Thanksgiving Mountain Snow

The forecast earlier in the week suggested we might see partly cloudy skies for Thanksgiving, but that didn’t really turn out to be the case.

Temperatures have dropped enough this week for snow to get down close to around 2500 feet on the mountains. It doesn’t look like there has been much accumulation so far, but it’s taken longer than usual for snow levels to drop even this far.

I took a photo of Harbor Mountain from Sea Mart parking lot at a gloomy 2pm (an hour and a half before sunset) as we were headed to friends’ for Thanksgiving dinner.

At dinner I had a chance to visit with someone I worked with as a marine mammal observer last fall (part of a dock project at the industrial park). She’s spent most of the past 6+ months out on Biorka Island observing for a dock project out there. It was interesting to hear about some of the things she’s seen during her time out there.

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Mountains and Light

The snow level dropped enough to cover part of Mountain Edgecumbe, but by the time I got out this afternoon, there had been noticeably melting on the south aspect, giving an interesting diagonal to the snow line (which wouldn’t have been so obvious on a less symmetrical mountain).

I stopped by Moller, but didn’t see the tree sparrow that had been seen there yesterday. Perhaps it has already moved on (as often seems to be the case with this species).

While not spectacular, I enjoyed the display of clouds over Mt. Edgecume and Kruzof Island around sunset.

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Sitka Nature Show #171 – Rachel Lauer

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The November 11th show featured a conversation with Rachel Lauer, a marine hydrogeologist who was in town as part of the Scientist in Residence Fellowship at the Sitka Sound Science Center. We spoke about her work investigating the plumbing systems of the sea floor and how water moves around and through faults deep under the ocean surface. She has recently started working with others to study the Queen Charlotte fault which runs offshore of British Columbia and Southeast Alaska.

If you’re interested in other conversations that touched on the Queen Charlotte fault, you can check out past shows with Emily Roland, Sue Karl Part 1, and Sue Karl Part 2

If you have questions or observations you want to share, please feel free to leave a comment here or on the page I’ve set up for that purpose.

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Kiss of Death – A Halloween Birding Story

Fair warning – while there’s no blood and gore, these photos depict the darkly intimate, intense, and violent end to a Magnolia Warbler’s life in the talons of a Northern Pygmy-Owl.

I thought about writing more of a narrative, but in the end have decided to let the photos tell most of the story. (For a sense of timing, I’ve included timestamps for each photo [h:mm:ss])

First some context –

As I shared previously, yesterday (October 31st) was an exceptionally good day for warblers here in Sitka.

I added two new species to my life/Alaska list (really – it’s my Sitka area list, since I am disinclined to travel), including a Magnolia Warbler, which I found at Castle Hill.

Jen C. had shown up to try and get a look at the Magnolia Warbler, and spotted a Northern Pygmy-Owl that had just flown in.


[5:14:10] In fading light silhouetted against the gray clouds, it was difficult to see much, but at least a couple of the warblers I had been watching became agitated.



[5:15:56] I had seen something drop down, thinking it was the owl, I investigated and found it staring intently at the ground.



[5:15:59] I was focused closely on the owl, assuming it was still hunting



[5:15:59] It was only when it flew up that I noticed a flash of yellow below (as this photo shows, I had clearly been suffering from a bit of tunnel vision)



[5:16:36] On its new perch, I couldn’t see the yellow I had noticed when it took off, so I moved around for a better angle



[5:17:01] The owl seemed unconcerned with me, probably 10-15 feet away at this point, I saw it had the Magnolia Warbler firmly in its grasp, clearly still alive



[5:17:03] My full recognition of the situation had barely flitted through my head when the owl leaned over and leaned in



[5:17:09]



[5:17:09]



[5:17:09]



[5:17:10]



[5:17:10]



[5:17:10]



[5:17:10]



[5:17:10]



[5:17:11]



[5:17:12]



[5:17:30]


Perception of time seems to behave strangely when witnessing events that land with a certain amount of intensity. It was less than 4 minutes between the time I first saw and photographed the owl until the final shot, shortly before the owl flew away with its meal.

I am currently struggling a bit to articulate how I experienced this, and how I feel about it. Perhaps I will revisit this post and add an update if I get it all sorted a little better.

One thing I can say, I was grateful to have been a witness to the end of life for this warbler and the continuation of the life for the owl. These kinds of deaths are probably happening billions, if not trillions (or more – if you go small enough) of times a day in the natural world, but this is the first I have seen so closely in animals that I find it relatively easy to relate to.

I am also grateful for the camera technology that allowed me to photograph in dim light (These shots were all at ISO 8000 F5.6 and 1/30-1/80, depending on the shot, all but the last at 400mm focal length.) I find it helpful and rewarding to review the pictures and see what I missed (such as the warbler clearly there in the owl’s grasp when I was first getting the closer photos – something I only realized when looking at the pictures). Over the years, I’ve learned a lot by discovering in photos what I missed at the time, and learning to look more carefully in the future. These photos also allow me to share the experience with others in a way I enjoy doing, so thank you for reading!

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Seven Warblers (two lifers) – with a Dark Side


Given the season and weather, plus past experience, I probably should have known better, but with clearing skies this morning, I was torn about whether to get out for a hike up a trail, or stay home and make some much needed progress on various work-related projects. It didn’t turn out that I did either, but that was no cause for disappointment.

With snow down to around 3000 feet on the mountains, I considered a trip up Verstovia to try and do a historic retake photo of a couple of Merrill’s shots of Bear Mountain with fall snow. However, I ultimately decided that I was not up to that level of effort.

By early afternoon, I was planning drive up Harbor Mountain and walk up the trail for a ways there, as the gates are due to close this week. Fortunately I held off long enough to receive a text from David K. that changed my plans.

He let me know there seemed to be a push of warblers today, with multiple species seen between the park and downtown, including a couple birds that he wasn’t so sure about, but it did seem likely based on what he said that they were unusual for here.

This last week of October to first week of November timeframe has seen some really good birds for Sitka (and in some cases, Alaska) in recent years, including a Cape May Warbler, multiple Palm Warblers, a Northern Waterthrush, and Red Phalaropes (the Tropical Kingbird showed up a little earlier, but did stick around into the last week of October).

After hearing from David, I decided to go for a walk down to the entrance to the park, and then back along the seawalk at least as far as Castle Hill.

I found my first warbler, a Wilson’s, with chickadees and kinglets in some crabapple trees on Finn Alley. It’s getting late for those, so I snapped a few photos of the warbler and a Golden-crowned Kinglet since it was reasonably cooperative (and also noted, though didn’t photograph, a Northern Flicker eating crabapples).

Back on Etolin Street I took pictures of a young Anna’s Hummingbird and a chickadee (but was having trouble with a camera setting, which fortunately I took time to figure out a little while later, or I would have been really annoyed later on).

From there I went back to Finn Alley and Barlow Street, then along the sea walk to the park without seeing much.

After turning around at the park, I heard a couple of birds, and with a little effort was able to spot a couple of warbler high up in a spruce. I was able to determine one was a Yellow-rumped (#2), and the other probably an Orange-crowned (#3), though it was far away and moving quickly, so I wasn’t entirely sure (I later confirmed from photos).

They flew off towards town, and I continued on my way. Again seeing little (though I did catch a brief glimpse of a Red-breasted Sapsucker), I decided to take a side trip up by the SJ museum.

I was a little surprised to find several different mushroom species up on the SJ campus, though several were clearly past their prime, and I documented several to put in iNaturalist.

Returning to the sea walk, I slowly made my way into town without noticing any activity until the pine trees right at the northwestern corner. It took a while to get good enough looks, but I was eventually able to determine it was a Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned Warbler (which I was guessing might have been the same ones I saw earlier). They were moving quickly, and I burned through quite a few frames trying to get a decent shot or two.

It being Halloween afternoon, downtown was closed off from traffic for trick-or-treaters to visit the stores. I opted to avoid the crowds, and walked along Harbor Drive to get to Castle Hill.

Once on top of Castle Hill I could see warblers flitting about in the maples below me, and was able to tell there was at least one Yellow Warbler (#4), and multiple Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Based on previous experience, I looked for a warbler mostly working the ground, and sure enough, was able to find a Palm Warbler (#5) as well.

I thought it might be nice to get photos of the Palm Warbler, so made my way down to the city offices parking lot and was able to get some very nice looks from there.

I kept looking in the trees, hoping to resight and photograph the Yellow warbler (as it too is on the late side).

Instead, I saw a warbler that was unfamiliar to me. I was later able to determine it was a Magnolia Warbler (#6), which might be a first record for Sitka, but is only Rare (rather than Very Rare or Accidental) for the state. I’m not sure what the late-date record is, but this may be approaching it.

Since it was unfamiliar, I called and texted some folks while also doing my best to get (better) photos of the bird as it rapidly moved around foraging in the remaining foliage.

Jen C. showed up, but by then the bird had disappeared. We saw a couple of Yellow-rumped Warblers, but things had gone quiet.

It didn’t take too much waiting before the birds reappeared, and while we were looking for the (at the time) mystery warbler, Jen commented that she saw yet another bird that seemed different, and was definitely not the one I had seen previously.

This one was high up, and with the various Yellow-rumped Warblers also moving around quickly from place to place with lots of branches in between, it was challenging to keep an eye on, let alone try and get the camera on this new mystery bird, but I did get enough of a look to see it had a black mask bounded by white and no apparent color on its head/throat.

I decided to go up to the top of the hill again, and no sooner had I got there than all the birds were gone. I waited, listened, and watched (including on the other side of the hill) for several minutes, but saw nothing (and neither did Jen down below). I walked down the stairs and braved the circus of customed kids and adults on Lincoln Street to check out the Pioneer Home grounds, but did not find anything there either.

I returned back to the parking lot to see if Jen had seen anything, but it had been quiet.

The light was definitely fading, but there was still enough to inspire hope that they might return for another chance, and sure enough, after a few minutes, I heard and saw Yellow-rumped Warblers come back.

Jen saw the second mystery warbler in the mix again, so I focused on trying to find and photograph it.

In the dim light with several Yellow-rumped Warblers and one mystery bird flitting back and forth through the leaves and branches backlit against the gray sky, it was difficult to find the target bird, and almost impossible to track it.

I finally started resorting to spray-and-pray tactics, taking advantage of the autofocus and high frame rate of my camera, pressing and holding the shutter button whenever I managed to get anything in view.


I didn’t get any good photos, but ultimately got ones that were enough to figure out this was a Black-throated Gray Warbler (#7) – a first record for Sitka, and only the fourth for the state.

While I was shooting all these photos, Jen said something about another bird that flew in, which she followed up immediately by saying it was a pygmy-owl.

I saw the pygmy-owl perched up on a maple branch looking down, and a couple of the warblers were aggitated and alarming at it.

Around this time, Jen got a phone call, but I kept watching the owl and the warblers.

The owl flew into the trees where I couldn’t see it, and shortly after I saw something drop down below that I thought might have been the owl again.

I moved around the park cars to get a better view, and found the owl perched in the bare salmonberry bushes.

The owl was looking down intently, and I thought maybe it was hoping to find something on the ground (as one I saw a week and a half ago was doing – there had been a rat scrambling around earlier, so I wondered if it might go for that).

I was so focused on the owl, it was only when I saw a flash of yellow as it took off and flew up to a nearby branch that I realized it had already caught a bird (later review of my photos confirmed that I had simply failed to notice the bird it was holding, as it was clearly there).

Sitting in the branch, I couldn’t see the prey at all, so I moved around for a better angle and discovered it was the Magnolia Warbler that had been caught.

I could see the warbler was firmly held, but seemed to be still alive. I briefly wondered if it might be able to get away, and possibly the idea of startling the owl off to see if it would drop it crossed my mind, but no sooner had those thoughts flitted through my mind when the owl bent over and seemed to give a ‘kiss of death’ to the warbler.

As it the owl lifted its head up, the warble gave a couple of wing and tail flaps, then was still. I couldn’t see any blood, so I’m not sure what the owl actually did, but it seemed clear the warbler was now dead.

Amazingly, I was watching all of this from probably less than 10 feet away, shooting photos pretty much the whole time. Thank goodness for modern digital camera technology, as I was able to get some decent shots, and at least one pretty good one, with a 400mm lens, at 1/50sec and f5.6 (as open as this goes at that focal length), at ISO 8000. If you know don’t know anything about what that means, just suffice to say that it was dim light, and the combination of amazing image sensor + image stabilization technologies made it possible for me to document this intense scene in a way I couldn’t have without it.

I never did get a picture of the Yellow Warbler, so only photographed six warblers while seeing seven for the day. While these are numbers someone from the East Coast would no doubt find laughable, they’re really good totals or Sitka (and I suspect for Alaska). Perhaps equally unexpected was to get two life birds in a day. It’s been quite sometime since that has happened (I may have to see if I can figure out the last time). In any case, I was quite happy with the decision to forgo the mountain hike.

My iNaturalist Observations for Today

(more photos to come as I get them processed – it turns out that it takes a while for my computer to process 500 photos, and then there’s editing. Fortunately in the first pass I was able to cut the number down to under 150, but subsequent passes will take more time per photo)

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LeConte’s Sparrow

My sunset alarm (set to go off ten minutes before sunset in Sitka each day) had just gone off when I heard my phone vibrate, indicating a text message.

It was showing up as an image from Connor – unusual, as he has never texted me a photo before. It was accompanied by a text saying simply, ‘end of the park‘.

It was a surprisingly orange sparrow of some sort, and I responded by asking him what he thought it was. I quickly followed up letting him know I was on my way.

In a race with the quickly fading light, I grabbed my camera and coat, got into the car and headed down to Totem Park. I got Connor on the phone and confirmed that he was still out between the battle site bench and the river mouth.

I ran much of the way along the trail through the dark forest and came out to the beach at the battle site bench.

Connor was standing out on the flats and kept watch while I walked along the flat drift-log strewn area being overtaken by vegetation (though recently trimmed, and so now quite open).

As I approached not far from where he had last seen it land, an unexpectedly small bird took off, flying low up and over the beach grass than further down the shore between the beach grass and piles of seaweed pushed up by the previous high tide series. I lost sight of it behind the beach grass as it followed the gentle curve of the shore, but Connor saw it flying and also where it had disappeared in the beach grass, telling me he was pretty sure it was the bird he had seen before.

The light had been marginal when I arrived, and was fading more as I continued my walk. Despite going somewhat near where Connor had seen it go into the vegetation, we didn’t see it fly again.

I went down to talk with Connor and see the pictures on his camera. The picture accompanying this post is one I took of the LCD on his camera showing one of the better photos he got.

He told me that he had flushed it while walking along, and it hadn’t flown far. He pished a bit and it popped out enough for him to get the photos before flying further down the beach. At that point he texted me and waited out on the tide flats to watch, not wanting to fly further away. He was confident he had seen it in the bird book previously, but didn’t remember the name off the top of his head.

I knew this was an unusual bird, and it was going to be awhile before I was going to have a chance to look in the bird book, so I texted the photo to Brad B. and Steve H., both of whom replied suggested it was a LeConte’s Sparrow. (After Connor had a chance to look when he got home, he texted me and he had also come to the same conclusion.)

LeConte’s Sparrow has never before been reported from Alaska, and reading up on them, Connor did well to see this bird at all, let alone get a picture of it. They are one of the smallest North American sparrows and apparently notoriously reluctant to flush. When they do flush, it’s only after a fairly close approach and they fly low for short distances. Instead of flying, the usually will run along the ground underneath the vegetation.

Hopefully the bird will stick around, and maybe even provide some better looks.

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