A winter day in the outdoors yields simple pleasures for family

Posted: Friday, March 26, 2010

Last year in March our family decided to take a daylong outing to Seward to look for winter birds and explore the shoreline of Resurrection Bay. We packed our van the night before and laid out all of the childrens' winter clothes. We woke the children at 5:30 a.m. and assisted the younger ones with dressing. We departed in the darkness of early morning and fed the children a packed breakfast as we drove.

We wanted to arrive in Seward shortly after sunrise in order to use every minute of daylight possible; there's always so much to see and the day speeds by so quickly even during the rapidly increasing daylight of March.

Our first priority of the day was to search for a Cassin's finch that had been discovered at a residential bird feeder a few weeks earlier. Though a common bird of the mountain west, this species is rare in Alaska and extremely so on the Kenai Peninsula, with only two previous sightings.

With much patience and a fair share of "shushing" all the children were able to observe this treasured visitor. While searching for the Cassin's finch we also observed other common feeder birds such as black-capped chickadees, pine siskins, common redpolls, pine grosbeaks, and downy woodpeckers. A predatory sharp-shinned hawk scattered the flock during a brief raid.

At a nearby feeder we stumbled on a white-throated sparrow, two red crossbills, and a varied thrush! The white-throated sparrow is a rare winter visitor, red crossbills are rare residents, and varied thrushes are an uncommonly good find in winter. We had the beginnings of a great and very bird-filled day.

We searched for a winter wren in the understory of a towering stand of Sitka spruce and western hemlock but only heard golden-crowned kinglets, raucous Stellar's jays, and distant black-billed magpies.

Next we explored Lowell Point. On the drive out we had close encounters with a feeding humpback whale as well as several frolicking Stellar's sealions. Pelagic cormorants were numerous here and among them were a few red-faced cormorants.

While walking the forested roads of Lowell Point we observed chestnut-backed chickadees, brown creepers, red-breasted nuthatches, and a flock of wintering rusty blackbirds. The rusty blackbirds were remarkable since that was the first winter that they had been observed wintering on the Kenai Peninsula. With the flock of rusty blackbirds was a lone female red-winged blackbird which is rare in any season. What a day!

We walked the beaches of Lowell Point where the children had another close encounter with the same group of sealions. They also scrutinized stranded jellyfish and hunted for unique seashells. Here we observed nearby harlequin ducks, glaucous-winged and mew gulls, marbled murrelets, pigeon guillemots, common loons, and distant common murres out on the bay and rock sandpipers on a distant shoreline.

Over by the Seward Small Boat Harbor we watched sea otters and their young and several inquisitive harbor seals. Near the mouth of the harbor were rafts of Barrow's and common goldeneyes, red-breasted and common mergansers, and a few buffleheads. Large flocks of northwestern crows and the occasional common raven foraged in the inter-tidal zone at low tide.

We made several attempts to find a female hooded merganser that had been observed by local residents in a swamp but had no success. Hooded mergansers are very rare on the Kenai Peninsula so we were disappointed when our best efforts to find the bird came up short, but we resolved to resume the search after visiting other Seward birding hotspots.

We traveled out to Fourth of July Beach and Creek. The children ran up and down the beach as surf, white-winged, and black scoter rafts lazily drifted offshore. Greater scaup were also abundant as well as flocks of foraging gulls. Bald eagles periodically flew overhead. We also found a yellow-billed loon, horned and red-necked grebes, and long-tailed ducks. We were unable to find the local American dipper.

We traveled back into town to once more frequent a few busy residential bird feeders. Most feeders had hoards of pine siskins and only slightly less common redpolls. Stellar's jays frequented every neighborhood. We did also observe the ever growing flock of exotic rock pigeons that numbered approximately 150 that day.

We visited the very quiet and little used Seward Airport looking for such open country birds as snow buntings and short-eared owls. We found neither and resolved to make haste as we only had a few more hours of daylight.

We resumed our search for the hooded merganser and again did not find her at any of her popular haunts. We resolved to search Clear Creek even though it had not previously been reported there. We had searched it earlier in the day and thought it a promising site. Upon revisiting the site we struck paydirt! The hooded merganser was there and it was ours! Every one had a great view of this diminutive merganser. Nearby there were many semi-wild mallard ducks which pleased the children as much as the rare merganser.

While reveling in our successful search for the hooded merganser we drove down Exit Glacier Road where it is gated in the off-season. As the sun set and dusk descended we listened for the nuptial calls of breeding owls. We hoped to hear any species of owl but most especially western screech-owls. They are the rarest of Kenai Peninsula owls and the best place to find them is in this vicinity. The temperatures were rapidly falling and a modest but steady wind chilled to the bone. We heard no owls that evening but we were grateful for an outstanding day.

We had a fantastic day of birding. Resurrection Bay was gorgeous, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. We hiked and searched beaches, forests, swampland, marsh, and field. It had been a full and fun day enjoying the beauty that is the Resurrection Valley.

The next day as we talked about our trip with the children, everyone said what the highlight had been for them. Some were delighted to see new bird species, others most enjoyed being close to sea lions. Some liked climbing slippery seaweed covered rocks and skating on the ice of a frozen creek. Another liked the large jellyfish.

For 4-year old Damien the highlight of this trip was seeing mallard ducks. Four mallard drakes at the Seward water treatment plant were close enough that he could see them well and appreciate their colorful plumage. They weren't distant specks so he didn't need binoculars. Mallards really are beautiful, and we love that they were the highlight of his trip.

It was a reminder to us that children don't need something spectacular or even new to impress them. A close-up sighting of a common bird can be more memorable and exciting for them than a great rarity.

Sometimes after an outing with the family we will be disappointed that we couldn't find more to show the children. But the kids always find something that is exciting to them. Sometimes it is a northwestern crow with a band on its leg, sometimes it's a fish skeleton in the wrackline, sometimes it's a shell or a stone, sometimes it's merely a discarded bolt they found beside the road. Getting them outside is always satisfying, even when the most exciting find of the day is merely a mallard.

Toby Burke, a refuge biological technician, and his wife Laura enjoy birding on the Kenai Peninsula with their eight children. To report or listen to interesting local bird sighting call the Central Kenai Peninsula Birding Hotline sponsored by Kenai National Wildlife Refuge at 262-2300.

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