Adam Welz's Weblog

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’!