Grand Alaska Part II: Anchorage, Denali Highway & Kenai Peninsula Jun 19—27, 2017
Posted by Kevin Zimmer
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 impact on the species tallied, there was no denying that the breeding cycles of birds and the flowering cycles of plants were ‘off.’ By the time our Grand Alaska Part II tour commenced (on June 19), 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). 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 few exceptions, we barely encountered mosquitoes during our trip. This definitely was not the same Alaska that I have been birding for the past 30 years!
After meeting in Anchorage, we hit the ground running on June 20, 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, a variety of waterfowl, including Trumpeter Swan, Surf Scoters, and 7 Barrow’s Goldeneyes (all females). As luck would have it, this was our one rainy morning of the trip, which, no doubt, was a contributing factor to an absence of perched raptors in the spruce tops along a stretch that often produces American Kestrels, Merlins, Red-tailed Hawks, and Northern Hawk-Owl. We did get a momentary adrenaline rush when the commencement of a rock slide from the steep slope above aborted our attempt to see a perched Townsend’s Solitaire that I had stopped for on the opposite side of the road. We shook off the damp cold with a hot lunch at Eureka Summit, and soon thereafter, the drizzle stopped and the cloud ceiling lifted somewhat. A couple of very productive roadside stops south of Glennallen turned up an elegant pair of Pacific Loons, low-soaring “Harlan’s” Red-tailed Hawks, a family group of Gray Jays working the edge of a small lake, Rusty Blackbirds delivering food to a nest, and a Solitary Sandpiper that loudly protested our presence from the top of a small tree. Best of all, we scored big with multiple Bohemian Waxwings, including a pair that appeared to be exploiting a hatch of insects very low to the ground. The waxwings repeatedly sallied to the ground from low perches in the Felt-leaf Willows at the margins of a lake, in the process, allowing us to examine every aspect of their plumage.
Read Kevin’s full report in his Field List.