Alaska '98 Trip. Week 4. Nome to Anchorage, to Homer, Alaska

Week 4 Day 1. Friday June 12. 22nd day. Last full day in Nome. Planned Day Off.

We sleep in again this morning, stop at the Nome Visitor's Center to check for newly reported birds in the area, just in case. There is a report of a White Wagtail, Bluethroat and another bird I don't recall right now [Sharon says Arctic Warbler] - all at the turnoff to Wooley Lagoon, on the westbound road out of Nome, towards Teller. This area is not Bluethroat territory, and I don't believe the report. But if it is real, we have a chance at the White Wagtail without going all the way to Teller. So we decide to postpone souvenir shopping till after Wooley Lagoon.

We drive the 40 miles, and turn down the Wooley Lagoon turnoff. We find the abandoned road mentioned just yards from the main highway, but it's so bad, we decide to leave the pickup and walk down. There is another couple who already parked up where we are, and have walked down to the bird location referenced. We decide that it would be smarter just to wait here for them to come back up, and find out the results of their search. By their body language, I'm guessing their getting a big fat zero. So we begin checking out the birds near our parking spot.

After a bit, a new Ford Explorer pulls into the area, and who gets out but Brian Small (writes bird photography articles for Wild Bird magazine and whom we met at the Anchorage airport). He knows the other couple. He says hi and we all get together to exchange information. No White Wagtail here. The couple say that this is their day off, but they saw the notice too. They're going back to Nome now. We tell Brian about our unsuccessful trip to Teller, regarding the White Wagtail. He's really surprised that we didn't find it. He has lots of reports that imply they're easy to see. Besides, he says, pointing back towards overcast Nome, "the blue skies are here." The other couple say they saw a pair in Teller they thought had nesting material, and give us specific directions to where they saw them. Brian say he's going and, unbelievably, it's Sharon who says, "How can we NOT go now?" So our two-vehicle caravan sets off for Teller.

Brian is a lot faster than we are, so he goes on ahead. The road is lots better on this clear sunshiny day than the stormy one we had two days ago. A few miles later, as we crest the top of a hill, we see his Explorer pulled over, and he is scanning a high rocky outcrop. We pull up and I say, "Did you find one?" "Did you all already know about the Gyrfalcon (JEER-fowl-cun) nest?" he asks.

We had always used GEAR-not-JEER, but I say fowl and Sharon says fall. Of course, if you haven't heard a name pronounced that you have only seen in print, anything seems right. Like I used to say NEV-uh-duh for the Silver State. And YO-suh-might Sam for the cartoon character. We decide that JEER must be right, so we'll try to change.

We pile out of the pickup and bring out the scope, as Brian directs our views towards the nest location in the rocky outcrop above. Sharon has already found the nest and I soon get it in the scope. There are babies. We can't quite tell if it's two or three gray, fluffy chicks. When one moves, his fluff-covered wings move, and sometimes that looks like another head. Or else it IS another head. Then while we are still here, the mother Gyr flies over, circles her nest, glides across a little valley, and lands just above a leftover snow patch. We get more good looks there.

We continue on towards our Teller destination, with Brian a little ahead. We crest another hill, and see him parked again, with a gorgeous vista of the bay around Teller behind him. He asks us to use his camera and take a couple of photos of the scenery with him in the shot. I do. Then he tells us to go ahead, because he wants to shoot some more here. We move out.

About the time we get to the Teller village limit, Brian has caught up with us again. We drive through town, to the area the wagtail was last seen. Brian gets out a couple of Radio Shack two-way radios. He gives me one of the radios and starts walking toward the old highway building, while I head towards the cemetery. Brian stops me for a second and says that all of his reports say that they are around the old highway building. I suggest that he and Sharon go that way, and I'll head towards the cemetery, just for insurance. Some reports have mentioned the cemetery. He calls once, but is just checking our radio link.

Then over the radio, "We've got the bird." Magic words.

I turn around, walk quickly back to join them. Sharon is afraid that it'll fly before I can see it (we both have to see it to "count" it). She is giving me the wave-hurry-up sign to get there as quick as I can. Finally I too see the WHITE WAGTAIL* briefly, and then it perches exactly in the middle of the roof peak of the old highway building. It has fantastic black, white and gray colors, and a long waggly tail. I hear Sharon say there's another one. I look up from the scope, and she's right - it's a pair of wagtails. Brian says that he thinks there are no records of the White Wagtail nesting in the U.S.

As I continue scope-watching, I see our original bird moving its head up and down and around from its rooftop perch, like it's following a moving object in the air above. I wasn't watching the second bird, but he may have been doing a display flight - this may be breeding behavior. Sharon was looking at the same bird I was, and she thought that IT was doing a display with its head. Don't care right now. WE GOT THE BIRD.

After looking a half-minute or so, Brian goes back to his Explorer and returns with a humongous telephoto'd camera on a heavy duty tripod, the camera topped with a big flash and a light-multiplying fresnel lens. Quite a rig. The trouble is, just before he gets back, the wagtails fly off. We wait with him about ten minutes, then say goodbye and take off. I tell him that if we see them in the village, we'll come back and tell him.

We're off, looking for a rest room again [Why does this seem to be a common theme? says Sharon]. The village store is open today, but they don't have a public restroom. The clerk recommends the washeteria. We buy lunches for today, then drive over to the washeteria. As Sharon takes off for the rest room, I take a photo of a chained up puppy-looking sled dog, but he changes from cute to snarly as I walk a little closer. While Sharon is walking up to the rest room, a young Eskimo teenager, who saw me, comes up to her: "What are you taking pictures of?" "Birds," Sharon says. "No, you're taking pictures of houses," he proclaims.

"No, we came all the way from California to look at a little bird." "What kind of a bird is it?" he asks. "It's a pair of White Wagtails," Sharon answers. "Can we eat 'em?" he says. Eskimo life is a little different than ours. Another kid tells Sharon he has been to California. "The birds down there eat nectar," he says. "Oh, you mean the hummingbirds?" Sharon asks. "No, all of them."

Sharon uses the rest room, then I do. We decide to go back to the beginning of the spit and check the area in detail, with the scope. Brian is gone when we get there. Hope he got some good photos. If he did, they may appear in the next Wild Bird magazine. That'd be fun. I see a few faraway black dots on the ice, Sharon sees about 200 seals. It turns out that it's a mixture of different types of seals, but they are indeed up on the ice.

We return to the apartment, and Sharon uses the free washer and dryer in our apartment. I go into a deep nap (and in California, Maureen graduates from high school), and wake up about the time Sharon finishes. "Let's go look for that Emperor Goose," she says to me. I was thinking exactly the same thing. We had seen reports of its presence out towards Safety Lagoon, and it would be a great last bird to pick up.

We load up and head east out of town on Council Highway. We immediately bump into our Pennsylvania friends in the red and white van, whom we first met on the Taylor Highway yesterday. We get out and trade stories. Tomorrow they are going to try for the White Wagtails (based on our report), and we are going to the 25.6 mile marker now, where they had just seen the Emperor Goose. We had another report of one at the 15.5 mile marker, but the Pennsylvanians didn't have that report. The leader of the Pennsylvania group is Dave Kyler.

We continue on, check out the 15.5 mile marker, no success. Then on to their 25.6 mile marker, but we miss their ribbon clue the first time. We figure they might have made a mistake and so we drive to the 35.6 mile marker. The terrain's all wrong. We go back to the 25.6 mile point and see their clue this time (faded red ribbon tied to a log). We walk over the quarter mile of tundra, stopping when we get to the first lake, as described. We scope across the water and see the Sandhill Cranes they mentioned. But no Goose.

We decide that we're done birding Nome. It's the end of a very short era, but we'll stop one more time at 15.5 miles in case our target bird was hidden before. At the 15.5 mile location, it's pretty cold by now, and Sharon says, "You get out and look, and come and get me if you find one." OK. It's all on my shoulders. The responsibility is enormous (ok?). I set the scope/tripod up and begin scanning. Here, I see Sandhills too. I scope from all the way to the left, through straight out, to almost all the way to the right.

As I'm scanning, I'm talking to myself. Sandhill crane, sandhill crane, sandhill crane, northern pintail, sandhill crane, bird with an orange face and neck, sandhill cra - what? I go back to the orange-faced bird, and see that there is a pair. We had already read that the normally white parts of the Emperor Goose (as well as the Sandhill Cranes), turn an iron (rusty) color from the minerals in the food and water. But this is ridiculous - they look like Halloween colors. I step away from the scope, take a breath and go back to it. I look extremely carefully. Black on the front of the neck, but rusty top and back of the neck. EMPEROR GOOSE*! It is a bit larger, and has a longer neck than I had been expecting. And it's orange, not the white of our ID books, but there's no doubt.

I go back for Sharon (she later says she knew I had something, because I came back to the pickup without the scope). "I've got the bird," I announce, in my new cool, professional voice Brian Small used earlier regarding the White Wagtail. She bundles up with cold weather gear, and comes back to the scope. She looks, and describes what she's seeing, as I check off the characteristics in our National Geographic Society Bird ID book. It's for sure. Our last Nome lifer. Probably.

We eat at the Italian/Japanese restaurant again to celebrate the day's two lifers. I have the same beef teriyaki and vegetable tempura I had last night. Sharon has lasagna. Italian/Japanese food goes real good with Emperor Goose.

Day's Best Birds: White Wagtail*, Emperor Goose*. Honorable Mention: Gyrfalcon chicks in nest.

Life birds: 2 today (wagtail and goose), 43 total

Trip birds: 2 today, 157 total.

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Week 4 Day 2. Saturday June 13, 1998. 23rd day. Return flight from Nome to Anchorage. Small amount of birding in Anchorage.

Maureen (Tara and Shandra's sister) graduated from High School yesterday. Congratulations Maureen. We're thinking of you. And off you'll be to Santa Clara University.

We have put off our souvenir buying long enough. Our plane leaves at 1244pm today. We drive into town, click off some photos and buy some tape. The tape is to wrap some of my tee shirts around the antler tips (of the reindeer half-rack I picked from the tundra) so they won't break in shipment. I buy a "No Place Like Nome" baseball cap. Or did I buy that in Teller? I can't remember. We go back to the apartment and wrap the reindeer antlers for travel. Sharon had called Alaska Airlines, and they will put it on our plane to Anchorage as special checked baggage - for $50. The airline clerk is surprised to find an "antler" section in their information text. We'll have to ask Steffany (wife of Sharon's son Matt and flight attendant for United Airlines) if United has an antler section in their information.

We toss the apartment keys on the dining table and close the locked door behind us. We drive to the airport, stick the pickup keys on the front seat, lock and close the doors. I love small towns.

Our flight is a little late, but it gets us to Anchorage just fine. Our antlers are waiting for us. We move the luggage to arrivals, curbside, and I walk to our own pickup. No problems. I make the loop around, and pick up Sharon and our stuff.

We immediately head to Hillside Park again, trying for woodpeckers. No luck, so we go back to Anchorage RV Park, to reunite with our fifth wheel trailer, and stay one more night. Jeane & Red have stayed there a couple of nights, left us a note about their plans, and had taken off already. We might bump into them in Homer or Seward, on the Kenai Peninsula.

There had been lots of Anchorage rain while we were in Nome, but inside, the trailer was perfectly dry - no leaks. Love that white elastomer. And again I love the patter of roofy rain.

No new birds on this travel day.

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Week 4 Day 3. Sunday June 14, 1998. 24th day. Drove from Anchorage to Seward, Alaska. Birded a little around Seward.

At 830am, we are rolling out of camp, headed for Seward. We are going through Anchorage this way for the first time ever, and we are impressed with the scenery: Taco Bell, Wendy's, McDonald's. We continue on the through-town Seward Highway. At a stoplight I see Fifth & Gambel Dry Cleaners. A subtitle says "Your One-Price Cleaners." Then other flyers in the window say, "Clean & Press 3 Garments: $2.95 each. Shirts $1.45 each." It's funny to me, but Sharon says it probably means that men and women are charged the same price for similar garments. She goes on to say that in most cleaners, the same item costs men less than women. I wish somebody would tell me when I'm getting a benefit.

We stop at famous Beluga Point, but we have heard that the Beluga Whales have not come in yet. Finding none, Sharon scopes the mountains behind us and finds a sheep asleep on a rock, then decides it's a mountain goat.

Further on, we see a mother and baby moose on the left, but in a wink, they're into the woods. We come to the Portage Glacier turnoff, and take it. When we get down to the Visitor Center, we learn that the glacier was visible from there up until about 1988. It has been receding a little bit every year. You have to take a small cruise boat to the other end of the lake to see it. Interesting but no thanks. There's way too many glaciers visible from the road, we figure.

Portage Glacier got its name from the Eskimos, fur traders and others who found it much easier to "portage" over the glacier than to go around the peninsula in the hard-weather open sea there. We notice that a huge tunnel is being built, and learn that is for cars to go back and forth between both sides of the peninsula.

On the way back out, we drive through Williwaw (WILL-ee-waw, 'waw' rhymes with 'caw') campground, and find it to be a Class A camp. The trouble is that it's in the path of pressure equalization between two areas with different weather systems - Prince William Sound and Resurrection Bay. If there is a big difference, a tremendous wind blows through the camp. An interpretive sign says the strong winds at different times have blown people off their feet, blown the roof of a house or two, even lifted the asphalt of a road.

I imagine the wind that's gonna whistle through the tunnel for the guy that makes the first breakthrough!

Decide not to stay, although at this moment, the weather is absolutely perfect. We want to get on to Seward and schedule our bird cruise for the next day, hoping this great weather will hold. Everybody is commenting on the gorgeous weather and sunshine.

We move on and then stop for lunch at Tern Lake, where we see many nesting Arctic Terns, and a trip bird - a COMMON LOON, its black and white colors remarkable in the bright sunlight. There are lots of Mew Gulls nesting here too. We meet a lady from Moose Pass, just a few miles away. She and Sharon start a conversation, and she tells Sharon about a forest burn a few years ago conducted by the highway department, to benefit the moose. She says that she gets Black-backed Woodpeckers coming to the feeders in her yard, but frankly, I don't believe her. Maybe Northern Three-toed. Black-backs are much more difficult to find.

Anyway, the burn is reached by driving up the Sterling Highway (towards Homer) less than a mile, then turning off at a picnic area. Then walk about an eighth of a mile. Just as we set out for the burn, we see a bull moose with beginning antlers. Actually we have watched several cars and even buses slow down to look at it not too far from our lunch stop. The antler stubs are not very big, and remind us of the remarkable antler growth that takes place every year. Sort of like zero to sixty in seven seconds, for a Chevy Corvette. Zero to seven feet in six months. I'm guessing at the six. Every year. Remarkable.

We finally get to the first RV park possibility and check it out. Bear Creek RV Park looks pretty basic and we move on, into Seward. We check out the two in-town RV parks, and they are parking lots. We drive three miles south of Seward over a Cassiar Highway-type (rough) road to the Miller's Landing RV Park, and it's the worst one yet. Only one choice: back to Bear Creek RV Campground, which is starting to look prettt-ty good right now.

We drive back out of Seward, drive to the Bear Creek RV Park, and after watching a frustrating show of misinformation and buck-passing put on by two temporary girls working the check-in desk, we finally get the last spot. By coincidence, Sharon finds Jeane & Red in the camp. They have already been on the glacier cruise, and checked out Exit Glacier (a walk-up glacier). We (Sharon and I) schedule an eight-hour cruise for tomorrow to see whales, glaciers and (for us, especially) the bird rookeries of the Chiswell Islands. We hope the weather holds.

We visit with Jeane & Red, trading good and bad camping and trip experiences, then part company again. They are leaving for Homer tomorrow morning, and we're here for three consecutive nights, then Homer.

Mammals: Mountain Goats, Bull Moose, Mother with Baby Moose

Day's Best (only) Bird: Common Loon

Trip Life birds: none today

New Trip birds: 1 today (loon), 158 total.

Bear Creek RV Campground: Rating initially D, but after we got in, and the regular manager came back and hooked up our cable TV, the final rating was C+.

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Week 4 Day 4. Monday June 15, 1998. 25th day. Huffin and Puffin.

We leave the camp at 1015am, headed for the glacier/whale/bird cruise. It's an absolutely cloudless, blue sky. It appears that the Sharon & Bob luck has a firm hold on the area. We drive to downtown $3 parking for all day, walk to the boat and wait in the boarding line. A Major Marine (tour company's name) photographer takes every couple's photo. There is no obligation, and we can buy one later if we want.

As we exit the harbor, there are two immature Bald Eagles on a pole, getting ready to feed. Or wishing us luck.

The boat captain is a birder, and the on-board Ranger is also a birder. I give the Ranger our relevant birdlist (seabirds that would be lifers, if we could get them). We can't believe our luck. He shares this with the captain, and they are glad to have birders aboard. He announces over the loudspeaker our presence and asks if there are any other birders. NOT A HAND. Uh uh.

After a bit, we start seeing HORNED PUFFINS* in the water. Their faces are like painted ballet clowns, they are such neat little birds. When they fly, their wings beat incredibly fast. This is probably how some of the penguins flew, a million years ago. In fact, the puffins eat so much, that often they can only scoot along the surface. They are watered - you know, like grounded, only... . Sharon and I watch a cormorant fly off of a rock and head across our bow. The sun is on him, and we see an incredible, intense red over his entire face. It has to be a RED-FACED CORMORANT*. But it has a white patch on its side. I'm afraid this might make it a Pelagic. So I go to the captain and the ranger in the captain's wheel office. I describe what we saw, and Don (the Ranger) says, "Sounds like you got yourself a Red-face." The white patch can appear on the Red-faced also, he says. Confirmation.

Later in the trip, about noon, we get a PIGEON GUILLEMOT. Then I spot a pair of TUFTED PUFFINS*, as do several other people around us. Sharon has them too. The tufts are creamy yellow and start just above and to the outside of each eye. They appear to be combed straight back, but that comes from surfacing after a feeding dive, I think. You know, like when you're swimming under water, and come up for air. You lean your head way back so your hair is slicked back and not in your eyes as you break the surface. A neatly-groomed lifer.

Later, we think we have a black oystercatcher in the distance, but it turns out to be a NORTHWESTERN CROW.

We slow down for a Steller's Sea Lion parked high on a huge rock at the edge of the bay. As opposed to seals, they have rear flippers, so they can climb high onto rocks. Which they do. We see a few sea otters and many, many puffins in the water. It's puffin heaven. Also we see "rafts" of Common Murres. They like to arrange themselves in straight lines - both on the surface of the water and in the air. As the boat approaches them, they often bloop below the surface, one or two at a time, closest ones first. Bloop, bloop, bloopitybloop till they're all under .

We see a couple of sea otters, and get a glimpse of the Holgate Glacier. This is not the one we'll stop at today though. On this best day of the season, they're going all the way past the Pederson Glacier, to the Aialik (eye-AH-lick) Glacier. They say they have time to do this only on the most perfect weather days.

Someone yells "bear on the beach." The ranger announces that this is very rare, to see a black bear on a beach. Then someone yells that it's a mother and a cub. Then someone else yells that it's two cubs playing. Then we realize that one bear is pushing the other to the Mt. Sinai Hospital. Captain says he's not sure how to log this. Later we see one more black beach bear.

We continue on to the glacier. Our table's turn for lunch (chicken and salmon, salad and bread, plus dessert later). [And amazingly, Bob is not seasick and eats, notes Sharon] We eat and watch the glacier calve. The unstated goal of every Resurrection Bay trip is to see a glacier calve, and to see whales. We watch several calving events, and enjoy the explosive sound as they fall. The objective of every passenger is to be pointing his (recording) video camera at the glacier when a slab falls. Some people get it. We just eat our lunch and enjoy seeing and feeling it.

We finally turn around and head back for home. As we are heading away from it, I notice a snowball-shaped piece of ice break off and fall into the water. Ker-chunk. I love that I can't estimate how big it is. Big as a house? A car? A baseball? Best guess is a car - maybe a van. About a quarter of the way back, we spot two humpback whales feeding near the surface in a little bay. We stop to watch them, and follow them for half an hour or so. They do the bubble netting thing. That's where a whale swims in a circle around and below a group of fish, blowing bubbles all the time. The bubbles seem to keep the fish in a tightly packed group in the center of the bubbles. Then the whale dives to directly below the fish, and swims upwards right in the middle of the bubble net. Mouth open.

We finally leave them and head back. Because of the extra time to get to the Aialik Glacier, and the time spent watching the bears and the whales, the captain announces that we're going to bypass the rookeries of the Chiswell Islands - our main objective and reason for the trip. The day has been so good that it has turned bad. Understandable though, since we appear to be the only two birders on board. And it was $107 each! But we DID get both puffins and the red-faced cormorant.

We get back on schedule from the Chiswell deletion, and dock at the (dis)appointed time of 730pm. The just-before-boarding photographer was waiting with all our photos on a big board. Earlier, we decided we'd buy them at $5 or less (decision made after the Chiswell deletion). "Only $10," the guy says as we are walking past him. We head back to our truck, both wiped out.

Oh, I forgot to mention. I put on a scopalomine earpatch at 730am. It's supposed to be put on four hours before takeoff time (1130am departure time). And at the end of the trip, guess what - I didn't get sick. On a boat in open water! This is the first time. Ever. I mean EVER. Sharon kept saying all day, "We're on the ocean and Bob's eating. Unheard of." It's true that the seas were quite smooth, with only a little rolling and bobbing, but I'm counting it as a medical miracle anyway.

We go back to the RV Park and collapse. Neither one of us is hungry after the dinner, so we skip what would have been dinner. Well except for dessert of course. You can't skip that.

Day's Best Birds: Horned Puffin*, Tufted Puffin*, Red-faced Cormorant*

Trip Life birds: 3 today (both puffins + cormorant), 45 total.

New Trip birds: 5 today (lifers + Northwestern Crow, Pigeon Guillemot), 163 total.

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Week 4 Day 5. Tuesday June 16, 1998. 26th day. It's a Marblous Day.

We sleep in, head out about 1140am. We drive up to a fish weir about 1/2 mile away, but there is a "not open to the public" sign on it. We gas up at $1.299, about the lowest we have found around Seward. Then we head over to Nash Road, recommended in Nick Lethaby's "Finding Birds in Alaska" book. The exact name may be slightly different than that.

We stop in several places, and on one high bluff, we scan the waters below.

Sharon sees a half a dozen shiny, black fins sticking up from several swimmers, but we don't know what kind. Orca? Probably too little. Sharon gets back on the scope, "They're seals swimming on their sides for some reason. I saw the face of one of them." I look again and agree (I didn't see diddly, except the fins, but don't tell Sharon). We don't know why they're swimming on their sides.

We continue to the end of the road. There's a shipbuilding and maintenance yard, but there's also public camping on the gravel beach. We get the birding gear out and begin scanning the waters. I'm on the scope first and scan from just-a-little-to-the-right-of-straight-ahead to all-the-way-to-the-left. Nothing remarkable.

Sharon gets on the scope and after maybe five minutes, says, "I think I've got a couple of murrelets (MURR-luts)." And moves back for me to see. I look and see that there are two of them. They appear slightly different in color pattern. One is mottled brown all over, but we can't quite see his neck and belly. The other is also mostly mottled, but seems to have a couple of light patches on his sides, and a white chest. I see its chest because it did that rooster thing, where he stands up on his tip-toes, flaps his wings, and crows. We can't hear their calls from this far away (if there are any), but we get a great look at their chests and bellies (Sharon sees the adult one rooster just before we leave and verifies that it has an all brown belly). The all-mottled one dives periodically, then swims over to the second one, but the more-white one never dives. We believe we're looking at an adult (all mottled) with a juvenile - probably trying to teach it to dive. Or maybe just feeding it. MARBLED MURRELET*, our first murrelet of any kind. They're along coastal California, but we've never seen any.

This is a most remarkable bird, the Marbled Murrelet. It nests high up (up to 150 feet) in tall, tall redwood or spruce trees close to (average distance 5 miles) the ocean or sea. Up until about 1960, no one knew where they nested. They lay a single egg ON A LIMB. They find some moss growing on a limb, and plop down there. Just a bare egg on a mossy limb. They only feed in the waters near the rocky coastline, and they feed by diving for small fish. And this is the first time we've ever seen one - and in Alaska.

We visit Exit Glacier, go home, I finish up the Week 3 report and rent an office telephone line for a few minutes for my email. $2 and a bargain (This is the first time anyone has charged us for the use of a telephone line for email purposes). Sharon takes a nap while I finish transcribing our audio tape to the computer.

Sharon wakes up and watches a movie (oh yes, cable TV), then we decide to walk around in a spruce forest, looking for spruce grouse. We get in the truck and head out of the park. Exactly across the road, at the park exit, is a hiking path up into the spruce forest. We laugh and drive back in. We park the truck, load up our gear, and are off. Nothing exciting except the exercise. And watching the RV Park dog bury a bone near the trail.

Day's Best (and only) Bird: Marbled Murrelet*

Life birds: 1 today (murrelet), 46 total.

New Trip birds: 1 today, 164 total.

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Week 4 Day 6. Wednesday June 17, 1998. 27th day. Travel day. Seward to Homer, Alaska

We rig for travel, stop by the waste dump station and discharge the gray water (dishwater, washing face and hands, kitchen drain water).

We see several moose on the way, plus a sign that says: "Give Moose a Brake. Road Kills This Winter: 290." I guess the moose like the highways during the winter too.

We continue on, commenting on the waterwheel in Moose Pass, stopping for photos and video. There is a 20-minute construction delay at one point, but we don't mind them. I guess because we're not in a great hurry. We see about a dozen fishermen with waders, in the water on the far side of the Kenai (KEE-nye) River. Sharon asks one who was just coming out what he was fishing for. "Reds - Sockeyes." The season just opened on the 14th, and since today is the 17th, it makes sense that lots of fishermen are in the river.

We drive past the turnoff to Kalifornsky Beach Road, looking at the neat Russian-based spelling. We soon see a GOLDEN EAGLE circling overhead. At Milepost 118, we get our first Cook Inlet look. It's spectacular, with the opposite side of the blue water being a snow-capped, volcanic mountain range. The tallest peak is Mt. Redoubt which last erupted in 1989, I think.

We come upon Scenic View RV Park, and there is a coffee/snack stand just outside of the park. We order root beer floats and hot dogs and sit down at their single picnic table with this spectacular view before us. What a place to have a lunch. We begin to see a pair of adult bald eagles, together with a couple of immature ones. I talk about getting back on the road soon, but Sharon demands eagle time.

I ask the lady fixing our lunches how on earth they chose the name of the park (she doesn't know me very well, and thought I was asking a question). She says, "From the great view. Can't you see it out there." Uh, yes. Many jokes remain hidden. And should be, Sharon adds. We continue on, and finally land in Oceanview RV Park, about three miles short of Homer. Cable TV, Electricity, Water, Sewer for $24.95. That's the highest we've paid, I believe. But oh, the scenery looking out our dining room table. Actually we didn't sign up for the sewer connection, so it was only $22.95 per day.

I pay and we set up. It's hard to work with this view behind me. Sharon starts the laundry, and when that's done, we decide to walk the Roger & Doyle one-mile loop trail. It turns out to be the worst mosquitoes (by number) that we've encountered yet. We both sprayed heavily with Deep Woods Off, so they're more a nuisance than anything. Of course, a swamp bog ran through the entire lengh of the walking loop. You can guess that we didn't see any new birds by the tone of this paragraph.

We decide to drive to the end of the five-mile spit to see what's happening. A kingfisher welcomes us from his little post guarding the spit road entrance. We park at the end of the spit and start birding. I notice a little silvery-gray bird along with the many gulls and a few cormorants. "Did you see the eagle?" an elderly couple asks from nearby. I get off the scope and say, "No. Where?" "Over on that pole, above the pier." I admire the eagle long enough for Sharon to tell me that she's found a little brown bird flitting around on the water. We realize we're looking at the same bird. We review color, and decide that it's gray, not brown. The sun angle makes it a little hard. I get the Seward Bird Checklist, and our NGS Bird ID book, and narrow it down to Leach's Storm-petrel or Fork-tail Storm-petrel. The more we look, the more we are convinced that the color and patterns make it a FORK-TAIL STORM-PETREL*. Fork-tails are light gray, while Leach's are black with some definite white markings.

We get later confirmation, so this is a life bird.

Did you ever wonder which bird on earth is the most numerous? Sharon and I got to speculating about this one day. We included starling, mourning dove and pigeon as possibilities. Well it's a little storm-petrel, Wilson's Storm-petrel to be exact. And we've never seen one. But since water makes up about 80% of the earth's surface, it sort of makes sense that the bird would be pelagic (ocean-going). We saw a PBS show once which said that flocks could number up to a million birds. And groups that size are numerous at sea. Billions and billions, maybe (I just made that up).

We decide that 1) we need to celebrate the lifer, 2) Sharon would like a night off from cooking, and 3) we're at one of the most famous fishing spots in the world, so we're going to eat local fish in a local restaurant. We choose one, though I don't recall the name. The cool thing is that they just lost electricity, but we're in luck. Their ovens are gas.

We trade bird stories for fishing stories with other groups in the restaurant. Both group-types politely endure the stories of the other group-type. We say stuff like "What's that fish with both eyes on the same side of the head." Answer in these parts: halibut. And they say stuff like, "Birdwatchers, huh? Have you seen all the bald eagles?"

As we're sitting at a window, waiting for things to happen, we begin to see long familiar lines of black-and-white Common Murres. They are the arctic equivalent of the penguins of the antarctic. The geometries of their flying formations are great to watch. There are sometimes as many as 200-300 birds in a formation, but those are just the ones we've seen. I suspect there are much larger formations.

After lunch, I'm outside taking photos while Sharon pays the bill. She uses her California rule of doubling the tax. However, the Homer tax rate is 5.5%, not 8.25%. I come back in and look at the receipt, can't quite figure how Sharon came up with the tip amount. Before I can say anything, Sharon whispers, "I didn't make the tip big enough. I was doubling the tax, but that didn't work. We need to give give her some more." I had already pulled out a couple of dollars and so I slid them onto the table, with a couple of quarters. We explain to our waitress why the tip is split between cash and Visa, and she gets a big kick out of it.

We head back to camp.

At the end of the day, I added the trip total of 47 new lifers to our pre-trip total of 444. That's 491 life birds. Nine more would give us 500. We've got an excellent chance of that, during the remainder of our trip.

Day's Best Bird: Fork-tail Storm-petrel*

Life birds: 1 today (Storm-petrel), 47 total

Trip birds: 3 today (Lifer + Golden Eagle, Chestnut-backed Chickadee), 167 total.

Ocean View RV Park rating: Rating A. Fantastic scenery, all amenities, and they let me borrow their fax line for sending/receiving email at no charge.

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Week 4 Day 7. Thursday June 18, 1998. 28th day. Two birding/boat trips on Cook Inlet.

Alarm is off at 7am and we go down to the Rainbow Tours ticket sales building. $15 plus tax each. I put on my anti-seasickness patch last night. They are supposed to last for a few days, if you can believe that. Anyway, I'm gambling that they don't deplete overnight.

We leave at 9am, and cross Kachemak (CATCH-uh-mack) Bay to Gull Island. No new birds, but quite good photo and video opportunities. We see lots of Black-legged Kittiwakes and Common Murres nesting on the island. We return to Homer, get in at 10:30am. The captain says if we want, we can just stay on board, take the longer $40 trip to Seldovia, and pay for it at the office when we get back. He says yesterday they saw Aleutian Terns and Kittlitz' Murrelets - both lifers for us. We forget anything else we had going for the day, and settle back for a half-hour nap, till time for takeoff.

During the Seldovia trip, we see a number of familiar birds - Common Murres, Gulls, Pigeon Guillemots and Northwestern Crows. We're on sharp lookout for the small murrelets. There could be either Marbled or Kittlitz'. Suddenly the Captain directs everyone's attention to two little dots in the water ahead about 150 yards. He slows the boat way down as we coast up to them. Sharon and I have them both in our binoculars. It's clear that they are murrelets. Their beaks are much shorter than those of the Common Murre and they are mottled instead of straight black-and-white.

When these little birds get scared they either pop under the water or fly off. We're hoping for a flyoff, so we can look at their bellies. Brown means Marbled and white means Kittlitz'. Closer. Closer. Up they go, into the air, and we can see white underparts on both the birds. KITTLITZ'S MURRELET*, we believe. I turn around and catch the eyes of Captain Jack, through the wheelhouse window. "Kittlitz?" I mouth. He nods his head. I tell Sharon and we do a high five. She was already sure.

We see about eight other groups of murrelets, but either we or the captain believe them all to be marbled. Don't care. The marvelous thing is that every single one of the birds in these eight groups dove. The only ones that flew were the ones we needed to fly. Do I have a four-leaf clover stuck to my shoe or something?

Several times, Captain Jack slows down as he spots Bald Eagles. Sharon is always right on them, and usually, me too. They are always high up in a tree, with a huge forest as their background, since all land surrounding the water slopes down to the water. We get used to looking for a white head. Or in the captain's words, "Look for the marshmallow in the trees." A perfect instruction.

We arrive in Seldovia at about 100pm. The boat won't leave till 300pm, so we go over to Pumi's (POO-mee's) Barbecue for some Steak Teriyaki. We wander around, enjoying the isolated little community, buy Aleut souvenirs, buy ice cream cones, and soon it's time to reboard. The trip back is mostly uneventful for everyone. Everyone but me, that is. I'm standing near the front of the boat, holding on to the railing, using my knees for shock absorbers. Revelling in my newfound freedom from seasickness. The boat's banging in the choppy waters, a few swells make us rock side-to-side, but I'm solidly into the seasick-free zone. Imagine you had one arm all your life, then one day you woke up and had two. Well this isn't anything that good, but it's pretty neat. Maybe nine on the Richter Scale. Oh, sorry, you're not supposed to say Richter in Alaska. Since '64.

Back on the Homer spit, we do some souvenir shopping. Find some neat little ivory puffins perched on rocks, but there are too many to make up my mind. Gotta sleep on it. The best one has about 15 all over a big rock, for $290. The smallest is a single puffin on a tiny rock for $18. I'm thinking something in the $20-30 puffin range. They're made by native Alaskans.

Back at camp, Sharon does another laundry and we have a nice Bald Eagle land in one of two tall spruce trees at the end of our RV park. A crow tries to bother him without success. The skies have turned dark with cloudy overcast, and it starts to rain a little. And by now you probably know what I'm thinking, as I doze off.

Day's Best (and only) Bird: Kittlitz's Murrelet*

Life birds:1 today, 58 total

Trip birds: 1 today, 168 total

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Life birds are getting harder to find now because we've already gotten so many of the ones we have expected to find. It's the Spruce Grouse and the Northern Three-toed Woodpecker (plus some owls) that are eluding us. They should not be this hard.

Week 5 will wind up Homer, and move to Denali Park, with a rest stop night in Anchorage.

See yall. Bob & Sharon


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