Saturday, July 7, 2012

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


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