Saturday, June 17, 2017

Alaskan Cruise 2017

As the title of this blog suggests (notice the missing key word?), the main purpose of this trip was not just to see birds (yep, you heard it) but to spend time with family. Sometime last year, we received a surprise invitation from Noel's parents to join them on our trip to Alaska on the Princess Cruise Line. Although birding Alaska from a commercial cruise ship was highly challenging, we had the greatest time being with family. We cannot thank enough Jack and Marilyn for taking us along and we are forever grateful for their love and kindness (as if they had not given us enough). There are so many memorable travel stories we could share but I am keeping this blog strictly about birds. After all, we kept our birding passion alive and strong throughout the trip and chased birds at every chance we got. A wise woman once said 'once a birder, always a birder'.

JUNE 3, 2017

We arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport at 7pm local time and spent the night at the lovely Fairmont Olympic Hotel downtown. By the time we finished our dinner, it was after 10pm (1am EST) and we couldn't wait to go to sleep. We knew we had a busy day tomorrow birding Seattle before boarding the ship.

JUNE 4, 2017

Thanks to the 3-hour time difference between New York and Seattle, waking up early was a piece of cake. We had a quick breakfast at the hotel and were on our way to the Union Bay Natural Area by 7am. To our surprise, the area was packed with birders and birds. As soon as we set our foot onto the trail, we saw ANNA'S HUMMINGBIRD singing on a branch and we knew that it was going to be a good day. We were elated to see birds we had not seen in a long time such as SPOTTED TOWHEEs, BUSHTITs, and MARSH WRENs. Last time we saw those guys were many years ago either in Texas, Arizona or California.

We also saw many always-good-to-see familiar faces with an exception of BROWN-HEADED COWBIRDs. Brown-headed cowbird is a brood parasite meaning that it lays its eggs in nests of other species usually resulting in reduced nesting success of the host species. We saw AMERICAN CROWs, AMERICAN ROBINs, VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOWs, BARN SWALLOWs, CEDAR WAXWINGs, CINNAMON TEALs, GADWALLs, WOOD DUCKs, MALLARDs, KILLDEERs, RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDs, OSPREYs, HOUSE FINCHes, SAVANNAH SPARROWs, WHITE-CROWNED SPARROWs and SONG SPARROWs.

Our special guest of the day was this oddly friendly Coyote who was eating a bunny for breakfast. 

We said good-bye to the birds of Seattle by noontime, went back to the hotel to get our luggage and finally boarded the Emerald Princess by 3pm. Before dinner, we scanned the ocean around the ship for seagulls but there was none.

JUNE 5, 2017

I guess I was still on New York time. I woke up before 4am so decided to start my day looking for seabirds from the balcony. I read it somewhere online that one could possibly see an Albatross and that would certainly be a birder's dream come true. Armed with a scope and a pair of binoculars, I scanned the vast ocean patiently for the next 2 hours and did not see a single soul. Sea was a little rough which made me mildly sea-sick so I took it easy the rest of the day...

JUNE 6, 2017

Our ship docked at Ketchikan at 6:30am, our first destination in Alaska! We had about 5 hours to explore birds in this lovely Alaskan town. As soon as we got our rental car, we were heading to the Ward Lake area about 15 minutes away from the dock.

The very first bird we saw fluttering in a bush in the parking lot was a handsome CHESTNUT-BACKED CHICKADEE, our first lifer of the trip! TOWNSEND'S WARBLERs, ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLERs and very social STELLAR'S JAYs were all abundant! While walking on the trail, a RED-BREASTED SAPSUCKER (another lifer) made a surprise appearance right in front of us.

In the lake, we found COMMON LOONs in gorgeous breeding plumage, BARROW'S GOLDENEYEs and CANADA GEESE.

We also saw some familiar birds around the area (AMERICAN ROBINs, SONG SPARROWs, HERMIT THRUSHes) and an unfamiliar RED SQUARREL.

We then headed to the Totem Bight State Historical Park. As the name suggests, this park is known for various totem poles but you guessed it, we were there for birds. The park was packed with GODEN-CROWNED KINGLETs. Although they are fairy common in New York, we initially didn't recognize them as we had never seen them with their crest fully displayed in such dramatic fashion.

Our final stops in Ketchikan were Settlers Cove Recreational Site and Clovers Passage. We found a charming PACIFIC-SLOPE FLYCATCHER singing in the forest and a dazzling RED-THROATED LOON in stunning breeding plumage in the passage. Shame that the loon was too far for a photograph.

Considering the time restraint, we felt that we accomplished a great deal and gave ourselves a big thumbs-up.

JUNE 7, 2017

Originally, we were scheduled to take an excursion around the Tracy Arms Fjord to see amazing glaciers then arrive at Juneau at 12:30pm; however, the schedule was delayed by 3 hours which meant that we were starting our land birding in Juneau at 4pm. Well, 4pm is a terrible time to start birding. Luckily, the sun sets very late around 9pm in Alaska so hopefully, we would find some night owls (no pun intended).

We boarded a catamaran around 10am set out to see the glaciers. We were, of course, as interested in seeing sea birds as seeing the glaciers. Although it was quite difficult to have a good look at sea birds from a fast moving boat, we bagged some real nice lifers: PIGEON GUILLEMOTs, MARBLED MURRELETs, MEW GULLs, and PACIFIC LOONs. We also saw a nice flock of HARLEQUIN DUCKs. BALD EAGLEs were fairly abundant in the area. Besides birds, we got to see two huge brown bears, humpback whales and some cute harbor seals. Last but not the least, we were in complete awe seeing the magnificent glacier up close. It truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

The catamaran dropped us off at Juneau at 3:30pm. As if starting late wasn't bad enough, there was no taxi available to take us to the rental car place which was about a mile away. We walked as quickly as we could to get the car and finally headed out to the Mendenhall Glacier National Park. The park is known for its beautiful glaciers but we were more excited to find out that the park hosts a large colony of ARCTIC TERNs. We also saw numerous DARK-EYED JUNCOs (OREGON), much better looking Junco than its Eastern cousin. While walking on one of their trails, we bumped into a mama black bear and her two cubs about 20 feet away from us. Thank god there were park rangers managing the situation. We then headed to Gastineau Channel and saw a MEW GULL, many BONAPARTE'S GULLs and NORTHWESTERN CROWs. Despite the unfavorable schedule change, we felt that we managed to see a decent amount of birds and other wildlife.

JUNE 8, 2017

Today is the last land day in Alaska and we were hoping to make the best of it. We signed up for an excursion to watch wildlife through the cruise line in our desperate attempt to seeing more birds. Our ship docked at Skagway at 6:30am. After a quick breakfast, we met with our excursion group at 7:30am then took a 40-minute boat-ride to a small town called Haines. Haines is known for its abundant wildlife and natural beauty and this town sure had a lot of BALD EAGLEs, I mean REALLY A LOT. They were just about everywhere we looked. Around the boat dock, we saw a nesting pair of PIGEON GUILLEMOTs, MEW GULLs, HERRING GULLs, a BELTED KINGFISHER, COMMON RAVENs, and NORTHWESTERN CROWs.

Our group was then introduced to a naturalist leading the excursion. We immediately told him that we were two birders from New York desperately seeking birds. As luck would have it, our naturalist told us that the driver of the van was an active local birder and she could help us find birds. Our first stop was someone's backyard where we saw ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLERs, RED-BREASTED SAPSUCKERs, HERMIT THRUSHes, LINCOLN'S SPARROWs and GOLDEN-CROWNED KINGLETs. We then were driven to Chilkoot State Park for a short nature walk. In addition to seeing above, we saw a beautiful VARIED THRUSH as well as a delightful COMMON MERGANSER family.

Our excursion ended at 1:30pm in Skagway and we had about 2.5 hours left before boarding the ship. Our rather ambitious plan was to hike up to Dewey Upper Lake although this hike was supposed to be extremely strenuous with elevation gain of 3,100 feet. Well, we knew that we didn't have enough time to complete the hike but we decided to hike up as much as time allowed anyways. We just couldn't pass up on the opportunity to see not only one but three different types of ptarmigans as mentioned in 'A Birder's Guidebook to Alaska'. Well, they weren't kidding, the hike was incredibly difficult and we did not get even close to the alpine meadow area where ptarmigans are. To make matters worse, we did not see a singles bird during this hellish climb. We got back on the ship feeling defeated but we also understood that was exactly what makes birding so addictive. How much fun could it be if it were that easy!? 

JUNE 9, 2017

Our ship was now making her way back to Seattle with one more stop in Victoria, Canada tomorrow evening. We tried seabird watch from the balcony for a while but did not see a living soul so we decided to give ourselves a break from birding today. We spent some time in spa, lost about $10 at the casino and took a long nap.

JUNE 10, 2017

We had a lot of time on the ship today as our ship was scheduled to dock in Victoria, Canada at 7pm. We decided to try our seabird watch from different parts of the ship (our room was located at the very back of the ship). It didn't take us long to realize that we were seeing a lot of seabirds. We wondered if birds were always around if we had looked for them at the front of the ship rather than at the back or did they just happen to be around today? Well, I suppose we would never find out the answer to the question. 99% of the birds we saw were flying in distance so we took as many photos of them as we could then later looked at each picture for identification. It was no easy task as photo quality was poor (birds were really far away) and we were quite unfamiliar with pelagic birds. Here are what we think we saw (very exciting list indeed!): PACIFIC LOONs, COMMON MURREs, GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLs, PELAGIC CORMARANTs, PINK-FOOTED SHEARWATERs, and ASHY STORM-PETRELs.

After the very exciting afternoon of pelagic birding, our ship docked at Victoria, British Columbia at 7pm. We thought 4pm start was terrible in Juneau so imagine how starting birding at 7pm was like!? Well, no matter what the circumstance was, we were determined to make the best use of our time to see most possible birds. We had about 2 hours so decided to walk to two nearby parks. We first walked to Holland Point Park where we saw nice CALIFORNIA GULLs, WHITE-CROWNED SPARROWs, BARN SWALLOWs, a MALLARD FAMILY, BLACK OYSTERCATCHERs, BALD EAGLEs, and a GREAT BLUE HERON. We then visited Beacon Hill Park where we saw many CHIPPING SPARROWs and DARK-EYED JUNCOs. While walking in the park, we heard loud commotion coming from tree top in a forested area. Some kind bystander told us that there was a large nesting colony of GREAT BLUE HERONs. He also told us that there were two owls seen at Woodchip Trail. We ran to the trail and it did not take long to find the BARRED OWL. While admiring the owl, we heard a large screeching noise coming from right above us and there was this very animated owlet screeching at us. However brief, our stay in Canada was quite action-packed.

JUNE 11, 2017

We spent the last night on the ship and were back at Seattle at 6:30am. We finally off-boarded the ship after 8am and took a Lyft straight to the famous Discovery Park in Seattle. Our flight to New York was scheduled to leave at 3:20pm so we had about 2.5 hours to bird the park. We were glad that we picked Discovery Park as our last birding spot of the trip: Not only was the park absolutely beautiful, it was quite birdy. We were greeted by BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEEs, SPOTTED TOWHEEs, DARK-EYED JUNCOs, RED-BREASTED NUTHATCHes, CEDAR WAXWINGs, SONG SPARROWs, WHITE-CROWNED SPARROWs, NORTHERN FLICKER, a PILEATED WOODPECKER, STELLAR'S JAYs, AMERICAN ROBINs, ANNA'S HUMMINGBIRDs, WILLOW FLYCATCHERs, CHESTNUT-BACKED CHICKADEEs and a very special HUTTON'S VIREO.

When we first learned that we were going to Alaska on a cruise ship, we weren't sure what to expect or what to do in terms of birding but we are extremely happy with the birds we saw and are proud to say that our version of birding-from-the-cruise-ship was a real success! Needless to say, the time spent with family was absolutely priceless.

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