15 - 20 July 1997
by Richard L. Ferren
Inside Passage of British Columbia and Southeast Alaska Vancouver to Seward and Back to Vancouver
This is an account of birds seen on a cruise of the coasts of British Columbia and Alaska north to the Kenai Peninsula, and return by a similar but slightly different route. My involvement was as a Travel/Study Leader for TraveLearn, a Pennsylvania-based operator of educational programs for adults (30-80). My band of participants and I were aboard the S.S. Universe Explorer, a 617-ft. vessel operated by World Explorer Cruises. Even though I have spent many years birding the New England coast, and once worked for a summer on a fishing boat out of Homer AK (1970), and have spent much time on the Washington and Oregon coasts, I had never been along this particular section of the Pacific Coast. Provided one takes some of the side excursions that are available at numerous stops along the way, this trip (at least on this particular vessel) is recommended as a good compromise between the sun-tan/overeating kinds of cruises that ply the Caribbean but bore the pants off birders on the one hand, and the no-frills, fly-in-and-out kind of tours known to hard-core birders intent on filling in gaps in their lists, on the other. The well-celebrated scenery on this cruise is well worth the economic pain and ought to be one of life's graduation requirements, regardless of birds. For birders, the constant procession of nifty birds, cetaceans, and much else makes this trip particularly sweet. Especially interesting to birders will be the two whole days that are passed at sea, as far as 90 miles off the Alaskan coast, surrounded by enough pelagic birds to quell one's appetite for some time to come. Proportionately few landbirds were seen, however, as might be expected.
This year's itinerary from Vancouver involved stops at Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway, then a whole day examining the glaciers in Glacier Bay, and another day slowly poking through the icebergs of Yakutat Bay and examining the magnificent Hubbard Glacier. Thereafter we headed along the coast to Prince William Sound and Valdez, terminus of the Aleyeska pipeline. The following day got us to the farthest-west point of the cruise at Seward, on the Kenai Peninsula, and not far from where I spent an idyllic summer living on a farm above Homer and fishing in Kachemak Bay within sight of the same Harding Icefield to the south that on this occasion was visible to the north from the fiords southwest of Seward. After Seward we spent a whole day traveling south over the ocean to Sitka on outer Baranof Island.
After a day in port there we headed east through the islands to Wrangell, again along the Inside Passage. This was our last port of call until we reached Victoria, B.C., and the route we took was down the Clarence Strait east of Prince of Wales Island, then between the isolated Queen Charlotte Islands and the mainland, and then down the Pacific side of Vancouver Island. The long stretch of pelagic water, usually 25 or more miles offshore of Vancouver Island, along with the Gulf of Alaska segment, provided good opportunities for observing albatrosses, shearwaters, and storm-petrels from a platform that was stable enough to effectively use a telescope on a tripod, an impossibility on smaller vessels. The trip began in Vancouver, where we stayed in the Landmark Hotel on Robson Street 7/14-15, an excellent but pricey overnight stay. We were able to walk in the evening, after arrival, to the southern part of Stanley Park, around Lost Lagoon, which had a large number of popcorn ducks and a mixture of wild species such as Wood Ducks, N. Rough-winged Swallows, and others. Nothing rare was seen. The next morning's itinerary called for a tour of the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology (with its unmatched collection of Northwest Indian art) and a city tour in the forenoon, lunch at the Fish House in Stanley Park, and a continued tour of Stanley Park in the afternoon. We then boarded ship at Canada Place pier on the afternoon of 7/15.
It was great to pass out of the inner harbor under the Lion's Gate Bridge and head up the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver Island and the mainland. The usual Brandt's and Pelagic Cormorants and Glaucous-winged Gulls were much in evidence, with quite a few Rhinoceros Auklets, Marbled Murrelets, Common Murres, and an occasional Bald Eagle. The shores of the island were covered with Sitka Spruce, Western Hemlock, and Western Red-cedar, but some Pacific Madrone (a hardwood with orange bark more typical of California) reminds one that the east side of Vancouver Island is in the rain shadow of the substantial mountains of west-central Vancouver Island, and drier vegetation of the Puget Trough extends well up the east side of the island. By 10 PM it was getting dark, and we saw little of the northern half of Vancouver Island or its narrow separations from the mainland.
In the early morning of 7/16 we were passing the northernmost parts of Vancouver Island on the port side. Associated smaller islands north of Port Hardy were distantly visible, but we soon got north of Vancouver Island and passed through a short section of unshielded Pacific water between Vancouver Island and Calvert Island where the birdlife changed. We were far off the BC coast here, and coastal and pelagic birds such as about 30 Sooty Shearwaters and 50 Cassin's Auklets appeared, and at least 200 murres were scattered along this crossing. After passing Cape Calvert, however, we entered the relatively narrow channels among the islands of the Inside Passage, where characteristic pelagic birds immediately fell away, although occasional Parasitic Jaegers, Red-necked Phalaropes, flocks of scoters, Pigeon Guillemots, and one or two Common Murres were seen.
These channels, in varying degrees depending on the amount of open water, contained lots of Marbled Murrelets in flocks to 50 birds, plus occasional loons of three species. Remarkably absent were all but a very few cormorants, and relatively few Glaucous-winged Gulls were evident. The most common gull by far was the Mew Gull, which sometimes accumulated in large flocks along the shores, and many small Bonaparte's Gulls were seen in breeding plumage. Dall Porpoises in small groups and occasional Hump-backed Whales were seen. At least one extravaganza of Pacific White-sided Dolphins was noted among the passages south of Wrangell, when a pod well in excess of 200 passed the boat headed south, with at least 20 animals leaping clear of the water at any one time and each one remaining underwater perhaps 10 times as long as it spent above water. Silver Salmon and other fish regularly jumped out of the water all along the journey.
These usually narrow channels, and occasional larger bays, between Ketchikan and Skagway are truly the place for anyone starving for the sight of a Bald Eagle. Eagles are easy to spot by their white heads as they sit in shoreline trees every half mile or so. They rarely choose perches farther up the steep slopes of the mountains that often come down steeply to these fiords, but instead sit in the tops of shoreline trees, more often where the shore takes a turn outward, and rarely where a cove reduces their visibility. A few groups of eagles were noted sitting around on mud flats or driftwood along certain sections of shore. While abundant along most stretches of the uninhabited fiords and passageways we traveled, their association with man became evident in Bella Bella, BC, a BC fishing community which had at least 32 eagles hanging around town.
I did not take any side excursions in Ketchikan, our first stopover, but good opportunities exist to fly in to nearby Misty Fiords National Monument with its incredible scenery and abundant wildlife. We docked about 8 AM on the morning of 7/17 and I decided to take my 400mm and bird the cemetery and surrounding area south of town. Birds were quiet and I only encountered a few Swainson's Thrushes, Winter Wrens, Orange-crowned Warblers, some of the especially dark Song Sparrows, and others. A Red-naped Sapsucker was working some Mountain Ash trees in the cemetery. Considering the season, it is perhaps not surprising that I saw not a single Yellow Warbler. Landbirds along the Southeast Alaska coast are not overwhelming in number and diversity, and nothing earth-shaking was found. I was more interested in the hippies (who work in the canneries) that were camped out in the woods above town (everything is uphill from the waterfront), and in picking salmonberries and watching the Indians and others catching two-foot Silver Salmon in the stream at Creek Street.
I rounded out the available time among the canneries north of the center of town where an underwater pipe brings salmon gurry up from the deep and where about 20 eagles were competing for scraps. It is easy to see how postcard shots are obtained of eagles coming in low to the water with talons spread out in front. I got a few similar shots of my own. Eagles were everywhere - in trees in backyards of houses on the other side of the main street, on telephone poles around the harbor, on the breakwater, or chasing each other overhead. I counted more than 40 around town. So far the weather remained terrific, with the partly cloudy skies in Ketchikan a rarity in this place where most of the time it is either raining, has just finishing raining, or is about to rain. The ship left Ketchikan for Juneau in the late afternoon, but we soon lost our visibility in the darkness as we passed into Clarence Strait.
The narrow approach immediately south of Juneau was a two-way street for our cruise ship, since the channel north of Juneau is navigable only by small boats. We docked fairly early in the morning of 7/18 in a light drizzle, and despite poor conditions I took a trip north to Auke Bay by bus along Juneau's only four-lane highway and got into a small boat for a whalewatch. Perhaps 300 Marbled Murrelets, 10 Arctic Terns, 20+ eagles, many Bonaparte's Gulls, and other wildlife were seen in addition to the four Humpback Whales we escorted. Farther north in Favorite Channel we found a couple of pods of Orcas, with at least two good-sized males and numerous females and younger animals. Many of them came right past the boat, snorting audibly. We passed the north tip of Admiralty Island, which reportedly has the largest population of Brown Bears of any place in Alaska (none appeared) on the way back. Later, back in Juneau, I took one of those tourist helicopter rides to visit a glacier from the heliport across the bridge west of Juneau. We landed directly on one of the pinnacles of the Taku Glacier, about 18 miles east of town.
The spot we landed was only about 30 feet across and was surrounded on both sides by vertical crevasses of 50-75 ft. depth, with remarkably blue ice at the bottom of the crevasses. The ice on top was like thousands of ice cubes half melted together, mixed with a little slimy mud and gravel. It was a dangerous place to take tourists. This excursion was definitely worth doing not only for this extravagance, but to see the outwash sediments downgradient from the glacier, along with the lateral moraines. New England topography with its outwash plains and unsorted moraines became easier to understand. Few birds of note were seen around Juneau. This is the capital city of Alaska, a former center of gold mining, and it has little in the way of a fishing industry. Few birds were noted around town, including very few eagles. To leave Juneau we turned around and went south again, around Douglas Island, and in the dark went north through the Lynn Canal toward Skagway.
When I got up the morning of 7/19 we had passed Haines and were already in Taiya Inlet just below Skagway. This is a narrow channel with steep, glacier-carved walls covered with a substantially different vegetation from the Sitka Spruce-lined shores we had seen since Vancouver. Much of the vegetation was a coastal form of Lodgepole Pine, a tree that (like Pitch Pine in New England) is a sign of dryness, soil acidity, or both. Compared to around 180 inches in Ketchikan, Skagway gets only 24 inches of precipitation annually, since it is in the rain shadow of more islands or other land than most towns in "Southeast." I had already lined up an excursion by van into the Yukon Territory of Canada through White Pass along the "Trail of '98," so well celebrated in the poetry of Robert Service.
After touring the single street of "downtown" Skagway, a major jumping-off point of the "stampeders" during the gold rush, we quickly rose in elevation as we passed along the newly built road through White Pass. Lower but more rain-dependent vegetation appeared, and by the time we reached the summit, alpine tundra with fog and drizzle greeted us. Passing east, the landscape got sharply drier, but many small lakes contained Canada Geese, Common Loons, Pintails, and numerous Mew Gulls. Two Willow Ptarmigans crossed the road and an adult Golden Eagle was found sitting on the ground beside the road, close to a population of Arctic Ground Squirrels. We visited the town of Carcross, nearly to Whitehorse, where there were Pine Siskins, White-crowned Sparrows, and Orange-crowned Warblers in the bushes around the houses, and Mew Gulls walking around in the road. One building had a nest of Barn Swallows plastered under the eaves more or less like a Cliff Swallow nest. Cliff Swallows and Violet-green Swallows were also seen.
The sun came out and it got hot enough to get down to a tee-shirt; the abundant Lodgepole Pines and occasional sand dunes suggested the rain shadow we were in, but few other landbirds were seen except a couple of Steller's Jays and a Canada Jay. Five white quadrapeds on a mountain at the limit of my 10x42s were either Dall Sheep or Mountain Goats. We got back to Skagway in the mid-afternoon, and after a quick pass through the shops I climbed a hill to do some botanizing in the woods above town. Here Dark-eyed ("Oregon") Juncos were abundant and Swainson's Thrushes were singing. A few more eagles in the harbor below barely distracted my attention from the glaciers on the surrounding mountains. We departed Skagway in gathering twilight through a few flocks of Marbled Murrelets and Pigeon Guillemots for a slow trip toward Glacier Bay.
We were outside the mouth of Glacier Bay on the morning of 7/20. Glacier Bay was certain a major highlight of the trip for both scenery and birds. This 60-mile long bay was filled with ice as recently as 1780, and still had substantial ice when first "discovered" by John Muir in 1879. For a long period during the Pleistocene, the ice that once fill this bay used to break up or calf icebergs near the mouth of the bay, and today there is a shelf of gravel and rock fragments that stretches across the bay, underwater. This underwater moraine creates a partial barrier for tidal flow and a consequent upwelling. There is a well-marked zone of irregular water with abundant seaweed and floating detritus near the mouth of the bay that attracts some of the most abundant birdlife we had yet seen. These included numerous Marbled and Kittlitz's Murrelets, many hundreds of Kittiwakes, and numerous Parasitic Jaegers and Red- necked Phalaropes, among others.
The outer parts of Glacier Bay are not vastly different from other shores we had cruised in terms of tree growth, since several or many hundred years had passed to allow regrowth of vegetation. But as we passed north into the bay there presented itself a lesson in vegetative succession, where smaller and more scraggly trees and bushes began to represent areas more recently released from the scouring effects of recent glaciation.
More icebergs appeared, and numerous Humpback Whales (most often along the shores and close to the beaches) were seen. Black-legged Kittiwakes were the most abundant bird, with a few Parasitic Jaegers, innumerable Marbled and Kittlitz's Murrelets, a few Tufted Puffins, and an occasional Horned Puffin. Eastern birders expect to see kittiwakes only in offshore waters, and nesting only on ocean-exposed islands. Thus it seemed incongruous to find kittiwakes increasing northward in this enclosed bay, culminating in a nesting colony of several thousands on cliffs along the west shore near the terminus of the bay, joined by a few Pelagic Cormorants and puffins. This area, most recently freed of glaciation, has a barren and Arctic appearance, with only herbaceous plants and low bushes.
Besides the birds, of course, the main attraction in the upper reaches of the bay are the several tidewater glaciers. We approached the Margerie and Grand Pacific Glaciers fairly closely and sat for a long time listening to them crack and groan, and watching them break off giant chunks of ice, with splashes that often went 50-100 feet into the air. Kittiwakes searched these ice faces with impunity while about 80 Harbor Seals floated on ice floes nearby. It was the proper habitat of the Kittlitz's Murrelet, and 25% of the Alaskan population is said to live in this bay. We saw at least 30, although they are difficult to separate from Marbled Murrelets at great distance. I figured we saw about 500 Marbled this day. No Humpback Whales were found in these close-in areas near the glaciers, but many were elsewhere in the bay. In the afternoon we made our way slowly out of the bay, and saw more whales and similar birds. A second opportunity presented itself to see birds over the underwater moraine near the entrance to the bay, where there were three Sea Otters, which we had not seen elsewhere along the Inside Passage, and 18 Parasitic Jaegers and one Pomarine Jaeger foraging among the kittiwakes and murrelets. We had seen 14 Humpbacks on the way in, and I counted 14 on the way out (which probably constituted about 20 in all), plus about 20 Dall Porpoises.
Additional birds seen were 75 Pigeon Guillemots, 25 White-winged Scoters, and 20 Surf Scoters, one Arctic Tern, 12 Bald Eagles, 250 Northern Phalaropes, 70 Pelagic Cormorants, 10 Tufted Puffins, and three Common Murres. I don't remember seeing any Rhinos. The only landbird was a Rufous Hummingbird that flew over the boat in the afternoon as it headed south. To the west of the mouth of the bay there were four or five additional Humpbacks, and the captain took some time to follow a few of them with the ship so that any of the passengers that had not seen one (could this be possible?) could do so. Many of the usual birds, but fewer kittiwakes were seen. In gradually reduced visibility, which by now was still useful to approximately 11 PM, we cleared the vicinity of Glacier Bay and headed west through Cross Sound for the open ocean. The huge Brady Glacier was distantly visible meeting tidewater to the north. Kittiwakes near the entrance to Glacier Bay numbered about 600, but these fell off sharply in numbers as we reached the outer coast (!). A dark Peregrine appeared and was soon chased southward out of sight by a dark-morph Parasitic Jaeger. Immediately on rounding the Cape Spencer lighthouse, coastal birds such as Sooty Shearwaters (700), Tufted Puffins (13), Common Murres (20), Marbled Murrelets (300), and Parasitic Jaeger (5) were seen, but no kittiwakes. In gathering darkness, we cruised fairly close to the coast northward toward Yakutat Bay. Birds became hard to see, but I stayed out on deck well after 10 PM to see the Mt. Fairweather range come into full view with two or three of its glaciers stretching down nearly to tidewater.
The ship must have proceded slowly for the night between Mt. Fairweather and Yakutat Bay, because at dawn on 7/21 we were just rounding Ocean Cape into the bay. Much of this day was spent very slowly exploring magnificent Yakutat bay, which is surrounded by mountains in the 13-15,000+ ft. range. Birding was less rewarding than in Glacier Bay, with a smaller number of kittiwakes (a few hundred nesting on the cliffs of an island in the southern part of the bay), a few Kittlitz's and Marbled Murrelets, and a few puffins and murres. Only one or two Harbor Seals were seen. A small flock of Common Mergansers among the bergs suggested the freshwater regime in the bay. The relative deficiencies in the birds were amply made up by close up observation of the massive Hubbard Glacier, which perhaps better than the Margerie Glacier gave us a show of sounds and sights of calving icebergs. We very slowly circled the bay through the innumerable icebergs, and on the way out our only Grizzly/Brown Bear was found walking past some house-sized bergs that were beached on the south shore.
We very slowly exited the bay, with occasional Glaucous-winged Gulls, Arctic Terns, 7 Parasitic Jaegers, and several small flocks of Red-necked Phalaropes sitting among clumps of seaweed that seemed to develop along fronts where the lighter fresh water from the bay met heavier salt water just offshore. The incredible scenery definitely distracted my attention from the modest avifauna that presented itself. As the sun went down the clouds hovering over the highest peaks gradually abated, and as we sailed northwestward, a Matterhorn-like Mt. St. Elias (18,008 ft.) finally came into full view, head and shoulders over the mere 10-14K peaks nearby. This is perhaps the most mountain that anyone can clearly see from tidewater anywhere on earth, and is equal in some respects to 20,320 ft. Mt. McKinley (Denali) north of Anchorage, which is usually viewed (when you can see it at all) more distantly from base elevations in excess of 2000 ft. Putting the St. Elias mountains behind us, we sailed slowly north and west toward Valdez in waning light and with few birds of note.
On the morning of 7/22 we were off the mouth of Prince William Sound, where the first Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels were seen. Numerous kittiwakes, Tufted Puffins, murres, Sooty Shearwaters and other offshore birds were also present, and a Wandering tattler circled the ship. The underwater ledge where the Exxon Valdez ran aground, well into the Sound on the east side, was duly noted. We soon arrived in the narrow estuary leading to Valdez, a marvelous bay surrounded by snow-capped mountains with many glaciers. At least 25 Sea Otters were floating in the middle of the harbor within sight of town and the Alyeska terminal. I was unable to get on a ecotour that was scheduled to head into the mountains, so I took a bus tour along the Richardson Highway through Thompson Pass to see the Worthington Glacier. A few Black-billed Magpies, Lincoln's and White-crowned Sparrows, Common Ravens, and Bald Eagles were seen. Back at the cruise dock in the afternoon, a flock of 50 Gadwalls and 25 Canada Geese sat on the flats to the north, and about 300 kittiwakes, 30 Glaucous-winged Gulls, 20 Mew Gulls, six Pacific Loons, and a few Sea Otters hung around the ship near the dock. A pair of Black Oystercatchers inhabited some rocks nearby and kept flying over the dock, calling. A nearly black Red-tailed Hawk was seen, along with about 17 eagles. Having reached our furthest point northward, we sailed out through the floating bands of Sea Otters toward Prince William Sound. We headed southwest toward Seward, but along a different route northwest of Montague Island. Again a number of Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels were seen miles within the Sound and channels.
Seward is reached by a short sail into its enclosing bay, surrounded by scenery nearly as spectacular as that near Yakutat Bay. This was 7/23. For me, Seward was not only the farthest afield we sailed, but also among the pinnacles of my birding experiences associated with this cruise. The best part was a whalewatch in the morning out of the Seward boat basin westward into Kenai Fiords National Park. We traveled altogether about 75 miles among the peninsulas and islands, sea stacks and arches, past seabird cliffs loaded with nesting Tufted and Horned Puffins, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Common and Thick-billed Murres, Glaucous-winged Gulls, and others. We saw hundreds of all these species in this spectacular setting along with dozens of Rhinoceros Auklets, Marbled and Kittlitz's Murrelets, and a few Parakeet Auklets. Alas, others saw Red-faced Cormorants, some of the only ones east of the Aleutians, but I missed them.
We also visited a tidewater glacier, this time from the Harding Ice Field that covers much of the southern Kenai Peninsula, and got up closer to the calving ice wall than in the cruise ship in Glacier or Yakutat Bays. One giant block of ice fell into the bay, creating a sizable Tsunumi that thoroughly rocked our boat. We got a good chance to photograph a group of cooperative Steller's Sea Lions on an isolated rock at the base of one of the steep bird islands. A pod of cooperative Orcas also appeared and tolerated our close escort. One Humpback was seen, and its last sounding dive gave me my best photograph of the huge tail with a dripping curtain of water.
Later that day, back in town, I decided to walk north to where I had seen, from the boat, hundreds of kittiwakes hanging around a cannery. I never got that far because I got bogged down in the harbor, where the commercial salmon boats and various recreational fishing boats dock. A Sea Otter hanging around the docks provided a good photo-op. Many charter salmon and halibut boats depart from this marina, and watching the bushels of fish get cleaned is an education in itself. Most of these were Silver Salmon, about two feet long, but some King Salmon were among them along with two to three-foot halibut and other smaller fish. A circus regularly developed among the Glaucous-winged Gulls who waited below for the fish offal that rained down from the cleaning process. An underwater pipe from a cannery to the north emptied not far away and was attracting hundreds of these gulls, a few Herring Gulls, and a few kittiwakes.
The rest of the afternoon was spent along the shore to the south of the marina. Here, numerous tourists and many townies had gathered near a double culvert into a spawning stream. It was near high tide, and into this stream through these culverts were entering numerous King Salmon. It is legal to hook the salmon in the salt water, but not in the spawning stream. The many fishermen were jerking their rods constantly in hopes of randomly snagging one of the Kings, which rarely bite a baited hook by the time they are that close to the spawning stream. The beer-drinking townies had a picnic table situated close to the culvert and had a driftwood fire going. I soon infiltrated their ranks and began to receive the local wisdom of these redneck locals on every subject including birds, but mostly about fishing. Occasional successes with rod and reel were summarily filleted and placed on the coals, skin down, with spices and tin foil on top. Now accepted in this rough company and tending the fire myself, I was encouraged to eat all the salmon I wanted. Meanwhile frequent Kings were jumping just offshore, many pin-wheeling their light pink bodies in circles. Adjacent fishermen periodically scattered to make room for successful fishermen and his attendant net man. More than 20 Kings were landed while I loitered here, all of which weighed more than 30 pounds and at least one weighed about 45 pounds. The limit was two, but one man caught at least four Kings while I watched, and all the townies discussed the full freezers that they had at home. They even offered a big fish to me, which, of course, I could not deal with easily on a cruise ship. Still, the spectacle of these massive fish was much more interesting that any of the modest ornithological opportunities available to me on foot.
A male Steller's Sea Lion was present from time to time just offshore, where it was seen ripping up King Salmon with lateral head movements. Whether it had caught these or had scavenged them was unclear. We left Seward about 11 PM in waning but still-useful daylight. Sea otters floated on the bay as we left. I hung out on deck to birdwatch and to look at the Harding Icefield on the mountains west of the bay. As we headed out of the harbor at the stroke of midnight I took several pictures of the mountains using available light. We were south of our most northerly point in Valdez the previous day, and more than a month after the highest point of the Sun on June 21. It was dark by the time we got into the Gulf of Alaska. Thursday, 7/24, was one of our days at sea. We were heading for Sitka, on Baranof Island, about 550 miles to the southeast. At a maximum of 18 knots, we had 34 hours to get there before docking time at 8 AM, which was ample time. The first and last eight-hour periods were largely lost to darkness, but available was an entire day of pelagic birding, most of which was spent about 90 miles offshore, well out of sight of land.
Unlike most of the passengers, I did not consider this day to be lost time. It was, in fact, one of the highlights of the trip. I had heard from non-birders familiar with this run that albatrosses sometimes followed the ship, and hoped to see Black-footed and Laysan Albatrosses. As it happened, 16 Black-footed Albatrosses were seen on this day, one of which followed the ship for five hours, but no Laysans. Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels were almost never out of sight, and a few Leach's Storm-Petrels were noted. Fulmars were constantly in sight, with regular sightings of Sooty Shearwaters, Short-tailed Shearwaters, and Arctic Terns, but only three kittiwakes. No Cassin's Auklets were seen on the water, but one that was found under some deck furniture the following afternoon as the boat sat in Sitka harbor. This individual almost certainly came on board the night before as the boat was approaching the Sitka area. It was thoroughly examined and photographed by dozens of passengers, and then released in the harbor. As the ship made 10 knots it jumped up from its upside-down position in my hand and promptly flew west, parallel with the ship, and out to sea.
Another bird was described to me that came aboard the same night, but had disappeared by the time I got up. From its description it was probably a Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel. Totals of various species seen during the day were: 100 Northern Fulmar (many following for miles in the stern wake), 16 B.F. Albatross, 26 Sooty Shearwater, 28 Short-tailed Shearwater, 40 unidentified dark shearwaters, 400 Fork-tailed and 4 Leach's Storm-Petrels, 35 Tufted Puffin, 4 Glaucous-winged Gull, 7 Arctic Tern, 6 Long-tailed Jaeger, 3 Parasitic Jaeger, 2 Kittiwake, 2 Surfbird, 1 Sanderling, 1 unident peep, and 1 Harbor Seal (90 miles offshore). On the morning of 7/25 we were sailing into Sitka harbor when I got up at 7 AM. More than a dozen salmon boats were trolling in the outer harbor, and a few Marbled Murrelets, Common Murres, and Tufted Puffins were seen. Many small wooded islands dot the inner harbor, and I counted 30 Bald Eagles sitting around among the tall trees or flying over town. There is no cruise-ship dock in Sitka, so we "lightered off" to shore in some of the motorized life boats to see the Russian Orthodox cathedral and other Russian and Indian relics in this former capital of Russian America.
I walked through town and around the boat basin, getting into a lively conversation with an owner of a commercial salmon boat, who lamented the lack of regulation of fishing and the decline of the fishery. I got close looks at some of the largest ravens I have ever seen, seemingly with heavier, more Roman-style bills and heavier structure than the ravens I am familiar with in New England. These were common around the boat basin, and one landed on the back of a a fisherman's pickup and soon hopped down into the back body of the truck to forage among the undoubted wonders there.
The highlight of the day for me was another whalewatch through the outer harbor and among the many islands northeast of Sitka. We left the dock and went northwest of town to the vicinity of some small rocks where there were numerous kittiwakes, other gulls, and harbor seals. This was fairly close to cone-shaped Mt. Edgecomb, one of the only volcanos in southeast Alaska, which last erupted 9,000 years ago. Several groups of Sea Otters, more than 35 in all and the densest concentration I had seen, obliged the boat by floating on their backs, diving, and just being appropriate for Sea Otters. Scattered bands of Marbled Murrelets and Common Murres were put up by the boat. We escorted several Humpbacks but none did anything unusual. No Orcas were seen. The best stuff for me were the birds, which were concentrated in several rafts associated with floating seaweed not far from the bay's north shore. About 400 Marbled Murrelets, 200 Common Murres, at least 10 Thick-billed Murres, 10 Tufted Puffins, more than 150 Rhinoceros Auklets, plus 100 Northern Phalaropes, 50 kittiwakes and 100 Glaucous-winged Gulls were seen.
Soon tiring of this diversity, our captain then headed northeast into the many narrow channels that separate small islands and peninsulas from the larger Baranof Island. No bears were seen, but about nine Sitka Deer were feeding on the grassy margins of the estuaries, and numerous Mew Gulls, kittiwakes, turnstones, Harbor Seals, and Double-crested Cormorants sat on isolated groups of rocks. These channels, as in the Inside Passage, were the perfect habitat for Bald Eagles, and I counted 90 eagles before we got back to the ship, all presumably different from the 30 seen on the south side of the harbor early in the morning. One eagle nest was closely examined and held a single chick that flapped its wings to practice its future flying abilities. The total of 120 eagles for the day exceeded all other day-totals for the cruise. Leaving the channels and islands, the whalewatch boat delivered us directly to our ship, which immediately began to retrace its path slowly out of the harbor.
A diversion occurred in the discovery of a Cassin's Auklet, mentioned earlier, found under some plastic chaise-lounges on the back deck. It apparently came on board the previous night but could not take off again. Outside Sitka harbor we turned south and proceeded down the coast of Baranof Island, not too far offshore. About 30 Sooty Shearwaters re-appeared, and 10 fulmars, 20 Common Murres, 40 Tufted Puffins, 20 Cassin's Auklets, 30 Marbled Murrelets, and two Short-tailed Shearwaters were seen. We saw some nice scenery along Baranof Island for a few miles, but darkness soon set in, earlier than it had farther north, and before we had traveled more than 50 miles.
During the night we wended our way around Baranof Island and east among smaller islands toward Wrangell, which is undoubtedly the smallest town we visited on the cruise. As in Juneau, Ketchikan, Petersburg, and nearly all towns in "Southeast" except Haines and Skagway, the residents cannot drive very far from town and outsiders are obliged to arrive either by water or air. We docked about 8 AM, 7/26, and I went ashore to investigate the town rather than go on the several lackluster excursions that were offered. This town is sometimes represented as the headquarters of Bald Eagles in southeast Alaska, which perhaps it is in winter. I heard that the supermarket manager fed the eagles out back of the store at 10 AM, but on arrival found no waiting eagles, only a few ravens and crows, so I forgot the eagles and went to investigate Chief Shakes Island, with its Tribal House and totem poles, south of town. I was more interested in finding some good pieces of slate along the shore (for table trivets) than I was in the few tourist shops. Pigeon Guillemots were continually flying in and out of the pilings under a large dock along the waterfront, where they were undoubtedly nesting.
I then walked about a mile to see the Indian petroglyphs on the rocks along the shoreline north of town. A few Mew Gulls, Pigeon Guillemots, and Marbled Murrelets were seen from shore, and an Orange-crowned Warbler and a few Song Sparrows supplemented the many ravens and Northwest Crows around town. I saw only two Bald Eagles all day. This town has only a limited fishing fleet, and the explanation may have been that the eagles were either nesting, and therefore spread around among the islands and channels, but were concentrating near streams with salmon runs. In any case, few were around town. Wrangell is also famous among rockhounds and gem enthusiasts for its garnet ledges, on a smaller island not far from town, where some of the best garnets in North America are found. The garnet ledge was willed to, and is now owned by, the children of Wrangell. Parents and whole families visit the island to extract the garnets from the "country rock." Accordingly, quite a few small kids were selling the purple garnets on the docks, and one could buy stones nearly an inch in diameter for under $10. Half-inch specimens were $3-5, some imbedded in the surrounding rock. The raw garnets constituted one of the more authentic souvenirs available in "Southeast," perhaps preferable to the Chinese "Alaska" T-shirts and Russian-made doll sets.
We left Wrangell about 5 PM to start the long trip south to Victoria on the south end of Vancouver Island. First was a segment of the Inside Passage, much of which we saw before it got dark. Many of the usual birds were seen: hundreds of Mew Gulls and Marbled Murrelets, a few loons, and Pigeon Guillemots. A few Humpback Whales, and many Dall Porpoises. When we got near Ketchikan, before getting to town, we turned a sharp corner toward the west and headed out to sea. I was able to recognize some of Ketchikan's waterfront buildings. Beyond Ketchikan we had 30 Bald Eagles, 100+ White-sided Dolphins, 25 Mew, 10 Glaucous-winged, and 15 Bonaparte's Gulls, three Arctic Loons, and a single Murre. No Kittiwakes were seen. It soon got dark as we approached the Queen Charlotte Islands.
The date 7/27/97 was to be a "day at sea," and seemed to be regarded by most of the passengers and staff primarily as wasted time. I was not sure of the exact route we would take along the west shore of Vancouver Island, but I suspected that this day might be among the most interesting of the cruise in terms of birds. This proved to be the case. While most passengers listened to lectures about wildlife in the shuttered lounge, I spent a whole day on deck enjoying one of the greatest and most protracted pelagic seabird extravaganzas of my lifetime.
When I got up at dawn, we were just clearing the Queen Charlotte Islands, which appeared distantly on our west. Seabirds were immediately evident around the ship, particularly Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels. As the light improved, many of the storm-petrels proved to be Leach's. A few Black-footed Albatrosses appeared, although none followed the ship as long as the five-hour bird between Seward and Sitka. Short-tailed, Sooty, and a few Pink-footed Shearwaters were seen. Occasional murres and Tufted Puffins as well. Gradually, the islands at the north end of Vancouver Island came in sight with a corresponding increase in alcids. As we slowly passed these islands, it was evident that some very large colonies of seabirds existed in this area. Innumerable feeding flocks of Tufted Puffins, Common Murres, and Rhinoceros Auklets were seen flying southwest, at right angles to our path that passed off these islands by at least 20 miles. Even more shearwaters were visible as we passed along the coast of Vancouver Island in the afternoon, although the mix was short on Sooties and strong on Pink-footed.
Fewer Leach's Storm-Petrels were seen as the day wore on, but Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels continued and were rarely out of sight. The most interesting spectacle for me was the number of Black-footed Albatrosses, the majority of which were sitting in flocks on the water. Flocks of 16, 11, 10, 8, and smaller groups appeared, some not more than five miles off parts of Vancouver Island. In all, a total of 234 albatrosses was counted this day, but still no Laysans. Totals of various birds for the day, minus a couple of hours I spent eating and doing other activities, were: 320 Sooty, 40 Short-tailed, and 43 Pink-footed Shearwaters, 80 N. Fulmar, 350 Fork-tailed and 100 Leach's Storm-Petrels, 830 Rhinoceros Auklet, 100 Tufted Puffin, 50 Common Murre, 5 Parasitic Jaeger, 3 Sabine's Gull, 15 Glaucous-winged and 4 Herring Gulls, and 2 Arctic Tern. Two large whales were distantly seen and the fin of a large male Orca, well offshore. Two offshore groups of 150 and 25 Pacific White-sided Dolphins was seen. The clear-cut logging scars along the west coast of the island, complete with substantial erosion, were an education. We lost our daylight a little south of the mid-point of Vancouver Island, before we passed Cape Flattery or entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
During darkness we finished traveling along outer Vancouver Island and at dawn were 40 miles west of Victoria. One passenger reliably reported an albatross I did not see. A few Marbled Murrelets and Common Murres were seen as we approached the outer harbor of Victoria. Having seen the Bouchart Gardens last year, I walked around town in the morning, and went on another whalewatch in the afternoon. This was not a trip to see Humpbacks, because these rarely enter the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The Orcas of these waters, however, are better-known than anywhere else, and each individual is familiar to researchers based upon the markings in the saddle of white behind the dorsal fin. On this day the target pod was due east of Victoria among the San Juan Islands. We went there in a small, fast boat that gave us a rough but merry ride through a few flocks of Marbled Murrelets, Common Murres, various gulls, and others. A small flock of Harlequin Ducks was flushed. The Orcas, among the most accustomed to humans in the world, were simply terrific. We saw more than 30, including several large males with tall, straight dorsal fins. One male passed visibly immediately under our boat; others surfaced right beside us, too close for telephotography. I had ample opportunity to use my 400 mm Novoflex to good advantage. Dozens of small and medium-sized boats, packed with whalewatchers, were attending these animals as we arrived and after we left. These cetaceans must be worth a handsome sum to the economy of Victoria and the surrounding area, vastly more than as meat or blubber. In the afternoon I went back into town to peruse the Government St. shops and get a light snack. I did not have the opportunity or the preparation to go find the mynah or the skylark that exist in the vicinity of Victoria. These can wait for another occasion. It was dark when we returned to the ship.
The next morning, it was back to Vancouver. When I got up, we had already passed under the Lion's Gate Bridge and were heading into the inner harbor. We rounded the northern parts of Stanley Park and gradually approached Canada Place pier and its convention center with the sail-like structures on the roof. This was the end of the cruise. Mew and Glaucous-winged Gulls plied the harbor with little regard for ships or the many float planes constantly landing and taking off.
A summary of the wildlife I personally saw and counted: 40
55 Orca (Auke Bay
San Juan Is. east of Victoria)
150 Dall Porpoise
700+ Pacific White-sided Dolphin
one Harbor Porpoise?
30 Steller's Sea Lion
350 Harbor Seal
one Grizzly Bear (Yakutat Bay)
15 Sikka Deer
three Dall Sheep (Yukon)
one Mountain Goat (Kenai)
50 Sea Otter (mostly Valdez, Seward, Sitka)
one River Otter
32 Raccoon (Stanley Park)
two Arctic Ground Squirrel (Yukon)
five Red Squirrel
50 Gray Squirrel (including 15 of the Black morph, all in Vancouver)
one Snowshoe Hare
200 Silver Salmon
25 King Salmon
15 Pacific Loon
10 Common Loon
6 Red-throated Loon
250 Black-footed Albatross (16 from Seward to Sitka; the rest south of the Queen Charlottes
through waters off Vancouver Island)
500 Northern Fulmar
1,150 Sooty Shearwater (scarce offshore)
150 Short-tailed Shearwater
50 Pink-footed Shearwater (esp. off Vancouver Island)
750 Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel (Prince William Sound and everywhere offshore)
100+ Leach's Storm-Petrel (mostly south of Queen Charlotte Islands)
100 Brandt's Cormorant (mostly southward)
200 Pelagic Cormorant
300 Double-crested Cormorant
10 Great Blue Heron
35 Canada Goose
15 Wood Duck
10 Green-winged Teal
150 White-winged Scoter
350 Surf Scoter
10 Harlequin Duck (Victoria)
10 American Goldeneye
six American Merganser (Yakutat Bay)
10 Red-breasted Merganser
two Willow Ptarmigan (Yukon)
two Turkey Vulture (Vancouver)
555 Bald Eagle (30 Bela Bela; 40+ in Ketchikan; 30 in outer Sitka Harbor; 90 among channels
and islands northeast of Sitka on a whale watch; only two around Wrangell)
one Golden Eagle (Yukon)
four Red-tailed Hawk
one Northern Harrier
one Peregrine Falcon (chased by Parasitic Jaeger over offshore waters west of Glacier Bay)
10 Black Oystercatcher
10 Black-bellied Plover
5 Semipalmated Plover
one Greater Yellowlegs
five Spotted Sandpiper
one Wandering Tattler (off AK coast)
two Surfbird (100 mi off AK coast)
20 Ruddy Turnstone
10 Black Turnstone
100 Western Sandpiper
20 Least Sandpiper
400 Northern Phalarope (Inside and offshore)
50+ Parasitic Jaeger (most common in Inside Passage; mostly dark morph)
one Pomarine Jaeger (Inside)
seven Long-tailed Jaeger (all offshore)
1,000 Glaucous-winged Gull
150 Herring Gull
50 California Gull
50 Ring-billed Gull
2,500 Mew Gull
three Sabine's Gull (incl. breeding plumage adult
all NW of Vancouver Island)
300 Bonaparte's Gull
4,000 Black-legged Kittiwake (largest numbers Glacier Bay)
40 Arctic Tern (mostly sitting on detritus offshore)
500 Common Murre (rare Inside)
25 Thick-billed Murre (Kenai & Sitka)
500 Tufted Puffin (many as far as 100 miles offshore)
200 Horned Puffin (mainly Kenai)
1,000 Rhinoceros Auklet (Inside as well as offshore)
70 Cassin's Auklet (outside only)
1,800 Marbled Murrelet (mostly Inside; bays)
50+ Kittlitz's Murrelet (Glacier Bay northward)
20 Parakeet Auklet (Kenai only)
200 Pigeon Guillemot (Inside and along outside coast)
three Belted Kingfisher
two Band-tailed Pigeon
three Rufous Hummingbird (two through the rigging of the ship, one in Glacier Bay)
one Downy Woodpecker
one Hairy Woodpecker
one Northern Flicker
10 Vaux's Swift
30 Violet-green Swallow
150 Barn Swallow
15 Cliff Swallow (mostly Yukon; also Seward)
two Rough-winged Swallow (Vancouver)
1,500 Northwestern Crow
two Steller's Jay
one Canada Jay
five Black-billed Magpie
five Black-capped Chickadee
five Golden-crowned Kinglet
one Winter Wren
five Swainson's Thrush
30 American Robin
100 European Starling
10 Cedar Waxwing
10 Yellow-rumped Warbler
three Orange-crowned Warbler
30 Red-winged Blackbird
10 Brewer's Blackbird
five Brown-headed Cowbird
five White-crowned Sparrow
two Lincoln's Sparrow
five Savannah Sparrow
35 Song Sparrow
40 Oregon Junco
and 10 House Finch (Vancouver).
For me this cruise was a great opportunity to see this part of the world with its fabled scenery and interesting birdlife. The weather cooperated, too, with only one day of rain. One needs good all-weather binoculars, preferably 10 power, and even a telescope works fine on deck. The temperatures were mostly fairly warm, and I was almost never too cold with just a felt shirt and ordinary pants, covered by a waterproof rain suit for wind protection. The cruise proved to be a good way to have fun, see terrific places that are very hard to get to otherwise, and do the whole thing comfortably. The passengers were of varying ages, but there were very few Club Med-style folks or continuous parties going on. Many passengers seemed very interested in educating themselves about the region and its wildlife, but like most everyday folks, had little familiarity with how to observe birds or other distant critters in the field. Birders taking this cruise have a great deal to observe, but they will have to do most of their own research on the avifauna and will need to find the birds themselves, since at the present time there is little support for birders and no specific birding leadership on this vessel. Still, good transportation and food allows a comfortable way of getting to great places if one can fend for one's ornithological self. I had an absolutely terrific time and recommend this tour to others.
17 Hubbard St.,
Lenox MA 01240,