Adam Welz's Weblog

Ninilchik, Alaska, 10 May 2008

Posted in ALL BLOG POSTS, birds & birding, photography by adamwelz on June 11, 2008

Hi All

one of the problems of being interested in a lot of things is that the time to take them is, of course, far shorter than the time it takes to record and process them and that in turn is even shorter than the time it takes to shape those records of them into some sort of communicable form. The curse of being any kind of researcher/communicator person is that you’re researching you’re not communicating, and vice versa. So lots of funnish stuff gets stuck in harddrives and notebooks and basements and boxes and never gets out. Also, sometimes, you’ve been off the bicycle a bit long, like me with photography, and what you’re producing isn’t really up there where it could be, so you don’t want to let it out.

But editing and figuring out what to let go of often take way longer than it should, so perhaps it’s better just not to prioritise too carefully, not worry too much about the images and words measuring up, just take a random look into the pile of rough stuff and pull something, wriggling or flaccid, from the depths. This is, after all, a recreational blog, an extended e-postcard, not a professional undertaking.

The idea for the 10th of May was to go try see some shorebirds in Homer, but the tide was out and we failed pretty much completely in that endeavour (I only got a coupla lifers, none shorebirds, and some close shots of Bald Eagle, published on this blog a few days ago).

This sign along the road does not refer to cameras. Photos of signs are one big step below photos of lone trees.

Ninilchik, Alaska, is a really small town on the Kenai Peninsula. It’s really small even by Alaskan standards. I spent a short interlude there while driving from Soldotna to Homer with Jim Dahl. Ninilchik revolves around fishing and religion I guess, because there is a small harbour and also a small church. The locals seem not to be too crazy about tourism, which is a relief as every other small place in AK seems to have gone that way with the slowdown in the oil and logging industries in the past fifteen years or so.

Often, people in small towns in amazing natural settings seem to see no need to build anything beautiful. It’s as if the wilderness has completely overwhelmed them to the point at which they no longer see it, they spend all their time trying to downplay the Great Featurelessness that quietly envelopes them, obsessing about their own small island of dislocated infrastructure, and have absolutely no idea that a passerby might think that what they’ve screwed up the seamless atmosphere of somewhere remarkable. But maybe the whole Dereliqued aesthetic has something going for it, especially if you dump a lost boat in the scene.

The Russians owned Alaska until not very long ago. In 1867 the US bought it from the Russian Empire for 2 cents an acre, just over 7 million dollars for the lot. Ninilchik still has a tiny Russian Orthodox church on a hillside overlooking the town. You go up a track, past someone’s neat dog graveyard with signs telling outsiders that the church is not here it’s to the left.

Pass some moose-chewed bushes…

and you’re right in a human graveyard with a white picket fence and Orthodox crosses at strange angles (the ground freezing and thawing tends to move them off the vertical). I’m not sure whose buried here, some have Russian names, some not, some no names at all. But there was a friendly native woman out tending to some graves, placing plastic flowers on a couple. The grass just half stood, uncombed and uncut, around most of the crosses. At one corner a black synthetic POW-MIA flag waved which did not seem incongruous, despite being anachronistic relative to the rest of the scene, because they shamelessly appear all over this country to remind us of what, the misdeeds of past administrations? The fact that people get lost without trace in war? Some sort of statement of identity more like but one that I’ve yet to approach.

Ninilchik has something like a harbour – a small rivermouth with a crude seawall reinforced with bits of discarded railway machinery, objects that should probably be in a transport museum. The harbour infrastructure is neglected, but good enough for a couple of small fishing boats. You can only get in and out at high tide. On the beach are peculiar boulder-sized lumps of something like lignite, and a motley multi-species mob of shorebirds and gulls. And me (Jim Dahl’s photo).

Here are a pair of fast-swimming, gunshy Common Merganser in the harbour (male on left, female on right). I find it odd that anyone would seriously want to eat these guys. Piscivorous mammals and birds generally taste awful. I have a particular liking for the mergansers, strange fish-eating ducks with vicious looking bills, quite unlike other members of the family Anatidae. I’m still looking for Hooded Merganser, but have seen all the others around here and in Europe.

And here, two male Harlequin Duck, equally jumpy, hanging out together, acting like a pair with no females in sight. One of my ‘globally’ favourite ducks, with the wonderful scientific name of Histrionicus histrionicus.

Gotta sleep. Checking out urban hawks in NYC tomorrow.

Luv y’awl.


dirty, dirty Bald Eagle – Homer, Alaska

Posted in ALL BLOG POSTS, birds & birding by adamwelz on June 2, 2008

Hi All

we all know about the Bald Eagle, the ultimate symbol of freedom and US pride. South African readers of this blog will know the African Fish-Eagle, a close relative of the Bald, and likewise associated with grace, beauty, and fearsome strength. It’s ringing cry is the ‘call of the African wilderness’.

Alaska is the stronghold of the Bald Eagle. It’s pristine waters support by far the largest population of these fantastic raptors in the USA.

Beautiful, innit?

What the bird marketers don’t tell you is that both Bald Eagle and African Fish-Eagle are incredibly lazy. These guys would sit on their perches all day if they didn’t have to make a living, and if they don’t have to go to all the bother of catching and killing something, they won’t. They’ll eat dead stuff.

I found the bird above on a beach at Homer, Alaska, on a day trip down there with Jim Dahl (a Rotary club fella from Ketchikan). I could get within 10m of it and get this image with a pretty short lens because it likes people. It hangs out on the mucky beach with the fishermen all day, feeding on fishguts they toss away. Its long killer claws actually get in the way of walking, giving it a comical careful amble like a clown with oversized shoes on.

All around many fishing towns in Alaska, the Bald Eagle is nothing more than a clumsy, big crow. They sit about on docks and festoon lampposts, waiting for their entrail lunch. Many don’t even bother to clean themselves. Although African Fish-Eagle are equally lazy, I’ve never seen one get this dirty. Sies man! (Check out its blurry buddies in the background.)

I guess all logos have their dark sides. Elephant dump huge piles of poo in the road. Lion fornicate all day. Springbok, well, Springbok are just a bit stupid, though I’d rather eat Springbok bredie than Bald Eagle pie.



yawning across the billennia in Soldotna, Alaska

Posted in ALL BLOG POSTS, birds & birding, nature & environment by adamwelz on June 2, 2008

Hi All

slowly ploughing backwards thru photos from my trip.

Soldotna, Alaska, I think 9 May 08. Round the back of the hotel where I was staying is the Kenai River, a fishing mecca with so many fishing lodges/spots/hangouts along its length its a miracle anything with gills lives in there anymore.

Taking an evening break, I walk along the banks to look for birds. I find a nearby Mew Gull, a commonish small gull and decide to take a record shot of it. As I’m snapping away, it calls up to its mate…

…which comes down to say hi…

…and then gets bored and goes off to fiddle about with its bill in the dirty unmelted snow our protagonists are standing on (I have no idea why).

A bit later both birds fly off a few metres, one landing on an even dirtier bit of snow…

…where it settles down…

…and then (here’s the interesting bit), yawns.

What’s the big deal, you ask? Well, this particular yawn reminded me that I’ve seen lizards and even fish yawning, and just about every mammal you could care to think of. Clearly the common ancestor of us and many other vertebrates around today was a yawner. (Birds branched off the vertebrate evolutionary tree in the Jurassic – like somewhere between 200 and 145 million years ago.)

What’s the point of yawning? Do amoebas yawn? Why is this funny habit so many hundreds of millions of years old? I mean, crap, humans and birds evolved out of lizards or coelocanths or whatever into hectic endothermic creatures with wings, big brains, lord knows what else, but we haven’t managed to evolve out of YAWNING?

Do you think yawning could be evidence of Intelligent Design?

I’m going to stop now, because if I carry on I’ll find myself with a stellar academic career on my hands, and that may be disastrous. But I look forward to your ideas!



Ketchikan, Alaska birding 4 May 2008

Posted in ALL BLOG POSTS, birds & birding by adamwelz on May 5, 2008

Hi All

went out this morning with Steve Heinl, one of the most experienced birders in Ketchikan. We went out north of town, along the Tongass Highway (the main road on the island), stopping in various strategic places.

The landscape around Ketchikan is extraordinarily beautiful. As I understand it, southeast Alaska was dominated for a long time by glaciers until the end of the most recent Ice Age, a mere 11 -15 000 years ago. These carved huge valleys to make today’s geologically young landscape, a region consisting of thousands of steep sided islands separated by extremely deep fjordlike waterways mostly made of dark, slaty schist. Relatively warm Pacific ocean currents give off a lot of humid air which is forced up over islands, creating a huge amount of orographic (remember that word from geography?) rainfall, which in turn feeds an amazing, lush, coniferous temperate rainforest. The oceans are also extremely productive, containing huge numbers of fish.

It was a colder than normal spring day here, but otherwise typical for this region i.e. low cloud, mist, and rain. I did not take as many bird photos as I had planned (light was terrible and my camera doesn’t like getting wet. These types of pictures look more spectacular with some sun in them, but that wasn’t on the agenda for today).

Here is Steve at one of the places we stopped at. The birds (black spots) in the back are mostly Surf Scoter.

The western US has a large number of various types of seagoing ducks – something we lack in Africa. Although many of the species breed on freshwater, they’ll spend great chunks of the year bobbing about quite happily in salt. Around Ketchikan this morning we saw groups of several hundred or more Surf Scoter along with much smaller numbers of White-winged Scoter, Bufflehead, Harlequin Duck, Greater Scaup, Barrow’s and Common Goldeneye, Long-tailed Duck, Mallard, American Wigeon and other seagoing ducks. (Steve found us a an Eurasian Wigeon on the shore – very rarely seen in the US.) The Scoters were diving down to feed on herring eggs. Herring come to some points inshore and lay thousands of eggs which stick to clumps of seaweed – a great source of duck protein. Sometimes the duck-rafts are filled in with gulls, loons, and other seabirds. The picture below shows a raft of Surf Scoter over a herring spawning ground along with good numbers of Bonaparte’s Gull (there are also a few other things in the shot but I can’t ID them now.)

We saw huge numbers of sparrows migrating through (mostly Golden-crowned Sparrow), and all through the morning frayed strings and vees of hundreds of geese passed high overhead, purposefully heading to their northern Arctic breeding areas. The famous American nature writer Aldo Leopold spoke of ‘goose music’ – the gentle, continuous honking that floats down from the groups as they make their way across this vast continent. It’s a wonderfully clear manifestation to me of the changing seasons and the ecological connections that span the globe.

Enough of that. Here’s this morning’s list (in Sibley guide order):

1) Pacific Loon

2) Common Loon

3) Red-necked Grebe

4) Pelagic Cormorant

5) Great Blue Heron

6) Greater White-fronted Goose

7) Snow Goose

8 ) Canada Goose

9) Brant (goose)

10) Mallard (duck)

11) American Wigeon

12) Eurasian Wigeon

13) Northern Shoveler

14) Green-winged Teal

15) Greater Scaup

16) Harlequin Duck (a small, dainty duck that rejoices in the scientific name of Histrionicus histrionicus)

17) Long-tailed Duck

18 ) Surf Scoter

19) White-winged Scoter

20) Common Goldeneye

21) Barrow’s Goldeneye

22) Bufflehead

23) Red-breasted Merganser

24) Northern Harrier

25) Bald Eagle

26) Black-bellied Plover

27) Killdeer (a type of plover)

28 ) Greater Yellowlegs (calls just like Greenshank)

29) Dunlin

30) Western Sandpiper

31) Least Sandpiper

32) Wilson’s Snipe

33) Bonaparte’s Gull

34) Mew Gull

35) California Gull

36) Herring Gull

37) Thayer’s Gull

38 ) Glaucous Gull

39) Glaucous-winged Gull

40) Marbled Murrulet

41) Feral Pigeon (introduced exotic)

42) Belted Kingfisher

43) Rufous Hummingbird

44) Steller’s Jay

45) Northwestern Crow

46) Common Raven

47) Tree Swallow

48) Chestnut-backed Chickadee

49) American Dipper (what a great bird)

50) Golden-crowned Kinglet

51) Ruby-crowned Kinglet

52) Varied Thrush

53) American Robin

54) Hermit Thrush

55) American Pipit

56) European Starling (introduced exotic)

57) Orange-crowned Warbler

58) Townsend’s Warbler

59) Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle, Audubon’s & intergrade forms)

60) Savannah Sparrow

61) Fox Sparrow (sooty form)

62) Song Sparrow

63) Lincoln’s Sparrow

64) Dark-eyed Junco (Oregon form)

65) White-crowned Sparrow (seen after Steve went home)

66) Golden-crowned Sparrow

also heard (and identified by Steve) but not seen

a) Red-throated Loon

b) Northern Flicker

c) Winter Wren

I also saw Red-breasted Sapsucker and House Sparrow around Ketchikan yesterday – so I might crack 100 in Alaska if I get lucky up near Anchorage.

A good total for half a day in this area. Thanks Steve, and happy birding to all of you, even the ones who haven’t been hooked by this silly sport yet…



PS there seems to be a bug in this blogging program that sometimes turns the number eight (or is it the number eight and a bracket?) into a smiley… will figure that out. Whenever you see a smiley, read ‘eight’!