Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Yet Another Kodiak Moment

There have been many crazy days this year, but maybe on November 18th, I tipped over the edge of sanity.  The day began simply enough, up early after staying at a friend’s house, north of West Palm Beach, Florida.  I had come down to Florida chasing a bit of a whim, a report of a white-cheeked pintail—a bird infamous for being a zoo and collection escapee.  This one seemed good, hanging out with wild ducks on a lake, so I took off.

The mood changed to gloom as when I landed a friend informed me that the duck had a zip-tie leg band on it, one like they used with poultry farming, not one by a wildlife service, it was an escapee, non-countable.  Then I decided to see it anyhow, I found out it was in a closed subdivision and the security was tough.  I would have an easier time meeting with President-elect Trump.  I found only alligators and crashed at my friend’s.

That morning I flew to Providence, RI, a state that was the next to last for me in getting them all.  The flight hubbed through Atlanta, and I was scheduled to go out on a seabird scouting trip from Hyannis, Massachusetts, but as I was landing in Rhode Island, my phone kicked on, “pelagic cancelled” was the message.  The backup date for Sunday was also cancelled.  This trip was going from bad…to worse.  I also got a second text, a rare goose, I had seen in March, the pink-footed goose was near the airport.  I had seen the bird in Quebec and photographed it badly, so with nothing else to do, I went and found it.  I found it loafing in a flock of Canada geese.

It was then I decided to do something rash.  A few days earlier, a local person (I think he was the mayor) had spotted a white colored egret in a remote section of Kodiak Island, Alaska.  It could have been a great egret, a bird common around Northeast South Dakota but rare in Alaska, or, more interesting for me, it could be an astonishingly rare intermediate egret—a vagrant from Asia only seen in North America twice before I think and then only once alive.  The ID separation of the two is tough.  An Alaska birder from Kodiak City flew over for photos, but generally no one committed.  Was it or wasn’t it?  I thought it was an intermediate, in fact, it didn’t understand the hesitation.   I texted a big Alaskan birding guide I knew.  He agreed with me.  I texted another guide, he was on the fence, but leaning.   It seemed to me to be like the networks calling Wisconsin to Trump, it looked good, I was off.   I stopped at a post office to document my trip to Rhode Island.  “I’m going!”  I said and jumped in the car and headed back to make a plane.

I completed the day flying from Providence to Detroit and then on to Seattle, I crashed for a few hours and then before dawn on the 19th, I caught a flight to Anchorage, sitting by a rather important figure in Alaskan politics and fisheries, Clem Tillion had 91 years of stories and advice to share with me in only 3 ½ hours.  Clem had the 9th driver’s license ever issued by Alaska, number 000009, apparently only he and 000008 are still alive of the first 10.  We talked about marriage, love, World War II, sex, politics, Japan, fisheries, the permanent fund, and birds.  Of course the Libertarian and me also talked about Trump.

Leaving the nano-genarain  to get back to his island homestead by mail boat, I switched to a Ravn Air flight in Anchorage bound for Kodiak Island, leg four of this epic journey, but I wasn’t done yet.  I still had one to go.   The bird had been seen on Friday, so I felt a bit hopeful and the weather....could this really be a bad weather big year?

Moon over the mountain at sunrise in Kodiak....

Island Air took me the final way into Larsen Bay, the flight was without a doubt the most stunning of the year.  A small twin engine over the passes.  I thought the float plane I took to Victoria from Vancouver was magical, but this...

Was incredible.  These are views out the plane window.  Larsen Bay is an interesting outpost of civilization.  All in all it is a pretty surprising spot.

I walked out of the plane and had no sense of where anything was, then I looked out over the bay and saw it, big white bird going up across the water from what turned out to be its favorite marsh, and then west around the point, long neck, yellow bill, black feet it was the egret.  It looked too small for a North American egret. I got my camera, it was on my side, but not ready to shoot, I had on my other lens so I had to switch lens...it was gone.  I went down expecting to see the bird later around the beach, on a roof, somewhere, but it had gone to roost somewhere for the evening.  It would be back in the morning, but alas..the bird was never seen again.

That night, the Bad Weather Big Year came back in spades, the weather turned, 40 mph winds, the planes in and out of here were grounded and I wasn't going anywhere and all I was racking up was a serious bill, so much, I was afraid to ask...If you got to ask how much it costs, you can't afford to pay for it, they say.....oh well...as some guys told me, we can't take it with you.  

I took some of the bird views around Larsen Bay

American Dippers

Belted Kingfisher

(Actually near airport in Kodiak) I saw one in Larsen Bay too....Both Alaskan life birds, as was a rock pigeon I saw but I was NOT taking a photo of a rock pigeon...later I learned that bird is NOT on the AK list. I subtracted one from the list.

Barrow's Goldeneye

Leucistic Northwestern Crow

The Alaskan lifers for me moving my total to 212, not counting the egret waiting ID, and like I say, not that I am really counting, I guess having reached the 200 club, I might as well work on the 300 club...

While I was here everyone talked birds, well except the hunters, they talked hunting, rifles, and there was a TV film crew here with a manufacturer and they mostly talked about themselves...There was a guy who'd been there for two weeks that paid 32,000 to hunt a Grizzly Bear....32K?   I almost gasped.  I demurred an 8k chickadee chase, and worried about the cost of this crazy chase.  The locals though talked and I learned who was here and who saw the bird and who didn't, and who was nice, and who was not.  Who was arrogant and who was nice....I learned who had called...in some cases, who had even called today.  I was given messages to return because well, us birders know everybody, correct?  I sent a message to Lynn Barber, bird not seen today....

One interesting picture I was shown was this great blue heron photo seen in October

Not rare but uncommon, there are good birds here, the locals talk of McKay's Buntings, and some other things but again, no one is really a birder here, more than backyard birders and since the bears around here don't hibernate, they don't like to put out feeders...dang bears.

Some views from Larsen Bay...

The Larsen Bay Lodge, home of some serious SERIOUS hunters, deer and bear, Like I said many thousands of dollars for a bear hunt.  The food was good, the accommodations were adequate....it sort of reminded me of a Boston Legal episode where Denny and Alan got married by Justice Scalia.  I digress...

The cannery, not sure when they operate or if it is permanently closed...

A contradiction of black turnstones, a kahuna of surfbirds, a fling sandpipers and two mew gull....the "Kahuna" is my favorite name for a group of birds and I have been waiting to write this all year!!

It is opening weekend of deer season in Wisconsin. something I never used to miss and with all the hunters here, I too had the hunting bug, or was it I was bugged at the hunters?  A pair of Kodiak whitetail fawns, the deer here are an introduced species came to see me.

Sunday it blew, there was no getting out, no plane would fly in 40 kts wind, Monday  it rained and rained and then a little snow especially about 200 feet in elevation.  The bear hunter couldn't see anything up top and another dip, and at 32K, he was getting a bit "bearish"  it was becoming tough to ask him if he saw anything...it was starting to bug him and if he dipped, it took three years to get another tag

I looked up the wind map...

I like to say that the birding gods have been good or bad to me but the world on this wind map looked like it was either frowning on me or giving me a ghoulish smile.  It was unnerveing and a bad omen.  I figured I was stuck for a while as the world's right eye was coming for us after the left had finsihed us off, the highest winds in the world Sunday were west of Attu, 40-50 foot seas, ugly with a capital U.

There would be no planes again today or so it seemed, the owner of the lodge said so  BUT they came anyways.  Some of the trapped hunters got out and Lynn Barber, perennial big year birder got in.  I met up with her near the cannery, we searched a little bit and I gave her my opinion of the futility of it all. It was wet, she was wet, I was wet.  I had a place to go to dry out, eat lunch, and she had a few trees and packed snacks.

Looking at the weather, snow expected Tuesday and if I didn't get out, the cook was prepared for me for Thanksgiving (not a good sign) and at $300 a night, I hoped they took a check.  Thinking about it, having seen the bird, Rich MacIntosh having great ID photos, there was no reason for me to stay, so I decided that if the plane came I was going to leave.  Lynn had no place to stay (since I had got the only spare room in Larsen Bay not taken up by hunters), she had to leave God forbid she'd have to sleep in the mud, if that came to be, I had 2 beds in my room, we'd have to just do it.  Three O'clock came, the weather was maybe worse, and surprisingly, a plane came.  It had Thanksgiving food in it....

I don't know why Lynn was smiling getting into it, I was scared, maybe she knew she didn't have to bunk with me...it was starting to snow, it was foggy, the ceiling was maybe 500 feet, and we only had one engine...it WAS dry inside.

My seat was behind Lynn, I sat next to a deer carcass, being flown out at 78 cents a pound, you see they have no grocery store here, you fly in everything, why they were flying out meat...?

We took off and immediately it was clear that there would be no mountain passes for us as we had to go around the island.  Into the wind we went, forward speed dipped to 90 mph.  Many times the pilot flew blind (note view out window or lack there of), calmly he flew AND TEXTED!  Well for a while...then he needed both hands....

I was thinking as we lowered at times to about 100 feet above the deck that I had been in boats more off the water than this plane.  I was scared as we shuttered and blew around, I hit my head on the ceiling. I held the hoof of the deer next to me, it gave us maybe both some solace as maybe we'd both end up dead together.  The plane soldiered on in the diminishing light.  At times I could see the cliffs, well sort of..

At least if we crashed on land and survived I knew which passenger was going to be eaten first. I was holding his hoof.   We didn't crash and soon we were down wind doing 135, then around a corner but near Kodiak, near dark, it began to pour and then I saw the runway and we were down.....It was shocking that we lived, IMHO.  I got out, paid for the flight and stumbled to the bar...I needed a beer, then another....I never said goodbye to Lynn.  Sorry Lynn...

Morning came and I read that an expert weighed in on the egret, he thought it WAS an intermediate egret so I raised the bird to a provisional...yes!  It still needs to pass muster with a state committee and I felt happier that it was not written off as it didn't look like any great egret I had ever seen.  Although to be fair, I have not seen the Asian subspecies of the GREG, the Eastern GREG

There were no seats on any planes out of Anchorage but I scarfed one in the morning to Seattle on Alaska Air...About an hour out I was talking to the woman next to me, I was in a middle seat, her daughter on my right, she left and she went out mid conversation and had a seizure, I wasn't totally sure she didn't have arrhythmia at the time, and for a 57 year old to not have a seizure before, what she had was bad news.  Worst headache of her life, she said and for two days....so she had either a stroke (bleed) or a brain tumor in my honest opinion.  Alaska Air asked for Licensed doctors to help but having no license in Alaska, a demurred even though she was slumped on me, the guy across from me took care of her.  I smiled and looked on.  It was ugly, vomit everywhere, oxygen, panicky family.....we were going to veer to Juneau but by the time things were figured out, we were just as close to Seattle....She didn't die....but well, I am fearful that this may be her last Christmas, poor lady. Luckily that stuff doesn't bother me.  She won't be the first person to go out on me in mid conversation.  Life for me is an adventure, that is for sure....next year, I want to take it a little easier.

It was a good trip, maybe a trip wasted, but maybe not ....the ID of this bird is looking more positive.  The view sucked but at least I saw it and I got out....So it was a good trip...I had my best night sleep in weeks, and well, I saw a part of the world I will never see again and I saw an egret possibly it will be an intermediate egret, right now I have a provisional "B".  

A toast to Larsen Bay!  

...so as they say, when I'm in Larsen Bay, Alaska, and when I drink wine, I like to drink it naked, .......Outdoor Vino by Naked Winery


Nothing like a shameless plug


Big Year Total:  771 (plus 2)

Coded Birds:  98
United snack waffles- 8
Alaska Lifer list 212 + 1
provisionals: 2

Miles driven.  42, 154
Flight Miles 217,100
miles on ATV 475
speeding tickets: 1
flight segments: 213   Different Airports: 65
Near bear/ death experiences 2
Hours at sea: 284
Miles walked 526
showshoes 4 (isn't going to be any more)
Miles biked 12

states/ prov. birded: 37
Lifer states 49
Lifers seen this year:  72 (+1)
nights slept in car:  12
slept in airplane:  12


  1. Hope the egret is approved. Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. Olaf: Wow that was quite an adventure. Hopefully the Alaska State Committee gods smile on you, and declare it an Intermediate. A long way to go with some major expenditures for a bird that may not be countable.

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