Partly sunny skies and temperatures in the low 60s made for a pleasant day weather-wise. Later this afternoon there was a band or two of light rain showers that moved through, though they didn’t last long.

I didn’t spend too much time outside today, instead playing catch up. Summer is a difficult time of year to get through all the photos and tasks to be done, but I did make it through many of the photos from yesterday’s trip up Harbor Mountain (which hasn’t been posted here at the time I’m writing this, but hopefully will be soon).

Strawberries in my yard are slowly starting to ripen. It will be interesting to see if they’ll just keep getting ripe one or two at a time, in which case I’ll probably eat them as I find them, or if a bunch will get ripe at once, allowing me to feel like it’s worth picking them to do something in particular with. The strawberries in the photo are from some of the plants I put in last year that seem to have been the happiest, as the plants are robust and the berries large (and even pretty good tasting, if I don’t pick them too soon).

While taking the picture, I noticed a spider that seemed to be moving in a way that made me think it had caught something. I took a closer look and could only see the spider was holding something down. I blew a little bit on the spider, and it moved off so I could see a small harvestman/daddy longlegs (Opiliones). The spider very quickly jumped back on its prey. I have been noticing the berm seems to be a favored habitat of these harvestmen. I’ve thought about trying to get pictures, but so far have not.

On another yard/garden note, slugs seem to like potato leaves. Fortunately Connor’s young roosters like slugs, it’s funny to watch them come running over if I walk over to the pen. They very quickly snap up any slugs I drop in to them.

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Raven Radio Show #82 – Paul Norwood and Brooke Shafer

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The 28 June show featured a conversation with Paul Norwood and Brooke Shafer. We spoke about their recent adventure circumnavigating Baranof Island by kayak.

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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Night Shining Clouds, Lilies, and Birds

I spent the very early hours of today out taking pictures for a timelapse of noctilucent clouds, then after a short 30 minute nap, I headed back out to try to find a mystery birds I had heard in the darkness. In the hours I spent hoping to locate the bird(s) that I heard earlier, I walked around the shoreline below the bridge (on the Japonski side) and was reminded of some of the rich vegetation that’s down there and easy to forget about.

Towards the end of my morning, I went over to the old airport road and saw a small flock of Cedar Waxwings, my first of the year. I also heard a distant Alder Flycatcher that I believe was on the other side of the lagoon. It was only the second time I’ve observed one, and the first along the road system in Sitka. There was also a flock of Red Crossbills (including several that looked immature) that seemed attracted to something in the large ditch. I never could quite figure out what they were doing down there, as they disappeared in the vegetation, and I only saw them flying down or flying out.

This afternoon on a walk to Totem Park I got photos of a female merganser with a single chick. There had been a couple different females with 6-8 chicks that Connor had told me about seeing in the past day or two. I don’t know if this was a different one, or if it was one of those absent a few chicks (that were either hiding or had been lost to predation).

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Late Night Mystery Call

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Around 2:45am today while I was out photographing a timelapse of noctilucent clouds, I heard a bird song that I did not recognize. Although I heard it sing twice. In a perhaps unrelated event, shortly afterwards, I saw a bird that gave me the impression of a shorebird (perhaps snipe-sized, but less bulky), but I’m not sure the impression is worth much since it was still pretty much dark, and I just saw a quick flash as it flew through the illumination of a street light. Now it did fly from (or at least passed by) where I had heard the song, but I at the time I didn’t think it was the same bird. It went down off the side of the road I saw it fly over, and when I walked over to look I heard an unfamiliar rasping/rattling call. This was repeated several times, and I was able to get the recording I’ve included here.

When I recorded this, I was at the top of an embankment that sloped steeply down 15-20 feet to a rocky shoreline. The slope was covered in a dense thicket of salmonberry and Sitka alder. My impression was the call was coming from the rocky upper beach below the thicket, but I can’t be sure.

On the recording the mystery call of interest is the softer raspy sort of call that is repeated. There are also birds singing, a Swainson’s Thrush and an Orange-crowned Warbler. I would appreciate any thoughts and/or suggestions as to the identity of the maker of the odd call.

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Breeding Bird Survey

My alarm went off at 2am. It was still dark out (or at least what passes for dark here this time of year), and I needed to be up and ready to go by 2:30. Fortunately, if I actually get up and get going (normally I just roll over and go back to sleep), I’m not really a slow starter and I usually feel fine once I’m moving around. Today’s motivation for the early rise-time was prompted by the need to do this year’s Breeding Bird Survey. I picked up this route a couple of years ago, and this was to be my third go of it. Scott Harris had offered to help out, and we agreed to meet at 2:30 in order to have enough time to get out to the route start at Medvejie Hatchery in time to make our 3:29am start time. The breeding bird survey is supposed to take place between 1 June and 8 July with a start a half an hour before sunrise. However, perhaps for the sake of simplicity, the route is assigned a start time, which in this case is the aforementioned 3:29am. Although in Sitka you pretty much can’t the moments of sunrise due to mountains, the actual sunrise time was 4:06am (and I couldn’t see the sun for at least an hour and a half after that).

When I went outside a few minutes early to wait for Scott, I noticed the typical lighter sky in the north and a streaking meteor that appeared to be relatively close, moving south to north in front of Verstovia in the east. I also noticed clouds over Verstovia – at first I wasn’t sure if they were cirrus clouds catching early sunlight, but then I realize they must be noctilucent clouds. I walked down the street a bit to get an unobstructed view, but then heard Scott drive up, so didn’t have time to find a steady support and only got a motion-blurred photo. As we drove out the road and I caught sight of the Sisters, I could see an even more striking noctilucent cloud formation there, though unfortunately we didn’t really have time to stop.

Getting to Medvejie requires checking out a gate key (the road is not maintained for public use, so it’s necessary to get permission from the city to access it for purposes of the survey). We ended up out there with some time to spare and spent a few minutes reviewing the protocol. I took a couple of pictures from our start location right at the hatchery. From this first point through 49 more spaced approximately .5 miles apart, I would need to spend three minutes at each location listening and watching to record all the birds I could observer. Astute readers who do the math may realize that adds up to more miles of road then you can really drive in Sitka. In order to squeeze in enough stops, there are some side trips that need to be made, including Blue Lake road and over to Japonski Island. Even so, the last stop requires waling about .3 miles out the ATV trail at Starrigavan.

The early stops are all along Green Lake road. With daylight only gradually gaining strength, much of this time was spent listening into the bushes and forest as the dim light and heavy vegetation made spotting birds difficult. By the time we headed up Blue Lake road there was definitely much more light in the sky. Clouds were showing up as white and although Bear Mountain wasn’t yet bathed in direct sunlight, it was definitely getting brighter up there.

Although by this time I had already been up for nearly 4 hours, we were still only 1/3 of the way through the survey. As we headed into the busier part of town and more active time of day, we started seeing more traffic (which we’re also supposed to track during the 3 minute counts). The first point in partial sunlight was along Sawmill Creek Road just out from the Mormon Church, but the first point where I could truly stand in full sunlight was not until about a half an hour later at Indian River road. I tried to soak up and enjoy the warmth and light as best I could while watching and listening for whatever birds were in the vicinity.

After the Indian River road stop, comes the Japonski Island spur. It starts with a point at the base of Castle Hill, then over the bridge to the Kasei-maru memorial, over to near the airport, and finishes up with a stop at the wastewater treatment plant. By this time it’s pushing past 7am, and I’m feeling groggy. Focus was a precious commodity that I was not doing well maintaining for extended periods and I unfortunately forgot to have us do the wastewater treatment plant stop. Fortunately I realized my error within a couple of stops, and we were able to go back and take care of it without too much delay.

After the Japonski Island side trip, the route goes up Lake Street, then over to Edgecumbe Drive before going down Cascade Creek Road and out Halibut Point Road to the end, a stop at Mosquito Cove is followed by the final four stops, all along Nelson Logging road (and the ATV trail). The instructions for the final point were to walk out the trail far enough to make the .5 miles from the previous stop, but nothing more specific. So this year I started the gps and we picked a reasonably well marked spot to have the point be more easily found (and hopefully consistent) during future efforts.

We finished up around 9am, and I was home by 9:30. It didn’t take long before I decided it was time for a nap. By the time a couple of hours had past, I was feeling remarkably refreshed.

Weather-wise, things really started to heat up this afternoon. The highest official temperature I saw was 74, but on my porch (south facing, but the thermometer was not in direct sun) it was showing mid-80s. It also felt pretty hot out on the turf at Moller Field when I played ultimate there for an hour. Later in the afternoon and evening, I spent time in the yard enjoying the warmth of the sun and watering the plants that I just put in this year, but didn’t go out anywhere else.

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Common Cuckoo Revisted

Common Cuckoo photographed Saturday, as of this writing I am uncertain if anyone found it today (Sunday, 14 June)

Friday afternoon my kids and I spent a couple of pleasant hours hanging out on Harbor Mountain in the area we had found the cuckoo on Wednedsday. The weather was much nicer, but we never noticed the bird. I would have probably assumed that it had left, since as far as I know, no one found it on Thursday, and I hadn’t heard of anyone seeing it on Friday. However, after reporting our unsuccessful attempt, I heard a second hand report that someone had seen it around noon on Friday. With morning clouds breaking up and lifting off the mountains, it seemed worth another trip up the mountain.

We reached he third gate around 11am and saw some cars parked there. I recognized one of them as Richard Nelson’s, and sure enough, we ran into him on his way down shortly after we started up the hill. He told me he had seen the cuckoo in the vicinity of the picnic area earlier this morning, but that it had ultimately flown off in the direction of the end of the road, and he did not see again while he was up there. He never heard it vocalize (nor has anyone to my knowledge), nor did it respond in any obvious way to the playback of either Common Cuckoo or Oriental Cuckoo calls. I’m not sure if this is meaningful, but I think it is interesting. A little while later I ran into another local bird enthusiast who had not gotten up the mountain quite as early, and despite staying longer, had not relocated the cuckoo. (Later I heard that someone else had also seen the cuckoo briefly early in the morning.)

Connor and Rowan were waiting for me (having continued on while I visited a little while) and after eating our picnic lunch at the viewpoint, Rowan and I mostly just relaxed for the next couple of hours while Connor took a more active approach to searching. He asked to go to the end of the road and up the trail to the top of the bowl to see if it was over there. Some time after he headed that way, I decided to look around on the uphill side of the road. While headed up the hill, I happened to spot the cuckoo, but it flew off before I could my camera on it. This happened a couple more times before it flew off too far for me to easily follow towards the picnic shelter. I had gotten Rowan’s attention (she had gone over to the picnic area) and she saw the cuckoo as it flew that way (we also both saw probable Red-tailed Hawk quickly gliding by along the road way). She was not able to see where it went, however.

Connor scanning the tree tops for the cuckoo

I had been able to get Connor on his cell phone (handy for that, at least when there’s reception) and it was not too long after this that he showed up. While he gave a more thorough going-over of the picnic area and some open meadow beyond, Rowan and I went back to the viewpoint to watch. After a futile search, Connor eventually rejoined us there. I’m not quite sure how long we were there before I saw the cuckoo flying across (looking remarkably like a raptor in flight) from the direction of the picnic area in front of us and across the road to the uphill side where it perched on the top of a snag that was in our sight. Connor followed it up there and was able to get his camera on the bird (though he said most of the pictures were blurry/out of focus due to his pounding heart from the run up the hill). Once again it flew along the hill and then over past the picnic area where we lost it. So, it was back to the viewpoint for Rowan and I, while Connor once again tried a more active search over by the picnic area.

Blooming Sitka Mountain Ash: the right distraction at the right time

By this time it was past 3:30 and time for us to leave, so Rowan and I started walking down the road. Along the way I noticed a Sitka Mountain Ash (Sorbus sitchensis) that was still at least partly in bloom up a little way off the road. Rowan went ahead to the picnic area to meet up with Connor while I stopped to take some pictures (as I had not happened to see one of these blooming before). I looked up from taking some pictures and saw the cuckoo perched in a tree on the hill above me. This time it did not fly so far so fast, and I was able to catch up with it and get some more quality observation (and photos). One thing I noticed was it seemed to regularly bob its tail up and down (see the first two photos in the set below). I’m not sure if this was for balance, or something else. While watching the cuckoo carefully, I was also able to get Connor and Rowan’s attention, so Connor came down towards the road from the picnic shelter to look. About the time he reached the road, the cuckoo flew across to a perch near the picnic area parking lot. It went from perch to ground to another perch a couple of times, and we were all able to get good looks and photos of it before it flew further and we once again lost track of it.

I think Connor would have been happy to stay even longer, but it was really getting to be time to leave, so we started down the boardwalk and got as far as the parking lot before we noticed the cuckoo perched in a tree nearby. We gave a brief effort to get more pictures (I think it gets to be a bit of a compulsion really), but it flew off when none of us happened to be looking, so we did not see where it went. At this point we really needed to go, so we put our cameras away and started down the road.

One interesting thing I noticed was a fairly consistent alarming from other birds in the vicinity of the cuckoo. I noticed aerial predator alarms from robins and agitated chips from juncos, while Connor told me that when he had followed the cuckoo up the hill there had been some warblers that were clearly not too happy with it being around. I had noticed this on Wednesday a little bit as well, and also on both days that the alarms were pretty localized. I’m no expert in bird language, but it was fun to at least notice what I could of it and try to get a little better understanding of what was going on through those efforts.

Another thing I thought interesting was it seemed like on Saturday the cuckoo was more often making longer flights (and disappearing) compared to Wednesday. I wonder if this might be because of the limited visibility and/or damp wings on Wednesday kept it from wanting to go so far.

Having made 4 trips up to look for the cuckoo and only seen it twice, as well as hearing about others’ attempts, with most people apparently only getting brief looks, if they see it at all, it occurs to me that we’re pretty fortunate Eric and Cathy found this bird in the first place. There is plenty of the habitat it seems to prefer, with much of it not visible from the road or picnic area – and with the third gate closed, there’s not that many people up there anyway – so it’s not hard to imagine it being up there for an extended period of time without anyone noticing. It makes me wonder how long it was there before the Parker’s found it. It also makes me wonder how many other wild vagrants are moving through (or hanging out for extended periods) undetected. This tantalizing possibility of hitting the vagrant jackpot is part of what makes birding such a compelling activity for some folks, including me. I find it provides me a powerful motivation to get out and look around, and even though most trips don’t result in a Common Cuckoo, I find and experience many other things that I truly appreciate (even if they don’t necessarily compel me to get out the door quite as effectively).

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