Avie, my husband, and I took a fourteen day cruise on Holland America's flagship MS Amsterdam from June 15 - 29. This is the last year Holland America is offering this itinerary and we'd been speaking about trying to bird Alaska for several years. This seemed like the perfect opportunity and we grabbed it.
The itinerary for our trip:
Cruise around the outside of Vancouver Island
Cruise Tracy Arm up to South Sawyer Glacier
Cruise to Hubbard Glacier
As a person who loves to do research before any of our birding trips, I armed myself with the following resources:
Birder’s Guide to Alaska by George C. West. In addition to reading about our specific ports, there was also excellent information about islands we would be passing as well as “tips” about birding in the Gulf of Alaska. Peruse the book carefully and thoroughly. You might even find treasures I missed.
Birdfinder: A Birder’s Guide to Planning North American Trips by Jerry A. Cooper. Their chapter on birding Alaska is for June (exactly when we were there). It offers information regarding what birds you can find, specific directions, and a feel for a birding trip with fits and starts.
Birder’s Guide to Washington by Hal Opperman (for our day in Victoria, BC). We simply photocopied the section on Victoria. FYI, since our focus here was the Sky Lark I emailed anyone and everyone I could find with links to birding in Victoria until I got a reply letting us know they were best seen at the fields around the airport.
Guide to the Birds of Alaska by Robert H. Armstrong (as an adjunct to our primary use of Sibley’s field guide). I liked Armstrong’s book for its written information more than the limited photos of the different birds. It gave me seasonal and regional likelihoods for seeing specific birds, as well as excellent written descriptions to help with identification.
Alaska Atlas and Gazetteer by DeLorme We used this in conjunction with the navigational channel’s latitude and longitude readings on our television (also available in the Crow’s Nest Lounge and the Explorer’s Cafe). Specifically, we were interested in the times we were going to pass certain breeding areas, such as the Barren Islands on the way to Kodiak, or when we were going to enter certain bodies of water.
The Milepost 2012 by Kris Valencia This comes out every year and is a mile by mile guide to all the main roads in Alaska. It also includes information on the different cities, towns, and attractions, as well as some information on the Alaska Marine Highway (ferry routes). We used it during the days we rented cars, as well as for overview information regarding the state and potential future visits.
Detailed information on our trip can be found at my blog: http://aprilbirding.blogspot.com I'm going to use this trip report simply to offer an overview of what we did in each location, possibly some birding highlights, and more detailed information on our experience birding off the cruise ship Amsterdam.
Seattle - flew in that morning and embarked around 1:30.
Cruising outside Vancouver Island - I wanted to bird that day, truly I did. But, for the first time in my life, I had a bout with seasickness. I blame it on a trip up to the Crow's Nest lounge at the bow of the ship on the 9th floor. The sea was a bit rough that day and that lounge was rocking and rolling. Thanks goodness for Meclazine (generic Bonine) and green apples. Needless to say, there was no pelagic birding that day.
Ketchikan - We rented a car from First City Rental. No fancy national rental agencies here; the car was a ten year old Hyundai Sonata. After looking at our options, we decided to go north and drove along the North Tongass Highway, stopping at Refuge Cove State Park, Totem Bight State Park, and Settler's Cove State Park. The birding was very difficult due to the thickness of the foliage. Knowing more bird songs would have been immensely helpful.
We then drove up Ravilla Road, turning right onto the Brown Mountain Logging Road. The road is gravel and a single car width. It was almost deserted and offered our best birding of the day. We even saw a Spotted Towhee and are now hoping someone can refind it, since it would be a second record for Ketchikan.
There wasn't enough time at port to continue birding along South Tongass Highway, since we wanted to grab some lunch in town and walk along Creek Street.
Tracy Arm to the South Sawyer Glacier - This was our first opportunity to spend a day birding from the ship. We didn't get a tremendous number of species, but it gave us an opportunity to spend time with our binoculars and the scope on the back of the Lido Deck.
Juneau - We had booked a Whale Watch with the private company Harv and Marv's out of Juneau for the morning, with plans to take the tram up Mt. Roberts in the afternoon to see if we could get Ptarmigan or a Grouse. On the way back to downtown Juneau, they dropped us off for fifteen minutes at the Mendenhall Glacier. Birding potential there made it very tempting to alter our plans for the afternoon. But we decided to stick to our game plan and caught their transportation back to downtown.
After lunch (Tracy's Crab Shack is HIGHLY recommended), we took the tram. The area at the top of the tram has tremendous potential. But the heavy snows of the past winter had socked in the trail up, preventing us from going high enough to reach the subalpine. There were birds all around, as there had been in Ketchikan. We got quite a few of them, but couldn't identify a flock of small birds flying just far away enough to prevent a good view with our binoculars. I have a feeling they were Rosy-Finches, but can't really call it. If we had a "do over", I think I'd forego Mt. Roberts all together and hike around the Glacier area with its beautiful hiking trails instead.
Icy Strait Point - We took a ship sponsored excursion called "Whales, Wildlife & Bear", a five and a half hour commitment which pretty much ate up our time at that port. No part of this excursion disappointed. The variety of wildlife out on the open water was impressive and we came away with whales (dramatic looks, including breaching), porpoises, otters, and a good variety of sea birds.
The second part of the excursion took us for a hike through the area near the Spaaski River, past muskegs and forest. Much harder to see birds; but we saw evidence of Crossbills and Sapsuckers and heard several species of Warbler.
I almost wish we had taken our scope along. The whale watch boat was large enough out back to have accommodated it and we would have had much better views of the bears we saw if we had it during that part of the day as well.
Sea Day - We spent the day traveling around the ship and birding from all the different points. Our only breaks were for a quick lunch and some hot tea late in the afternoon to warm up. Very good pelagic birding! See below for more information on what we learned.
Anchorage - We had a very long day in Anchorage (7 a.m. until 10:30 p.m.). I spent a lot of planning time reading about birding in the area and we decided to rent a car through Enterprise, who provided a pick up at the Egan Center (the ship's free shuttle bus runs between the pier and the Center) and drive along Turnagain Arm, bringing our scope with us. This proved to be the right decision.
We didn't bird anywhere in the city of Anchorage. Our first stop was the boardwalk area at Potter's Marsh. We spent about two hours birding here, with excellent results. The boardwalk allows a clear view of the marsh area. This is a must-bird location.
Pulling over along the highway with its heavy summer traffic had us deciding to stay with accessible pull outs on our side. On the way OUT of Anchorage there were several pull outs, though many were scenic rather than offering good birding options. We DID stop at the Indian Creek lot, hoping for an American Dipper. The creek is to the right and down a short trail when you face the water. We dipped on the Dipper, but met with Alaska's second state bird, the mosquito.
We drove to the end of the Arm (not the road) and visited the Wildlife Rescue Center. On the drive back we stopped at all the pullouts along the other sections of Potter's Marsh. If you only have a limited amount of time to bird the area in June, I would recommend the Marsh and all its stops as a priority.
Homer - We had booked another ship sponsored excursion called "Seldovia Cruise with Gull Island". We were interested in the birds on and around Gull Island and had also read of potentially good birding along Seldovia Slough. Upon our arrival at the port, we saw every available surface was covered with Black-legged Kittiwake nests.
We had inquired about the size of the boat we would be on for Gull Island and found out it was large enough that we could bring along our scope and tripod. It made for a superior experience in seeing and identifying birds, even though it wasn't always the easiest way to bird.
Seldovia is a tiny town. FYI, the map is deceiving and things are much closer than they appear on paper. The walk along the Slough was rewarding, with a lifer Pine Grosbeak as its reward. Unfortunately, we didn't have enough time to do the Slough justice. I wish we had at least one more hour in Seldovia.
Kodiak - Again, a ship sponsored excursion called "Kodiak Sightseeing and Wildlife Cruise". This was quite intimate, with just four of us on a small boat. We identified ourselves as birders and the captain did his best to accommodate us. Mostly same birds as previous trips, but better looks at some of them, including Red-faced Cormorants.
As the ms Amsterdam was pulling out of Kodiak (and Chiniak Bay), the pelagic birding was excellent so, if you follow this route, be sure to stay out on deck!
The ship DID pass the area near the Barren Islands, a very large breeding bird area. But it was around 10 p.m. and we only spent a small amount of time birding on deck before we decided to call it a night.
Cruising to Hubbard Glacier - As we entered Yakutat Bay, the birding became excellent (as predicted in the Birder's Guide book. As we got farther in and closer to the Glacier area, the pelagics decreased in numbers and we began seeing more gulls and, on the distant shores, many ducks, so look everywhere and, again, use your scope!
Sitka - We had chartered Sitka's Secrets to take us out to Saint Lazaria Island, a breeding colony for about twenty-one species of birds. The weather was awful, the water was choppy, and by the time we arrived to the island (15 miles away from Sitka) we were dubbed "seaworthy" by the captain.
This was well worth the trip out, giving us several life birds (including a Cassin's Auklet, spotted by the captain who really knew his birds).
Sea Day - Our last sea day before our last port. Again, we spent most of the day up on deck, in spite of the deteriorating weather. Many already familiar birds. But keeping a careful eye on things yielded us a great life bird: two Short-tailed Albatrosses sitting on the water.
Victoria, BC - Our goal here was singular: we wanted to see the Sky Larks. After sending numerous emails to many people, one birder finally got back to me and told me they had been fairly reliable at the fields around the Victoria airport. We reserved a car with Budget.
A good description for getting to the fields can be found in Birder’s Guide to Washington by Hal Opperman. We got the Larks, but it was a difficult go. They were no longer singing, and they kept popping up and down quickly. One finally flew into a culvert right near our car, where we were able to get a good look at it.
We also birded at the Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary. The birding here was excellent, with well-groomed trails and a variety of habitat. It's not mentioned in the birding book and, in spite of directional signs, can be easily missed. Directions can be found at their website here: http://www.swanlake.bc.ca/index.php
Now to get to the meat of the matter:
BIRDING FROM A CRUISE SHIP
In addition to our binoculars, we brought along our Swarovski 80mm HD angled scope with zoom eyepiece and a Leitz Tiltall tripod with a Manfrotto fluid head. The fluid head is the key to using the scope in this capacity because you're on a moving ship looking at a moving target.
Spend the early part of your cruise exploring your ship. Walk to the back and see where there are access points. We found most decks have egresses from the halls where the cabins are. You'll find your favorite spots soon enough.
1. Bird with your binoculars, not your naked eyes. With rare exception, those pelagic birds are rather small, making them difficult to see against the broad swathe of water.
2. Be sure to move about the ship, using different locations (forward and aft, port and starboard) and heights. On the Amsterdam we birded low on the aft part of the Main level, only a couple of “floors” above the water, one level higher on the side of the ship at the Lower Promenade level, and on the aft of the Lido deck, about 8 to 9 stories up.
3. Bring your scope and use it! An investment in a fluid head for your tripod will make it a great deal easier to follow the birds. The ship is moving and the birds are moving. The fluid head keeps things smooth and moving as well.
4. When you get “on” a bird, stay with it for as long as possible. Get as many details as possible including location, relation to the water, wingbeats, proportions, and, if there are other birds around, relative size.
5. Don’t just look at the pictures in your field guide, read the descriptions. A big aid in our birding today was our copy of The Birds of Alaska by Robert Armstrong. Even though photographs aren’t a great way to identify birds, the information in the book often helped us name a bird by its behavior and geographic likelihood.
6. Be a dork. Wear long underwear, lots of layers, gloves, and a warm hat. Even though it might be a nice day out, that wind from the moving ship and off the Gulf can begin to cut through you after some time outside. Remember, you can always take layers off, but you can’t put them on if you don’t have them at hand.
As for the experience of Pelagic birding (our first), especially without a guide, it was a learning curve. Here’s what we learned.
You’re not going to see most of the birds with your naked eye. Our joking rule was, “If you can see it with your naked eye, it’s an Albatross.” So use your binoculars to scan the water! Even better, use your scope.
It takes time, but you’ll develop a skill for positioning the scope so birds will come into view as you switch to the next person (taking into account the mutual movement of the birds and the ship).
Study your field guide/s before you travel (good advice for any birding trip). Try and learn the subtle differences between Sooty and Short-tailed Shearwater, and between the Black-footed, Laysan, and Short-tailed Albatross. Heck! Spend time studying any and all birds which will be new to you during your trip.
Learn size and movement differential. We learned Murrelets are the tiny little things we would see sitting on the water, taking off as the ship passed. Storm-Petrels are very similar to Swallows over the water. Shearwaters were exactly that, they would fly with wings extended right over the surface of the water. Often behavior will be more visible than field marks.
Most importantly, STAY ON THE BIRD! When you get a bird in your scope or binoculars, keep looking at it. Save the guide for when you’ve lost the bird. Check out the size, the shape, the behavior, and any markings you can distinguish. How long is the bill (if you can see it)? Can you see the legs? What color are they? Is the bird light or dark? How does it compare to other, similar birds? What are the proportions? What shape is the head? The tail? The wings? All this will help determine the family and, hopefully, the species.
Feel free to contact me regarding any questions you have which I might not have covered. I'm sure there are plenty. Meanwhile, cheers and happy birding!
Great Blue Heron
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Pacific Wren (T. pacificus)
Fox Sparrow (Sooty)