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Sunday, June 20, 2010

To Sitka and Saint Lazaria Island

Location: Sitka, Alaska
Population: 8889

Yesterday we departed Juneau aboard the fast ferry Fairweather for a four hour ride to Sitka on Baranof Island. The weather was once again cooperative and it was a beautiful ride through this part of southeast Alaska. Narrow, deep channels rich with wildlife surround numerous tree-covered islands. It's similar in a lot of ways to the San Juan Islands, but this region is much, much larger and surrounded by true wilderness - it's easy to see why I love it so much here. Here is a photo taken looking back off the ferry, with Mendenhall Glacier visible in the distant mountains.


I saw about a dozen humpback whales during the crossing and a couple more groups of Dall's porpoise. One of the most exciting sightings, however, was of a terrestrial mammal - a deer swimming across the channel! We talked about this often in the San Juan Islands relating to how the mule deer natively populated the islands and can still sometimes be seen swimming across the channels, but this is the first time I've actually seen it. The captain was nice enough to both slow the ferry down to avoid hitting the animal and to announce it over the PA so we could all see it for ourselves:


Sunny weather met us in Sitka so we decided to go for a hike at Sitka National Historic Park, which shares information about the Native, Russian, and American history of the region. It also features several totem poles, primarily from the Haida on nearby Prince of Whales Island.


The highlight of the day (and it had already been a good day!) was a late afternoon birding trip to Saint Lazaria Island, a 65-acre island that is part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. It was originally designated a marine bird refuge in 1909, one of the first of its type, and is home to nearly half a million nesting sea birds, though you don't see nearly that many because most, like the 250,000 storm-petrels (!!!) only return at night to feed their young.

First up, though, was the trip over to the island. We saw the biggest raft of sea otters I've ever seen - easily 100 or more. We also saw a distant humpback whale and this gray whale, that was fluking every time it dove:


Saint Lazaria is a striking volcanic island, formed as a vent of the nearby volcano Mt. Edgecumbe. At its highest point it is 160 feet, and the only tree found on the island is the Sitka spruce.


When we first got to the island I got to be the mailman for the three researchers that are living on the island this summer studying the sea birds. I climbed up to the bow and dropped a plastic-wrapped package into their dinghy.


The first bird we saw around the island were rhinoceros auklets, pigeon guillemots, and tufted puffins, three of the species that nest on the island It is incredibly cool to see flocks of puffins. The most numerous species that can be seen during the day on the island are the murres, both the common murre which we see often and the coveted thick-billed murre, one of our target species for our trip to Alaska. The differences between the black-and-white common and thick-billed murre are subtle. The thick-billed murre has a white line on its mandible and the white on its chest comes up to a point rather than rounds off as on the chest of the common. Needless to say, these field marks are hard to distinguish on the birds from a distance, let alone the fact that you're on a moving platform and most of the birds on land are facing the rocks! Here is a fraction of one of the two large murre colonies:


But we did have success! The other colony, which was interestingly under a overhang in what almost looked like a sea-cave, had some birds perched facing outwards. The white mandible line wasn't visible, and our captain explained you can only see it at close range in good lighting, but this photo shows the slightly distinct white chest markings. The blue arrow points to the common murre where the white is rounded off on the chest, and the yellow arrow points to a thick-billed murre (year bird 211, NA life bird 335) which has the pointed white on the chest. Amazing that they're considered different species, especially because they're in mixed nesting colonies!


There was also a large raft of murres at sea, and while we weren't able to distinguish any thick-billed from commons, we did see an odd all-white murre:


Another leucistic bird? It's amazing, as I had never seen one before, but on this trip I have seen a leucistic red-tailed hawk, cormorant, and now this murre.

On the way back towards Sitka another surprise popped up - a flock of ancient murrelets! This is the closest view I've ever had of this bird, and an early Father's Day present for my dad who was disappointed to have missed this species on our cross-gulf ferry trip.


The trip ended with a bang as I had my closest-ever encounter with a wild bald eagle as this bird from a nearby nesting pair came down to snatch up a herring just behind the boat. I got a series of awesome photos of it coming down and getting the fish, but this full-frame shot was definitely the prize-winner:


I posed the question earlier in the trip as to whether or not I would tire of bald eagles by the end of the trip - which are, in fact, "like crows", especially in southeast Alaska. With the 20 eagles in the bay at Yakutat to the dozen eagles swirling over the highway in Juneau to this encounter yesterday, the answer is that I definitely haven't tired of eagles!

Today we had a lazy morning before two very early ones that are upcoming for our departure and arrival of the next leg of our ferry. Then we took advantage of the continued nice weather and took a couple of hikes around Sitka. The trails were fantastic, winding through the hemlock and spruce forests, along the bays and up into the hills beside a waterfall.

The birding was good as well. We saw an impressive four thrush species with varied, hermit, and Swainson's thrush in addition to the American robin. There were also lots of common ravens, bald eagles of course, ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets, chestnut-backed chickadee (our fourth chickadee species for the trip!) and towards the end of the day some Townsend's warblers. Included in the mix were a young hermit thrush and young Townsend's warbler being fed by attentive parents.

2 comments:

Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

Last posing I commented that this trip of yours was awesome - - now I think it's way better than that..100+ Sea Otters!!! Double WOW.

Cheers

Davo

The Chatty Housewife said...

Wow, you are having quite the trip! Amazing. The shot of the eagle is incredible.