding hotspots by using www.eBird.org. But then there is also the generosity of local birders.

Mid-July, Mark and I were walking the trails at the Sitka National Historical Park in Sitka, Alaska, overwhelmed by the sounds of small birds high in the rainforest canopy. We knew the singing was thrushes, but even though we’d gone online the night before to listen to the three possibilities, varied (definitely different), hermit and Swainson’s, our audio memory wasn’t very good.

This was supposed to be a vacation so I was trying to just let it go. I can’t reliably sort out Swainson’s and hermits by sight in my own backyard during migration, where they never sing, much less these invisible birds.

But enter Lucy. When you are wearing binoculars, it is not considered rude to walk up to a total stranger also wearing binoculars and ask “What are you seeing?”

Some birders, I have heard, are curmudgeons, but not this woman. We chatted more than 5 minutes before she invited us to come with her to an opening in the bushes along the shore where she’d seen four species of gulls the day before.

Lucy also explained an easy way to identify the singing thrushes: the Swainson’s fluting song spirals up and the hermit’s makes a little rise before spiraling down.

We were surprised any birds were still singing in mid-July, still advertising for mates and establishing territories. I later read that the Alaska Natives call the thrushes “salmonberry birds” because they sing at the time of year salmonberries are ripe.

They are right about that. Sitka’s brambles were full of these raspberry-type berries, either a deep gold or a deep red when ripe. Mark’s brother, Peter, who lives in Sitka, pointed them out. They are kind of seedy so the best way to eat them is to pop one in your mouth, smash it with your tongue to get the juice and then swallow it whole. It was hard to concentrate on birding with so many berries to pick. Luckily, no bears were competing with us.

Lucy still had to get to work that morning so we bid adieu.

The next day we stopped by the Fishermen’s Eye Gallery where she works and gave her an update on the birds we’d seen, including nine young bald eagles checking out the first returning salmon of the season and glaucous-winged, mew and Bonaparte’s gulls.

We were very lucky to meet Lucy, a local, who has led bird tours in the past.

Sooty Grouse

Sooty Grouse seen on Mount Roberts, above Juneau, Alaska. Photo by Barb Gorges

In Juneau, it was a fellow traveler who alerted us to birds. We took the tram up Mount Roberts, hoping to see ptarmigan on the trail at the top. Instead, we got an unsolicited heads-up on a family of sooty grouse (formerly spruce grouse) from a man wearing all black—and binoculars.

At Mendenhall Glacier, we struck up a conversation with another man with binoculars. He said we should talk to his buddy, a “real birder,” an energetic, white-haired man who spent half our conversation promoting birding his own neighborhood and encouraged us to call him if we ever travel to Point Reyes National Seashore in California.

We watched for seabirds from the Alaska Marine Highway—the ferry—from Sitka to Skagway and all the way back to Bellingham, Wash., and from all our stops in between, but had better luck identifying whales. The fast-winging black dots remained inscrutable. They might be worth a guided trip.

One of the crew members did point out the flock of pink, plastic flamingos perched in a tree on Highwater Island, near Sitka.

These migrate from China, he said, by way of the U.S. Coast Guard’s training center.

 

 

Wildlife in Alaska

Portage Glacier

Portage Glacier is one of the must-sees of the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 5, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. Wildlife watchers investigate Anchorage, Seward and Homer, Alaska.”

2014 Update: The websites listed at the end of this column have been updated.

By Barb Gorges

It is impossible to escape wildlife in Alaska. It’s everywhere: bridge railings formed as a series of jumping salmon, business names, likenesses on every imaginable item and items made from fur, feathers, bones and tusks.

The good news is that you can also see the animals in person.

In mid-June my husband, Mark, and I met his brother, Peter, in Anchorage for a taste of the Kenai Peninsula during the 50th anniversary of Alaska’s statehood.

If you imagine the outline of the southern border of the state, locate the Kenai Peninsula at the apex (Anchorage just above it) between the Aleutian Islands trailing to the southwest and the southeast coast bordering Canada.

Besides trying to eat as much fresh seafood as possible, our unstated goal was to see as much wildlife as possible. Here are some of our highlights.

Anchorage

We started with a couple days in Anchorage, finding a moose grazing next to a scenic overlook and waterfowl nesting half a foot from a busy bike and pedestrian path, both within city limits.

The Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, 13 miles long, borders the city on the northwest, along Knik Arm. You can rent a bike and enjoy the long, colorful evenings. Sunset was 11:30 p.m. and sunrise at 4:30 a.m. while we were there, though Anchorage considers itself to have 24 hours of “functional” daylight at the summer solstice.

Chugach State Park covers the mountains at the eastern city limits. We chose the Flattop Mountain trail for a close look at the tundra. You need an early start because by noon on a summer weekday the parking lot is full of both residents and tourists.

The Alaska Native Heritage Center, admission $25 per adult (discounts available, small children free), is over-priced unless you spend the whole day investigating the work of onsite Native craftspeople, walking to replicas of Native life for five distinct regions and catching all of the performances of Native singing, dancing and game playing.

The Kenai Peninsula is a small percentage of Alaska, but don’t let that deceive you when figuring driving distances. To access it from Anchorage, one must drive east about an hour on a twisty two lane highway along the shore of Turnagain Arm. Try to avoid driving when the Anchorites are using it for a weekend escape route.

It’s a total of 127 miles, Anchorage to Seward. Be sure to schedule enough time for all the scenic turnouts and especially the Begich-Boggs Visitor Center at Portage Glacier. It was well-worth the U.S. Forest Service’s minimal admission fee to get an entertaining, hands-on education on local natural history.

Seward

In Seward we took a 6-hour boat trip with Kenai Fjords Tours to see a bit of Kenai Fjords National Park. Our captain took us through the brash ice to the foot of Holgate Glacier. On the way she pointed out three kinds of whales and other marine life. Mid-June is the season for seeing newborn sea lion pups and nesting kittiwakes and puffins on rocky islands.

Back on shore we saw the sea animals again (minus whales) up close at the Alaska SeaLife Center. It has a camera working the sea lion rookery and images can be viewed live on the Internet or on a local Seward TV station.

We took a hike up to look at Exit Glacier, part of the national park, and marveled at how far it has retreated since 1815, and even in the last 10 years. Because the Harding Ice Field, of which it is a part, is in the way, it is 174 circuitous miles to drive to Homer.

Homer

Don’t miss the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center operated by the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, not just because admission is free.

There are lots of jokes about Homer Spit, 5 miles of sand sticking out into Kachemak Bay, but that’s where you’ll find the water taxi, tour companies, seafood restaurants, Land’s End Resort, gift shops, fishing charters, and kayak rentals. If you are worried about tsunamis, don’t camp here.

We stayed at a charming bed and breakfast, “A Rosy Overlook,” half way up the bluff above town, with a wonderful garden and view of the bay. The hosts, Rosie and Erless Burgess, long-time Alaska residents, entertained us with local stories in the evenings.

We took a day-long boat trip across the bay to Seldovia, which is not accessible by highway. It was settled by the Russians in 1870 as a fishing village. The captain, again a woman, gave us historical background and great looks at nesting gull colonies.

It was 225 miles back to Anchorage, but again, it required a full day at 45 to 55, seldom 65, miles per hour and several stops, especially to see the line of at least 100 fishermen standing in the Russian River, perfectly spaced two rod lengths apart, trying to snag migrating sockeye salmon.

We saw lots of wildlife, ate lots of fresh salmon and halibut, and need to schedule another trip to see everything we missed.

General Information

Remember, Alaska is two hours behind Cheyenne. When it is 11 a.m. here, it is 9 a.m. there.

Alaska Geographic (nonprofit, trip planning help), www.alaskageographic.org

Bed and Breakfast Association of Alaska, www.alaskabba.com

Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council, www.kenaipeninsula.org

Anchorage:

Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.goanchorage.net

Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/aktrails/ats/anc/knowlsct.htm

Alaska Native Heritage Center, www.alaskanative.net

Chugach State Park, www.dnr.state.ak.us/parks.

Portage Glacier:

Begich-Boggs Visitor Center, Chugach National Forest, http://www.fs.usda.gov/chugach

Seward:

Kenai Fjords National Park, http://www.nps.gov/kefj

Kenai Fjords Tours, www.kenaifjords.com

Alaska SeaLife Center, www.alaskasealife.org

Homer:

Rainbow Tours, www.rainbowtours.net

Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, free, http://IslandsandOcean.org

Bird variety in Alaska

Tree Swallow

A Tree Swallow at Potter Marsh in Anchorage enjoys custom homes. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 5, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Birders: If you want to see variety, visit Alaska.”

2014 Update: Take a look at www.eBird.org when planning a trip—and post your bird observations there for safe keeping.

By Barb Gorges

I have a habit of unexpectedly running into old friends in my travels, miles and/or years from where we first met. A recent trip to south-central Alaska was no exception, though it was birds rather than people.

Also, it is funny how the local birdwatchers where I travel will speak reverently of a bird I think is common, but shrug at a bird I’ve always wanted to add to my life list. A species’ “high value” apparently depends on a bird’s lack of abundance in a particular area.

I didn’t check, but probably the bird hotline in Anchorage doesn’t get excited about multiple Arctic terns flitting over the city’s Westchester Lagoons, like over-sized white barn swallows. But they wintered in Antarctica and made a 12,000-mile journey back. Anchorites do brag about that on interpretive signs.

My husband Mark and I, and his brother, Peter, who lives in Sitka, Alaska, walked up to a group of obviously dedicated birders with an array of scopes pointing to a lagoon’s island where gulls were nesting (this was mid-June). Turns out they were on a multi-week Alaskan bird tour. One gentleman was excited about the mew gulls he had just learned to identify and carefully pointed out their chicks to me.

Mallards were in short supply at the lagoons and not looking for handouts. Two pairs were nesting six feet from the parking lot and completely immovable.

We saw the same reaction from the pair of red-necked grebes nesting two feet off the bike path, except in this case it gave us a very good look at a bird that rarely visits Wyoming.

Up in the Glen Alps in Chugach State Park, on the outskirts of Anchorage, Peter pointed out the one-note song of the varied thrush, a bird finding itself in Wyoming only accidentally. Another loud singer turned out to be an orange-crowned warbler, a regular, but quiet, spring visitor back home.

On another forest hike I recognized the sweet double notes of a hermit thrush, a species I’d recently heard on a recording. I stopped to watch it sing while at the same time wondering where the bears were.

At the bed and breakfast in Homer, decorated with a birdhouse theme, the hosts had a bird feeder out and I was finally able to put a name to the large sparrow I’d been catching glimpses of, the fox sparrow. The ranges of its four subspecies seem to bypass Cheyenne.

There was also a pair of familiar red-breasted nuthatches nesting in the yard (ours go to the mountains in the summer) and black-capped chickadees. I was hoping to find boreal and chestnut-backed chickadees on this trip, but they are hard to spot in all the foliage.

Down at the waterfront in Seward, the line of ducks bobbing in the waves and diving in synchrony were harlequin ducks. To see them in Wyoming, you have to go up by Yellowstone National Park.

The highlight of the trip for me was the seabirds. Last time we were out on Alaskan waters I was too sick to appreciate anything. This time we took two trips and the sea was nearly perfect, or maybe it was the ginger tablets, or staying outside, which worked.

It was nesting season and our boat captains took us right up to cliffs covered with nests of black-legged kittiwakes (Seward to Kenai Fjords National Park) and glaucous-winged gulls and common murres (Homer to Seldovia).

Horned Puffin

A Horned Puffin naps at the Alaska Sealife Center. Photo by Barb Gorges.

We even saw puffins, both tufted and horned. To draw them as cartoon characters is to draw them accurately. We watched one at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward and it flies underwater as well as it does the air.

One tour boat captain’s assessment was that finding bald eagles on forested hillsides was like looking for golf balls (their white heads show up well against the green forest), and we saw them everywhere, but they still seemed majestic to me.

If you love birds and are visiting the Kenai Peninsula, be sure to visit the free Islands and Ocean Visitor Center at Homer, operated by the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and Kachemak Bay Research Reserve.

They do a wonderful job of recounting the history of Alaskan seabird conservation (including Wyomingite Olaus Murie’s seabird surveys in the 1930’s) and the research being done in Kachemak Bay and along the Aleutian Islands. It might take a few seasickness-prevention patches, but I think the islands are where I’d like to go next.

Meanwhile, out behind the center there was a lone sandhill crane along the Beluga Slough trail and whimbrels on the beach.

Did I mention the black-billed magpies we saw everywhere? What a surprise. But it’s always nice to see familiar faces far from home.