Untamed Land

Untamed Land
Untamed Land

Monday, November 28, 2011

Showdown at Lowell Point

Although I wanted to drag this out a little longer, I'm impatient to finish my tale of the Redwing quest. Near the beginning of Lowell Point Road, just past the main part of town is the most reliable place in Seward to see dippers. This small waterfall is still flowing although it was mostly frozen.
There were no dippers today.
There are several people around Seward who put out sunflower seeds for winter birds, like this pair of Pine Grosbeaks.
Several days before our trip to Seward, Alaska had a gigantic windstorm. Icy winds blew in from Siberia for days. That is what undoubtedly brought in the Redwing.
The wind also stripped Mountain ash Trees of their berries. Waxwings and Grosbeaks feasted on the fallen berries after the storm.
This was the best opportunity I've had to photograph Pine Grosbeaks and I really wanted to keep on taking photos of them. Both sets of my camera batteries were wearing down rapidly in the cold.  My first set of batteries died completely after this photo. I still had to find the Redwing. Not to mention the fact that my fingers were getting too numb to operate the camera, and I was shivering badly.
Finally we arrived at the end of the road. Above is the last house in Seward. I really wish that I lived in this house. No one was home when we were there. This is the area where the Redwing had been spotted for the previous four days.
We saw nothing at first, but there were three other birders there. They said the Redwing had been on the other side of this house one minute before we arrived, but had flown down the beach. They said, "dont worry, it will be back soon".
We did'nt have to wait for more than about five minutes. Good thing, it was really cold in the wind, even though it was only slightly windy. The Redwing came back because it found a small area beside the house where it was protected from the wind.
Redwings are a turdus thrush, related to Fieldfares, and American Robins. This bird had strayed more than 3000 miles from it's normal range, across some high mountain ranges, across the Kamchatka Peninsula, along the length of the Aleutians, and somehow it landed in Seward.
The bird was not spotted yesterday at all, but it has been easy to see for a week and a half before that.
My photos of the bird leave much to be desired, but local Seward birder Carol Griswold got better photos, like this shot of the bird foraging on the beach.
Carol was one of the first birders to see the bird. She braved the fiercest of the windstorm to help acertain the strange new bird's identity. The only other North American sightings of the bird were in Newfoundland, far Northeastern Canada. Thank you Carol for letting me use your photos.

The end of a very successful day. After a welcome, but expensive bowl of chili, we made the long drive home.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Smith's Little Birdies

I'll get back to the conclusion of our search for the Redwing in Seward soon. First I will do this post starting with a detail photo of the painting I finished an hour or so ago. What is it? A Savannah Sparrow perhaps? No. This bird is a female of another species. A clue to it's identity is in the title of this post.
This is a detail of the male. If you have'nt figured it out yet, pull out a field guide to North American birds, or, read on.
The complete painting. Smith's Longspurs, 9x12". They are an uncommon bird that nests on the Alaskan and Canadian tundra. They winter on the short grass praries of the Southern-central states.
They are a highly sought after species by hardcore birders. The best place to see them on their breeding grounds in Alaska, is in a few specific meadows along the Denali Highway, known only to bird guides.
Although I have searched, like many others who search, I have been skunked so far.
Since this is a short post, I'll flesh it out by showing a few photos of my journey to Thanksgiving Dinner at my nephew Dan's house in Wasilla. It was a forty mile drive through a bit of a blizzard. At times it was a complete whiteout. There were many vehicles in the ditch at the side of the highway.
Eventually it cleared up enough to not be terrifying.
With your indulgence I'll finish this with some photos taken by my four year old niece, Olivia. After I shot this photo of her, she wanted to borrow my camera to take her own photos.
The camera was too big for to to control so she got some abstract images like this shot of the tablecloth.
Olivia had a particular fascination for the television, and she shot many photos of it until I suggested she photograph her own family instead.
Olivia got a shot of her mother Angie, busily preparing the Thanksgiving meal.
Next she got this portrait of her dad.
Big brother Zack, helping his mother with the preparations.
Little sister, Sarah got jealous of Olivia's use of my camera, so she got to borrow her mother's camera.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Quest for the Redwing Continues

We finally broke away from Seward's marina, although I would have loved to spend another hour or so exploring it. We moved north along the rocky shore in front of downtown Seward. You can see Resurrection Bay in the photo above and some of Seward's outlying buildings at the base of the rugged mountains across the bay.
There is always some good wildlife to see offshore from the rugged coast. In past years we got to see Murres and Murrelets, Sea Lions, Harbor Seals, Sea Otters, and more. This time we saw several rafts of Barrow's Goldeneyes.
They were not shy.
Standing on a cliff looking down at the milling goldeneyes, I felt like I was in the middle of them. I think they were hugging the shore to avoid the icy winds.
For some reason I always see far more female Common Mergansers than males. This is the best photo I have gotten of males.
As usual, the female Common Mergansers were more cooperative.
Continuing north along the coast, I was really hoping to find some Harlequin Ducks. We found one pair, but they were not hugging the shore like I wanted to see. The male Harlequin is easily the most attractive Alaskan duck, with the possible exception of the eiders.
What I really wanted to see, (Redwing excepted) were some scoters. I did not have any photos of scoters before last saturday. Then we came upon some Surf Scoters, the most attractive of the three species.
If I had more time, and if it were not so blasted cold, I could have gotten much better photos of these cooperative seaducks.
Surf Scoters are the most gregarious of the scoters. I have seen them in rafts of hundreds of individuals. Usually far offshore.
On a freshwater pond we saw some Mallards and Common Goldeneyes.
This third winter, Glaucous-winged Gull was cavorting on a wave-whipped formation of ice on the shore. The latest reports of the Redwing stated that it was being seen at the end of Lowell Point, the most northerly stretch of Seward's beach. We will finally get to Lowell Point the next time.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Beautifully Brutal Day in Seward

The day was -9f, that's -24c, when I left Anchorage with my longtime friends Betty and Jean. Betty did the driving for the 125 mile long journey. We were well south of Anchorage when the day started to brighten up.
As I stated at the end of the last post, a European vagrant called a Redwing had been seen in Seward for the last four days. We wanted to see it for ourselves.
We passed Turnagain Arm, and were heading into the mountains of the Kenai Peninsula when the rising sun touched the mountaintops. The winter sunshine holds no warmth at all. It can't even melt the frost off of windshields.
Beautiful, but mercilessly cold.
It's completely silly of me, but I always feel pity for the birds and mammals that have to endure the winter weather. When you observe them, most of the time they go about their daily activities with an exuberant indifference to the cold.  Do they consciously even notice the cold?
I also fear the thought of breaking down in a remote place. People do die of exposure who are stranded for too long.
For reasons I dont really understand, some of the local lakes freeze over so solidly that you can drive across them. Other nearby lakes like this one, dont freeze at all. You can't see the open water because of the mist rising from it.
At last we arrived in the funky, coastal town of Seward, pronounced Sue-word. It survives off tourism and fishing. The place is a near ghost town during the winter, but it's a complete madhouse in the summer.
The quaint, little town is predominated by it's fishing boat marina.
As a teenager, I spent a great deal of time hanging out around the Santa Barbara Marina,( I had several friends whose parents owned boats). So I get a warm, fuzzy feeling whenever I'm around a marina. Seward's marina is the best.
It's the best because it's a good place to see great birds like these Barrow's Goldeneyes.
And some more of them.
And lots of loons, like this non-breeding Pacific Loon.
Stay tuned for more to come from our long day in Seward.

Friday, November 18, 2011

An Arctic Bird

A bad photo of my latest painting. I photographed it outside in natural light. It was +3f , -17C degrees when I photographed it, the day's high temperature. The problem is that at this time of year, the sun remains low on the horizon, and often the light is too dim.
So I moved the painting indoors and photographed it in the bathroom. This photo looks more like the actual painting although the bird's body is a little darker than the photo indicates. It's a white morph Gyrfalcon. This painting took longer than I anticipated because I made endless minor revisions to it.
Arctic Falcon, 16x20".

Someone reported seeing a Redwing, that's a European bird and not a North American Red-winged Blackbird. It was on the beach in Seward, about 100 miles from here. It has been hanging around for three days now.
Tomorrow I'm leaving early to try to spot it. Seward is also a good place for seabirds and awesome scenery. I'm all excited about the trip and hope to have good photos for a new post soon. It will be very cold there, nearly intolerable if there are strong winds.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Storkville, Cambodia

A few years ago, I briefly covered both Prek Toal and Angkor Wat in one post. Now I'm going to take the time to do it right. The photo above shows a bunch of nesting Asian Openbill Storks. There are some Painted Storks and other odds and ends scattered around as well. The vegetation gives the impression of solid ground beneath, but it's all inundated by several feet of water.
The day started at 4:00am when we left our hotel in Siem Reep. A short tuk-tuk ride to Chong Neas, a boat ride across part of Tonle Sap Lake, and an arrival to the floating village of Prek toal at about 6:30am. We showed up to the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary Administrative Building, (floating), only to be told that it opens at 8:00am.
When some sanctuary personnel showed up at 8:00am, they told us that we needed to go to the sanctuary in their boat, with their people. The tour would only last until 1pm. I tried to explain that we were willing to pay extra for a customized, longer tour of the sanctuary. Because of the language barrier, we could not make them understand our desires.
It took half an hour to fill out the paperwork, pay the fees and hop aboard a clunky wooden boat. There was our Sanctuary guide, his son, another boatman, Gary, our tuk-tuk driver and myself. None of the sanctuary people spoke one word of english.
Finally we we off to the sanctuary. I was chomping at the bit in anticipation. Prek Toal is known to be the only place in Southeast Asia to see some critically endangered birds, Greater and Lesser Adjutant Storks, Milky Storks, Grey-headed Fish Eagles, White-backed Falcons, and possibly the near mythical Bengal Flouricon. Many other nifty birds that are hard to find in other places.
Right away we started seeing trees full of Indian, and Little Cormorants. New birds for us. We saw Grey, and Purple Herons, Whiskered Terns and much more.
Chinese Pond Herons are an abundant species that was already very familiar to us. At about this point we started seeing some really awesome birds like Cotton Pygmy Geese, kingfishers, and small bitterns. We wanted to get some photos of these gems so we asked the boatman to stop whenever we saw an interesting bird. He stopped briefly, for every bird, rare or common.
Oriental Darters are another hard to get species in most of Southeast Asia. Four in one tree is a very impressive sight.
I wanted to take more time to try for better photos, but the boatman was running out of patience rapidly. It soon got to the point that he would'nt stop at all for most birds. I tried to get our tuk-tuk driver to explain to the sanctuary guide and boatman that we came a long way to see these birds, and that we wanted to go slow enough to photograph some of them.
We came to a rickety wooden platform, built into a tree. It overlooked the colonies of nesting Asian Openbill, and Painted Storks. They were at a fair distance, and we could not see any of the rarer stork species. A few birds flew closer to us, like the openbills above.
Asian Openbills are much more attractive than their somber African cousins, which are dark brown in color. The African Openbills are much easier to approach.

We found a pair of Brahminy Kites building a nest nearby. We also saw several other raptors, but I'm not sure of their identity.
An adult Painted Stork. At about 10am we started back. The boatman and guide became very impatient like horses that are anxious to get back to the barn. They hardly stopped for anything even though we still had plenty of time. I asked our tuk-tuk driver how to say stop in Cambodian. Whenever we saw a good bird I shouted the word for stop. The boatman and guide would look at me like I was a madman, and ignore me.
One great bird that they did stop for, a sub-adult Grey-headed Fish Eagle. We made it back to the village at about 11:30am. The boatman was proud of his accomplishment, like he won the race in record time. I was nearly apoplectic at that point. They got no tip from me.