Saturday, July 7, 2012

North to Alaska!

Avie and I took a two-week Holland America cruise on the ms Amsterdam to Alaska. The itinerary was:

Cruising outside Vancouver Island
Cruising Tracy Arm to S. Sawyer Glacier
Icy Strait Point/Hoonah
Sea Day
Cruising to Hubbard Glacier
Sea Day
Victoria, British Columbia (Canada)
The main focus of the trip for us was birding, although we knew we’d see a lot more than just birds. We were right!

Since I spent time journaling every night on the ship, I’m going to post everything so it appears in the order of the cruise, rather than backwards (as most of our other trips appear).

Let me just preface this by saying how impressed we were with Holland America, the Amsterdam, the service we received, and the food we ate. It’s unfortunate this is the last year for this fabulous itinerary. But I hope my posts help others who travel to Alaska, by cruise ship or otherwise, get the most out of their birding and nature experiences.

If at any time you want to see a full size photo, click on the picture and it will open up larger. Then just press the back arrow in your browser to return to the post.


Alaska: Ketchikan June 17, 2012


After a rocky day at sea (we won’t discuss my first bout ever with seasickness), we docked in Ketchikan right on time at 8 a.m. A bit later we picked up our rental car and ran to the Parnassus Bookstore to replace the Sibley’s Guide we accidentally left with our son back in Seattle.

Then we set out along the North Tongass Highway to do some birding.

Our first stop was Refuge Cove State Park, where Avie got his first look at a Red-breasted Sapsucker. We heard a lot of birds, but were unable to locate them in the thick cover of the Pacific Northwest Rain Forest.

Next stop was Totem Bight State Park, with a wonderful collection of Totem Poles.




We took the trail around the park, and walked a bit on a gravely beach. We picked up a small Marbled Murrelet diving just a bit off the shore.


On the way out of the park Avie saw an American Robin fly into its nest to feed some babies. When I got my binoculars on them I was fascinated to see the adult pick up a rather large fecal sac and, rather than remove it from the nest, swallow it – a behavior I’ll have to research when I get home.

We shared the Robin’s nest with one of the rangers, and she shared a nearby Bald Eagle nest with us. A fair exchange!

From there we drove up to Settler’s Cove State Park, where the highway ended. We found a parking spot overlooking the Cove and began scoping. Far out on the water was a Western Grebe as well as three Surf Scoters accompanied by a Bufflehead. We also had a beautiful pair of Red-breasted Sapsuckers.

Our final birding destination for the day was up Ravilla Road. An interesting stop here was not for birds, but to check out a pullout with over 100 shotgun shell cases.


Apparently this is a popular target practice site, with cans, plastic containers, and hanging metal cases all with various sized holes from the different gauges of shot used.

We turned right onto Brown Mountain logging road. This was where we really came across birds and incredible vistas.




We also came across some fresh bear scat in the road, something which caused a slight bit of concern. But we figured we were in the car, rather than hiking, so we just continued on, keeping an eye peeled just in case.


Avie finally got his Varied Thrush here and we found a new life bird for both of us: a Gray-cheeked Thrush. We both saw a Spotted Towhee which, according to the bird list for Ketchikan, is not a bird which is supposed to be here this time of year.

I posted it on the Alaska Birding Email Loop when we got home and received quite a response. I was told the bird would be a second record for Ketchikan and only the tenth for Alaska. I’m hoping, in spite of the time lapse, someone can refind the bird.

On the way back down, while we stopped to check out the Gray-cheeked Thrush, Avie put the car into park and couldn’t get it out. We tried several different things and finally, afraid we would miss the ship, Avie started walking down the road to try and find either people or cell reception. Meanwhile, I found the car’s manual and read a little, finding out there was an override. I pulled open the stop, put a pen into the hole and pushed. Magic! I was able to get the car into drive, catch up to my poor, brave husband. And, believe me, the bear was on both our minds during our travails.

We went back to town and had lunch at a chips place on Creek St. While we sat outside and ate, we watched Cedar Waxwings, a Townsend’s Warbler, Barn, and Tree Swallows.



We also heard Bald Eagles chirping and calling most of the time we were out there.

A little shopping for gifts and we returned to the ship. However, our birding day didn’t end there. We took the scope and our binoculars to the rear of the ship and watched Eagle families perch, fly, and interact.

As we pulled out we picked up both Black-legged Kittiwakes and Mew Gulls over the water.

And now I leave you with some Bald Eagle photos for the day, another shot of some spectacular scenery, and as our bird list.




The list:

Surf Scoter
Western Grebe
Bald Eagle
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Black-legged Kittiwake
Mew Gull
Marbled Murrelet
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Red-breasted Sapsucker
Northwestern Crow
Common Raven
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
American Robin
Varied Thrush
Cedar Waxwing
Townsend’s Warbler
Spotted Towhee

Alaska: Tracy Arm, June 18, 2012

Avi and I woke up fairly early, had a quick breakfast, and then bundled up to head out onto the stern (rear) deck to spend the day cruising in and out of Tracy Arm, passing the North Sawyer Glacier and, hopefully, going far enough in to see the South Sawyer Glacier.

We met Nobby and Cindy, friends I had made on the Cruise Critic boards before the cruise. We spent a few hours on deck in beautiful, sunny, and almost warm Alaska weather, watching groups of Humpback Whales spouting, surfacing and diving. I especially enjoyed one who waved its fluke out of the water several times. It was a wonderful preview to the whale watch we’ll be going on tomorrow.


As we entered Tracy Arm we were surrounded by incredible scenes all along the way. Small mountains on either side of us (@3,000 ft.) with taller, snowcapped mountains in the background (up to 8,000 feet tall.

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Tracy Arm was formed by the original Sawyer Glacier, which formed this body of water cutting in from the Frederick Sound.

All along the arm we saw waterfalls coming off the snow covered mountain tops, beautiful coniferous forests, and ever changing skies.


As we got further and further in we also saw icebergs of all different shapes and sizes. Their aquamarine hues were striking and I don’t think you can completely capture that gemlike transluscency in a photograph, although Avie valiantly tried.

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As we approached the glaciers it became colder and colder. Even though friends had told us we wouldn’t need the “winter gear” we purchased for the trip, I found it wasn’t overkill at all.


One lovely tradition on Holland America’s Alaska cruises is the serving of Dutch Pea Soup on deck. It was a perfect accompaniment to our trip up along the Arm, not to mention a nice way to warm up a bit without going inside.


The closer we got to the glacier, the more seals (both Fur and Harbor) we saw hauled out on the icebergs, most of them with pups alongside. They were there to protect themselves and their new pups from the transient Orca pods which fed on seals as a mainstay of their diet. Additionally, Mew Gulls and Pigeon Guillemots were in abundance if one paid attention using binoculars.



Many of the icebergs had blood spots on them from where Seals had given birth, adding a bit of eerie color to the scene.

As we went further along Tracy Arm, the ice became more frequent and larger. Only 20% of an iceberg (growler for the smaller ones) is at the surface of the water, so their full size can be a bit deceiving.

We got a photo of one next to a boat we think held 12 passengers (to the right). Now imagine 80% of that ice still under water!


Luck was with us this day. The Amsterdam made it all the way through Tracy Arm and we were able to see the glacier at close quarters, even observing a couple of smaller calvings (where a piece of the glacier breaks off and becomes part of the numbers of floating icebergs).

When looking at the photos, remember we were at least a mile to a half mile away from the glacier when we took these photos, making it difficult to gauge the actual size.


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As I type this, we’re still on our way out of Tracy Arm. The cold drove us inside after 8 hours in some of the truly majestic vistas one can find in Alaska.









The list:

Bald Eagle
Mew Gull
Herring Gull
Glaucous-winged Gull
Pigeon Guillemot
Marbled Murrelet
Hummingbird sp.
Northwestern Crow


Alaska: Juneau June 19, 2012


For our day in Juneau we had reserved a whale watch trip with the private company Harv and Marv’s. Their representative, Estie, met us promptly at 8:30 and, after picking up another two couples, drove us to the marina where we boarded our small covered, six passenger boat.

Our captain was Liz Stahl, who spends the summers leading whale watches out of Juneau and the winter doing the same in Maui, Hawaii, the breeding grounds for the Humpback Whales.

We were delighted to hear there was a pod of Orcas nearby we would be seeing before looking for the Humpback Whales. The pod was impressive.

Liz explained how to differentiate between males and female Orcas. Males have a tall dorsal fin which runs completely perpendicular to its body. The females have a shorter, more curved one. The pod allowed us to see these differences quite clearly. As a bonus, there were even some young Orcas in the mix.


After spending a long while with the Orcas, we headed off to search for Humpback Whales. It seemed all the whale watching boats keep in touch with each other, alerting everyone where they see whales.

The first sign of a Humpback Whale is its “blow”, a column of exhaled air and water going up to thirty feet in the air.


They blow and surface three to five times before they dive, often showing their tail at that point. Once you catch the rhythm and specific movements you can also figure out when to snap your camera and get the shot.




Aware we were birders, Liz also took care to point out any birds she spotted along the way. So, in addition to great Orca and Humpback watching, we also added Harlequin Duck, Black Oystercatcher, and Belted Kingfisher to our Alaska list.

During the ride, Liz also pointed out the nearby Eagle Glacier, very visible during much of our boat trip. This is a montaine glacier, remaining up on the mountain and not reaching the water.


On the way back to the harbor, we passed a buoy with hauled out Steller’s Sea Lions on it.


After the whale watch, we made a short fifteen minute stop at the impressive Mendenhall Glacier. The area around the glacier was lush and we heard many birds in the area. But we had already planned to try for Grouse and Ptarmigan by ascending Mt. Roberts in the tram back in town.

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We had an Alaska lunch at the famous Tracy’s Crab Shack. Combo #1, our order, had crab bisque, four small crab cakes with a spicy dip, and two King Crab legs with drawn butter.


Afterward, we walked the short distance to the tram, paid our $30 each and took the steep and slightly frightening ride to the visitor center about 2,600 feet up.

Our intended hike to above the treeline was curtailed when we found the trail covered with snow. We added no new birds to our life list. But we enjoyed listening to the large numbers of Varied Thrushes, watching American Robins pick at the snow, and revisit our familiar friends: Song Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, and Winter Wren.

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The most frustrating birds of the day were a flock of small birds flying around the snowline at Mt. Roberts. I believe they might have been Gray-crowned Rosy Finches. But we never got a good enough look for an adequate identification.

Because the snow prevented us from climbing up as far as we wanted, we didn’t get to see Ptarmigan. In fact, we dipped on that particular bird (along with Grouse).

We ended the afternoon by walking around Juneau, a city consisting mostly of tourist traps and shlock shops. We had originally planned to have dinner in town, but decided instead to return to the ship and have our dinner there.

If I were to return to Juneau, I think I’d spend the day hiking around the Mendenhall Glacier. But the trip up Mt. Roberts, even though a disappointment as far as birds are concerned, still offered incredible vistas and some beautiful temperate rainforest flora.


The list:

Harlequin Duck
Surf Scoter
Bald Eagle
Black Oystercatcher
Mew Gull
Pigeon Guillemot
Marbled Murrelet
Rock Dove
Belted Kingfisher
Barn Swallow
Winter (Pacific) Wren
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Varied Thrush
Wilson’s Warbler
Song Sparrow


Alaska: Icy Strait Point/Hoonah June 20, 2012

Icy Strait Point is a port conceived of by the local Tlingit tribe. As such, its character is completely different from any other port we visited on this trip.
Because of the way the port is designed, one must take a ship’s tender over to the port, about a mile or so from the town of Hoonah.
Our excursion, booked through Holland America, was Whales, Wildlife and Bears, a five and a half hour combined tour which would take up most of our time at this port.
The first part of the excursion found us on a large catamaran taking us out to Adolphus Point.
This was the most impressive of all the trips of this ilk during the entire cruise. We saw a large group of Humpback Whales, many quite nearby.
We were all impressed with what we were seeing until they began breaching. At that point, being impressed morphed into being mesmerized and amazed.
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During our time out we also had opportunity to see Dall’s Porpoises, Sea Otters, and Steller’s Sea Lions. As for birds, even though Avie and I were about the only people interested in them, we saw Common Loon, Mew and Herring Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Marbled Murrelets, and Pigeon Guillemots (the dominant birds of this trip).
We returned to Visitor Center at Hoonah to wait for the “Bear Search” portion of our excursion to begin. While we waited, Avie and I shared a not-so-good chowder at the Visitor’s Center.
After about a forty-five minute wait, we boarded bus for the Spaaski River. During the ride, our guide, a Tlingit woman, spoke to us about her tribe, her people, and her life.
When we arrived, we walked down a boardwalk through muskegs filled with beautiful wildflowers.
We also passed definite indications there were Brown Bears in the area!
Some people, including Avie, saw large Brown Bear chasing Black-tailed Deer.
There were three stops along river. At the second one, using our binoculars, we were able to see a very blonde Brown Bear with her cub, tucked low into the grass by the river (in the distance).
At the third stop we had a clearer, though still distant view, of another bear lumbering along in the field on the far side of the River. Because it was so distant (and we don’t have an expensive lens on the camera), this was the best shot we could get.
There were also signs of Crossbills (Conifer seeds scattered in a concentrated manner below certain trees) and Red-breasted Sapsucker.
Again, we heard many birds (Varied Thrush, Song Sparrow, Yellow and Yellow-rumped Warblers, and some songs we didn’t recognize at all). But it was extremely difficult to spot them in the thick foliage.
By the way, not only were we accompanied on our walk by our Tlingit guide. We also had the protection of a young man carrying a high-powered rifle. Our guide told us there had never been any incident with bears within her tribe. I guess they just wanted to make sure there were no incidents with their visitors either.
Happily, this was the only bear we came really close to.
Before taking a tender back to the ship, we did a bit of shopping back at Visitor’s Center. Overall, I think they had better offerings than many of the shops we had visited in Juneau and we were able to purchase a few gifts for people back home.
We tendered back to the shipand went up on rear of Lido deck. As the ship began leaving Icy Strait Point we saw tons of wildlife.
This was when we got our first and only Kittlitz’s Murrelets. After having seen so many Marbled, the much lighter coloration of the Kittlitz’s jumped out at us.
We saw another Common Loonas well as one or two birds we couldn’t quite get a bead on. As we watched, we also saw lots of Porpoises, Sea Otters, and Whales.
Unfortunately we had to come in, even though sun was still high and lots of birding and “mammaling” could still be done.
We were delighted the next day was a sea day and hoped to do a great deal more pelagic birding.
The List:
Common Loon
Pelagic Cormorant
Bald Eagle
Mew Gull
Glaucous-winged Gull
Black-legged Kittiwake
Herring Gull
Common Murre
Pigeon Guillemot
Marbled Murrelet
Kittlitz’s Murrelet
Rock Pigeon
Rufous Hummingbird
Tree Swallow
Northwestern Crow
Common Raven
American Robin
Varied Thrush
Yellow Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Song Sparrow