In case you missed last week’s thrilling Ask the Bird Folks column, here’s a quick review. For the past two weeks I’ve been on a birding trip to The Last Frontier. (I’m talking about Alaska, not space, which is “The Final Frontier.” I know both names sound like one and the same, but Trekkies have a fit if you get it wrong.) For ninety percent of last week’s column I groused (ha) about not seeing as many birds as I thought I might. As a result, I decided to leave the vast woodlands of the state’s interior and head to the coast to look for seabirds. Specifically, I went looking for puffins. That is where I left off. See, I told you it was thrilling. Let’s continue.
Once I arrived on Alaska’s shoreline, things improved considerably. The first coastal town I stopped in was Valdez. Poor Valdez. It is noted for two awful things. The most recent was the terrible 1989 oil spill; before that was the horrific 1964 earthquake. It was the most powerful quake to ever hit North America and it caused so much damage to Valdez that they decided to move the entire town a few miles south. Today, “Old Valdez” is totally abandoned. All that remains are bits of brick, rusting metal and lots of birds. Along the deserted shore I saw all kinds of waterfowl and shorebirds, including Harlequin Ducks, Red-throated Loons, Black Oystercatchers and Wandering Tattlers, a bird whose name must have been invented on the playground by elementary school children.
The next place on the list was Seward. Seward is the town to visit if you want to see puffins. Outfitters lined the street with offers to take folks on nature tours. The trouble is the outfitters use big boats and the trips last all day. Spending all day on a boat with a bunch of stinky tourists (just like me) is not my idea of fun. I eventually found one company that offered a shorter three-hour tour, but I still passed. A three-hour tour might sound harmless, but don’t tell that to Gilligan. He went on “a three-hour tour” and look what happened to him. So I headed to the little town of Homer.
Before this trip I had never even heard of Homer, Alaska, but ended I loving it. Homer not only has a nearby puffin colony, but it has “water taxis.” What a wonderful idea water taxies are. As the name implies, water taxies will take you, and only you (if that’s what you want), to wherever you want to go. No large groups and no daylong adventures. As soon as I saw the sign I walked up and told the lady that I wanted to go see puffins. She asked me when and I told her 8:00 AM the next day. She replied, “See you at 8:00.” It was that easy. The next morning I went to the dock and met Captain Brian, a 22-year-old college student, who was dressed in jeans and a green T-shirt. We were going out to sea, off the coast of Alaska, and he wasn’t even carrying a jacket. Meanwhile, I looked like Shackleton, wearing every piece of foul weather gear I owned. I asked the college kid (aka Capt. Brian) if I was overdressed, and he said, “No, you’re fine.” But I could tell he was lying.
Brian “drove” me out to Gull Island, a rock outcropping that is home to 20,000 nesting seabirds. About half the birds are Black-legged Kittiwakes. Kittiwakes are small gulls that must really like their name because they never stop yelling “kittiwake.” In the water around the island were hundreds of Common Murres. Murres look very much like penguins, only murres can fly and want nothing to do with Mr. Popper. This island also has nesting Tufted Puffins. Yea! Tufted Puffins resemble our Atlantic Puffins, except they have crazy long plumes sticking out of each side of their heads. (I didn’t dare tell them that the tufted look went out back in the 80s.) When I had seen all the birds I wanted, I told Brian it was time to head back to the dock. That way I’d have time to check out other birding spots (while all of the other suckers were still on a daylong tour). I loved the water taxi.
In the mountains around Homer I found a lot of other cool birds, including ptarmigan, Yellow-crowned Sparrows, Varied Thrushes, Boreal Chickadees and a guy from California wearing (and I’m not kidding) a Bird Watcher’s General Store T-shirt. (How about that!) I’ve read that hikers in Alaska, should always wear a bell to warn bears that humans are approaching. Really? A bell? I think I’d rather be eaten by a bear than walk around all day wearing a bell. I don’t need another reason for people to make fun of me.
The best part of my stay in Homer happened at 5:00 the next morning. I was woken up by two birds screaming in the tree outside my window. On Cape Cod, nearly everyone is regularly awakened by squawking crows. But the birds that got me out of bed in Homer were two adult Bald Eagles, both yelling a few feet from my opened window. I hollered, “Shut up!” and threw a shoe at them. Yeah, right. What I really did was grab my camera and snap about a trillion photos. What an amazing way to wake up.
Tomorrow I leave Homer, drive back to Anchorage and fly home. Boo! What a fun trip. I’m going to miss the mindboggling scenery and those majestic mammals. I saw real live grizzlies! Are you kidding me? (And I wasn’t even wearing a bell. Whoa!) In addition, the people were super-friendly. In fact, not a single Alaskan laughed at me for being the only guy in the state without a beard. And, as it turned out, I actually ended up seeing a fair number of birds, including a dozen that I’ve never seen before. Finally, believe it or not, towards the end of the trip I even started looking at the flowers. Yes, the stupid flowers. Just don’t tell my wife.