June 24th, 2013


Alaska! Whales! Reindeer Sausage Onna Bun!

So hey, Alaska is damn spectacular! (You probably knew that already.)

We stopped in Juneau, Skagway, and Victoria, which is in British Columbia.

There’s a lot I could talk about—fantastic people, some neat art, cruise food, etc. But I’ll stick with animals for now, because that’s what I’m good at.

I spotted many, many awesome pelagic birds. Black-footed Albatross! Laysen’s Albatross! Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel! Tufted Puffin!

Weirdest bird of the trip, however, was when my friend Tina, of birdwatching fame, and I were on the fantail of the ship, checking out a glacier. Uninhabited fjord. Big glacier. Seals everywhere, with pups all over the ice. (Let’s face it, a sunbathing seal basically resembles a turd with soulful eyes. There were a lot of them. They were adorable.)

And a pigeon went over our heads.

I am SO GLAD she saw it too. We both went “Whaaaaat?” and snapped our heads around, and…yup. Pigeon. Rock dove. City pigeon. Or fjord pigeon in this case.

It was terribly weird.

Shopping in Juneau was somewhat regrettably touristy, although we found a Filipino food stand selling reindeer sausage with carmelized onions. If you could have resisted this, you are made of sterner stuff than I am, and dear god, it was the best thing I’ve eaten in a LONG time. Then we went whale-watching.

Dear lord.

Some of you saw the Twitter feed, but man, it was…dude. I have been whale-watching. My mental impression was that it’s the thing where you stand on a boat and an earnest guide tells you that there were whales here just yesterday, and then eventually there is a far distant spout and everyone points.

On this one, we eventually got into port with the captain telling us that he hoped we would not be too harsh on future whale-watching expeditions because frankly, there had never been a day like this. Ever.

First we had humpbacks doing a freakin’ ballet. They were breaching, slamming down into the water, maybe two hundred yards away. Multiple humpbacks, multiple breaches, and they just didn’t stop. Eventually we went to go find orcas…and we found them. They were cruising through the water, looking much less like Shamu and a lot more like the wolves of the sea.

They were just…I can’t even explain. I am used to wild animals on a scale I understand—birds, toads, weasels, foxes. This was just so much wildness, in one place. They hit me much harder than the humpbacks. You expect humpbacks to be enormous, gentle creatures. These things didn’t look gentle. They looked like contract killers, possibly with a sense of humor, but definitely something that could kill you and not feel much remorse about it. They were glorious.

(Now, I grew up going to Sea World, thinking of orcas as big clownish creatures, and I won’t swear these things didn’t have a sense of humor, but they were just…dude. Why the hell are we keeping those animals in captivity? Ambassadors, sure, whales too injured or unable to be returned to the wild, fine, but…just…no.

I think it was the dorsal fins. I always thought orca fins lopped over. Never thought much about it, honestly—I’m all for whales, but they are not my Charismatic Species of Choice. The naturalist on board said that’s a stress response, actually, and a male orca fin is supposed to look like…well, like that, over there. Six feet tall. Standing straight up. Dude. I am generally of the “Many modern zoos actually do very good work with captive breeding and I am very very glad of them,” school of thought, but I’m moving toward a serious killer whale exception.)

Once we left the killer whales, we were all kinda stunned and the captain said “What the hell, we’ll go for broke,” and went to another inlet where humpbacks had been seen bubble-feeding.

Bubble-feeding is this thing they do. A bunch of whales blow bubbles in a big circle around a school of fish. This herds the fish together, since they won’t risk the bubbles. Then one whale dives very deep and begins coming up under the net, making a call that makes the fish very unhappy—their swim bladders vibrate, or maybe they’re just trying to get away from the whale—and the fish swim upward. All the whales rise with the school, and they all break the surface together, grabbing mouthfuls of fish.

It’s unbelievable to watch. You only see gulls circling, and then fish jumping, and then WHAM, five whales all break the surface, snout first, tightly together, with their mouths open. I’ve never seen anything like it, except in nature shows, and there it was, like two or three hundred feet away.

So they do this once, twice, and then dive. The boat waits around to see if they’ll come up again, and then the captain says, “Well, they seem to have moved off…”

And then there were gulls everywhere.

And then there were fish jumping from the water around the boat.

And if you ever want to hear the captain of a whale-watching boat FREAK THE HELL OUT, arrange to be there when five humpback whales bubble-net his ship. Because your first instant impulse is to start the engine and get out of their way, but no, that’ll risk hurting a whale which is as close to a truly mortal sin as exists in the natural world. Kill the engines!

We sat in absolute silence in the water with fish leaping and gulls screaming and the naturalist yelling “We’re in the bubble-net! We’re in it! Look at the fish!”

And the whales came up.

They realized at the last minute that they were there—the naturalist said that they’re mostly tuning out the big picture sonar stuff and concentrating on minutia, like fish motion, and so probably didn’t actually notice us until they were only a few feet from the surface. (Like walking into someone because you’re reading a book.) And you can’t steer a bubble-net. So suddenly five whales peel off and abort the net, having caught a lot more than they bargained for, and we’re surrounded by disgruntled whales surfacing ten feet away, blowing massive clouds of whale-breath, which incidentally stinks somewhat of fish but mostly of sulfur. (It is vile.)

“Um,” said the captain, as the whales sulked off. “So, we’re just gonna wait a minute before we start our engines…give them time to leave…a lot of time to leave…”

I felt an intense urge to apologize to the whales, but it was still just unbelievable.

So that was our whale-watching trip. And also there was food and shopping and good friends and incidentally I’m married and my oosik is quite nice compared to all the ones sold in Skagway (I had jewelers asking where I got it, since it’s a really thick piece and the standard is for very thin slices) and we found Kevin a wedding ring of Raven stealing the Sun, and I bought way too much art and also I would dearly love to retire to Victoria, which was a marvelously civilized city with excellent gardens. And it was pretty awesome. And I saw a Laysen’s Albatross which is a really good bird.

But dude. Whales.

Originally published at Tea with the Squash God. You can comment here or there.


The Rhyme of the Middle-Aged Mariner

WARNING: Rambling birding story ahead!

So there we were, cruising toward a fjord at the crack of god-awful, and we were all awake because we had crossed multiple time-zones and had boat-lag. And I was idly staring out the window with my bins and a spotted a gull and then there was this other bird behind the gull—a larger bird, with a clean white head and body, large chocolate brown wings, thick bill of some color (it’s surprisingly hard to tell sometimes with bill color, when all you get is a flash and the lighting is different than you’re used to—about all you can do is yell “Pinkish-yellowish-grayish-tannish! Thing! Anyway, not the same color as the rest!”)

It was bigger than the gull, but I didn’t know by how much, since distance is nearly impossible over water for me—we’ve got no real landmarks to go by, so relative distance gets REALLY hard.

There was a mew gull in front of it. The gull was smaller.

The unknown bird banked hard and fast, wings straight up and down, parallel to me, and then swept out of sight. My brain said “Shearwater??” but that was as far as I got.

Now, I had some good fieldmarks on this bird, but I had two big problems. First of all, I have no idea what’s up here. My Sibley app on the phone filters by state, but Alaska is a big state and there are things at the top that aren’t at the bottom, or a mile out from shore that aren’t three miles out, and vice versa. Lot of ground to cover.

Secondly, we are currently in the middle of summer, so there are lots of juveniles about, and juveniles can look like damn near anything. Many of them are speckled and spotted, which this one wasn’t, but young birds are weird.

I wandered over to my buddy Tina’s stateroom and said “Tina! Bright white head and body and dark brown solid wings! Bigger than a mew gull!”

“No idea,” she said.

I filed it under “will never know” and had breakfast. (You may think that this is giving up easy, but frankly, birders see a lot of birds that they just mark off as “no idea, can’t tell.” You abandon the need for absolute knowledge pretty early in this hobby. Seabirds are particularly bad.)

A few hours later, we were sitting staring out a window, on the open ocean, our brains fried by fjord and glacier and all that good stuff, and Tina said “White head and dark brown wings….was it was a duck?”

“I don’t think it was a duck.”

“Long-tailed ducks might fit that description…”

“It was pretty un-ducklike.”


Another hour or two passed, during which time we saw several excellent Tufted Puffins, which flap their little wings like lunatics just to stay in the air, and Cassin’s Auklets, which will eat too much fish to be able to fly and go floundering over the top of the waves like a small adorable softball.

“So this bird with the dark brown wings…”


“Definitely not a duck?”

“I have written it off as some strange juvenile gull, actually.”

“Was it speckled?”

“Not at all. Super clean white feathers. Super solid brown wings. Made me think of a shearwater. You know, it did the thing—the wing thing—it banked—” I attempted to demonstrate. Passing cruise-goers eyed me suspiciously, as I had apparently broken out doing the Robot, which was not on the cruise schedule until later that night.

Tina got a look that I would be hard-pressed to describe. “Was it big?”

“I have no idea. Distances out here…”

“Mmm, true. Nobody can do distance out here.”

“It was a lot bigger than a mew gull. Long wings.”

She began flipping through her Sibley and finally held up a picture. “Like this?”

“Hey, yeah! I think that’s him!”

“Laysan Albatross,” she said. “That is an awesome bird. Congratulations!”

“And we get those up here?”

“Yes. I will slip arsenic in your food tonight.”

“What? Why? What did I do?”

“Do you know how many pelagic trips I have taken trying to get a Laysan Albatross? Do you know how much pelagic trips COST?”

“You were the one who kept poking at the sighting! I was gonna write it off as a weird gull!”

Tina is a marvelous person to go birding with. And to date she has not slipped arsenic in my food. But I think that might have been a near thing.

That, however, was not the last of our birding adventures.

We were in Skagway, and Tina had gotten word from a local about a bird spot. Off we went to the local airstrip, which had wide gravel strips by the roadside, and in those gravel strips were dozens of Arctic terns.

They were nesting. Baby terns wandered around, being fluffier than a thing made of fluff, occasionally gaping their mouths open to indicate that they were going to starve sometime in the next five seconds if a fish was not stuffed in there immediately.

We stood across the street and stared through our binoculars and made cooing noises and then the parents decided we were too close and began screaming and dive-bombing us.

Now an Arctic tern is not a large tern, somewhat smaller than a crow, but twenty or thirty of them…well, it was not quite The Birds but it was starting to creep up on it. They made loud Chrrk-chhrk-chrrk! noises as they bombed us. We, being birders, said things like “Look how close they are!” and “What good looks we’re getting!” and “Maybe we should back away so they don’t get stressed—” and then one tried to take off Tina’s hat.

Interestingly enough, there is no ready-made response in my brain for “Pardon, an Arctic tern is trying to grab your hat.” I mean, it’s never come up.

So I went “Wuh—uh—um—” and pointed. Tina looked up from her attempts to get photos of the chicks with the long-distance zoom lens and the tern veered off, chrrk!ing irritably. We, too, veered off, as they were clearly rather annoyed and you shouldn’t stress birds if you can help it.

We learned later from a shuttle driver that the terns are notorious hat thieves and that the locals know exactly where the nests are and find it very amusing when passers-by get mobbed. (And also protective of their terns—that’s a small colony, very exposed, but they’ve been breeding there for years and are left unmolested. And the locals are quite fond of their little attack birds. And sometimes lock their friends out of the car there just to watch them get mobbed, because this is Alaska, after all.)

So that was also pretty darn cool.

Originally published at Tea with the Squash God. You can comment here or there.