Grand Alaska Part II: Anchorage, Denali Highway & Kenai Peninsula Jun 17—24, 2010
Posted by Kevin Zimmer
Part II of our Grand Alaska tour began in the Denali region. Our drive up the Glenn Highway was scenic, with numerous opportunistic stops for birds, ranging from "Harlan's" Hawks, Merlins, and Gray Jays teed-up atop the countless spruce trees, to handsome male Barrow's Goldeneyes and Surf Scoters on glassy lakes, and responsive Arctic Warblers hammering out their buzzy trills from the alder thickets. Our lunch stop even produced eye-popping views of Northern Flicker and the increasingly uncommon Rusty Blackbird. Almost from the time we left Palmer, we had been on the lookout for Northern Hawk Owl, surveying gnarled spruce tops with a burning intensity. However, this was not one of those good Hawk Owl years (as we had been warned by every tour group that preceded us to Denali), a fact that was becoming increasingly apparent as our vans ate up mile after mile of owl-less taiga.
After lunch, our Hawk Owl search finally took a backseat to another owl quest, this time for a Great Gray Owl that was known to be nesting at a campground off the Glenn Highway. A lunchtime phone call informed me that the young owl was still on the nest, so it was looking increasingly like a slam-dunk. Upon arrival at the campground, the manager escorted us to the nest, which was situated in a messy ball of witches broom more than halfway up a tall spruce. "Junior" was still on the nest, although seemingly not for much longer, as evidenced by his constant hopping about, wing-flapping, and peering down as if to gauge his chances of a successful escape from the platform that was both his home and his prison. And, he wasn't beyond expressing his impatience vocally! In fact, he kept up a continuous stream of food-begging calls that seemed certain to attract some adult supervision. But the minutes ticked by, and no adult was forthcoming. The fuzzy, soon-to-fledge youngster was certainly identifiable as a Great Gray, but didn't have nearly the pizzazz that an adult would provide. Then again, we still had a lot of driving ahead of us. "Fifteen more minutes," I told myself, and then we simply have to get going. To kill time as much as anything, I taped in a Ruby-crowned Kinglet that had been singing in the background. The kinglet was on us like a flash, hopping about in agitation. After a fairly impressive demonstration of wing-flicking, the kinglet made a sudden move to a spruce about 20 feet away. Almost simultaneously, a large gray form flashed past in ghostly silence, only to disappear from sight behind the spruce. "Slowly," I cautioned, "it's going to be the Great Gray." We eased down the path slightly, and there it was, festooned atop a slender snag not 15 feet above the ground! The huge head swung slowly in our direction, and the glaring yellow eyes, which appeared nearly lost against the concentric circles of the outsized facial discs, fixed us for a moment with an imperious stare. And then the great bird swiveled its head and looked the other way—aware of us, but unafraid, and more interested in something going on in the other direction. Time stood still, as we all sat transfixed by the silent intimacy of the moment, our collective breath never failing to catch in our throats each time the gray ghost cast a measured glance back in our direction. And all the while, "Junior" was now conspicuous by his silence, having ceased his incessant pleading the moment his parent came into view. All too soon (and this at least 30 minutes later), we could no longer delay the inevitable—we simply had to walk away with this spectacular predator still sitting there. Our exit route took us even closer to the bird, nearly under it in fact, and still, it sat. Had it not been for the light rain that started to fall, we might still be there. Back at the vans, we could finally exhale. It was one of those magical experiences that happens all too rarely—the chance to spend quality time with a bird of that magnitude, on its terms, without intrusion.
Back on the road now, and spirits too high for even the fruitless Hawk Owl searching to bring down, we soon hit Glennallen and turned onto the Richardson Highway. Mile after mile of taiga and mixed boreal forest rolled by, as eyeballs began to cross from scanning spruce tops. Eventually we came to Paxson, where we exited the Richardson and turned onto the paved eastern end of the famed Denali Highway. The road quickly climbed out of the taiga to treeline, and then broke onto tundra, with an amazing panorama of the Alaska Range unfolding to the north and the Wrangell Mountains spiking up to the southeast. Tangle River Inn was to be our base of operations for the next day-and-a-half, and it didn't disappoint.
The next day we cruised the little-traveled "highway" and made several stomps across the tundra, turning up gems such as Rock and Willow ptarmigan, Long-tailed Jaeger, American Golden-Plover, Whimbrel, Harlequin Duck, and a number of other alpine species that were of particular interest to participants who had not been with us at Nome. On our last day, we drove the length of the Denali Highway, a ribbon of gravel stretching some 130 miles that provides an amazing transect of tundra and taiga habitats. Along the way we enjoyed nice comparisons of Trumpeter and Tundra swans, feisty Say's Phoebes, a swarming colony of Bank Swallows, a great diversity of waterfowl (including a rare Blue-winged Teal), and thicket birds ranging from Arctic Warblers to Gray-cheeked Thrushes. But once again, no Northern Hawk Owl. At Cantwell, we left the gravel behind, and turned onto the George Parks Highway as we headed back to Anchorage. Our few stops en route yielded a Ring-necked Duck and a Lincoln's Sparrow (and plenty of brake-screeching, rubbernecking tourists who figured we had to be looking at a bear or a moose!), and a brief look at the summit of Mt. McKinley.
Our final leg saw us driving to Seward and birding en route. A stop at Potter Marsh yielded a gorgeous and confiding pair of Horned Grebes, and various stops along the scenic Seward Highway produced eye-level views of Golden-crowned Kinglets, male Pine Grosbeaks jump-snatching dandelion seeds, and an adult American Dipper feeding its recently fledged youngster. The weather gods were good to us at Seward, where sunny skies and calm seas resulted in a most pleasant boat trip through Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords National Park. Northwest Glacier calved plenty, Kittlitz's Murrelets allowed close approaches and gave us several good looks (both on the water and in flight), Rhinoceros Auklets were present in numbers and were relatively confiding, and some of the less common species such as Thick-billed Murre and Parakeet Auklet showed nicely. We also enjoyed a spectacular pod of resident orcas, close humpback whales, bow-riding Dall porpoises, sure-footed mountain goats, and some pretty entertaining sea otters and Steller's sea lions. Land-based birding around Seward allowed us to clean up a few missing targets, among them Chestnut-backed Chickadee and Townsend's Warbler.
A "grouse-stomp" on the drive back to Anchorage turned up a much-needed American Three-toed Woodpecker, but not the hoped for Spruce Grouse (despite much effort), which may have replaced Northern Hawk Owl as our object of scorn! Oh well, as Margaret put it (and I'm paraphrasing here), I wouldn't trade our Great Gray Owl for both of those birds!
All in all, a most congenial group of birders got to see a bunch of great birds and mammals, and we had a lot of fun doing it.