Alaska Mainland Jun 13—24, 2010
Posted by Barry Zimmer
"Spruce Grouse!" I yelled, as I simultaneously hit the brakes and steered to the shoulder. This was the one species that had eluded us on our wildly successful 2010 Alaska Mainland tour, and this was the last afternoon of the trip. We were headed back from Denali to Anchorage and were still basking in the afterglow of having just spent 20 minutes with a group of 3 Bohemian Waxwings as close as 40 feet away. The birding was essentially over, and some were dozing off, when I noticed the head and neck of the grouse in some alder stubble on the side of the highway. By the time I was able to stop, the bird had flushed into the forest, and we had gone some distance past the area it had entered. Quickly we emptied the van and began scouring the edge of the forest. A few minutes went by and it looked as though we weren't going to relocate the bird, when suddenly it burst up off the ground in front of me and into a nearby spruce. Here we enjoyed fairly lengthy views as she nervously watched from about 20 feet up. This was a dramatic and exciting ending to our fantastic trip.
Our superb birding began in Nome, my single favorite North American birding destination. We started on the Teller Road where we were greeted by Pacific and Red-throated loons, Bar-tailed Godwit, Pacific and American golden-plovers, Willow and Rock ptarmigan, Long-tailed and Parasitic jaegers, Yellow Wagtail, Lapland Longspur, Snow Bunting, and Hoary and Common redpolls among others. A herd of musk oxen, our first of over 100 individuals, gave us nice views as well. On the Council Road we tallied such highly-sought species as Emperor Goose (rare this late), Spectacled Eider (rare), Arctic Loon (rare but regular the past decade), Gyrfalcon (two different nest sites), a Surfbird from 15 feet (!!!), Aleutian Tern, and Arctic Warbler. A Peregrine Falcon on a nest, several Rough-legged Hawks, Golden Eagle, Common Eider, Black Scoter, Harlequin Duck, Northern Shrike, and hundreds of Tundra Swans and Brant were the icing on the cake. In addition, we had more herds of musk ox, several moose, a herd of reindeer, and fantastic tundra wildflower displays.
The Kougarok Road supplied its own share of highlights the next day. Topping the list was the absolutely stunning male Bluethroat that sat up in a willow and sang for us for over 20 minutes. We eventually walked away from this little Arctic gem, which would be voted the group's favorite bird of the tour! Our hike to look for the nearly mythical Bristle-thighed Curlew yielded wonderful views of 4 of these very rare shorebirds, both on the ground and in display flight. On our last morning we took a final run down to Safety Lagoon where we had our only Black Turnstone, and a few had quick views of a White Wagtail.
With the successes of Nome fresh in our minds, we headed back to Anchorage. Here we had great studies of Hudsonian Godwit, a close Trumpeter Swan, stunning breeding-plumaged Horned and Red-necked grebes, and too many Arctic Terns to count. Then it was on to Seward. The scenic drive produced many highlights of its own, including Dall sheep, mountain goats, a Three-toed Woodpecker, close Varied Thrushes, a family of Dippers, and a gorgeous Pine Grosbeak. In Seward itself, we tallied Marbled Murrelet and Pigeon Guillemot from shore and Northwestern Crows around the city. The next day was our full-day boat trip to Kenai Fjords National Park. Comical sea otters, breaching humpback whales, bow-riding Dall's porpoises, Red-faced Cormorant, Thick-billed and Common murres, Kittlitz's and Ancient murrelets, Rhinoceros and Parakeet auklets, too many Horned and Tufted puffins to count, and a calving tidewater glacier kept us spellbound throughout the day.
The Denali region was our last area to visit. The weather gods cooperated as the skies cleared for the first time in a week and we had Mount McKinley in full view for the entire ride up toward the park. Our shuttle tour the next day yielded Northern Hawk Owl (when none were being seen elsewhere in the area), a Great Horned Owl with a baby, another Gyrfalcon, 3 grizzly bears, and an incredible 6 gray wolves (matching my total from the previous 19 years)!
In addition to all this we enjoyed fabulous salmon, halibut, king crab, and blackberry pie along the way. All in all, a perfect trip to the Last Frontier!