Grand Alaska Part II: Anchorage, Denali Highway & Kenai Peninsula Jun 10—18, 2011
Posted by Kevin Zimmer
This year's tour was anything but normal, thanks to the pairing of the Alaskan weather gods with good-old human incompetence. An instrument breakdown, combined with Bering Sea weather that produced a fog ceiling below FAA-mandated visual landing minimums, stranded Kevin and two participants on the Pribilofs on the day that our Denali/Seward trip was set to begin. This stranding ultimately lasted for two days, meaning that Brad and the rest of the group had to soldier it alone for the day of birding in Anchorage (with a nice Spruce Grouse as the reward), as well as the next day's drive up the Glenn and Richardson Highways to Tangle River. Kevin, Mike, and Ann followed a day later, trying to catch up on as many birds as possible en route (and scoring nicely with some spiffy pick-ups such as Northern Hawk Owl, Surf Scoter, Bohemian Waxwing, and Townsend's Solitaire), while Brad & Company spent the day birding the east end of the famed Denali Highway. In the process, they netted such alpine tundra species as Rock Ptarmigan, Long-tailed Jaeger, Whimbrel, and Lapland Longspur, as well as a just-arriving Arctic Warbler. Sadly, it appeared to be a down year for Smith's Longspur, which could not be found.
By evening of the third day, the two leaders and the whole group were united at last, in time for our crossing of the entire Denali Highway, and subsequent drive to Anchorage. We made a second unsuccessful stab at the Smith's Longspur before heading west. The Denali Highway really does provide a magnificent transect of central Alaskan habitats, starting in taiga at Paxson, climbing into alpine tundra for much of the eastern end all the way to MacLaren Summit, and then dropping into lower elevation muskeg and taiga for the western leg. Along the way, we had some staggering, walk-up studies of a male Rock Ptarmigan, and got Mike and Ann caught up on Arctic Warbler. Various stops produced nice studies of both Trumpeter and Tundra swans, lots of Barrow's Goldeneyes, an obliging Say's Phoebe, close views of American Tree Sparrows and Blackpoll Warblers, and a fly-by of a calling Upland Sandpiper among others.
I wanted desperately to find a hawk owl for the entire group, especially since three of us had seen one so well the previous day. Unfortunately, time was working against us. The second try for the longspur, coupled with the need to try to re-find several species seen by part of the previously split group but not by the other, had us running behind schedule, which was not a good thing on a day that we had to bird our way along 135 miles of gravel road and still drive 4 more hours to Anchorage! Mile after mile we scanned the spruce tops, but every suspicious blob resolved into either a Gray Jay, Merlin, or a tuft of spruce needles. Finally, I decided to stop in an area that just looked good and play some tape. My playback brought an immediate response, not from an owl, but from a bunch of fired-up American Robins and smaller birds, all of which started alarming and scolding in response to the perceived presence of a predator. I remarked to Brad, "With a hot-button response like this from the small birds, I bet anything there's a hawk owl around here somewhere." But continued playback brought only more mobbing behavior and no owl. I told Brad that I was going to drive up the road a short distance and try again. I drove slightly more than a quarter-mile, told folks to wait in the van, and then tried the tape again. Immediately, the robins and Gray Jays started alarming, but this time their alarms heralded a long-tailed, gray ghost of a bird, flying toward me at eye level. "Hawk owl, hawk owl—everyone out of the van!" I shouted. I grabbed for the radio and signaled the others while racing back for the scope. As it turned out, I needn't have hurried. The hawk owl swooped up to the top of a spruce at the edge of the road and sat there clucking with indignation as Brad pulled his van in behind ours. Over the next 45 minutes we took turns enjoying the scope-filling views and attempting to photograph the repeated attempts of the robins to dive-bomb the owl. The owl flinched with each pass by the robins, but did not look overly concerned. But suddenly, the owl's reaction changed markedly, when a strafing bird actually made contact, eliciting a dramatic crouch and some very agitated vocalizations. That strafing bird turned out to be a Northern Shrike, which, in a perverse game of "tag" decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and very quickly got out of Dodge before the hawk owl could retaliate. I can honestly say that was the first time I've watched a Northern Hawk Owl attacked by a Northern Shrike! Eventually, the robins tired of their sport, the owl was preening and otherwise preoccupied, and we felt the pull of the ticking clock. It's not easy to turn your back and drive away from a close Northern Hawk Owl, but we did it.
Our final leg saw us driving to Seward, and birding en route. A stop at Potter Marsh yielded a gorgeous and confiding Horned Grebe, and various stops along the scenic Seward Highway produced below eye level views of Golden-crowned Kinglets, male and female Pine Grosbeaks jump-snatching dandelion seeds practically at our feet (photographers were literally backing up to focus!), crippling views of Golden-crowned Sparrow, and adult American Dippers feeding two recently fledged youngsters. The Dipper spot yielded some extra excitement in the form of a very large brown bear (grizzly) that walked out of the thicket on the opposite side of the tiny creek not 30 yards from us. Fortunately, the massive ursine took one look and fled the scene.
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 exceptional 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 Sooty and Short-tailed shearwaters showed nicely. We also enjoyed a spectacular pod of resident orcas, close humpback whales, a beach-combing black bear, 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.
All in all, in spite of some logistical glitches beyond our control, a most congenial group of birders got to see a bunch of great birds and mammals and some of the most spectacular scenery that Alaska has to offer, and, we had a lot of fun doing it!