Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Eagles of Alaska


  Growing up in Savannah, GA it was always a big deal if you saw a bald eagle. Sightings were rare and nests were a show stopper for any kind of construction project nearby. Now I am in the land of eagles, Alaska, where I sometimes see thirty or forty bald eagles at a time. Yet they still hold that same place in my heart. I stop what I do them and watch with awe and understand perfectly why they were chosen as our national symbol. The give off such a regal nature while mastering their role as the top bird-of-prey.

  So instead of getting tired of seeing eagles I work on seeing more of them and learning more about them by watching and photographing them here in Alaska. Outside of Homer, Heidi and I found the perfect location for an eagle photo shoot. With nearly 20 adults and juveniles lining the beach we casually walked up and down taking pictures as we went. Different shorebirds and ocean birds were bobbing in the waves just offshore but while Heidi was trying to identify those I was concentrating on the eagles just behind us.

  Time after time the eagles would take flight and soar down the beach, flying right by us. The dark clouds back towards Homer provided a wonderful backdrop for the white feathers giving these eagles their 'bald' name. It was an experience I won't soon forget and one that made me realize that bird photography isn't always about who has the bigger lens, but who has the time to put in to one species, the patience and timing to capture the critical moments, and the luck to be there at the right time.

A juvenile eagle takes flight
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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Homer Alaska, A Town Visit

No salmon yet
Moose just off the road in Homer
 The next destination on our Alaska exploration was on the other side of the Kenai Peninsula at the little fishing town of Homer. A couple of my friends spent summers up here working on salmon fishing boats and had great stories and recommendations on where to go.

Hiking Coopers Landing
Our Homer Home
 We stopped in Coopers Landing for a fun hike to a cascading waterfall on the Indian River, but were a little too early in the season for bear sightings. We continued on to the southwest tip of the peninsula to our air b&b place on the outskirts of Homer. I immediately fell in love with the cabin when I saw I had to walk through a greenhouse filled with colorful flowers to get to the front door. The cabin itself was painted in bright colors but what really amazed me was the inside. A huge comfortable bed, a kitchen minus the oven, a makeshift sink with a 5 gallon jug of water, and a little table and desk all made for quite the little romantic getaway. The fact that there were homemade blueberry muffins on the table was just icing on the cake.

Our romantic cabin in a greenhouse
  
Hungry Moose
Heidi studying the moose
    We spent 3 days exploring the areas around Homer. What we found was the hiking was few and far between, which surprised me. The kayaking would have been amazing on the other side of the bay but we were fine with not paying the $80 water taxi fare to cross a mile and a half of water. We found a wonderful bagel bakery near our cabin as well as some fun live music at the local steakhouse. And there was a nice marsh in the middle of town with an informative wildlife visitors center stationed nearby. Multiple times on the drive home we pulled over because moose were chowing down just off the side of the road. This was definitely moose central as we saw multiple mother and calf pairs, and one with twins, plus a few single moose sightings. The little wetland area in front of the visitor center provided our closest moose encounter only 10ft away. Luckily there was a little natural barrier in between us and the moose so I felt much safer. As we walked deeper into the wetlands I was shocked to see and hear sandhill cranes. It took me right back to my days growing up with them on St Catherine’s Island…in a distant time and place.

As close to a moose as I'll ever get in the wild
  
Sandhill Crane in Alaska Scene
    On the way out of town we stopped at a beach to look for hiking opportunities and found a beach overlook that led down to a makeshift boat launch. There was no ramp, instead a tractor would push a boat in the gentle surf until it motored off. Huge volcanic cones could be seen off in the distance from this western vantage point. The wildflowers covered the strip of land between sand dune and forest. We even found a couple of sweet smelling chocolate lilies in the mix. We decided to hike down the shoreline to look for seabirds, which there were many, and were treated to one of the best eagle encounters I’ve ever had. But that will have to wait for the next blog installment. 







 
Walking the Homer Spit
Looking down over the Homer spit


Chocolate Lily

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Exploring Kenai Fjords National Park

Glacier in the clouds
Harding Icefield
  Exploring Kenai Fjords

When I was 22 years old I flew from New York to Japan in what seemed to be an ever-present sunset glow. As we chased the sun around the earth I glanced outside at a frozen land with what looked like frozen rivers running through it. 13 years later I find myself finally flying over the same frozen landscape on my way to explore the Kenai Fjords National Park in Southcentral Alaska. On this peninsula nearly 40 glaciers slowly slide down from the Harding Ice Field. If Denali is Alaska's crown jewel north of Anchorage then this must be it's crown jewel to the south. And now, after working in Alaska's inside passage I have a newfound knowledge and interest in these glaciers, icefields, flora, and fauna that encompass this amazing national park.

Lazy Harbor Seal
  In the icy waters surrounding the peninsula we find seals, sea lions, humpback whales, orca chasing salmon under our boat, and birds of all kinds. Puffins, which are rare to see in southeast Alaska fly in the dozens around our boat. Jagged, wave battered rocks mark the entrances to deep fjords where the glaciers calve into the water. We took one of the boat tours out of Seward's small boat harbor to get a closer look at some of the wildlife and glaciers. Major Marine Tours is one of the big names and they carry a national park ranger just like we do when we visit Glacier Bay down in the SE. $150 got us a six hour cruise which turned into a wildlife bonanza and up close and personal with a couple of glaciers, although it would be hard to get closer than our Exit Glacier experience or being inside a glacier like at the Mendenhall Glacier Ice Caves.

Tufted Puffin
Harlequin Duck


Typical Kenai Fjord scene
Stellar Sealions hanging around


Rocky coastline

Orca about to swim under our boat
Orca side view


Orca and Tour Boat in Kenai Fjords
Surprise Glacier


Holgate Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park

Hungry Sea Otter

Sea Otter stuffing his face

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Seward, Alaska: A town visit


 Whether you are walking along the famous iditarod trail running towards Seward, exploring the quaint town itself, or stumbling across rare golden spruces in the woods, Seward is a must see for any Alaska visit. Heidi and I spent four days around the town and using it as a jumping off point for boat trips into the Kenai Fjords and hiking trips in the surrounding hills. We stayed for 3 nights at the Naughti Otter Inn, a quaint and friendly little hostel with private rooms, and we camped for a night under the nearby Exit Glacier...hoping for a moose or bear to walk through our camp at night.


  Our trusty Chevy Spark rental car zipped us around and was just able to contain the few bags we had with us. It got great gas mileage though and managed the long uphill sections with only a little extra effort. The drive over from Anchorage was beautiful with hikes every ten miles so we drove back to check some of those out. We were surprised to find that many of them connect with the larger Iditarod Trail where dog sled teams race in the winter over snowy terrain for 1,049miles to finish in Seward.
The town itself is surrounded by snow capped peaks, alpine lakes, glaciers, and deep fjords. A day trip into the fjords is a must, although next time maybe a longer kayaking camping trip into the fjords would be on the agenda. This time we had things to see and miles to cover as we still had to pack a trip to Homer in before our break came to an end.

We met up with one of Heidi's coworkers who also happened to be on break and living in Seward. The Seward Brewing Co. was the hot spot to meet in town with delicious beer and one of the best burgers I've had. Our favorite place in town was the Sea Life Center with one of the most immersive bird enclosure I've ever experienced. Puffins, murres, aucklets, kittiwakes, King eiders, long tailed ducks, and pigeon guillemots all buzzed around and swam right up to you. A volunteer stationed inside constantly had to remind people not to pick up the birds. They were that close. Seward was a big hit and now its on to Homer!