Tuesday, October 18, 2016

St. Paul Island

Despite my best resolutions to do otherwise, it has been too long since I've updated this.  I have a pretty good excuse as I've been very busy helping to get the Sunset Coast Birding Trail up and running.  I'll be discussing it more in the future.  For now, I'd like to return to Alaska - both in this blog and in reality, but a real return trip will have to wait.

The next portion of the Alaska journey took us to St. Paul Island.  St. Paul Island is a small island in the middle of the Bering Sea.  Here you can see it north of the Aleutian Islands.

At one point in it's history, St. Paul Island, and the other surrounding islands known as the Pribilofs, were volcanic hills on the southern end of the Bering land bridge.  While the volcanoes have not been active for thousands of years, you can see the evidence of them today.  Nearly every hill on the island contains a caldera.  Here is a photo looking down into one such caldera.

You can also see expansive lava fields in many places, which is where Snowy Owls like to hang out.

There are also dunes made up of coarse, black sand from the volcanic rocks that have weathered and eroded over time.  The hills though, are not exceptionally large.  For the most part, the island is relatively flat with no trees (other than a couple of stunted Spruce that were planted in front of the NOAH field station).  Here are a couple photos of what the scenery looks like.

That Island you can see off in the distance is another one of the pribilofs called Otter Island.  Here is a closer photo of it.

If you have ever seen a Sea Otter floating on it's back in the water, then you'll understand how this island got it's name.

In addition to a landscape devoid of anything but short vegetation, the real gem of the island is its magnificent sea cliffs.  Here is a distant view of one.

The sea cliffs are one of the main draws for birders, so we'll return to them in a future post.

The weather on St. Paul Island is often time wet and windy.  Although our first couple of days on St. Paul were actually pretty nice, if you do visit, you can expect a lot of this.

It's not all bad though.  Sometime even a rainbow makes an appearance.

St. Paul Island was not always inhabited though.  So what would bring people to such a desolate and harsh landscape?  The islands were first discovered by the native Unangan people who had come across the Bering Land Bridge centuries before.  The island hosted many marine mammals that were useful both as a source of food and furs.  It wasn't long before the Russians also discovered the island though.  In short time, they relocated many of the native Unangan to the pribs to hunt Sea Otters for them in slavery.  Soon the Sea Otters were extirpated from the pribs, but a technique had been discovered to remove the coarse outer fur from the Northern Fur Seals, so the Unangan were forced to hunt them instead.  When the Unites States bought Alaska in 1867, the Unangan didn't fair much better.  Nor did the Fur Seals.  Eventually it was recognized that the hunting practices were not sustainable and over a long period of time, action was finally taken to help them recover.  Recovery has been slow although visitors today might never guess that.  There are plenty of seals around to watch and they can be very entertaining!

They can even be fun to watch sleeping.

The pups can be particularly fun as they are often just as curious about you and you are about them.

Some seals even like to do early morning yoga.

And here are a few more photos of Fur Seals, because I like them!

Unfortunately, despite the fact that they are now protected, their interaction with humans is not always so great.  Here is one that had part of a fishing net wrapped around it.

Luckily, our guides were able to contact the seal researchers on the island, who presumably, were able to get the netting removed.

Before we leave the seals, here are a couple of videos.

The first is of a male Northern Fur Seal (the largest one) with his harem of females.

And here are a bunch of them playing in the water.

Oh yeah, did I mention that it is often time very windy on St. Paul Island.  Here is an attempt to capture a Fur Seal vocalizing from only a few feet away.  Not so much.

Northern Fur Seals are not the only mammals you will encounter on St. Paul though.  There is also an endemic Shrew, which we never saw, as well as Harbor Seals and Steller Sea Lions, which proved too difficult to photograph.  I was able to photograph the blue morph Arctic Fox however.

But the real excitement came from watching Orcas patrolling the seal rookery.  While they are difficult to photograph because they rarely come far out of the water and when they do they are rarely out for very long, I was able to get a few shots.

And here is a video as well.

Now, it is important to note that although no longer forced to hunt seals, the Unangan still inhabit St. Paul Island.  Here are a few photos of the small town of St. Paul.


Memorial to those who died when forced off of St. Paul during WWII.

St. Paul

Locals playing kickball on a rare sunny day

Looking at the town of St. Paul from across the salt lagoon.

Another view of St. Paul.

One of the attractions for visitors is the Russian Orthodox Church.  It is really a beautiful building.

Of course, that's just the outside.  Here is what it looks like on the inside.

Notice the traditional Unangan facial tattoos on our tour guide.

Before we leave our introduction to St. Paul Island, I thought I should point out our four star luxury accommodations, so here it is.

It's also the airport.

Well, now that you've all had a great introduction to St. Paul Island, in my next post I can start discussing what most of my readers really want to hear about - the birding!  Stay tuned.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Alaska 2016 - Days 1 & 2 - Denali National Park

Ok, so it's been awhile since I've posted.  Close to two years actually.  I apologize for that, but a trip to Alaska seems like a great way to come back.

On the evening of Thursday, September 8th, my mom and I found ourselves finally landing in the Ted Stevens Airport in Anchorage.  For about 10 hours of flight time and a few hours of layovers, I had been studying field guides and dreaming of the life birds I would see on this trip.  Most of these would come on St. Paul Island a few days later, I figured, but still there were quite a few possibilities in and around Denali National Park where we would be spending the next day and a half.  With this in mind, I was primarily looking at my Sibley Guide to Birds and leaving the Rare Birds of North America in the bag.  I was studying the plumage details of the three species of Ptarmigan, Northern Pigmy Owl, Boreal Owl, Arctic Warbler and other species that we might have a chance of seeing.

Our friends, we already waiting for us at the airport when we arrived.  They had flown in the day before and had a rental car all set up.  We threw our luggage in the vehicle and headed toward Healy.  Just outside of Anchorage we ticked our first notable bird for Alaska - an American Kestrel that was hovering over a field near the road.  After a quick stop in Wasilla for dinner we continued on to Healy, stopping at a lake along the way to scope some Trumpeter Swans.  After checking into the cabin we would call home for the next couple of nights, we all went right to bed.

The next morning we awoke and scoped the lake outside of the cabin to find more Trumpeter Swans, Greater Scaup, and American Wigeon.  A Belted Kingfisher was also buzzing around the lake giving off his rattling call.  A few Dark-eyed Juncos were around, but not much else.

We headed into Denali National Park in order to hike the Mount Healy Overlook Trail.  This trail is roughly 4.5 miles round-trip with some decent elevation changes (1700 ft, if I remember correctly).  It ranges from boreal forests at the base to rocky, alpine tundra near the summit.  We figured with only a short stay in Denali, this was our best chance of hiking through many different habitats and seeing as many bird species as possible.

As we worked our way through the Spruce near the base, we almost instantly started hearing finches and chickadees.  The finches turned out to be mostly White-winged Crossbills.  In fact, this was probably one of the most prominent species we would see on the hike.  Mixed in with them were White-crowned Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Black-capped Chickadees and Boreal Chickadees (a life bird for my mom).

Boreal Chickadee

White-winged Crossbill - Adult Male and Female
White-winged Crossbill - Adult Male - Eating spruce seeds.
White-winged Crossbill - Adult Male
White-winged Crossbill - Adult Male
I had made the comment when we started out that this looked like Spruce Grouse habitat and it wasn't long before we ran into an adult male.

Adult male Spruce Grouse
Once we started moving again we noticed that there was also a young male just off the trail as well.

Young male Spruce Grouse

Shortly after starting out again we heard Gray Jays calling and it wasn't long before they found us (if you're not familiar with this species, yes, they find you).  We would run into many more along the hike.

Gray Jay
American Tree Sparrows began to show up along the trail as we climbed higher.  The biggest surprise was probably this Ruffed Grouse though.

Ruffed Grouse hanging out at high altitude
We later learned that the Ruffed Grouse in this area were all introduced.

Once we arrived at the top we searched for ptarmigans, but came up empty.  A couple of Townsend's Solitaires were hanging around, so that was pretty cool.  We could hear dogs barking back along the trail, which seemed odd considering to the best of our knowledge dogs are not allowed on trails in National Parks.  It turns out these dogs were aggressively jumping and barking at every person they came across, but the owners were kind enough to explain to everyone that dogs were allowed off leashes on the trail.  It was nice of them to share the info, although, when we ran into a ranger back at the trailhead later he was happy to let us know that they were wrong.  Dogs are in fact not allowed on National Park trails leashed or not.  In fact, they had already had so many complaints at the visitors center that the ranger was there dropping off a warden who was about to hike up the trail looking for the couple to ticket them and escort them out of the park.  They also had a helicopter doing something near the summit already, so it was now on the lookout for the couple so it could help the warden catch up with them.  Exciting stuff.

Here are a few images from Mount Healy Overlook.

Nothing new presented itself on the hike back down.  We had enough time after the hike to drive to the 12 mile mark - the farthest they let you drive in unless you are camping further on.  We did run across a couple of Caribou on the way.  They were shedding the velvet from their antlers as you can see in the follow photo.


After arriving at the end, we hiked a short ways up the road and found a few Dall Sheep on the side of the hill.

Dall Sheep

Nothing exciting was happening there otherwise, so we drove back a short ways to the Mountain Vista Trail.  Here I witnessed an incredible spectacle as somewhere around four thousand Sandhill Cranes flew overhead in the space of a little over an hour.  It was incredible.  The cranes were so thick that they were easy to spot in the scope, which meant we were able to share closeup looks at them with many of the non-birding visitors.  Also exciting was sharing a Northern Hawk Owl with visitors.  Everyone seemed to enjoy this bird, birder or not.  I can't, for the life of me, imagine why.

Northern Hawk Owl
Here is a look at the Savage River with some mountains in the background.

We headed back to Healy for dinner after this but returned to the 12 mile mark the next morning to look for Ptarmigan again.  Along the way we noticed that there wasn't a cloud in the sky - something that is unusual for Denali.  As rounded a turn we noticed Mt. Denali itself in the distance.  We would stop and view it many times along the way.  Here are a few photographs to show how much larger it is than other peaks in the area.  Keep in mind, it was much further away than the surrounding peaks you can see in the photographs.

When we arrived at the parking area at the 12 mile mark again, we started hiking up the road.  There was much less traffic this time because we arrived early in the morning.  We noticed a raptor making quick flights around the spruce trees on the peak next to us.  It was hard to pick out cleanly because it kept dipping behind the trees, but eventually landed on the top of a spruce a short ways off.  We had just gotten it in our scopes and binoculars for a few seconds when a bus pulled up and stopped in a position to block our view.  The bus driver opened the window and informed us that there were moose back up the road a little ways.  He must have noticed the annoyed looks on our faces because he sped off (relative to what a bus is capable of anyway) rather quickly.  Note to any tour bus operators out there - if you come across a group with spotting scopes and binoculars all raised and pointed in the same direction, just go on by.  There is a good chance they are more interested in what they are already looking at then what you feel you need to point out to them.  Once the bus left, the bird was gone and not to be refound.  However, we had gotten a good enough look at it to safely identify it as a Gyrfalcon.  It was a life bird for some in our group.

A few American Tree Sparrows were all that we saw along the road, so we started heading up into the tundra and spruce trees toward the peak.  Just after leaving the road we noticed another large raptor flying down the mountainside below us.  This one had the clear flight pattern of an accipiter and it was big.  After looking through the binoculars we were able to confirm it as a Northern Goshawk.  I have seen this bird a few times, but this is one of the few adults I have encountered.  Pretty cool.  We headed up into the tundra farther, but didn't make it too far before we realized it was time to head back and check out from the cabin.  There never seems to be enough time in Alaska.  However, we were far enough in that we decided it was easier to walk parallel to the road rather than turning back toward it.  This meant more time in the willow thickets that might reveal a ptarmigan.  Thankfully, just as we almost back to the road we flushed a bird.  It sounded like a Ruffed Grouse flushing, but the extensive white in the wings revealed it to be a ptarmigan.  It stopped a short ways away and hid below a spruce.  We were able to observe and photograph it from close range to reveal that it was a Willow Ptarmigan, which is what was expected in that habitat anyway.  This was my first life bird of the trip.

Willow Ptarmigan

Willow Ptarmigan
On our way back to the vehicle, we did run into the moose that the bus driver was so kind to point out.


Eventually, another would join it and they would both cross the road in front of us, much to the delight of many of the tourists who had gathered by that point.  And the sound of machine-gun style shutters going off filled the air.

Moose (Meese?)

This essentially ended out stay in Denali National Park.  I had hoped to pick up two or three life birds here, but had to settle for one.  Oh well, it was a great adventure anyway and I certainly didn't go away disappointed.

We made a few stops on our way back to Anchorage to look for American Dipper and American Three-toed Woodpecker, but all we really found was a few Common Mergansers alongside a "creek" that in Michigan would be considered a pretty good-sized river.

Common Merganser
Once we made it back to Anchorage we ate a quick dinner (the last non-cafeteria style dinner we would have for a while) and got into our hotel rooms.  The next morning we would catch our flight to St. Paul Island.  Stay tuned...