Grand Alaska Part II: Anchorage, Denali Highway & Kenai Peninsula Jun 17—25, 2013

Posted by Kevin Zimmer

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Kevin Zimmer

Kevin Zimmer has authored three books and numerous papers dealing with field identification and bird-finding in North America. His book, Birding in the American West: A Han...

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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 in and around Anchorage.  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.

Trumpeter Swan, Denali Highway, Alaska, June 2013

Trumpeter Swan, Denali Highway, Alaska, June 2013— 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.  From views of the receding but still impressive Matanuska Glacier to a spectacular panorama of the Alaska Range, we were seldom without a breathtaking view during the course of the long travel day.  We broke up the drive with frequent stops for birds or moose, seeing a number of waterfowl (including Trumpeter Swans and a lovely pair of Surf Scoters) in the process, but our concerted efforts to locate a Northern Hawk Owl went unrewarded.  Over the next few days we devoted much time to scanning the spruce tops for hawk-owls, but there just did not seem to be any around.  We were not alone in our futility—every tour leader and individual birder I spoke with during the month reported the same total absence of hawk owls, a sure sign that vole populations were in a crash part of their cycle.  Upon arriving at our lodge we were greeted by a nesting pair of Say’s Phoebes that were hanging around the parking area in front of the restaurant.  As always, it was a treat to dine with a view of the still snowy mountain peaks reflected in the glassy waters of Tangle Lakes.

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 third 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 stops in areas where we have seen the longspur in previous years, but without success, and, indeed, there had not been a single report of the species on the lodge sightings log for the entire spring.

Arctic Warbler, Denali Highway, Alaska, June 2013

Arctic Warbler, Denali Highway, Alaska, June 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Our alpine hikes were still most enjoyable, as we netted great views of such alpine breeders as Whimbrel (including a nest with eggs), American Golden-Plover, 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 nice showings by comical Willow Ptarmigan (Alaska’s state bird), to Arctic Warblers hammering out their trills from atop felt-leaf willows and Lesser Yellowlegs singing from atop spruce trees.  The numbers of (mostly male) diving ducks seen on the various lakes were a treat, highlighted by a flock of 48 Barrow’s Goldeneyes and a flock of 13 White-winged Scoters, both on Tangle Lakes.  Given the prevalence of male diving ducks this late into the season, it seemed especially odd that we saw no Long-tailed Ducks—this marking the first time I have not seen the species along the east end of the Denali Highway.  Gray Jays were also curiously missing in action (although we caught up with them on the Kenai Peninsula later in the trip), but we did score good views of three typically scarce passerines—Northern Shrike, Rusty Blackbird, and Bohemian Waxwing.  Mammals were well-represented too, ranging from massive Moose to Caribou (including one individual madly sprinting down the road toward us as it was fleeing a car coming from the other direction), and multiple Porcupines, 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 ephemeral but nice views of much of Mt. McKinley (Denali), with both peaks showing briefly.

Barrow's Goldeneye, Denali region, Alaska, June 2013

Barrow’s Goldeneye, Denali region, Alaska, June 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

The Kenai Peninsula was equally exciting, beginning with our stop at Potter Marsh on the way out of Anchorage, where we watched a pair of Horned Grebes feeding their youngsters at minimum-focal range.  Stops in and around Seward over the next few days produced dazzling Townsend’s Warblers, an exceptionally responsive Golden-crowned Sparrow, confiding Pine Grosbeaks, hulking big Song Sparrows and sooty-brown Fox Sparrows, a few Rufous Hummingbirds, a family of North American Dippers, and Chestnut-backed Chickadees that we had to back away from to photograph. 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.  Aialik  Glacier calved plenty, Kittlitz’s Murrelets were present in numbers, and allowed close approaches and gave us exceptional looks (both on the water and in flight), and we secured good looks at several of the less common possibilities, including Rhinoceros and Parakeet auklets, and (for most people) Ancient Murrelet.  We also enjoyed a spectacular pod of resident Orcas fishing side by side with several Dall’s Porpoise, a rarely seen Fin Whale, many close Humpback Whales, and some pretty entertaining Sea Otters, Harbor Seals, and Steller’s Sea Lions.  Back on shore, we had some sumptuous seafood meals at Ray’s, and scoped several Mountain Goats from our hotel parking lot as we were loading the vans to head back to Anchorage.

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!