Chapter 5. Coastal Alaska
(Shari) Carrie and David should no longer be allowed to vote! They wanted to leave at 7:30 AM and, with their two votes, the early risers won. However, they do not depart until later and I figure I could have slept another half hour. We do enjoy the pretty morning and bird a bit at Potter’s Marsh. Bert asks us, “What are the two differences between the two geese, side by side, across the marsh.” I am the only one that answers the question correctly. [See Bert’s blog for the answers.] Yeah for me, birder that I am, NOT!
(Bert) Traveling south to the Kenai Peninsula, we stop for birding at Potter Marsh. A Sandhill Crane is accompanied by a much smaller juvenile and a cow moose is tending this year’s calf. Arctic Terns and Mew Gulls are sitting on nests. The best bird is a pair of Cackling Geese easily identified by their short necks and small size, especially when first viewed adjacent to a Canada Goose. In fact, they fly right up to the boardwalk, floating on the water just 20 ft. below us, and two Mallards join them. What a size comparison, as the geese are only a bit larger than the ducks! We continue around Turnagain Arm and I spot more Cackling Goose at Girdwood. At Turnagain Basin snow covers the creek, ponds and meadow. The runners of cross-country skis crisscross in every direction. Kay builds a snowman, decorating it with black stones, a Panama hat, a couple of carrot ears, and a broad smile created with an arched 25-50-amp conversion cable. We take turns as couples, posing for photographs with the snowman, each person holding in place an end of the short cable. Driving the high cliffs alongside Cook Inlet, we have an exceptionally sharp view of the snow-covered volcanos of the Chigmit Mountains across the water. Only a wisp of white clouds touches Mount Redoubt, Mount Iliamna and Mount Spur, and one of them appears to be smoking, as a thin spiral of steam rises vertically from near its apex.
(Shari) We have a rather long travel day and I keep pushing the group to move
on. Kay decides to build a snowman at one of our stops and we all get into it
helping with the snow and decorations. This snowman comes complete with eyes,
mouth, hat, scarf, and mittens. Of course, we all want pictures. As soon as we
get to Homer, I start making dinner. I go outside and holler when I hear a bunch
laughing and talking. They cannot have a good time while I am working, can they?
I tell them I am jealous until I hear what all the fuss is about. They saw a
pheasant fly overhead. When my convection oven died in Washington and we
replaced it with just a microwave, I did not know how I was going to do all the
baking that I intended to do on the trip. Today I try a microwave cake and if I
must say so myself, it is delicious. A chocolate cake mix, 3 eggs, ½ cup
applesauce and a can of cherry pie filling all mixed and placed in a micro-safe
Bundt pan. Cooked for 14 min., it is easy enough, quick enough, and good enough.
The camp owner’s grandson brings us his new grill to use as theirs does not
work. We eat a dinner of grilled chicken breast, salad, chips and cake on the
deck overlooking the bay and mountains. A warm day in Homer, 50ish, turns chilly
when the wind picks up, and we scatter home.
(Shari) I taxi the group to the boat dock. But as I had worried last night, we are at the wrong boat dock. It is a “See, I told you so moment” at our house. David finds the Harbor Master and asks him where we are to go just as Bert finds the same answer from a man on the dock where we are standing. Apparently, the “H” in our directions does not refer to H-slip, but rather to “Harbor”. And, EE-19 refers to a slip at the deep harbor docks. Luckily, I waited to see if the group found their boat before I left with our vehicle. Back into the RV we go back down the road to the other dock. This time is a charm and the group finds the boat, finds the captain, and all is well.
When I return to the campsite, I see two men taking pictures of a moose. I
walk to where they are standing and am very surprised to see the moose quickly
and easily hop the fence, and scurry into the woods. I did not know that moose
were that agile. The two men are here from Anchorage and had intended to go
halibut fishing today. However, the boat was cancelled because gusty winds are
expected this afternoon. I wonder how my birder family will do. It sure is calm
now. Maybe too calm. The wind is getting ready to shift to the east and the sea
is almost as smooth as glass. I may have a seasick group of people at 3:30 when
I am to pick them up.
(Bert) It is a small boat, the Lady Hawke, that Glen pilots, only licensed for six passengers. To the relief of some of the passengers, it includes an enclosed area, open rear deck, and most importantly, a head. We will be exploring Kachemak Bay and Glen is intent on reaching the south shore as we struggle to hold position in the bouncing boat. When we encounter a large flock of small birds and he casually identifies them as Red-necked Phalaropes, I ask him to slow down for closer examination since we have not yet seen these on the trip. We find ourselves surrounded by phalaropes floating lightly on the surface of the choppy water and taking flight in haphazard swarms. At least 500 birds must encircle us, though how do you count such chaos?
At Sixty-foot Rock, a dozen Sea Otters float on their backs and each supports a pup sprawled across its belly. The otters ensnarl themselves in floating strands of kelp that keep them confined to a smaller area and not drifting farther into the bay. Cruising alongside Cohen Island, Glen points out an exposed rock wall of chert, a deposit of micro crystals derived from a tropical ocean, and significant since it is evidence of the tectonic plates that collided here in Alaska. At Hasketh Island we search for the pair of Black Oystercatchers that have nested here for years. I remember seeing these on other trips, but today they are out of sight. Glen says they nest on open gravel without nesting materials and if threatened by predators, they pick up an egg with their bill and carry it to a safer place. Sadie Cove is a 214-ft. deep fiord, a remnant from the mighty glaciers that formed these islands. Clinging precariously to the steep rock cliffs are eight Mountain Goats.
David and Carrie have been anxious to get close views of Black-legged Kittiwakes and both Glen and I have been putting them off, knowing we would soon reach Gull Island. Now that we have arrived, the thousands of kittiwakes more than appease their desire for a close view. Great quantities of the gulls, with wingtips as if dipped in black ink, surround us in swirling flocks, encompass the small rock island like a mass of white ants, and float on the shifting waves in densely packed rafts. Equally numerous are thousands of Common Murres, confined mostly to floating in long strings stretching for a quarter mile like a rip tide. Black-and-white penguin-like bodies, capped with bulky black loon-like heads are packed so densely together that only small gaps of seawater separate the birds in the floating rafts. Though less in number, we still are amazed at what could easily be a thousand Surfbirds. Flocks of these cling to the black rocks closest to the ebb and flow of the water as they search the wet barnacle-encrusted rocks for bits of food. A small flock of cormorants rests atop an adjacent tiny rock island and I scan for Red-faced Cormorant, thinking I have found one among Pelagic Cormorants. The backlit lighting interferes so Glen repositions the boat. Now all of cormorants appear to have red faces and a quick look at Sibley’s guide does not illustrate Pelagic Cormorants with such faces, though my memory suggests elsewise. I can’t believe we are seeing so many Red-faced and no Pelagic so we consult another field guide. Finally, we decide these are all Pelagics in breeding plumage. No Red-faced today.
The bird of the day is found by happenstance. David and I see a small spout of water and ask Glen to stop for what might be a small whale. It does not reappear. Instead we see a loon nearby. Drab, nearly featureless, David asks if it is male or female and then thinks yellow. The word yellow is in my mind also and I begin clicking off the field marks I remember for Yellow-billed Loon. It all fits, especially as we get closer and I get recognizable photos: thickly-based sword-like bill pointed upward, thick head, large overall size, and lack of any coloring other than drab yellow brown. On my best photos I can even make out the yellow color of the bill and consistent facial markings. It is the best view I have had of this species.
(Shari) At 12, Doug calls on the radio and we walk to the Elk’s Club just in time to meet the Fed EX driver who has a package for him. Good thing we cross paths at this opportune moment, as the club is not open. Would the driver have left the package at the door for anyone to steal? To me, the package seemed stuffed with goodies. We walk to another restaurant that Doug knows about. He knows about great places to eat all over the USA and is better to have around than those phone apps like Yelp and Urbanspoon. The restaurant is full of eclectic people, mostly young in their 20s with long hair and scrubbed faces, sitting on old wooden chairs at small wooden tables. I order the potato cheese beer soup and a veggie sandwich, later topping off my meal with a latte. At 2:30 Bert calls me to pick up the group. They are an hour early, but not because of high seas as that has not happened yet. They saw everything they wanted to see and it is getting colder. So I put in the slide, unhook the electricity, and take off to pick them up. They had a good time, enhanced by the sighting of a Yellow-billed Loon. I had to go to Nome to see that one.
(Shari) Oh, gees! It is 5:30 and the alarm is ringing because we need to
depart at 6:30. At least because we are so far north, it is not dark outside. In
fact, the sky looks like it is clearing after a rainy and windy night. A few
months ago, Bert asked me what I would like to do at this festival, and I
suggested the activity “Cranes and Croissants.” This morning we are entertained
in a local home, served a very filling continental breakfast and treated to a
walk around the property which overlooks Homer Spit. We wonder where the cranes
are located, but as we are leaving, we see a flock of 15 across the street and
hurry to take pictures. The activity ends by 10 AM and we go home to nap. Later
Bert goes birding with Bob and Pat and I make chili.
(Bert) The event is entitled “Cranes and Croissants”, though “Croissants and Cranes” might be more appropriate since the breakfast feast of croissants, bagels, pastries, grapes, strawberries, etc. is plentiful and the cranes almost an afterthought. We do see a resident flock of 18 Sandhill Cranes, however, and they are quite photogenic. Birding with Mossy Kilcher is a special treat and we learn from her intimate knowledge of the birds that share her Seaside Farm. She has tracked down the nests of dozens of Fox Sparrows and I am surprised at their density, nesting about one pair per acre. Another highlight is meeting so many other birders, most living in Alaska. They tell stories of the Russian church at Sitka, early farm settlements in the Kenai Peninsula promoted and subsidized during the depression, as well as Alaska birding adventures.
In the afternoon I ride with Bob and Pat. We visit Beluga Flats to study a flock of 80 tardy Greater White-fronted Geese in a mixed flock with a few Cackling Geese. Then we canvas Homer Spit when the tide is out, thus seeing no shorebirds. At the back side of the harbor, against the steep gravel edge, Bob spots our first Black Turnstones of the trip.
(Shari) This evening we signed up for a performance of Mr. Whitekeys. The show starts at 9 PM, a bit late for us, but generally I like these local acts. Mr. Whitekey’s performance is the sixth year he has done this at Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival. So the show should be good if he is asked back that many times. Not to be the case, at least in my opinion. About 15 min. into the show, Bert whispers to me that we had seen him before in Anchorage many years ago at his Fly By Night Club. I did not like his performance then and do not like it tonight. Bert, on the other hand, likes the show but, then again, he likes everything. I call his brand of humor, bathroom humor, with a focus on men’s and women’s body parts. As he sings his homemade songs, a slide show of pictures changes with each line of lyrics. I find myself not relaxed, sitting closed up with arms crossed in front of me. I try to find something positive. His voice is good and the sketch with a talented Sarah Palin impersonator is a hoot, especially when she sings a song about “I can see Russia.” I am glad he did not have an intermission with another part of the show later, as I would have had to talk Bert into leaving early.
(Shari) After running my birding taxi service to the harbor, I stop at the Laundromat to do two loads of wash. My washer and dryer at home look better and better. Today’s two loads cost $11.00. At this rate, I could buy a washing machine every half year or so. By 9 AM, the wash is clean, dry, folded, and put away. I start a pot of soup on the stove but find now no burner works. The flame does not stay lit. So I plug in the slow cooker and transfer the ingredients. More dishes to wash. I eat an early lunch and decide to watch a little of daytime TV.
(Bert) The Jackpot has both speed and size and is therefore better equipped to propel us to the Barren Islands, a 100-mi. round trip from Homer. Because of frequent bad weather and the high cost of fuel, this pelagic trip typically runs only twice a year. I recognize the boat, as it is the same one we have been on for several halibut fishing charters in other years. At 7 AM we exit the harbor and view dozens of Surfbirds on the same rocks as before, but this time they are accompanied by Western Sandpipers and our first Dunlins of the trip. Captain Art takes advantage of the winds and tide to smooth our ride and limit fuel consumption, so we head directly to the islands without stops. We cross Cook Inlet and slow briefly at Flat Island for a pair of Black Oystercatchers, 50 Harbor Seals, a dozen Steller’s Sea Lions, and our first Pacific Loon. At 9:10 AM we are at Point Adam and soon pass Elizabeth Island at the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula. Now we battle rougher seas until 10:20 when we reach Nord Island, the first of the Barren Islands. A few years ago we saw these islands in the distance when on the ferry to Kodiak Island. I remember the pelagic birding being good, even from the ferry, and wished we could stop. Today I have the opportunity.
They say a half million seabirds nest on the Barren Islands. I don’t doubt that number as we are overwhelmed by what we see. Like a winter storm of snowflakes on a dark mountain, thousands of Black-legged Kittiwakes flutter in the wind. No single gull calls are distinguishable, just the drone of myriads milling through the air and attached precariously on cliff footholds. Puffins are already used in posters prohibiting smoking–as in “No Puffin’”–and watching them today they could also be used as a warning against obesity. These overstuffed footballs struggle to become airborne, kicking furiously against the sea for extra traction, beating wings too short for supporting weight–I’m not fat, just short!–and then dragging orange legs drooping behind them as they slowly inch upward into the stiff winds.
On board naturalist Ginger is keen on finding the specialty of the islands: Parakeet Auklet. Even though I am sure she has seen them a hundred times, she hoops and hollers excitedly when she spots one. Captain Art directs The Jackpot behind the tiny auklet as it stiff wings its body a couple feet above the churning gray sea, passing over floating flocks of murres. Finally, the petite black bird rests on calmer water and we can see its stubby and bright red-orange bill and its decorative white plume extending from behind its eye.
Ignored in the enthusiasm of birding, the intermittent light rain has stopped, a dimly lit pastel rainbow appears on the horizon, and the seas calm to a ripple. It’s a good time to break for lunch on delicious sandwiches and fruit. Then it is back to birding other islands within the cluster. Barren is a good adjective for the islands: raw, steep, sharply sculptured, yet with one valley of densely packed spruce, including the nest of an occupying Bald Eagle. The highest peaks are snow covered; lower peaks are shrouded in a yellow-brown mass of tightly clinging vegetation. A River Otter awkwardly see-saws across a wide gravel beach, short front legs compressed, hind legs in the air, then the reverse–an odd action for a mammal more comfortable in water. Forty Brant flock in a quiet bay. Pelagic Cormorants are the common ones, we see two Double-crested Cormorants–showing white crest plumes–perched atop the apex of a towering black rock and, finally, we see a Red-faced Cormorant in flight.
By 1:30 PM we are again crossing Cook Inlet, moving with the winds and the waves, making transit easier. Yet, in 8-10 ft. seas I make sure I have a good handhold when moving about the boat. To me it is exhilarating, but I notice Carrie is having a rough time of it and David says she has taken a double-dose of Dramamine. Mostly she sleeps, and I notice others are too. I keep my eyes on the seas and watch small flocks of Sooty Shearwaters skim the waves on long outstretched wings, oblivious of–or perhaps delighted by–the turbulence. At 2:45 we are again following the coastline of Kenai Peninsula. We troll slowly to watch Mountain Goats on the steep mountainsides. I count 38 white dots spread across landscape and, through binoculars, I can see them more distinctly as they forage on the brown grasses with emerging green sprouts. In close enough proximity to pose a threat are two Black Bears. Within seconds of our posted arrival time of 5 PM, The Jackpot edges into its berth at Homer Spit harbor.
(Shari) I fall asleep and do not wake up for three hours. My, I must have been tired. Soon Bert is calling for me to pick him up. After a short rest, we walk to the local Elk’s Lodge where they are serving steak or chicken tonight. Tom, who lives in Anchorage, and has gone on many previous caravans with us, joins and entertains us for the next two hours. He has not lost touch with his ability to form puns and he has me laughing continuously. My steak is good and enormous. It will be good again for lunch tomorrow. Doug treats the group to drinks. How nice is that!
(Bert) Another pelagic trip today, this one is in the calm waters–almost mirrored glass–of Upper Kachemak Bay. Our boat, the Rainbow Connection, is also much larger than the others we have taken this week. In fact, it is overbooked and a few people are turned away. Fortunately, David and Carrie, the last to arrive, are allowed on board. Upper Kachemak Bay is where large numbers of Sea Otters gather and our first floating flotilla is 50-75 otters. By the end of the morning we see hundreds, including a large group of all males (not attending pups). I am standing on the bow, front and center, when another birder recognizes the black bar across the secondaries of a flying tern and announces “Aleutian Tern.” I quickly snap several photos and it is a good thing because they show the bar and the white forehead much clearer than I see through my binoculars. Ginger, our naturalist guide again this morning, points out a tide line where water ripples and seaweed accumulates at the surface. She says, “Look for Red-necked Phalaropes” and sure enough, a little while later we see a flock of these fluttering birds.
Periodically, Captain Jack has been calling out the water depth as he pilots the boat along the northern shore of Kachemak Bay. Twenty to thirty feet is typical, but when he nears the eastern shore, where the glacial water of the Harding Ice Field spills into the bay, the numbers keep getting smaller until, at 7 ft., he turns the boat and we start following the southern shore. Here the depth suddenly drops to 70-90 ft. Interestingly, we are again witnessing the collision of tectonic plates. The old, worn-down mountains to our north are the North American plate and the tall, raw, glacier covered mountains to the south are the Pacific Plate. The trench between them–Kachemak Bay–is where they collide.
At Bear Cove, Ginger spots a juvenile Yellow-billed Loon. I quickly snap a few photos, none in good focus, before it dives and reappears far from the boat and then dives again not to be seen thereafter. We have been seeing many murrelets and, with the help of a couple of excellent local birders on deck, they have been diagnosed to species. Between their comments and my photos, I am getting much better at separating these hard-to-recognize species. Just as I am feeling confident, they through a monkey wrench into the mix when two of the birders think one murrelet may be a Long-billed. Of the birders with long lens cameras, I get the best photos and Dave S.–see page 199-201 of The Big Year for more on Dave from Anchorage–looks through my photo review screen and thinks it may be the Long-billed Murrelet. He asks me to e-mail my photos to him for diagnosis.
Speaking of recognizable names, also on board with me is Mr. Whitesides, who not only is a comical performer but also President of the Anchorage Audubon Society. More well-known is Mark Obmascik, author of The Big Year, the book from which the recent movie is based. This afternoon I meet Mark again when he gives a half-hour talk about his book and the way it became a movie. His behind-the-scenes commentary is interesting, such as that the Attu scenes were filmed near Dawson City and many of the other scenes were staged in the Okanogan Valley of British Columbia. Mark’s talk is followed by a showing of the movie. Between the two times I’ve now seen the movie, I read the book, kindly lent to me by Georgia. I found it an enjoyable read, especially when I recognized the birding sites as well as characters I have met. In particular, the nemesis bird Terek Sandpiper for which Sandy Komito makes a special flight to Alaska is the exact same bird that I saw and photographed 10 July 1998 on the mudflats outside Anchorage, the same day Komito saw it. I wrote about the experience in my journal at http://www.bafrenz.com/birds/TX2AK-C4.htm.
(Shari) After the boat tour, which again I did not participate–I do not like pelagic birding trips of any shape or form–we hustle to the Homer High School for a talk by the author of The Big Year. We have a bit of extra time to peruse the open area full of nice arts and crafts, much like a Saturday-in-Anchorage market. It is a treat to be able to shop but, alas, I do not buy anything. Where in the world would I put that cute reindeer magazine rack, either in the Puptent or in our house in Texas? I thought of getting some homemade raspberry jelly, but then remembered I do not even have room for that until my other jelly is finished. Things are tough, I know. When the auditorium is opened, we pile in and take our seats. Pat and Bob are also attending this talk and the movie after, so I sit next to them. The author is still enthusiastic about his book, the movie and the town of Homer. The movie seems better the second time I see it.
Afterwards we meet our high school classmate, Kathy, who grabs a bit to eat and talks with us until she has to depart for another speaker. Kathy moved to Alaska just after college and has lived here ever since. She and her husband love nature and bird watch so we try to see them every time we come up here. Today our visit is short but we will be going to her house in June for a barbeque. We head home and have a half hour to spare before we walk to tonight’s restaurant where we meet Doug and Kay and Carrie and David for dinner. While eating we are entertained by two duos, both related to the famous singer Jewel who was raised in Homer. The first set has her father and his wife singing local folk music and the second has her brother playing the bass and singing what I will call modern folk, with his wife accompanying him on the keyboard. One of the songs is especially good, when she sings and plays as he accompanies with complicated moves on the bass. After their first set, we all are tired and decide to depart. After all, tomorrow is another birding day.
(Bert) This morning our pelagic trip takes us to yet another part of Kachemak Bay, following the western shore of Homer Spit. Karl is both pilot and a very knowledgeable birding guide, though I find his small boat frustratingly designed for birding. With no access to the bow and no outside access to the sides, observations are limited to two spots in the helm–watching through windows–and the open stern section. Karl slows to get closer to birds–what he is watching is unknown to us in the back–and if the birds cooperate, he turns the boat for us to get a view from the sides. More often than not, the birds do not wait for us. Yet we do get to see a good selection of birds: Common and Pacific Loons, Long-tailed Ducks, and, best of all, Common Eiders. I am again pleased to get good photos of Kittlitz’s Murrelets. Karl examines yesterday’s photos, still in my camera, and concludes the presumed Long-billed Murrelet is a Marbled [later today, after he receives my e-mailed photos, Dave S. gives the same opinion, i.e., it was a Marbled Murrelet in transition between winter and breeding plumage].
We revisit a few islands we searched on May 9. Female Sea Otters with pups are again at Sixty Foot Rock. Tongue twisted, I announce “Sea waters are out of the otter.” It is a sight we rarely see, as the otters are acrobats of the sea and struggle like invalids on land. At Cohen Island, this time we find a Black Oystercatcher on a nest positioned at the high point of the steep gravel shoreline, just in front of winter’s tall brown grasses. It would appear as just another round black rock were it not for the bright red-orange pencil of a bill.
A pair of Bristle-thighed Curlews has been reported at the mouth of the Anchor River and, yesterday, Kay saw them there while we were watching The Big Year. Not to miss this vagrant to the Kenai Peninsula, I join Bob and Pat for the drive to Anchor Point this afternoon. The uncomfortable part of finding the curlews is that the river mouth is only accessible by a 1.5-mi. hike across rocks, gravel and sand, a hike that takes me nearly an hour one-way. We debate between wearing high rubber boots and carrying a spotting scope. We elect to take neither and, as it turns out, the boots are unnecessary but the scope is essential. Fortunately, two kindly ladies from Anchorage have their spotting scoped aligned with the opposite shore of the river when we arrive. They welcome further opinions about the birds that are just barely in view with binoculars. Not the best of views, we can see comparative features through the scope. The problem is that Bristle-thighed Curlews look amazingly like Whimbrels–same size, same shape, same bill curvature and bill length, and, for the most part, same coloring–and both species are presumably present. When the curlews winter in the Hawaiian Islands, they take on a rufous coloring that makes identification easier, but now they are grayer and almost the same shade as the Whimbrels. In flight–which these choose not to do–tail feathers can be diagnostic. After much study, analysis of bird books with us, and iPod app searches, we decide two side-by-side birds are one of each species.
(Shari) I take the birders for their last pelagic boat trip and return home to prepare for tonight’s “farewell” tacos-in-a-bag. It is an easy dinner but requires a lot of different dishes and chopping. I intend to go along this afternoon birding but am told they will not return until 5:30. That will not give me enough time before the party as 5:30 is when it starts. So I stay home and watch the snow, sleet, rain and then blue skies and sunshine. It turns out to be the prettiest day in Homer we have had and we enjoy it outside by the picnic table with my skinny margaritas supplemented with Doug’s gallon jug of margaritas. We put all the varying dishes on the table, load up our bags of Doritos and eat inside Carrie and David’s rig. Bert brings my computer over so we can watch my Photo-story presentation of our trip. Tomorrow, we go our separate ways until some of us meet up again for other legs of our Alaska adventures.
(Bert) Is there a pill for short-temperedness toward your wife? Shari is convinced I need one. It all started when I had my thyroid removed one week before we left South Texas. The day before we left, the physician gave us the results that tests showed no malignancy–in fact, in a sense the operation was unnecessary–and he diagnosed a daily dose of synthroid to compensate for the missing organ. After several weeks of being unusually tired and chilled, I doubled the dosage and the symptoms disappeared. I felt fine, but Shari insisted I acted differently. She says I was easily frustrated and expressed that frustration especially toward her. I am an unusually calm person, rarely upset about anything, and throughout my life I only remember being visibly upset two or three times. Uncertain over what the dosage should be, this morning I visit Homer Hospital to request a blood test. Since up until now in my life I have not required more than a couple of aspirin two or three times per year, I am new to medical procedures. So, I find out you cannot just request a blood test. A couple of hours of phone calls, faxing between Texas and Alaska, and an endless amount of hospital paperwork and photocopying, I get the 2-min. blood test for T3 and TSH. As I leave the room, I rotund man with flowing white hair and beard, bearing a striking resemblance to Santa Claus, asks me why I am grumpy to my wife. I figure he must have been talking to Shari in the lobby and I give him the short version. He tells me there is no pill for short-temperedness toward your wife. The test results will be available later this afternoon.
With Leg 1 of our Alaska tours completed, we have an open schedule to do as we please. We drive to Islands and Oceans Visitor Center and while Shari prepares lunch, I check the posted list for rare bird sightings. Eurasian Wigeon has been sighted in the pond on the Beluga Slough Trail, just down the hill from where we are parked. After lunch, Shari and I hike the trail, enjoying the warmer weather and sunny skies. I say “warmer”, but it is all relative. I still wear four layers of clothing above the belt and three below, downsizing from the six above, four below, that I wore when on the pelagic trips. I am not cold in Alaska in April and May, just prepared properly. At any rate, I view the pond from various angles and all I find is a dozen American Wigeons and a few other common ducks. An hour later, we are just about to leave when I take one last look. It must have moved out from under the hidden edge of the pond, because now I see the Eurasian Wigeon with its obviously different-colored head. I hand my binoculars to Shari and she watches it too. She is going to put it on her life list. Readers, take note! Shari started a life list when she downloaded a new app for her iPhone. She seems to be treating new birds like another form of geocaching.
(Shari) We spend the day attending to errands but, in the evening, relax at the Elks Club with Pat and Bob and Doug and Kay. The Elks here in Homer has big picture windows overlooking Kachemak Bay. Eagles and Sandhill Cranes fly by and the mountains glisten across the water. It is a nice place to have a beer or two, talking to friends.
(Bert) Doug and Kay, Bob and Pat, are still in the area so, together, we plan a few more activities in the Homer area today. We start by visiting the mud flats along Homer Spit. With all the pelagic trips we took, we never found time to check for migrant shorebirds at high tide. Now, an hour before high tide, we take up positions in the shelter of the road embankment, aiming binoculars and spotting scopes toward the mudflats as they are contracted from the advancing waters. Scanning across the concentrated flocks, I see two sizes of shorebirds. All of the larger ones are Dunlins and all of the smaller ones are Western Sandpipers; no other shorebird is present. I scan across again, this time estimating numbers: 350 Dunlins and 2200 Western Sandpipers. In about a week, there probably will be none here, but we will see some of them again on their nesting grounds in Nome.
(Shari) This is another sunny day to enjoy. We do my type of birding, starting at 10:30 and finishing by noon. After our last birding stop–we are again with Doug and Kay and Pat and Bob–I give everyone a bowl of my homemade chicken soup for lunch. Pat and I each bought a rotisserie chicken at Costco when in Anchorage and I used the carcasses to make soup. It tastes good today.
Leaving our rigs in the parking lot of a strip mall, we all pile into the “Taco Wagon”, as we affectionately call Doug and Kay’s Earthroamer. We are headed to the end of the road at a Russian village, a place I never visited, nor knew existed. The scenery, of course, is beautiful and the company is entertaining. The afternoon goes way too fast. After four moose sightings, a talk with some of the boys in the settlement but no birds, we are back in our vehicles.
(Bert) After lunch, we all pile into Doug and Kay’s Earthroamer while Doug drives East End Road to its terminus at the Russian village of Voscensenka. The road parallels Kachemak Bay and often at an altitude that gives us all-encompassing views of the bay flanked by Homer Spit to the west, the snow and glacier-capped Harding Ice Field to the south and the braided river to the east. After many miles, we are at a hilltop looking down at the road ahead when we see Voscensenka.
This might be the spot from which Sarah Palin saw Russia from Alaska. As Outsiders, unless you have visited Alaska we likely are not aware of Russian history in Alaska, or of the remnant populations that still live in small enclaves along the coast of Alaska from Anchorage to Ketchikan. In the villages, Russian is their first language and in the school children learn English as a second language. Ahead of us now is a herd of cattle blocking the dirt road, prodded slowly forward by men mounted on 4-wheelers. To avoid the blockage, we turn left on a village road, stopping briefly at Voscensenka School and the adjacent Russian Orthodox church capped by an onion dome. School kids are on the road, moving together in friendly chatter. The boys are dressed like boys anywhere, but the girls all wear beautifully colorful full-length dresses. Doug drops down his truck window and talks briefly to the boys who answer his questions in fluent English. We learn that 500 to 600 people live in Voscensenka.
(Shari) Bert and I stop on the spit, intending to get oysters and I am disappointed that none of the fish stores have them yet. Halibut is still $16.95 per pound, so I pass on that too. Apparently, the real fishing season does not open until Memorial Day weekend. Then it will be fish, fish fish! The TV, the newspapers, and the talk about town will center on fish. Hordes of people will focus on fishing. I heard that over 20 million days are spent fishing in an Alaskan summer. Interestingly, 20 million fish are caught. So I should catch 1 fish per day. The kicker in those statistics is that about $525 is spent per fish what with tackle, boats, licenses, rod, reel, guide, fuel, food, lodging, etc. etc. Don’t forget the beer. Maybe I should pay the $16.95 instead. We end the day in our rig with a great social.
(Shari) After a leisurely morning sleeping late, then showers, we use the Flobee to cut each other’s hair. My job on Bert is good. His job on me leaves something to be desired. Sometimes he gets it so good, that I do not understand it. Maybe it has to do with the cut that is growing out and I can’t decide what I want. Right now I hate my haircut.
The last month or more has been mostly Bert’s activities. Today, I tell him what I want to do. Blame it on Doug! He made me go to Ulmers, a store as big as a strip mall that has a pharmacy, a sporting goods store, a garden center, a fabric store, a paint shop, a hardware store, etc. Bert follows me inside but quickly tires of my meandering down each aisle listening for my name. “Shari, Shari Shari,” I hear the electric hot plate call. I hear my name again at the meat thermometer and again at the soup cups. At another store, I hear a whisper in the rain pants department. So it goes all morning and we end up eating lunch in the parking lot of one of the stores. Then we drive north, saying goodbye to Homer until another day.
Bert wants to camp at Anchor Point and take another look at the Bristle-thighed Curlew. I tell him I will walk with him until I tire. I end up walking the whole distance. We stop for a long time looking and discussing the attributes of two birds. I decide one of them is the curlew and I add it to my list. He disagrees and does not count it on his. Well…it is MY list. I walk back while he still ponders the bird and I gather some lumps of coal that has washed up on shore with the tide. There are so many eagles on the beach looking for the scraps of the halibut that were cleaned by today’s fishermen. It is like walking through a mine field. I notice one adult eagle trying to teach her two juveniles how to grab the food in her talons. I give that family a wide berth as I pass, not wanting to get between her and her youngsters. I get back to camp and pour a glass of wine, get out the camp chairs and start a fire, waiting for Bert to split the logs I pilfered from an empty campsite. We enjoy the fire until it gets too chilly and then go inside to have a dinner of salmon and salad. It was a nice day.
(Bert) Before we leave Homer, Shari wants to stop and peruse several stores. Although less enthusiastic, I dutifully tag along, now that I am the kind and observant husband that no longer is short-tempered, thanks to the doctor’s prescription to double my daily dosage of synthroid–four times the original amount. As we leave Homer, at the overlook of Kachemak Bay, seven Bald Eagles circle in the uplift. I have seen more Bald Eagles this visit than ever before and, today, I see another two dozen at Anchor Point, including 16 visible simultaneously as they rest on the beach.
I want to visit the Anchor River again, this time carrying my spotting scope and long lens camera. Shari joins me for the long and tedious hike across the beach. Weighted down, I take it slowly. We stop to scope two Whimbrel-Curlews. Looking at the same two birds, aligned through the same scope, Shari sees one that has rufous tinges, while I see two gray-brown birds. At the river we study five Whimbrel-Curlews and I come to the conclusion that the Bristle-thighed Curlews have left the area, leaving only Whimbrels. On the hike back, this time with Shari far ahead of me, I add Semipalmated Plover to my trip list and am pleased to watch my first Pacific Golden-Plover of the year.
By the time I trudge back to our campsite, Shari has started a campfire and is sipping from a glass of red wine, the last of her homebrew. It is the first time that I can recall when Shari has started the campfire, a task that usually falls to me. I get my splitting ax from an outside compartment of our RV and split some of the logs she has gathered. A comfortably warm evening, with bright skies illuminating the snow-covered volcanoes across Cook Inlet, we relax in the solitude interrupted only by a calling Merlin and a chattering Red Squirrel watching us from adjacent spruce trees.
(Bert) I awaken to the chirping of Bald Eagles. Before we leave Anchor Point, Shari wants to find a geocache. Guided by her iPhone, we hike a quarter mile from our campsite to a wooded area near the beach. Curiously, the geocache is within the territory of a pair of Merlins that take up sentinel posts at the apex of tall spruce trees, calling to each other, and keeping a sharp eye on Shari as she reaches under a tree stump to retrieve the cache.
(Shari) Again we have a leisurely morning, not getting up until 8:15. I do like it that since Bert’s surgery he sleeps longer. I make French toast for breakfast before we take a short walk to find a geocache, upsetting two Merlins close to the cache’s hiding place. I find it in short order and Bert snaps my picture. This picture shows that I have SO much gray hair. The mirror does not show that much. I was going to use it for a new Facebook picture but decided against it until I find a picture with less gray in it.
(Bert) We have explored much of the Kenai Peninsula on prior Alaska trips, though there are still a few roads we have missed. This morning we drive North Fork Road to the Russian village of Nikolaevsk, take photos of the detailed paintings adorning the entrance to the Church of St. Nicholas, and eat a lunch snack at Samovar Café, owned and operated by Nina, as colorful a character as the Russian dolls and knick knacks she sells. In broken English, with a thick Russian accent, missing pronouns and avoiding conjugation, she is the ultimate saleslady. She convinces us to order borscht, piroshkies, and Russian tea flavored by honey and cinnamon. When we turn down her offer of dessert, she frowns in disappointment, but then suggests we shop her knick knacks while she prepares the food. The brief meal is tasty, the experience even better.
(Shari) We peruse a road we never took in past years and find a Russian settlement at the end of it. Their Church of Saint Nicholas is old-world, complete with three onion domes, and around the entrance are paintings of the Gospel stories with words printed in Russian. We stop for lunch at a quaint café, and order piroshkies (glorified mashed potato sandwiches), borscht (beet soup), and Russian tea (a honey-sweetened tea sprinkled with cinnamon). The proprietor came to Alaska in 1992 and started this restaurant in 2001. She is a character and puts on a hard sell, charging for every little thing, even pictures. In fact, you are not allowed to enter the gift shop without paying her something. Unbelievable! Tonight we stop at a commercial campground, arriving about 3. We start a load of wash and meanwhile we carry a glass of wine up to the viewing deck that overlooks the flats created by the Kenai River. There we see a caribou and I get good looks at Bohemian Waxwings, another bird to add to my iPhone list. I start the slow cooker and we smell moose roast all the night long.
(Bert) At another stop, at Whisky Gulch, the gravel road is too steep for our RV–four-wheel drive is recommended for the return ascent–so we park on the top of the cliff and I walk downhill. While Shari finds another geocache, I listen to Fox Sparrows. Although I can see one prowling through the dense brush, I can’t get a clear view. I try playing recorded songs from my iPhone. The bird shows no interest in Red Fox, Slate-colored Fox, Thick-billed Fox, but immediately responds to Sooty Fox Sparrow recordings by springing to a high perch and vigorously singing an identical response. Although this list is all the same species, this bird definitely knows to which subspecies it belongs.
By late afternoon we have reached a campground that overlooks the Kenai River Special Management Area. After errands, we sit on a second story deck offering a panoramic view across miles of the refuge flatlands. We watch a lone caribou browsing on dry grass. It is the first to arrive from the Moose River area where it winters. Perhaps it is a cow about to give birth, a scene we witnessed one other spring when visiting the refuge. A flock of four Bohemian Waxwings alights on a budding birch at the edge of our viewing deck. Shari adds the species to her iPhone life list app.
(Bert) Our arrival in Kenai coincides with the Kenai Birding Festival, so we stop at the Visitor’s Center to see what’s happening. Coincidentally, a guided field trip will leave from here at noon. We join Ken, who was one of the project volunteers that produced “Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula Wildlife Viewing Trail Guide”, a 120-page book with lots of good birding suggestions. Ken leads a car caravan of birders to an overlook of the mouth of the Kenai River. He says Beluga Whales have been coming up the river the last few days, but we do not stay long enough to see one. Instead, we view the Herring Gull colony on the flats on the opposite side of the river. Ken says the colony numbers 30,000, perhaps the largest in Alaska. In spring, the gulls feed on hooligan, a small smelt-like fish, and in summer when the cannery opens the gulls dine on the salmon scraps released by the cannery.
From here we drive to the mouth of the Kasilof River, just in time for high tide. Dunlins and Western Sandpipers crowd the narrowing mudflats. A Red-throated Loon is offshore and Chet, one of the participants, points out a field mark I had not noticed before. Unlike Common, Pacific, and Yellow-billed Loons, the Red-throated has a black back.
En route to our next birding stop, we pass a Moose, a sighting which now has been a common daily occurrence and then we see two caribou browsing alongside Kalifornsky Beach Road. At Cannery Road we encounter a flock of two dozen Lapland Longspurs that seem to be unusually late in their passage north. A pair of Pectoral Sandpipers is another good find, as these will not stay to nest and are on their way to the tundra of the North Slope near the Arctic Ocean. Someone spots a Pacific Golden Plover and at the ponds near the cannery I find another. In other years I only found these in Nome, not in migration through Central Alaska. One more addition to my trip list is several sightings of Hudsonian Godwits. These are much darker than the Bar-tailed Godwits I saw a week ago. Again, they are migrants heading north.
Our last stop is to view a pair of Pacific Loons that have adopted Lambert’s Lake for their summer residence. I learn an interesting fact from Ken when he says Pacific Loons require 50 yd. to take off, while Common Loons require 150 yd. Thus Pacific Loons can nest on smaller lakes than Common Loons. Unfortunately for these loons, their current chance of breeding success is low. It seems the large increase in the Bald Eagle population has resulted in most loon chicks being scooped up by eagles before reaching maturity.
(Shari) After another nice leisurely morning, we depart at 10 stopping at two roadside pullouts before arriving at the Kenai Visitor’s Center. Here we learn the detailed program for their birding festival. Bert decides he would like to join this afternoon’s bird tour. We join 8 cars and about 29 people, travel to different sites in the area, looking for birds. Bert gets several new trip birds and seems to enjoy himself. It must be nice to be led instead of lead for a change. While he birds, I fix his torn woolen gloves, read of other things to do in the area, and try to nap. Our last stop gets us close to Soldotna and we decide to get fuel and groceries. Then we elect to just stay the night in the parking lot. A big enticement is the brewery and restaurant next door. We walk to it and enjoy one of their many beers on tap before returning to our rig for grilled moose steak. The steak is so good that I wish I had cut more steaks from the roast I was given and not cooked as much as a roast last night.
(Bert) The first signs of spring show in the birch as we drive north in the Kenai Peninsula. Up until now, barren trees have been in the bud stage, melding with the drab browns and grays of dry winter grasses. Now, in the far northwestern corner of the peninsula, the Kenai Birches are pushing out pea- to Lima-bean-sized leaves that will soon burst into full-sized 2-in. leaf blades. When birds are sparse, my attention turns to trees and flowers, so I am intrigued by these Kenai Birch. More well-known to me are the White Birch of northern Wisconsin, often called Paper Birch because of the way the bark peels off in papery sheets, or Canoe Birch because Native Americans used the trees for building canoes. Quite different in appearance, the younger Kenai Birches have an attractive reddish hue and the older ones are blacker. Even though they look quite different, both White and Kenai Birch are the same species; the Kenai being the kenaica variety of Betula papyrifera, and are restricted to a small area of Alaska, mostly the Kenai Peninsula.
Other deciduous trees–the Black Cottonwoods and various willows–are still in the bud stage. I find two dandelions–and only two all day–that are small sunbursts on a field of spring green grass the height of a putting green. Small bouquets of Cow Parsnip have erupted from the soil, soon to grow to the size of bushes. Yet, other plants are still in winter stage, such as the Devil’s Club that now are only leafless stalks liberally covered with hypodermic needle spines. Drifts of winter snow still lurk in the darkest crevices. The thermometer creeps over the 50º mark this afternoon; more of spring is sure to follow.
(Shari) By the time we measure, discuss, look for and at materials for black-out shades and then go to the huge, new Wal-Mart in Kenai, it is getting late. We visit another brewery and I buy a few flavors and then we find a pullout for lunch. We are headed for Captain Cook State Park, another place I have never visited. We are surprised to see so many campers in the park. Nevertheless, we find a nice spot for our little puptent. By now it is midafternoon and we take the 1 mi. interpretative hike that seems like 3 mi. Apparently, last November the area had a huge wind storm that knocked down lots of trees. We must have climbed over, under or around over 50 of them blocking the path. At one point we ask ourselves if we should turn back and go over, under and around those we already did. But we forge on. By the time we get back to camp, we are pretty pooped and just vegetate by the fire with a glass of wine before dinner. I think we are in bed by 9.
Next Day Table of Contents