Birding St. Lazaria

Temperatures dropped overnight. Although I didn’t notice the mountain tops through the cloud cover when I walked down to the harbor this morning, there was no doubt fresh snow on many of them, a fact which I did not realize until later.

My morning was filled with a birding trip on Sitka Sound Tours – I had been invited to come along by Russell, a visiting birder who was in town for a few days as part of a summer to be spent running marathons, visiting national parks, and birding in Alaska. He had hopes of seeing some new species for his life list, and we were able to find three; Thick-billed Murre, Tufted Puffin, and Ancient Murrelet.

There was a little bit of wind and decaying swell coming in to the sound, but Jim (our captain) thought if we headed to the north end of the sound and cruised along the Kruzof shoreline, we would be more protected. He was correct about that, as it was glassy in the lee of the island out as far as Low Island. When we went out and around Low Island, we got back into the swell and a little bit of wind, but it still wasn’t bad, and we saw hundreds of cormorants in a few loose groups. We are were also able to get some nice close views of Rhinoceros Auklets, and a surprising number of Ancient Murrelets (I’m guessing well over 100). As we were leaving I saw a couple of birds flying low on the water that it took me a few moments to realize were shearwaters.

As we got closer to St. Lazaria, the top of Mt. Edgecumbe came into view and appeared to have a dusting of snow along the highest part of the crater rim. This reminded me that I had read in the weather synopsis that snow levels may drop to 3000 feet (though my memory was of that being more up towards Yakutat) as a cold air mass aloft moved down over part of the region.

The lee side of St. Lazaria was calm and quiet, and it was great to cruise slowly near the island observing Pigeon Guillemots on the cliffs and Tufted Puffins on the water. Coming around the west side of the island, we got back into the swell. Fortunately it was not really too bad. We did not see any murres in the caves, though we could see there were some on the cliffs. There was a small-ish raft of murres on the water – perhaps a couple of hundred, but nothing like was on the water a couple of weeks ago.

Since one of Russell’s most wanted birds for the trip was a Thick-billed Murre, we hung out and spent a fair amount of time studying the murre rafts. We saw some possible Thick-billed Murres, but it was hard to get a good enough view to be as confident as one might like. During this time, I found that swell and binocular viewing don’t mix too well for me, so I found it prudent to take some breaks.

Russell had gone outside with the other two passengers, leaving just Jim and I in the cabin when I heard Jim say to look over at the murre cliff. An eagle had landed at the top of the cliff, and the murres were pouring off it in a thick moving cloud for a couple of seconds. It was quite a spectacle (which I wasn’t able to photograph, unfortunately). The swarm of murres spun around and did a couple circles before landing in large rafts on the water. It was interesting to see just how many had been up there – if I had guessed before seeing them leave, I would have thought maybe a couple of hundred, but it was clear there were more like a couple of thousand. In the new rafts formed by the birds from the cliff, we were able to find and get good looks at a couple of Thick-billed Murres.

I later talked to another wildlife cruise operator who said he’s seen the eagles do that before when the murres had eggs, and you could see some of the eggs dropping down and breaking on the rocks below, after which the gulls came in to clean up. I’m not sure how often eagles do this, but it seems like it could be a significant source of nesting failure.

We returned home by early afternoon and I spent much of the rest of the day trying to take care of some things around the house and recover from the nausea headache I got while looking through binoculars in the swell.

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