24 June - 15 August 1999
by Bill Taylor
First my thanks to the many Chatters who helped me plan this trip to see a few more of the "easy" birds and a hard one. Jeff Bouton, George West (not to forget his 1/98 article in Winging It!, "Birding from the Alaska Marine Highway to Dutch Harbor"), Steve Moore, Barbara Volke, Bill Shuster, Charles Duncan, Tom Bishop, Dave Quady, John Green, Joe Byrnes, and Andy Donnelly all sent recent trip reports or answered my RFI for help in finding my remaining Difficulty Class 2 and 3 birds.
The target birds for this trip were: Short-tailed Shearwater, Emperor Goose, Gyrfalcon, and McKay's Bunting. Since it would be desirable to get out to sea a bit and it would be pity to let just one bird stand between me and having seen all the alcids, I added Whiskered Auklet to the list.
The motorhome with Jeep in tow left June 24 to drive the Alaska Highway, but went by way of Wood Buffalo Park and Yellowknife NWT, then cut across the Liard Highway to pick up the Alaska Highway at Fort Nelson, BC. The Whooping Cranes at Wood Buffalo were, as expected, nesting far from any road and their nesting areas are highly restricted so even access by canoe or air is illegal. We did, however, add Wood Buffalo to our mammal life list. Some local folks said they frequently saw Whooping Cranes flying over the Highway near Fort Smith. Discussions with park personnel led me to conclude: 1)it is unlikely that the birds would range that far from their nesting grounds; 2) locals do not distinguish between the abundant Sandhill Cranes and Whoopers.
It is important to know, by the way, that in the Northwest and Yukon Territories, and northern British Columbia and Alberta any road that has been graded and gravelled is a highway, if a path has been cut through the brush it is a road. If paved at all, the highway will be a two lane affair with long (usually 15-20 mile stretches) gravelled patches as frost heave and washout repairs are frequent and on-going. There are seldom shoulders wider than a tire and travelers are expected to thread their way through the heaviest of construction sites. In short, however much time you allow, it will take longer than you plan.
I believe Yellowknife is the only capital city we have ever visited whose only land access is by gravel road. (Beats Juneau which has no land access at all!) Another necessary bit of information not often revealed in the guide books is that calcium chloride is the preferred method of snow control on gravel roads in Canada. In summer, when it rains, the calcium chloride residue mixes with the dirt below the gravel and rises, creating a surface best described as greased glass. Thus when rain caught us on the Liard Highway, the 160 mile drive became a 10 hour marathon. But I digress.
We drove on into Alaska on the now completely paved (where not under repair) Alaska Highway, via Whitehorse (side trip to Skagway across the world's smallest desert near Carcross) and Tok. It all took longer than we thought it would, but we did arrive in time to catch our Alaska Marine Highway ferry from Homer to Dutch Harbor on July 13. On entire drive the only remarkable bird was a Northern Goshawk flying up the middle of the highway in Kluane NP.
The Alaska Marine Highway is the only means of reaching much of Alaska without flying from one town to another. It is essential to make reservations well in advance. I first contacted them in November and was told that reservations were not accepted until December 4, so on that day I called and bought our tickets for passage. There are very few cabins on the boats and they sell out quickly. Since the trip from Homer to Dutch Harbor and back takes a week, we opted to take a cabin for four so we could have a private shower and toilet. Otherwise one must take a cabin for two or sleep on the deck and use the public facilities.
It's cold and usually wet on the Aleutian Islands run and there is space for sleeping bags in the observation lounges, but having a cabin, even though they are quite small, is much more comfortable. It is also wise to check the schedule carefully if the Whiskered Auklet is desired. They are found only between Akutan and Dutch Harbor and, if the boat is not passing through that area in daylight, the whole expedition is pointless. Since the trip is made only once a month, the options are few. Our trip outbound passed the area just before dawn but the return trip went through about mid-day. We got lucky and saw 15 Whiskered Auklets in several small groups over the hour or two between Dutch Harbor and Akutan. Also got good looks at Laysan Albatross and Short-tailed Shearwater on the return trip. The complete trip list of birds is below.
The return trip from Homer to the Alaska Highway took us through Denali National Park where we wanted to see the nesting Gyrfalcons at Polychrome Pass. By now it was July 23 and, having called ahead from Homer for bus reservations, we were able to ride out and see the birds with young on their nest just a hundred yards or so off the road. Note that one can drive just the first 14 miles of the road into Denali. To get further in one must use the shuttle bus system or take a tour bus. These busses fill up several days ahead and it is wise to make reservations. The biggest problem is that they will not take reservations until six days ahead, so timing is everything. Apparently when the Gyrs first began nesting activity in the park, there was concern that they would be disturbed, so the bus drivers were not allowed to point them out or stop to view the birds. By the time we got there the young were nearly fledged and the birds had adjusted to the bus traffic so the drivers were anxious to make them a highlight of the trip. Wow!
The remainder of the drive home was uneventful and not birding oriented; we toured our way through Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, arriving home on August 15, almost eight weeks and over 15,000 miles after beginning. Only four life birds, but what a four! Laysan Albatross, Short-tailed Shearwater, Gyrfalcon, and Whiskered Auklet.
My list of "easy" (Difficulty Class 1, 2, and 3) birds not yet seen is now down to four: Emperor Goose, Curlew Sandpiper, Ivory Gull, and McKay's Bunting. At this point I feel qualified to question the classification of these. It seems to me that if the Whiskered Auklet is a 4, then the Goose, Gull, and Bunting should also be 4. These are apparently only to be found with any regularity near Gambell on St. Lawrence Island, surely at least as difficult to reach as the central Aleutians. Likewise, if a Northern Jacana is Class 4, then should the Curlew Sandpiper be 3? Ah, well, perhaps this is just "sour grapes." I shall, of course, persevere until the new ABA Checklist is published with, perhaps, revised Difficulty Codes.
Trip list for Homer to Dutch Harbor:
Glaucous-winged Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake, Arctic Tern, Common Murre, Thick-billed Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, Marbled Murrelet, Kittlitz's Murrelet, Ancient Murrelet, Parakeet Auklet, Least Auklet, Rhinocerous Auklet, Horned Puffin, Tufted Puffin, Bald Eagle, Red-necked Phalarope, Pelagic Cormorant, Red-faced Cormorant, Fork-tailed Storm-petrel, Northern Fulmar, Sooty Shearwater, Short-tailed Shearwater, Laysan Albatross, Aleutian Tern, Double-crested Cormorant, Black Oystercatcher, Whiskered Auklet, Cassin's Auklet, Pomarine Jaeger.
Land birds seen in the various ports:
Fox Sparrow, Varied Thrush, Greater Yellowlegs, Harlequin Duck, Common Snipe, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Gray-crowned Rosy-finch, Lapland Longspur, Common Raven, Bank Swallow, Song Sparrow (Aleutian ssp.), Snow Bunting, Common Redpoll, White-crowned Sparrow, Wilson's Warbler, Northwestern Crow.
Bill Taylor <email@example.com>
Kettering, OH (W 84°10.285 N 39°41.096)