Grand Alaska Part II: Anchorage, Denali Highway & Kenai Peninsula Jun 18—26, 2016

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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Spring came early to Alaska this year, following a winter with relatively little snow in most parts of the state. We felt the effects on the birds throughout the entire month of our Alaska tours, and although climate irregularities had negligible (if any) impact on the species tallied, there was no denying that the breeding cycles of birds and flowering cycles of plants were “off.” By the time our Grand Alaska Part II tour commenced (on June 18), fireweed was blooming all along Alaskan roadsides, the boreal forest was largely bereft of bird song, most birds had already fledged young, and most male ducks were already running around in “bachelor” groups (leaving females to care for the youngsters), and had even begun molting into their eclipse plumages. Biologically, everything seemed more like mid-July than mid-June. We enjoyed unusually warm, dry conditions almost throughout, and because it had been such a dry winter and spring, conditions were poor for mosquitoes to breed, even though they had emerged earlier than usual. In fact, with only one notable exception, we barely encountered mosquitoes during our trip. This definitely was not the same Alaska that I have been birding for the past 30 years!

Black-backed Woodpecker

Black-backed Woodpecker— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

In most years, we have a “flex” or transition day between Part I and Part II of our Grand Alaska tour. Typically, we use this day as an optional day of birding in Anchorage for participants continuing from Part I to Part II, with Part II officially commencing with dinner that night. This year was very unusual in that for the first time ever, we had 100% turnover in participants from the first group to the second group, meaning that technically speaking, Brian and I had the day off to rest between the two tours. However, in looking at my leader packet, I noticed that 10 of our participants had elected to arrive a full day prior to the start of the tour, and that they would already be in the hotel in Anchorage when our Grand Alaska Part I group returned from the Pribilofs. Not wanting to squander the opportunity for some “bonus” birding for the group, we elected to offer an optional day excursion for any participants already in the hotel. I had originally conceived this as a typical day of birding in Anchorage. However, once again, circumstances unique to this season altered my plans. In June of 2015, what was dubbed “The Sockeye Fire” burned a huge swath of spruce-dominated forest north of Willow (about 80 miles from Anchorage). A year later, local birders had discovered that the burn had been colonized by exceptional numbers of American Three-toed and Black-backed woodpeckers. Brian and I had scouted the site the day before our Gambell-Nome tour started and found it swarming with woodpeckers. Just driving the back roads through the burn revealed telltale signs of woodpecker activity everywhere, in the form of bunches of trees with freshly scraped bark. American Three-toed Woodpecker is a low-density species that we see on most (but not all) of our tours into the interior of Alaska. Black-backed Woodpecker is much harder to find until you get north to around Fairbanks, and, indeed, it had been several years since we last saw one on the tour. Given this unique opportunity to score two hard-to-get woodpeckers in one excursion, we opted to change the venue for our optional group birding excursion from Anchorage to the Sockeye Burn.

The Alaska Range, as viewed from the Denali Highway

Alaska Range viewed from the Denali Highway— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

So it was that the morning of June 18 found us driving north to Willow, with two vans of eager birders, some eight hours before our first “official” group activity. Once at the burn, we didn’t have long to wait before the action commenced. A group of three Ospreys soaring over at our first stop proved fortuitous. Before long, we had located our first woodpecker, a Black-backed, and, best of all, it was attending an active nest, making repeated trips to feed youngsters whose high-pitched and incessant food-begging calls had alerted us to the nest before we had even seen the adult birds. After observing the activity at the Black-backed nest for some time, we continued along the network of gravel roads in search of an American Three-toed. In the process, we encountered a variety of other boreal forest birds, including Alder Flycatcher, Boreal Chickadees, and White-winged Crossbills. Eventually, we hit on an American Three-toed Woodpecker and, in very short order, found its nest as well. Interestingly, of the several feeding trips that we had witnessed at the Black-backed nest, all but one had involved the female. The situation at the Three-toed nest was reversed, in that only the male seemed to be actively feeding the young. The day had been a huge success, and we crossed our fingers that both nests would still be active in four days, which would be our first chance to return to the burn with the entire group in tow.

Smith's Longspur

Smith’s Longspur— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

We hit the ground running the next day (the first “official” day of the tour), 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, in the process, an impressive variety of waterfowl, including Surf and Black scoters, Barrow’s Goldeneye (all females), and good numbers of Buffleheads. Raptors were also well-represented, with Bald and Golden Eagles showing well, along with Merlin, American Kestrel, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and a couple of “Harlan’s” Red-tailed Hawks. Sadly, despite much searching, we could not turn up any Northern Hawk Owls along the same stretch of the Glenn Highway where we had found two in 2015. We did end up with fabulous views of Townsend’s Solitaire, Olive-sided and Alder flycatchers, and a pair of Solitary Sandpipers that protested our presence from atop small trees. Best of all, a stop for a pair of Red-throated Loons ended up delivering a bonus in the form of multiple Bohemian Waxwings and a family group of Gray Jays working the edges of the same small lake.

American Golden-Plover

American Golden-Plover— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

Our next two days were spent exploring the wilderness of the Denali Highway region. This rather grandly named gravel road 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. The undisputed birding highlight of our time on the Highway was finding Smith’s Longspurs for the first time in six years! A small population of these attractive and poorly known birds breeds sporadically in fluctuating numbers along the Denali Highway, far removed from the Brooks Range and the bulk of the Alaska population. There was a stretch of several years during which we enjoyed a fair measure of success in finding this iconic species, but the birds have proven elusive over a good chunk of the last decade. This year, we devoted much of our first morning out of the Tangle Lakes area to searching some alpine tundra that had proven reliable in the past, but once again, the longspurs were nowhere to be seen. Acting on reports of longspurs being seen at a different location nearly two weeks earlier, we decided to spend the entire afternoon checking out the “new” site. This involved another off-road hike of perhaps two miles roundtrip, through low willow thickets and across some soggy tundra, while braving what proved to be the only dense swarms of mosquitoes that Brian and I would encounter during an entire month of back-to-back Alaska tours. Despite any such hardships, our efforts were rewarded when we jumped a pair of Smith’s Longspurs plus a closely associated 2nd female that Brian tracked to an active nest (with one egg and an undetermined number of just-hatched nestlings)! The pair of adults dropped in to the tundra mat directly in front of us and eventually worked their way out into the open, allowing great studies for everyone. Although an inopportune (but passing) rain shower threatened to derail our longspur search (and made photography somewhat more challenging), we persisted, as did the longspurs, which put on a soul-satisfying show.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

During the course of a day spent focused on longspurs, we also netted great views of such alpine breeders as American Golden-Plover, Whimbrel, Long-tailed Jaeger, Horned Lark, 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 studies of Trumpeter Swans with cygnets to a ridiculously tame Bald Eagle, to multiple Golden Eagles (including one being repeatedly harassed by a Common Raven), Arctic Warblers hammering out their trills from atop felt-leaf willows, and Lesser Yellowlegs singing from atop spruce trees. Mammals were less in evidence than usual, although we did see Moose, Red Fox and Beaver. We also had some nice studies of the diminutive and rarely seen Collared Pika amid an alpine talus field.

Arctic Warbler

Arctic Warbler— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

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 seven miles south of the national park. Much of our efforts on this day were spent alternately scanning the spruce tops in vain for Northern Hawk Owl and intently watching the roadsides for Willow Ptarmigan. With an exceptionally warm, dry, and very early spring, ptarmigan, like most other birds in the interior, were much more advanced in their breeding cycle than normal. This meant that males were now in their cryptic (mostly brown) summer plumage, and were no longer in a territorial mode, meaning that they were no longer vocal, responding to playback, or frequenting the roadsides. Brian and I did find several ptarmigan on a late-night scouting foray on our first night at Tangle River, but return visits to these spots during the day (with the entire group in tow) failed to yield even a whiff of a ptarmigan. Consolation prizes included nice studies of Say’s Phoebe, Bank Swallows colonizing an exposed peat bank, good numbers of Arctic Warblers, a lovely male Merlin, and a Northern Shrike delivering food to a nest.

Denali (Mt. McKinley)

Denali (Mt. McKinley)— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

We returned to the Denali Highway the following morning to focus on the taiga zone of the highway’s western end. Despite our best efforts, Northern Hawk Owls continued to elude us (as they did for almost all tour groups to Alaska this spring), but we did pick up a Great Horned Owl and more Northern Shrikes and Bohemian Waxwings, while a lake stop along the George Parks Highway resulted in fabulous scope studies of male Barrow’s Goldeneyes in high breeding plumage, not to mention a pair of Lincoln’s Sparrows that taped in almost to our feet. Our lunch stop on the return drive to Anchorage delivered more than just great food—it also provided a thrilling panoramic view of Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley). After seeing “The Great One” in all of its majesty, the rest of our drive was bound to seem mundane, but we put the exclamation point on the day by stopping at the Sockeye Burn north of Willow to get everyone caught up on the Black-backed and American Three-toed woodpeckers. Both species were still feeding young at the nests we had located on the 18th, and we enjoyed watching the parents making repeated visits to deliver food.

Spruce Grouse (female with chicks)

Spruce Grouse (female with chicks)— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

Before heading to Seward, we visited Kincaid Park and Westchester Lagoon in Anchorage. The former produced a nice cross-section of boreal forest birds (although bird song was virtually non-existent), ranging from Boreal Chickadees and Golden-crowned Kinglets to a group of White-winged Crossbills. We managed to hit Westchester at high tide, when the extensive mudflats fringing Cook Inlet are inundated, forcing shorebirds to seek higher ground. As hoped, we found a loafing flock of 13 Hudsonian Godwits and 45 Short-billed Dowitchers on the small island just offshore from the parking lot, and the comparative studies of the two species in our scopes were exceptional. Red-necked Grebes were on nests, Arctic Terns and Mew Gulls were feeding youngsters, and Greater and Lesser scaup paddled about, side by side. A stop at Potter Marsh yielded more terns, gulls, and waterfowl, while Tern Lake produced nice views of breeding-plumaged Common Loons, as well as both species of yellowlegs. The ultimate highlight, in a day filled with them, was the hen Spruce Grouse that I spotted, crouched motionless atop a bank above the gravel road into Trail River campground. In the gloom of the forest interior, she looked like nothing more than another dark stump as we drove by, and it took a quick double take on my part to confirm my initial impression.  Binoculars revealed what her posture only suggested—she was crouched over several downy chicks, three of which were poking their heads out from under flared breast, belly, and flank feathers.

Kittlitz's Murrelets

Kittlitz’s Murrelets— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

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, 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. The weather on this day was less than ideal, with intermittent light-to-moderate drizzle literally (if not figuratively) dampening our day and plaguing our best efforts to keep our optics dry. Northwestern Glacier didn’t calve much, and for the second straight year, there were no Red-faced Cormorants to see. However, Kittlitz’s Murrelets and Rhinoceros Auklets were present in numbers and allowed close approaches, giving us exceptional looks (both on the water and in flight), and we managed to pick out a few Thick-billed Murres and Parakeet Auklets (both species are very uncommon in the region) to go with impressive numbers of Common Murres and Horned and Tufted puffins, and lesser numbers of Pigeon Guillemots and Marbled Murrelets. Less expected was a Yellow-billed Loon seen by several of us off the back of the boat. We also enjoyed close views of a spectacular pod of resident Orcas (Killer Whales), several 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. Our return drive to Anchorage produced few birds of note, but a stop at Bird Point did result in our only Black Bear and Mountain Goat of the trip.

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. Brian and I hope to bird with each of you again in the near future.