Grand Alaska Part II: Anchorage, Denali Highway & Kenai Peninsula Jun 19—27, 2014

Posted by David Wolf

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David Wolf

David Wolf is a senior member of the VENT staff and one of our most experienced tour leaders. After birding the U.S. and Mexico for over a decade, an interest in the wildli...

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Spectacular scenery and the vast Alaskan wilderness define Part II of the Grand Alaska tour. This year we kicked-off with a relaxed “flex day” around Anchorage, with some folks from both Parts I & II joining up for a pleasant day of birding south to Girdwood and back, and then we all met for a get-acquainted dinner. Our adventure began the next morning, as we traveled under gorgeous sunny skies from the Anchorage area to Seward on the Kenai Peninsula.

Trumpeter Swan

Trumpeter Swan— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Our first stop, at West Chester Lagoon right in the heart of Anchorage, produced a flock of 16 stunning Hudsonian Godwits at close range¸ plus numerous breeding Red-necked Grebes and a lovely Pacific Loon amongst the commoner waterfowl. Mew Gull and Arctic Tern chicks and a huge Bald Eagle nest across the lake provided additional entertainment, but a Merlin in the adjacent neighborhood was a big surprise. It always amazes us that such spectacular birds are found right amidst this city. From here we traveled south a bit to Potter’s Marsh, where a lovely Horned Grebe in colorful plumage floated in a shallow ditch right in front of us. From here the scenery just got better and better, with glaciers in the distance and snow-capped mountains plunging right down to the shores of Turnagain Arm, their lower flanks covered in dark forest. Never to be forgotten was the flock of 5 Trumpeter Swans that got up off a coastal pond and winged past this spectacular backdrop. Stops for landbirds failed to produce a Spruce Grouse, but a gorgeous male Townsend’s Warbler and a nice variety of other songbirds provided interest. Two Pine Grosbeaks vigorously chowing down on dandelion seeds and allowing an exceptionally close approach were a great discovery at our lunch stop. We ended the day with Marbled Murrelets bobbing up next to the vehicles as we drove along the shore of Resurrection Bay, right at the base of the coastal mountains.

Merlin

Merlin— Photo: David Wolf

The centerpiece of our three days in the Kenai region is the all-day boat trip from Seward through Resurrection Bay to the Kenai Fiords National Park. This year, dawn on the day of the trip revealed gray skies and a cold rain, which made the boat trip rather unpleasant and kept most of us inside the cabin. Well, in the cabin at least until we spotted Dall’s Porpoises riding the bow and several Humpback Whales, including an incredibly playful youngster that repeatedly leaped completely out of the water, each time crashing down with a great splash! During the course of the day we also spotted Orcas (Killer Whales), Sea Otters, numerous Harbor Seals and Steller’s Sea Lions, and a nanny Mountain Goat with two kids—an incredible array of special mammals on one excursion. As we approached the mouth of Resurrection Bay, we began to spot more and more birds on the water, mostly comical Tufted and Horned puffins and more serious-looking murres. At the Chiswell Islands, Captain Sherry took us up close to groups of Parakeet Auklets and Thick-billed Murres, scarce birds on this trip, and not far from here we found the first of many Rhinoceros Auklets. Ancient Murrelets were more elusive and we only had quick views as they dashed away from us. By noon the rain and clouds had lifted as we entered the icy waters below Aialik Glacier. Here we found our first Kittlitz’s Murrelets, eventually enjoying great looks at birds on the water very close to the boat, all the while enjoying the spectacular sight of this immense glacier plunging right down to the sea. Incredibly, this was our tenth member of the auk family for the day and, in many ways, the rarest and most specialized. By early afternoon the clouds were breaking up, giving us more chances to enjoy the swarms of birds around the Chiswell Islands and on the open passages, while a final stop on the way back produced Red-faced Cormorants, a hard-to-find species in this region. All in all, it was a spectacular day—and then there was that sumptuous seafood meal at Ray’s to end it!

The return trip to Anchorage continued to produce some of the special landbirds of the Kenai, from Rufous Hummingbirds, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, and American Dippers near Seward to Varied Thrushes and an American Three-toed Woodpecker in the spruce forests further along.

Orca and Dall's Porpoise

Orca and Dall’s Porpoise— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

The next day we drove into the vast Alaskan interior on the Glenn and Richardson Highways. This route encompasses so much of what Alaska is all about, from glaciers and spectacular views of the dramatic mountains to vast stretches of boreal forest dotted with muskeg bogs and kettle ponds to alpine tundra on the high slopes and braided rivers in the valleys far below. We broke up the long drive with frequent stops for photos and, of course, saw a number of birds and Moose in the process, but the undisputed highlight of the day was the Northern Hawk Owl spotted by Tresa as we traveled along. The bird was close to the road, and in true hawk-owl fashion it simply sat on its exposed perch, occasionally swiveling its head a little to look at us with fierce yellow eyes, but otherwise oblivious to our presence. High fives all around and off we went after a 30-minute study! At one of our last stops before reaching the Denali Highway, a pair of Bohemian Waxwings appeared just as we were boarding the vans, and we all tumbled out in time to see one teed-up. This is yet another of the ephemeral wanderers of these forests, and sightings are never guaranteed. We were a tired bunch when we arrived at the quaint Tangle River Lodge, but enchanted with the terrain that we had covered today. And, as always, it was a treat to dine with a view of the snowy mountain peaks reflected in the glassy waters of Tangle Lake.

Northern Hawk Owl

Northern Hawk Owl— Photo: David Wolf

The weather turned on us overnight, a frequent occurrence in Alaska, and the next morning was chilly and misty. That didn’t stop us from making a pre-breakfast cruise that produced a close female Willow Ptarmigan guarding her chicks under her while we struggled to spot the well-camouflaged bird from the van. That morning we also saw Moose, a lone Caribou, added Barrow’s Goldeneye to our growing list, and had point-blank views of a singing Arctic Warbler teed-up in full view. By the afternoon, the weather had improved and we found ourselves hiking an alpine tundra. Once again the Smith’s Longspurs were lacking, but we saw the only Lapland Longspurs of this trip, had fantastic looks at gorgeous American Golden-Plovers, and enjoyed an array of beautiful wildflowers. On our way back to the lodge we couldn’t resist stopping for a pair of Tundra Swans and their cygnets quite close to the highway.

Unfortunately the weather turned worse for our last two days, blanketing a vast region in low clouds and prolonged chilly rain. It required some fortitude, but our day on the Denali Highway produced an array of waterfowl, including close comparisons of Trumpeter and Tundra swan pairs on opposite sides of the road at the same time and a trio of Black Scoters, rare in this area. The songbirds were definitely quiet and subdued by the weather, though a family group of Gray Jays did sneak up to us to beg crumbs. Before we knew it, we were back in Anchorage, our Grand Alaska tour for 2014 complete.