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Monday, June 29, 2009

Baked in Alaska

Sometimes life events shatter your psyche, leaving you to pick up the pieces. Other times, they melt your brain, leaving you with a gooey mass and nothing to do but wait for it to recongeal. 11 days in Alaska have fully baked my brain (photos here).

Endless hours of sun, seawater, glaciers, mountains. Too much to absorb.

And hundreds of humpback whales! Sometimes breaching completely out of the water. Often so close you could hear them spout, and once so close you could smell their briny breath! I saw a dozen feeding together, and heard them bugle a trumpeting call that echoed across forests and snowfields.

I saw Orcas! Killer whales! A pod of these black and white beauties surfacing again and again alongside our ship, while a larger cruise liner sailed on by without taking notice. I now live in a world where these beasts aren't just Discovery channel features or performers at Sea World. They seem to have taken part of my heart with them as they slipped below the icy gray waters of Glacier Bay.

And then there were the birds. THOUSANDS of Marbled Murrelets. We called them Bloop Bloop Birds. While a birder is lucky to see more than one or two in a day in the Lower 48, we saw hundreds every day, reminding us constantly of how important it is to protect the Tongass National Forest for these tree-nesting seabirds.

On the upper reaches of Glacier Bay, where trees for nesting Bloop Bloop Birds are scarce, they are replaced by the even rarer Kittlitz's Murrelets--pale versions of their darker cousins that nest on the bare rocky ground around the glaciers. I watched dozens of these swim, dive, and careen across the blue waters of the icemelt. A week later their little feet are still pattering across the surface of my feelings.

Other birds came and went as we cruised over 1300 miles across Southeast Alaska with Cruise West and Audubon Odysseys on the Spirit of Discovery, a small expedition vessel that was our home for the week as we explored the native Tlingit village of Kake, sea kayaked and hiked in Sitka, and wound our way in and out of dozens of mountain-lined fjords carved out by the glaciers. We counted dozens of Arctic Terns, and were visited by an Aleutian Tern as we watched a glacier calving in Glacier Bay. I glanced out the window as we crossed Icy Strait and saw a Horned Puffin on the water. We later saw dozens of Tufted Puffins in Glacier Bay. And on our final night home, in a raging storm in the pale evening light, both Parasitic Jaeger and Pomarine Jaeger sliced through the wind in pursuit of dozens of wheeling Black-legged Kittiwakes.

How do you recover from a week of this? And the hours watching sea otters and brown bears? Take the Grand Tetons, stretch them out over thousands of miles, add the ocean and wildlife and take away any sign of human habitation for days on end, and try to absorb that a week later.

My mind is melted. Baked in Alaska. Not sure how my soul will recongeal, but know that part of it will forever be trying to get back to the whales and wilderness and Bloop Bloop Birds irrevocably forged into my being by a week and a half on the Spirit of Discovery.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Birding Juneau

I'm in Juneau getting ready to board our cruise ship for exploring the Glacier Bay and the Inside Passage. Here I am with a native Tlingit building, raven pole, and a raven on the roof.

Birds right in town are the Common Raven, Bonaparte's Gull, Mew Gull, Herring Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull, Bald Eagle, Swainson's Thrush, and Pigeon Guillemot.

More from the trip when I get back!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Common Myna

Probably the most abundant and ubiquitous bird on Oahu, the Common Myna was introduced to Hawaii from India in 1865 by Dr. William Hildebrand to combat invasive Army worms. Hawaii has never been the same since. These birds nest in trees but also on buildings and bridges, and are found walking on parking lots, lawns, and beaches all over Oahu.

In the United States, the only other place to see them is in south Florida, where they have become more and more common since first reported in 1983.

I took these shots on Oahu with a Canon PowerShot through my 7x42 Zeiss binoculars.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Birding Oahu

Oahu is covered with birds. That said, birding Oahu can be a challenge!

Upon arriving in Honolulu, one quickly sees Spotted Doves and White Terns (Fairy Terns) all over the city, as well as the ever present Common Mynahs and Red-vented Bulbuls. Birding any of the parks or open areas around the city quickly gets one several other non-native birds (including Zebra Doves, Japanese White-eye, Red-billed Leiothrix, Common Waxbill, and Red-crested Cardinal).

Last weekend I was on Oahu to present a paper at a conference, and spent four days exploring the island. Beyond the common birds mentioned above, most other birds, especially native birds, were few and far between.

To find native wetland birds, I had to journey to the Kahuka area at the far northern tip of the island. The James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge and adjacent sewage treatment facility are gated and closed to the public, but by standing on the sign pictured here, I was able to see some ponds as well as all four of the native birds pictured on the sign (from left to right Hawaiian Stilt, Hawaiian Gallinule, Hawaiian Duck, and Hawaiian Coot). I was also lucky enough to spot three Bristle-thighed Curlews that hadn't yet departed for their Alaskan breeding grounds.

Seabirds were easily found at many rocky headlands--though usually in small numbers. The most plentiful by far were Red-footed Boobies. I only saw one Brown Booby (a flyby at China Walls in Hawaii Kai), and a couple of Red-tailed Tropicbirds and one White-tailed Tropicbird near Makapu'u Point. The picture above is from La'ie Point, where within a few hundred yards of shore I was able to spot Wedge-tailed Shearwater, Christmas Shearwater, and a single Bulwer's Petrel. By keeping my eyes open, I was able to see a Great Frigatebird (while body surfing at Waimanalo Beach Park) and a small flock of Grey-backed Terns (again at China Walls), but around most of the tourist beaches seabirds were few and far between.

The forests above Waikiki (above) are mostly made up of non-native trees brought in to control erosion after the island was mostly deforested in the past century. The birds there are almost all introduced as well. The common birds listed above are also joined by the melodious White-rumped Shama and a small handful of other birds. One is almost continuously haunted by the specter of missing native plants and birds. To think about the dozens of native birds now missing is heartbreaking. It took two hikes up Mt. Tantalus to finally find a single native forest bird (another story completely, and coming soon!). A couple of hours looking for the Oahu Elepaio near Hawaii Kai were singularly unproductive.

A visit to the picturesque Byodo-In Temple (above), a replica of a 900 year old Buddhist temple in Japan, illustrates the sad state of Oahu's birdlife. The place is crawling with birds--but they consist of a dozens of individuals of only a handful of introduced birds, including Common Peafowl, Black Swan, Cockatiel, Red-crested Mynah, and Common Waxbill. Most of the birds are actually the abundant Zebra Dove (below), Spotted Doves, and Common Mynahs that are ubiquitous in the settled parts of the island.

So while Oahu is a fantastic vacation spot, and crawling with birds, it is a challenge to see more than just a couple dozen introduced land birds and the most common seabirds (boobies and fairy terns). To see native wetland birds requires a bit of a drive, and finding native forest birds is probably best accomplished on some of the other Hawaiian islands.

More photos from my trip on Facebook.
Nature Blog Network Fatbirder's Top 1000 Birding Websites