Grand Alaska Part II: Anchorage, Denali Highway & Kenai Peninsula Jun 19—27, 2015
Posted by Kevin Zimmer
We hit the ground running on the first day, with the long drive to Tangle River. 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, seeing no fewer than 5 Merlins, multiple Gray Jays, and a number of waterfowl in the process, but our concerted efforts to locate a Northern Hawk Owl went unrewarded. Just four days earlier, we had traversed the first 173 miles of the Glenn Highway with our Grand Alaska Part I tour group, and had seen 2 Northern Hawk Owls about 6 miles apart along the highway. But on this day, we dipped on the first “stakeout,” and, even worse, found a freshly road-killed Hawk Owl very near the second site, an obvious victim of the increased holiday (Solstice Weekend) traffic. Following this sad discovery, our spirits were lifted considerably when I spotted a Bohemian Waxwing hawking insects from atop a black spruce not far from the road. We were able to stop in time, back up, off-load, and obtain scope views for everyone of a couple of these high-priority birds. I was particularly pleased, knowing that most other groups that preceded us in the Denali region were reporting a dearth of waxwings. It was good to have this often-tough-to-see bird in the bag early (and, indeed, these were the only ones we were to see for the tour).
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 boreal forest 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 5th consecutive “down” year for Smith’s Longspur, a small population of which breeds sporadically 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 concerted tundra stomps 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, despite many groups having come through looking specifically for the longspur.
Our alpine hikes were still most enjoyable, as we netted great views of 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 Bald Eagles, to a dressy male Harlequin Duck along the Tangle River, to American Dippers feeding young along the Gulkana River, to a lovely pair of Willow Ptarmigan (Alaska’s state bird, and completely “browned out” in this very advanced spring) with at least 5 downy youngsters, to Arctic Warblers hammering out their trills from atop felt-leaf willows, and to Lesser Yellowlegs singing from atop spruce trees. Mammals were less in evidence than usual, although we did see Moose, Caribou, and Beaver. We also had some brief studies of the diminutive and rarely seen Collared Pika amid an alpine talus field.
On our second day in the region, we birded our way west along the entire gravel stretch of the Denali Highway, exiting at Cantwell, and heading north a short distance to our lodge on the banks of the Nenana River, just 7 miles south of the national park. But before leaving the Denali Highway behind for the day, we made a few targeted stops in an area where the VENT Alaska Highlights group had seen a Northern Hawk Owl just two days earlier. On our second stop, we struck pay dirt when we were tipped off to the presence of the owl by the persistent alarm calls of a nearby American Robin. Initially out-of-sight (and probably perching low, judging by the behavior of the robin), the owl responded to a little playback by teeing up on a spruce, where we were able to enjoy some prolonged, superb views of this iconic northern predator.
We returned to the Denali Highway the following morning to focus on the taiga zone of the highway’s western end. The biggest surprise of the morning came in the form of a calling Northern Bobwhite that I taped in and ultimately herded into the open for everyone to see. Rafael and I had actually encountered (and photographed) 2–3 Bobwhite on a late-evening cruise the previous night. When first seen along the roadside, we expected that they would be young Spruce Grouse, but no such luck. These birds, far out of range, were clearly part of some deliberate release or introduction, probably for hunting purposes. Although not a “countable” bird, it was, nevertheless, a jolt to the system to find multiple individuals scattered along the Denali Highway. Much more exciting was the female American Three-toed Woodpecker that we saw so well near Willow on our return drive to Anchorage, thanks to a report that had just surfaced on eBird.
The Kenai Peninsula was equally exciting. Stops in and around Seward over the next few days produced dazzling Townsend’s Warblers, confiding Pine Grosbeaks, hulking big Song Sparrows and sooty brown Fox Sparrows, a few Rufous Hummingbirds, American Dippers feeding young, Northwestern Crows, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Varied Thrushes, Steller’s Jays, and a virtuoso vocal performance by a very territorial Pacific Wren. 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, which we shared with the VENT Alaska Highlights tour group. Northwestern Glacier calved plenty; Kittlitz’s Murrelets were present in numbers, allowed close approaches, and gave us exceptional looks (both on the water and in flight); and we secured good looks at several Thick-billed Murres and Parakeet Auklets (both species are very uncommon in the region) to go with the thousands of Common Murres and Horned and Tufted puffins, and lesser numbers of Pigeon Guillemots, Marbled Murrelets, and Rhinoceros Auklets. We also enjoyed close views of nesting Black Oystercatcher, a spectacular pod of resident Orcas that included a cow with a calf, many close Humpback Whales, and some pretty entertaining Dall’s Porpoises, Sea Otters, Harbor Seals, and Steller’s Sea Lions. Back on shore, we also enjoyed some sumptuous seafood meals at Ray’s and Chinooks.
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! Thanks for letting us introduce you to the natural wonders of mainland Alaska. Rafael and I hope to bird with each of you again in the near future.