Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Alaska, Part 11: Winding Down and the End of the Road

Moose cow and twin calves

On June 23, the day after our final full day of birding in Alaska (that amazing boat trip through some of Kenai Fjords National Park) our group spent a few hours birding in Seward before driving back to Anchorage. We started out at a wetlands where we said goodbye to Trumpeter Swans, Wilson's Snipe, and Short-billed and Glaucous-winged Gulls. 

Wilson's Snipe

We stopped by the feeder where we’d seen sooty Fox Sparrows and a very uncooperative Rufous Hummingbird two days before. We saw the sparrows again, but this time the hummingbird was even less cooperative. We were still missing a few species like Pacific Wren, so we walked through a lovely wooded neighborhood. No luck on the wren, but we did see another Townsend’s Warbler...

Townsend's Warbler

... added Brown Creeper and Pine Grosbeak for the trip, and watched an extremely cooperative mother moose with twin calves. 

Moose cow and twin calves

Moose cow and twin calves

We also stopped where we’d seen the American Dipper on the 21st. Despite very poor lighting, we were close enough that I got my best dipper photos ever. 

American Dipper

American Dipper

We went back to the hotel to pack everything, stopped for lunch, and got on the road again, making few stops en route to Anchorage. We had time for showers and some packing before our last dinner and checklist compilation together. One member of our group flew home that night. Our guides and most of our group were flying out first thing in the morning, but Russ and I would be lingering to take an evening flight. 


That gave us plenty of time for leisurely birding on the 24th. After breakfast, we took a nice little path behind the hotel that Erik Bruhnke had told us about. We didn’t see anything new but watched a singing Alder Flycatcher and Orange-crowned Warbler...

Alder Flycatcher

Orange-crowned Warbler

...and more of the ubiquitous White-crowned Sparrows. 

White-crowned Sparrow

We also came upon a Black-billed Magpie in stunning plumage. I had excellent light and clicked photo after photo before realizing the poor thing was missing almost its entire upper bill. It looked like either a congenital deformity or an old injury. 

Black-billed Magpie

Black-billed Magpie

I watched it capturing some insects on the ground using its tongue to compensate for the missing bill. I don’t know how it was managing to keep its feathers in such pristine order, but I presume its tongue played a role in that, too. I felt sad but also filled with admiration for the plucky bird who was playing the hand it was given so well. 

Black-billed Magpie

We got back to the room and showered, packed up, checked out, and put our luggage back in the hotel’s storage room one last time, and then headed back out for a last visit to Lake Hood. We got more lovely looks at the same water birds we’d seen the day before our tour officially began.

Red-necked Grebe

Greater Scaup

Since we had plenty of time before our evening flight, we got to explore a little further along the lake, taking us to a line of docks people use to get in and out of small seaplanes. That’s where we saw a bird we’d missed first time around there, a Red-throated Loon swimming close to shore. 

Red-throated Loon

Red-throated Loon

It didn’t seem to mind as we approached closer and closer. Finally we reached the dock nearest to the bird and I started walking on it, so focused, literally, on the bird, my eye firmly against my camera’s viewfinder, that I had no clue what was happening when the ground dropped out from under me—the dock I was walking on had a step! I crashed on my knee and hand and as my camera hit the dock, its lens hood popped off into the water. Oops. 

If you’re going to get injured while on a wonderful trip, it’s probably best to wait until the very last day to do it. Russ and I were about to head back to the hotel anyway to eat lunch and lounge around before it was time to take the shuttle to the airport. Taking a big fall while photographing a stunningly beautiful bird was jarring, but I must be more monomaniacal than even I realized, because as I pulled myself up, there was the Red-throated Loon at a perfect angle, and I resumed clicking away on my knees. My camera was working just fine without the lens hood. 

Red-throated Loon

Poor Russ is not monomaniacal about anything, except maybe me—when I finally looked up at him instead of down at the bird, he looked utterly stricken. I was still clicking away while he fished my lens hood out of the water and asked how bad I was hurt. I could still take pictures, so clearly was not at death’s door. When the loon finally swam on to where shrubs blocked my view, Russ helped me to my feet. My knee looked pretty bad, though it didn’t hurt much to stand or to walk. But pulling up my pants leg to see it, I could feel that I’d injured my finger, too. Fortunately, it was on my left hand. Unfortunately, it was my ring finger, and I didn’t think through how I should have instantly taken my wedding ring off. That didn't occur to me until we were back at the hotel and the finger was the color and shape of a sausage. It took a good 20 minutes of icing it and painful twisting and turning to get the ring off. 

I’m on blood thinners, so I would've headed to the emergency room immediately had I hit my head. But the injuries to my knee and finger seemed manageable. We parked ourselves at a table in the hotel lobby to eat lunch and work on our laptops. I backed up all that day’s photos and started writing blog posts while Russ did some actual work. My finger looked way worse than it felt. I could type just fine, and my knee didn’t hurt while I was sitting or walking. 

Russ and I waited to take the shuttle to the airport in the lobby. The glass of ice next to my computer is where I soaked my poor finger after falling at Lake Hood.

The rest of the day was uneventful. The hotel shuttle got us to the airport in plenty of time, and we found a nice quiet spot to wait before boarding. When we got on the plane, a flight attendant brought me some ice for my finger, and then I fell asleep. We arrived in Minneapolis early in the morning and in Duluth at midmorning. Our great Alaska adventure was at an end. 

My knee and entire leg below it were dark purple for over a week, and took a few more weeks to go through that weird rainbow of discoloration before it went back to normal. And my finger is still a bit too swollen to get my wedding ring on. My doctor was much more concerned about my falling at all than about the minor knee or finger injuries, but I reassured him that the fall wasn’t an old lady fall—it was a crazy bird photographer fall. 

Two weeks ago, when my knee still hurt when I knelt and my finger still ached when I tied my shoes, Russ asked if those last loon photos had been worth it. The best Red-throated Loon photos I’d ever taken before this trip were at a very great distance in winter plumage. 

Red-throated Loon

Then I got some decent shots of them on the Nome leg of this trip...

Red-throated Loon on nest

Red-throated Loon

... but nothing like these final closeups. If my injuries had been serious enough to make birding or playing with my grandson harder, I’d say no, it wasn’t worth it. But even right after it happened, the injuries were not serious and now are completely behind me. My camera didn't suffer even a glitch and the lens hood cleaned up good as new. And all those photos are right there to enjoy whenever I like for the rest of my life. I may be crazy, but yep. It was worth it. 

Red-throated Loon