Birding Around Homer, Alaska

There is never enough Alaska to be had. I loved exploring Homer so much, I'm already eyeing a tour offered by Zugunruhe Birding to Barrow next year. 

Semi-palmated plover seen along the Homer Spit. 

Semi-palmated plover seen along the Homer Spit. 

Alaska is one of those states you can't say no to when it comes a callin'. It's so far from the lower 48 states I was the speaker in 2016 for the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival and it was a place I immediately felt at home. One thing that struck me about the area was how much it reminded me of northern Minnesota if it had mountains. I met quite a few people who were originally from Minnesota and Wisconsin, came to Homer for work with the intent to stay for three years and yet found themselves in Homer going on 16 or more years. I could see myself doing that...not so sure about my city loving husband, but me? I'd for sure give Alaska a go. 

The state of Alaska is so huge, you  need more than one visit or the opportunity to live there to really get to know all of the different areas. It's beauty is overwhelming and the day length is unnerving. 

Everywhere you look in Alaska you see a Bob Ross painting. This is Chugach National Forest, Moose Pass between Anchorage and Homer.

Everywhere you look in Alaska you see a Bob Ross painting. This is Chugach National Forest, Moose Pass between Anchorage and Homer.

My foot compared to a moose track. 

My foot compared to a moose track. 

I wondered how quickly I would see a moose on my drive from the Anchorage airport to Homer. I had to stop at a few scenic vistas on my way because I was not focusing on the road but the overwhelming beauty. Everywhere I stopped were signs of moose from tracks to poop. We have a small and dwindling population of moose up in Minnesota and I went on a moose safari in Sweden a few years ago so they aren't new for me but are always cool to see. I have a fairly distrust of moose on the side of the road ever since I saw the episode of Mythbusters that pretty much said you're boned if your vehicle collides with one. 

Moose blocking traffic in Homer.

Moose blocking traffic in Homer.

The closer I got to Homer, the more moose I saw: in the road, along the road, running along side my vehicle...which was quite nerve wracking. And signs like these didn't ease my mind. But I made it to Homer without incident and picked up a few lifers along the way. 

Mew gull...so weird to see a gull perched in a tree and also weird that I was able to id a gull on my own...

Mew gull...so weird to see a gull perched in a tree and also weird that I was able to id a gull on my own...

Golden-crowned sparrows sang all around my cabin. 

Golden-crowned sparrows sang all around my cabin. 

The light at 10pm in Homer in May...

The light at 10pm in Homer in May...

I checked into my cabin at Shadow Star Vacation Rental which was right on the bay and gave me views of scoters, sea otters and of course lots of bald eagles. Golden-crowned sparrows, sooty fox sparrows and hermit thrushes serenaded me as long as it was light out. Which was a bit of a problem for me. I tend to wake up with the light and the cabin had excellent light blocking curtains so when it was still dusk like at 11pm I'd have a shot at sleep. However, the hermit thrushes and sparrows kept going and my brain refuses to turn off when bird song is going, especially gorgeous songs from thrushes or birds I haven't heard before. But fortunately, Shadow Star offered the most comfortable bed I've ever slept on in my life and that combined with noise cancelling headphones playing white noise allowed me sleep. 

The Sourdough Joe breakfast at the Fresh Sourdough Express. There's fresh reindeer sausage in there so I had to order it. 

The Sourdough Joe breakfast at the Fresh Sourdough Express. There's fresh reindeer sausage in there so I had to order it. 

After a good breakfast, I explored Homer and what it had to offer for birding, specifically along the spit. This area was infamous for years for the Homer Eagle Lady who fed chum to hundreds of bald eagles. Since she's passed away, Homer now has very strict rules about feeding birds along the spit. Apparently, there are some after effects of the feeding like black-legged kittiwakes now nesting under the piers so as to not have their nests predated by eagles. 

One of the piers where kittiwakes seek shelter from eagles. 

One of the piers where kittiwakes seek shelter from eagles. 

Black-legged Kittiwake up close. 

Black-legged Kittiwake up close. 

That's not to say a kittiwake colony doesn't attract attention. Here's an immature peregrine falcon and northwester crow near the kittiwakes. Eagles still abound as well. 

That's not to say a kittiwake colony doesn't attract attention. Here's an immature peregrine falcon and northwester crow near the kittiwakes. Eagles still abound as well. 

Obligatory bald eagle photo from Homer. They pretty much nest on anything that can find. You might be at risk if you stand in one spot for too long. 

Obligatory bald eagle photo from Homer. They pretty much nest on anything that can find. You might be at risk if you stand in one spot for too long. 

Black oystercatcher seen along the Homer Spit.

Black oystercatcher seen along the Homer Spit.

You may have noticed that I attended a festival with "shorebird" in the title and I've posted very few photos of shorebirds. I went in 2016 and the timing of the festival and shorebird migration didn't quite coincide. Such is the nature of migration and weather. Though I didn't get the big numbers of godwits, sandpipers and plovers, there are plenty of birds to keep you entertained and to fatten up your life list. 

Common murres against the sun taken from a boat.

Common murres against the sun taken from a boat.

One of the field trips you will want to make sure you get a space on is the seabird trip. It's only three hours but you can head out to a common murre colony and find eiders, common and Kittlitz's murrelts. It's also a gorgeous way to experience the Homer Spit view. If you're not sure how you would ever do on a pelagic, this small trip and a good way to test out your sea legs. You get quite a few opportunities for seabirds and shorebirds. 

Common murres and black-legged kittiwakes on Gull Island. Digiscoped from a boat. The iPhone is a very forgiving camera. 

Common murres and black-legged kittiwakes on Gull Island. Digiscoped from a boat. The iPhone is a very forgiving camera. 

I like the above video because it captures the frenetic activity of the birds and the adventurous air on a boat birding trip. Just walking around Homer can feel like an adventure, but the sights, the wind, the roar of the common murres and kittiwakes yelling overhead combined with the aroma assaulting smell of copious amounts of bird guano just adds to it. 

But that's just the birding around Homer. There are other places to explore in the next post. Also, be sure to check out the shenanigans my friends Sue and I got up to with our friend Flat Michelle. 

Podcast #225 Senior Passes and the Border Wall

So...we recorded this over a week ago and forgot to post it. Whoops.

The first half hour is a rant on the Senior Pass price increase for federal parks. If you really want one at the old rate, order it at YourPassNow.com before August 28. 

The second is about the government looking into public and private land to build a wall that will keep no one out of the United States. Without going through due process for Eminent Domain, work has already begun on private property at the National Butterfly Center for a border wall. Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge will also be ripped apart for a useless border wall. 

Monfragüe National Park, A Vulture Lover's Paradise

Let me tell you about about vultures...and Iberian ham...

Birders looking badass as hell climbing up to Monfragüe Castle to do some birding in Monfragüe National Park in Extremadura. 

Birders looking badass as hell climbing up to Monfragüe Castle to do some birding in Monfragüe National Park in Extremadura. 

I recently visited Extremadura which is in the southwest region of Spain and bordered by Portugal. It's an "autonomous community" meaning that even though it's inside Spain, it governs itself. Extremadura is fairly wild and remote and offers tremendous birding opportunity as well as Roman ruins. I've written a little bit about castle birding over at the PhoneSkope blog which includes this region. If you are looking for a unique birdwatching experience, Monfragüe National Park has it.

Griffon vultures roosting on one of the may rocky cliff faces in Monfragüe. 

Griffon vultures roosting on one of the may rocky cliff faces in Monfragüe. 

The big show while I was at the park was the large population of griffon vultures...which are a bit different than the turkey and black vultures we have in North America. This Old World species is ancient looking and gigantic, they make turkey vultures look practically anorexic. To give you an idea, a turkey vulture weighs about 3 - 4 pounds. A bald eagle can weigh anywhere from 8 - 12 pounds. A griffon vulture...now that beast can weigh as much as 25 pounds! Wrap your head around that for a minute--a soaring 25 pound bird! That's about the weight of a trumpeter swan!

Griffon vultures pair up for life and nest in breeding colonies along rocky cliffs. Spain hosts the largest breeding population for this species and Monfragüe National Park is a great place to view them. 

Griffon vultures pair up for life and nest in breeding colonies along rocky cliffs. Spain hosts the largest breeding population for this species and Monfragüe National Park is a great place to view them. 

One morning while we were out birding, there was a griffon vulture perched on a rock in the field. There was no way to stop to get a photo, but you could clearly see the bird was almost as tall as me, at least four feet tall. Our guide said the bird was probably feeding and when the afternoon faded to evening there were no thermals or warm currents of air for the bird to use to soar up to the cliff, it had to spend the night on the ground because it's too big to flap up to the cliffs in a powered flight like a common buzzard would be able to do. I asked if there was any danger of predators getting a vulture and our guide smiled and said, "No, not a bird that big."

When I used to do eagle surveys, I always knew they would be one of the last birds to hit the thermals and I wouldn't really see them lift off until after 9:30am since they are a bit heavier than hawks and other soaring birds. If vultures are your target in Spain, you can sleep in before you go watch them. 

The castle in Monfragüe National Park offers dynamite views of griffon and black vultures as well as song birds on the trail up to it. 

The castle in Monfragüe National Park offers dynamite views of griffon and black vultures as well as song birds on the trail up to it. 

It's one thing to go birding in a beautiful park with a rugged landscape. Monfragüe ups the adventure by offering tours from a castle on top of hill and looking into the valley below. When you get there, you go out on the roof and survey the landscape. Vultures start to rise and it isn't long until they're on the thermals and soaring 15 feet away from you and your eye to eye with this massive, winged beast. To make it even more decadent, there's a vendor with a cart who will sell you some espresso or beer to enjoy while you take in the view.

Below are some more highlights:

Griffon vultures rely on soaring to keep their massive weight in the air, since their heavy bodies would burn too much energy for flapping in powered flight. They soar high looking for dead livestock. 

Griffon vultures rely on soaring to keep their massive weight in the air, since their heavy bodies would burn too much energy for flapping in powered flight. They soar high looking for dead livestock. 

Imagine returning from vacation and a coworker asks, "What did you do?" and you can answer, "I stood on top of a castle in Spain watching vultures soar past me while I sipped an espresso."

Imagine returning from vacation and a coworker asks, "What did you do?" and you can answer, "I stood on top of a castle in Spain watching vultures soar past me while I sipped an espresso."

Other species of vulture can be possible too, depending on the time of year. These are black vultures with my lifer Egyptian vulture mixed in. 

Other species of vulture can be possible too, depending on the time of year. These are black vultures with my lifer Egyptian vulture mixed in. 

European serins serenaded us on the trails in the national park. 

European serins serenaded us on the trails in the national park. 

Eurasian wrens are one of my favorite singers. 

Eurasian wrens are one of my favorite singers. 

One of the prized species in this region is the Spanish imperial eagle. My picture got photobombed by a griffon vulture. 

One of the prized species in this region is the Spanish imperial eagle. My picture got photobombed by a griffon vulture. 

Black stork.

Black stork.

The park a mixture of scrub habitat among rocky cliffs and and small oak forests. One tends to think of Europe as being mostly historic cities and villages but there's a warm wildness in Extremadura that is unique to Europe. You can find spots and feel like you're in a true wilderness. 

The park a mixture of scrub habitat among rocky cliffs and and small oak forests. One tends to think of Europe as being mostly historic cities and villages but there's a warm wildness in Extremadura that is unique to Europe. You can find spots and feel like you're in a true wilderness. 

If you are not a vegetarian, make Iberian Ham a priority when visiting Extremadura. 

If you are not a vegetarian, make Iberian Ham a priority when visiting Extremadura. 

Speaking of the small oak forests, one of the best cured meats I've ever put in my mouth can be found in Extremadura. Pigs are left to wander the oaks during an acorn mast for six months before they're killed. The meat is then cured for three years, but may linger in shops for another two years before purchase. It's buttery soft and can be put on the traditional breads, but I enjoyed it on it's own. I thought Austria had a handle on making my favorite cured meats, but Iberian Ham blows it out of the water. It's the sort of food after tasting it where I thought, "I have to come back here, I can't imagine never eating this ever again. I know a lot of birders like to celebrate a life bird with "lifer pie," but if you're in Spain and you're a carnivore then make "lifer ham."