Open Mic: There's More at Sea than an Albatross
by Nate Swick
At the Mic: Mel Goff
Now retired and living in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Mel Goff volunteers in the American Birding Association's library, where we're all extremely happy to have him.
Earlier this year my wife Jeanne asked me how I would like to celebrate our 40th anniversary coming up on July 29th. Without hesitation I replied, “Let’s go to Southeast Arizona. Trogons, hummingbirds, life birds, milestone birds.” Her choice was an Alaska cruise. Rain, cold, a couple of Bald Eagles.
So it was that on August 12th the Star Princess set sail from the Port of Seattle with us ensconced in cabin D622. Don’t get me wrong – I love cruising. It’s just that you don’t get too much birding in from a cabin balcony. One pundit said, “If you can see a bird from your balcony without binoculars or a scope, it is an albatross.” He was right of course, but if you do have your binoculars and you do set up your scope, it turns out there are a lot of cool birds to see.
In fact, as our ship sailed through the Strait of Juan de Fuca on that first evening and headed for the calm waters of the Pacific we not only saw birds – we saw LOTS of birds. Gulls, shearwaters, the occasional albatross and… wait for it… two life birds and an ABA milestone.
It takes patience to bird from a cruise ship. Seeing the birds is the first challenge. They don’t just hang out on your balcony railing. They fly high over the water and right above it. They fly in every direction at some surprisingly fast speeds. The second challenge is finding them in your optics. Binoculars are fairly simple, but following a moving bird on a moving ship with a scope can present a very real effort that only gets marginally easier as the voyage progresses.
The third and biggest challenge is identifying these small dark moving targets. Even with scads of preparation we had to really work for our special milestone. But then, there it was. A Leach’s Storm-Petrel flying low and fast. Small, dark, and handsome, this bird represented a major milestone for us as our 600th ABA species. Soon after, we got species 601 when we added the Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel.
By Tuesday morning the birding had gone onshore as we arrived in Ketchikan, Alaska. As it turned out, the natives would tell us that this was the first sunny day they had enjoyed in weeks – a story that would be repeated in both Juneau and Haines. Birding in Southeast Alaska in mid-August can be tough. There are no north bound migrant warblers and the fall migration has not yet begun. Still, we did see a nice variety at each port.
The most common harbor birds are Mew and Glaucous-winged Gulls, Pigeon Guillemots, and Common Murres. Inland we saw American Dippers, Red-breasted Sapsuckers, Pacific Wrens, and Chestnut-backed Chickadees. Waterfowl were limited, but we did see a few Mallards and a nice group of Common Mergansers. A big miss for us was the Varied Thrush, a bird listed as common at all three ports, but unseen on this trip.
Then there are those big and beautiful symbols of America, the Bald Eagles. Seemingly visible at every port, on every island, in every fjord, over every harbor, and up every river, these majestic raptors could be counted on to elicit the requisite OOOHs and AAAHs from everyone on every ship, bus, or kayak. We encountered several sitting on their massive nests or perched over a salmon-filled stream.
Of course, there were also encounters with other wildlife of “Southeast” – the local name for this area. On a rainforest hike in Ketchikan we came face-to-face with a black bear and her two cubs crossing our trail. I can truthfully say that no more than ten feet separated us. As time was suspended our group of 12 hardy souls stared her down. Fortunately for us, she lost interest and went quietly on her way. In Haines we boarded our tour bus and took a ride up the Lutak Inlet, and the Chilkoot River to Chilkoot Lake. Harbor seals, bald eagles, and brown bears could be seen fishing for Sockeye Salmon as they swam upstream to spawn in the lake. Our brown bear encounter was far less stressful since we were on the bus. It was here that we saw our only other bird of prey on this cruise – a Sharp-shinned Hawk.
The Chilkoot River was also the birdiest location of the trip. Northwestern Crows lined the shore, American Dippers hopped on rocks, and Common Mergansers swam in the swirling waters. Yellowlegs patrolled a sandbar. Riverside bushes and trees held wrens, chickadees, and waxwings (Cedar, not the mythical Bohemian variety). This was also the place we spotted Marbled Murrelets, Great Blue Herons, and Rock Pigeons.
Pre- and post-cruise birding in Seattle added to the fun. From our Pileated Woodpecker sighting to shorebirds and sparrows we enjoyed great weather and met great new birding friends. There were no trogons and only a couple of hummingbirds, but we did see two life birds and had an ABA milestone. So the next time you hear “Let’s go on a cruise”, remember to get a cabin with a balcony and pack your scope and bear repellent.