Grand Alaska Part II: Anchorage, Denali Highway & Kenai Peninsula Jun 18—26, 2012
Posted by Kevin Zimmer
Part II of our Grand Alaska adventure kicked off with a "flex day" out of Anchorage, in which folks continuing on from Part I enjoyed some relaxed birding along the Seward Highway from Anchorage to Summit Lake. The entire group would end up birding these same areas later in the tour, but this was a nice opportunity to enjoy some exceptional scenery and great looks at some special birds. Particularly noteworthy was the very territorial American Dipper along the road to Portage Glacier. The entire group assembled for dinner in the evening, with anticipation running high for our impending drive to the Tangle Lakes region of the Denali Highway.
Northern Hawk Owl, Glenn Highway, Alaska, June 19, 2012— Photo: Kevin Zimmer
Our drive up the Glenn and Richardson highways to Paxson encompassed so much of what interior Alaska is all about, as the road alternately ascended alpine slopes overlooking glacier-fed, braided river valleys, and then descended into vast areas of taiga forest dotted with muskeg bogs and kettle lakes and ponds. A moose in the road just outside of Palmer provided additional evidence that we weren't in Kansas anymore, as did the roadside overlook of the impressive Matanuska Glacier. We punctuated the long drive with frequent stops for such goodies as Townsend's Solitaire, Trumpeter Swan, Barrow's Goldeneye, Rusty Blackbird, and a very cooperative Bohemian Waxwing, among many others. Two birding highlights really stood out above all others. The first came when I spotted a couple of Gray Jays teed-up in the tops of spruce trees on the right side of the road. I pulled over immediately and wanted to make sure that everyone saw the birds before we got out of the van for better looks. While I was giving verbal directions to the jays, Claire called my attention to a larger bird that was perched less conspicuously in a nearby tree. It was a Northern Hawk Owl, our primary target for the day, and the reason that the jays were hanging tight to their position! We all piled out of the van, and the owl, with mobbing jays in tow, flew off a short distance. A little bit of playback soon brought it back to the forest-edge, where we were able to enjoy prolonged, spectacular views. This was a real break, coming as it did in an apparently down-year for Hawk Owls in interior Alaska (most of the tour leaders that I spoke with missed Hawk Owl this year, and the ones that did see it were finding vagrant individuals in places like Nome where they do not typically occur). The second highlight, and one that was completely unexpected, came in the form of two recently fledged juvenile Boreal Owls, fully capable of flight, that were found by Peter and Susan, two of our friends from the Gambell-Nome and Grand Alaska Part I tours, who were birding the region via RV, and who happened to be staying in the campground where we stopped to bird! This was an incredible bit of serendipity, and we all reveled in point-blank views of these rarely seen northern owls until a swarm of hungry mosquitoes, a light rain shower, and the ticking clock conspired to force us back to the van. We arrived at our lodge on the Denali Highway in time for dinner, still basking in the afterglow of our one-two owl punch.
Boreal Owl (juvenile), Glenn Highway, Alaska, June 19, 2012— Photo: Kevin Zimmer
Our next two days were spent exploring the wilderness of the Denali Highway region. 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. Sadly, it appeared to be a second consecutive down-year for Smith's Longspur, a small population of which breeds in fluctuating numbers along the Denali Highway, far removed from the Brooks Range and the bulk of the Alaska population. We made a couple of tundra stomps in areas where we have seen the longspur in previous years, but without success. In the process, we did net such alpine breeders as Whimbrel, Long-tailed Jaeger, and Lapland Longspur, all seen against the magnificent backdrop of the Alaska Range, and surrounded by tundra ablaze with wildflowers. Other highlights were numerous, ranging from nice comparisons of Trumpeter and Tundra swans to ridiculously tame Bald Eagles, to dressy Harlequin Ducks hauled out on boulders along rushing streams, to Arctic Warblers hammering out their trills from atop felt-leaf willows, and to Lesser Yellowlegs singing from atop spruce trees. A family group of Northern Shrikes at point-blank range was a real treat, as were a lovely pair of Black Scoters, an unexpected male Eurasian Wigeon at Tangle Lakes, and a male Blackpoll Warbler that was close enough to touch. Mammals were well-represented too, ranging from massive moose to caribou, red fox, and porcupine, but we got the biggest kick out of the diminutive, but highly entertaining collared pikas that enlivened the alpine talus fields. Our return drive to Anchorage was highlighted by sensational views of Mt. McKinley (Denali), with both peaks showing nicely.
Mount McKinley, Alaska, June 22, 2012— Photo: Kevin Zimmer
The Kenai Peninsula was equally exciting, beginning with our stop at Potter Marsh on the way out of Anchorage. The Horned Grebe that performed so well for our Part I group provided us with an encore performance, and we enjoyed crippling views of a number of breeding birds, ranging from Violet-green Swallows to Lincoln's Sparrows, with a baby Sandhill Crane and its parents thrown in for good measure. Stops in and around Seward over the next few days produced dazzling Townsend's Warblers, confiding Pine Grosbeaks, an incandescent male Rufous Hummingbird, and Chestnut-backed Chickadees that we had to back away from to photograph. A voraciously feeding flock of more than 50 White-winged Crossbills that blanketed a campground along the Seward Highway on our return drive to Anchorage provided stellar studies of that nomadic and highly unpredictable species. The centerpiece of our three days in the region was our full-day boat trip out of Seward 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 Ancient Murrelet, Thick-billed Murre, and Sooty and Short-tailed shearwaters showed nicely. We also enjoyed a spectacular pod of transient orcas in apparent pursuit of a Dall's porpoise, a pod of rarely seen fin whales, many close humpback whales, a mountain goat that was feeding much lower on the slopes than normal, and some pretty entertaining Steller's sea lions.
All in all, 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!