Archivy etc.

opinions, occasional rants, and sometimes things that have nothing to do with archives at all. Nothing here should be assumed to be reflective of my employer's opinion(s) nor should it be assumed that at anytime afterward, this is what I still think.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Epic birding

I'm not a very good birder. I'll call myself a birder, unlike so many of my birding friends, but the reality is, I'm pretty bad at it. LBJs? Yeah, right. Does anybody know what a juvenile rock dove (i.e. pigeon aka sky rat) actually looks like? And don't ask me to tell the difference between a greater and a lesser scaup without both of the sitting dead ahead of me without moving for a minimum of 20 minutes.

This past couple of weeks, I had a couple of birder friends come visit. In 9 days total, we put over 1000 miles on my car plus some additional miles on my Alaska Airlines account. Our route went something like this:
Tuesday: drive around Anchorage
Wednesday: drive to Seward, visit the SeaLife Center, take a 6 hour boat cruise out to Aialik Bay and the Chiswell Islands, drive back to Anchorage
Thursday: drive to Whittier, take the ferry to Valdez, drive around Valdez
Friday: drive from Valdez to Anchorage
Saturday: drive around Anchorage
Sunday: get up at Stupid O'Clock and fly to Barrow (with a brief stop at Prudhoe Bay) and drive around Barrow all day
Monday: drive around Barrow all day, return to Anchorage late night
Tuesday: drive from Anchorage to Homer, drive around Homer
Wednesday: drive around Homer, drive back to Anchorage
Thursday morning: take my friends back out to the airport, crash, and sleep for approximately 32 hours (I got sick round about the time we came back from Valdez. It's not quite over yet.)

The following is the list of birds I saw and felt I could reasonably identify. Locale helped a little: if it's a big gull with pink legs in Barrow? It's a glaucous. There's really no other option. Don't ask me to identify a glaucous in Seward. Though for some strange reason I'm pretty confident with the dowitchers these days. Not so much with the other sandpipers and variants, but dowitchers, I got 'em. And after seeing what seemed like billions of greater white-fronted geese in Barrow, having one strafe the car on the Spit out in Homer a day later allowed me to identify it immediately. I may not be able to do that next summer.

Here's my list:

American dipper American golden plover American pipit American robin American wigeon Arctic tern Bald eagle Barrow's Goldeneye Belted kingfisher Black bellied plover Black scoter Black-billed magpie Blackcapped chickadee Blacklegged kittiwake Bonaparte's gull Canada goose Cliff swallow Common merganser Common raven Common redpoll Dark eyed junco Double crested cormorant Eurasian wigeon Gadwall Glaucous gull Gray jay Greater scaup Greater white fronted goose Greater yellowlegs Green winged teal Harlequin duck Herring gull Horned grebe Ivory gull Lapland longspur Lesser scaup Lesser yellowlegs Mallard Marbled murrelet Merlin Mew gull Northern harrier Northern pintail Northern shoveler Northwestern crow Pacific loon Pectoral sandpiper Pelagic cormorant Pigeon guillemot Red necked grebe Red necked phalarope Ring necked duck Ring-necked pheasant Rock dove Sandhill crane Savannah sparrow Semi-palmated sandpiper Short billed dowitcher Snow bunting Snow geese Snowy owl Song sparrow Surf scoter Tree swallow Trumpeter swan Tundra swan Varied thrush Violet green swallow Whimbrel White crowned sparrow White winged scoter Yellow rumped warbler Peregrine falcon

That would be 73 species, total. Yes, the falcon is out of alpha order, but I just remembered it and didn't want to reformat the last third of that list. My friends got a few more--some birds I caught glimpses of, but not enough for me to take a shot at identifying, like a hoary redpoll up in Barrow and one of the woodpecker types at Westchester Lagoon here in Anchorage. And of course, all those gulls that I'm no good at picking up the tells on, like glaucous winged gulls in Seward. Or the thrush up on Hillside that was tentatively identified as either a Swainson's or a Hermit, and I really have no hope of further identification on that one.

Since I'm relatively new to birding, I ended up with 20 species for my life list. Many of which I've probably seen in the wild before, just that I wasn't counting them--or even paying much attention--at the time, so this is a first.

But I'm not all about the checking off the list thing, though I do that too. Some of these were far more fascinating for what was going on with them. The pectoral sandpipers? Okay, those were a new one for my life list, but we were parked at an overlook by a slough area in Valdez when we spotted the flock. And suddenly whoosh: most of the flock took wing. Why? A merlin (which I have seen before) was hunting them. The American dipper? That's a fairly new one to my list (saw it just two weeks before this trip) but while observing a pair of them near Valdez, one put on a great show for us by swimming underwater where we could see him/her, catching a small fish, feeding it to the other, and then going out and fishing some more.

If I'd have read the guide and what it said about dippers I'd have known they can swim underwater, but how cool was it to actually see the behavior? And the 100 or so bald eagles and bald eagle juveniles just hanging out in this grassy field near the mouth of Deep Creek north of Homer. I took a picture of one section of the field.

I can count about 22 eagles in it, but I know there are more. And what the heck was the American Robin--one of the most ubiquitous harbingers of spring--doing in Barrow, Alaska, in mid-May anyway? (Global warming, anybody?)

We had a pretty funny travel guide up in Barrow the first day. He's the one who spotted the first snowy owl for us. (You look for high points on the tundra and look for the owl-shaped silhouette to see them. Really. This one was still in full winter plumage so spotting a white bird against white ground against a light grey sky?) Our guide was a little bemused by the whole birder thing. Accustomed to birders, yes, he sees lots of them, but he doesn't entirely get why people do this and often pay lots of money to do it. I made him laugh out loud when he asked if we were all birders and I answered yes, but I was the Ringo Starr of the group.

Honestly? I don't entirely get why people pay lots of money to do this, either. The Barrow trip wasn't as costly as could be--another friend donated use of her place to house my friends while in Anchorage so that saved them several nights worth of hotel costs which in turn helped pay for the flight to Barrow (I didn't have any plans for that AkAir companion fare anyhow and I have a goodly amount of air miles stocked up. 3 full fares to Barrow? Not so much. 1 full, 1 companion fare, and 1 air miles fare? That's doable).  I really started paying attention to the birds partly once I moved to Alaska because at some point while traveling around the state I realized that I was seeing birds, regularly, that other people took once-in-a-lifetime trips to see. Like the Kittlitz's Murrelet. Or Thick-Billed Murres. Or Northwestern Crows (don't ask, I don't understand that one either.)

And honestly, I still get way more excited by some of the charismatic megafauna in Alaska than I do by the birds. On that boat trip out of Seward? We saw a fin whale. What a fin whale was doing in the entrance to Resurrection Bay, nobody quite knows, but that was very cool. And orcas. And northern sea otters. And stellar sea lions. And harbor seals. And a muskrat. And Dall sheep. And Dall porpoise. And a humpbacked whale. And mountain goats. And a black bear. And a snowshoe hare.  And caribou along the Glenn Highway just outside of Glennallen. And the mother moose with her gangly babies that were probably no more than 3 days old in Homer.

How cute are they? You don't even want to know how many photos I took of them. (Less than 20).

But, okay. I saw a snowy owl. A real, live, snowy owl. Not in a zoo. On a snowdrift on the tundra (and later on a utility pole). Still in winter plumage. A snowy owl. That was cool. No eiders yet, but this totally makes up for that. Besides, this was my third trip to Barrow. One of these days, I'll get up there and I'll get to see eiders. I SAW A SNOWY OWL.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Travel crankies

[for those of you who are wondering... American Airlines does have a complaint form on their website. It has a limit of 1500 characters. I had way too much to explain.]

Dear American Airlines:

 I think you have a severe morale problem. Actually, I think you have more than that, but I’ll start there.

 Last Tuesday, May 8, I was on flight 1448: ORD-DCA departing 10:35 am CDT along with a number of elderly Japanese tourists. As the gate attendant began calling sections, the tourists lined up behind their guide who was able to board early, presumably because of his priority status with the airline. When the first two of this group attempted to board prior to their group number being called, they were turned away with what I can only describe as extreme surliness on the part of the attendant. He actually yelled at them: “Go away” a couple of times with shooing hand motions. Frankly, if anybody deserved to be yelled at, it was their American guide who hadn’t provided sufficient instructions to them regarding the boarding process and who did not stay with his group. I was appalled at the rudeness displayed to these tourists in our country, I was shocked that the gate attendant made no effort whatsoever to communicate with them regarding when they could board. A simple pointing at the group number on their boarding passes and a “wait” probably would have been sufficient, despite the language barrier.

Added to this the fact that all but two of the flight attendants on this flight appeared to be monosyllabic, and it all shouts to me that American Airlines staff are exceedingly unhappy. Nobody would be as actively or passively rude—especially people in positions like these who presumably undergo regular customer service training—unless something was seriously wrong in the workplace. Do these personnel need a reminder of how to treat customers in order to sustain their continued use of the airline? Yes, but perhaps American should also investigate what is happening that causes their workers not to live up to their customer service promise.

 And then there was the return flight, 507, on Saturday, May 12. The flight and gate attendants were perfectly courteous and kind, no complaints there (one wonders what would cause such a difference in behavior). However, I’m still trying to figure out why American Airlines would not have fueled the plane with sufficient fuel to survive a few times circling (or in this case, traveling to the west and turning around) O’Hare when O’Hare is notorious for landing delays. Instead, we were diverted to Indianapolis to refuel so we could land safely at O’Hare. I understand in these days of high fuel costs and the relationship of fuel weight to fuel consumption issues with an airplane that it must be tempting to load just enough fuel for any given flight. But diverting could not have been inexpensive for the airline, and it was a significant pain for me.

Because of the diversion, I missed my direct flight to Anchorage by just a few minutes, when I had deliberately scheduled sufficient time for the transfer at O’Hare. I was re-routed to Seattle and then to Anchorage, and what should have been an 11-hour travel day ended up be a 15.5 hour travel day. Then there was the extreme crowding on the ORD-SEA flight: I would have thought some attempt would have been made to accommodate those of use who had been subjects of the diverted flight with slightly more comfortable seats. No, I had a middle seat in such crowded conditions that I couldn’t work on my laptop, work on my needlework, or, in fact, even work on my smartphone—there simply wasn’t elbow room for me to move at all. I’m not a particularly small woman, I’ll admit, but I’ve never had a 4+ hour flight where I could do nothing but sleep or stare at the head of the person in front of me. Under the circumstances, i.e. traveler already significantly discommoded by the airline, an aisle or window seat was the least you could have done. Really, I expect better treatment of your clientele who have had their travel plans disrupted through issues well within the airline’s control. The pilot of the DCA-ORD flight was very communicative and apologized for the diversion, the flight attendants expressed their dismay, but frankly, the airline needed to do more.

If these kinds of events are the result of an airline in serious financial trouble, I’m here to tell you that improving your customer relations can assist in improving the bottom line. I’ve been traveling a fair amount the last year—not weekly or daily, but on average a flight a month—and no other trip has been as bad as this. This experience certainly ensured that I will do my utmost to avoid any either directly booked or code-share flights that involve American in future. It had been years since I’ve traveled on American Airlines. Based on this experience, I’m hoping it will again be years before I need to do so again. I suspect a few of my fellow passengers—in both directions—are making similar comments.