Wednesday, October 24, 2012

July 13-14 - Kenai Peninsula, Seward

The view from the highway as you approach the Kenai Peninsula, the mountains on the other side are on the peninsula proper

After a couple days of lazing around in Anchorage Alan and I hit the road again, this time shooting for the Kenai Peninsula and the town of Seward. We snagged the rental car and headed off on the three hour drive, which went past absolutely spectacular scenery, with the usual snowy topped mountains set off by gently rolling forested slopes and mirror-like lakes throughout.
Arriving at Seward, we were so excited to finally be there that after quickly stopping at the hostel we were staying at we immediately headed off to start birding. We checked nearby Lowell Point and then the waterfront of the town itself, which combined had a half-dozen new species for both of us, and other fun creatures such as my first Sea Otters!

This cute little guy was right off the seawall in town

The following morning we headed out on a glacier cruise, the reason for us going to Seward. This nine-hour boat trip is mainly geared towards tourists who wish to see the spectacular tidewater glaciers that calve blocks of ice off into the water below the glacier. However, these trips are also fantastic for large numbers of seabirds, both those breeding on the cliffs around the fjords that you visit, and also species that are passing through on their migratory routes.
There are also some really cool mammals in the area, from those that are aquatic to terrestrial species. I was elated to finally get my first Orcas on this trip, a species that I have always wanted to see! We got to observe a large pod with some really young animals in it move right by the boat we were in, giving great views. In the water throughout the day there were also many Humpback Whales and Sea Otters, with smaller numbers of Dall’s Porpoise sprinkled throughout. From the terrestrial perspective, on the rocky coast of one headland we were lucky enough to see three Mountain Goats that had descended from their normally lofty abode to feed on vegetation at the edge of the ocean.

Part of the pod of Orcas we saw, with a nice young one in the middle

A bunch of Sea Otters loafing around in Aialik Bay, they actually would rock back and forth in the water as we passed, trying to get a better look at the boat going by!

Of course, we were really there for the birds, and they did not disappoint. As a foreground to the stunning scenery we were treated to tens of thousands of birds, including nine species of alcid, a family of birds that are the northern hemispheric counterpart to the penguins of the southern hemisphere. One of the species of alcid, Kittlitz’s Murrlet, is quite range restricted and has a really cool habitat preference. Occurring almost exclusively along the edges of the Bering Sea, these birds have an affinity for the milky gray-blue water that you only get at the base of glaciers – where the glacial silt tints the water this special hue. Every single one of the 31 Kittlitz’s Murrelets that we saw on the trip were at the outflow of glaciers – pretty awesome.

Black-legged Kittiwakes (top left) and Common Murres (top right, bottom left) nesting on the cliffs

Part of one of the Black-legged Kittiwake colonies at Cape Resurrection 

Speaking of glaciers, we got to see three massive glaciers on the boat trip, two that were landlocked and one tidewater, tidewater being defined as a glacier that runs right up to the edge of the ocean. The tidewater glacier that we saw, Aialik Glacier, was simply spectacular. Roughly a mile wide and 300 feet high, this striking powder blue monolith looms over the water below, where we sat in the boat with the engines off and were privileged to watch a couple house-sized chunks of ice plummet off of the face of the glacier, creating 5-6 foot swells that swept out across the bay.

There is unfortunately nothing for scale here, but this is about a mile wide. Simply massive.

On the way back to harbor we stopped at an island that was partially owned by the cruise company and were treated to a buffet dinner as part of the price of the trip – not a bad way to end the day! For carnivores there was a prime rib buffet, and then many other vegetarian options followed by a gourmet cheesecake dessert. Not bad.
After this trip we had seen everything that we wanted to from the Seward area, and rather than paying for a hotel in Seward, we took the bull by the horns and jetted off on the 4 hour drive to Homer immediately after getting back to the mainland, and Homer is where I will pick up this narrative next.

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