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U.S.A. - ALASKA: Anchorage &
Big Day (Bird Race)
04 June 1993
by Mark R. Dalton
Big Day Statistics:
Our 1992 birdathon had been about as good as they get, and it was with
trepidation that we decided to conduct our 1993 Big Day in much the
way. Could we be as lucky two years in a row? Last year had been almost
too good, with two weather systems (Anchorage and Nome) in sync, and a
late thaw in Nome holding migrants near the coast.
- 125 species
- 0000 to 2400 hours
- 160+ miles by car, 2.5 by foot, 539 by commercial airline.
- Visiting: Anchorage and Nome.
This year spring had been early in both locations, and we'd
spent virtually zero time afield in Anchorage to locate the more
species. As well, airfares to Nome were sky-high again, but Alaska
still had its key non-stop flight to Nome which was critical to our
So, despite the potential disadvantages, we decided to try again.
Before leaving on our Big Day, we each secretly note the total
of species we think we'll see, and seal it into an envelope. Last year,
we blew away the previous state record of 108 by seeing 119 species.
year we each predicted only 114 species, recognition that we knew that
last year we had a lot of luck.
As midnight approached on a clear June 3, we set forth on our
onto the Anchorage Hillside trail system. Our diary commences.
- Midnight. Both Swainson's and Hermit Thrushes calling. Our
Creeper nest, if it even exists, is quiet. Our taped Great Horned Owl
doesn't elicit any response. We thought we had this guy down pat.
he flies in and proceeds to hoot up a storm. Happiness is an owl in the
bag early. We leave the Hillside at 0054.
- Arrive at Crow Creek Road in Girdwood at 0130 with scant hope of
a Boreal Owl. for several years it was a sure thing here, but we've not
heard one the last three years. We strain to pick up its faint call
the sound of running water in the ditches. There it is - we got it! Two
owls, and it's only 0157.
- With time to burn until sunrise we drive to Portage, narrowly
porcupine on Crow Creek Road. Across Turnagain Arm we witness a magical
sight: a spectacular full moon, low on the horizon, illuminates the
glistening on the Arm's wet silt, and shimmering on the waves. The moon
"rises" and "sets" behind several mountains as we drive. Jupiter with
moons is clearly visible. There is a lunar eclipse scheduled for
0315, but we are deep in Portage Valley by then, and the moon is hidden
by the mountains.
- Portage Valley is dim, filled with low mists over the river and
But it fairly explodes with song. In less than an hour we log 10
by call alone. The giant icebergs grounded in Portage Lake loom out
the spectacular background.
- Portage Ponds yield 4 species, but no Ring-necked Ducks, always a
for us here, and the first of several regulars we don't see in
- No hummingbird at the Portage Cafe, but we do nail a harrier and
species. It's a bit early yet for the hummingbird, we head up the road
to 20-mile. The viewing platform there turns up 10 species, including
Swan, Common Merganser, and very welcome Surfbirds.
- A four-minute dash back to the Portage Cafe catches the Rufous
at 0448 (last year it was 0450). Clearly this guy punches a time clock.
- We spot an Osprey on the tidal flats on the way to Girdwood.
- Major coup - a Stellar's Jay on the edge of the road into
- Cliff Swallows as usual on the house on the way to Don McKay's
We should probably pay this fellow to always leave at least one nest on
- McKay's feeder produces seven (count 'em, seven) species,
Jay, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, and Hairy Woodpecker. Mark also sees a
hummingbird. Maybe we don't have to go all the way to Portage Cafe in
future for a hummingbird.
- Glacier Creek Bridge yields not only our trusty Dipper, but an
nesting Violet-Green Swallow.
- Girdwood Ponds produce 4 species, including an uncommon Solitary
Mike spies a duck hidden in the marsh and carefully watches its
instinctively knowing its a rare one. "Come on, move just a little
Rats! Disappeared again. Mark calls: "No,...wait, I see him. Almost
that small opening. There! It's a GADWALL". There's no justice. Mike
the hidden duck and Mark sees it. Mike keeps trying, to no avail. It's
time to leave. Then, just as the van pulls away, Mike glances at the
end of the ponds, and there are the four Gadwall Mark saw, as big as
dabbling in the sunlight.
- Two important species on the road back into Anchorage: a
in a dead tree at Girdwood, and a Sharp-shinned Hawk chasing swallows
- Potter Creek produces four species, one of which is the elusive
we've missed the last two years. Only Mark sees it. If we're not right
next to each other it's easy to miss a bird, and we have to have 95%
in species sighted to establish a record. Ten minutes later the
flies right over Mike's head. All right!
- Potter Marsh is a treasure trove - 11 species, including a
Western Wood-Pewee, and a Wilson's Warbler. The backside of the marsh
such a beautiful place to bird that we hate to leave, but it's 0804 and
our schedule demands we head for the Hillside trails again.
- The trails are slow. No Brown Creeper, but we do catch a Boreal
and Mark hears a Blackpoll Warbler. In the burn area we spy the
silhouette of a Northern Shrike on a dead limb at a substantial
As we congratulate ourselves on the shrike find, a Three-toed
flies through our field of view and lands on a dead snag. Talk about
- Now to the west side of the Anchorage Bowl. Jewell Lake does not
our much needed Common Loon, but we do get Bank Swallows in the Sand
gravel pits. Mark spots a Downy Woodpecker at Sportsman's Point, but
is driving and can't see it. He decides that as the driver he'd do
if there were more road-killed birds to spot, and Mark requests that a
sun roof be installed in the van to allow for vertical birding
- The Coastal Trail and Westchester Lagoon yield seven species,
a sanderling, and an all-important Least Sandpiper. The latter means we
don't have to spend time mucking around in the wetlands near the
looking for a nest, with a very limited chance of success.
- Lake Hood has few birds compared to previous years. We still get
species, including an important Canvasback. The usual hordes of
are absent, but with a Bank Swallow already in the bag, we don't have
do our customary head-spinning pirouettes to pick one out of the 8000
- Arriving at the terminal moments before our flight leaves, John
again provided tremendous support and has checked in both us and our
He hands us our tickets, we toss him the van keys, and an understanding
flight attendant unlocks the door so we can climb aboard just before
- We leave Anchorage feeling a bit down. While we've seen several
we'd not expected, we've missed many regulars. Where were the
Duck, Common Loon, Common Redpoll, Brown Creeper, Horned Grebe,
and a second species of Goldeneye? Our count shows 83 species. We had
last year, but we're pretty sure Nome won't produce as many birds this
- Having seen Trumpeter Swans at 20-mile River we don't have to
see one on an isolated lake as we climb out over the lower Susitna
Mike skips lunch and sleeps all the way to Nome. Mark opts for food. We
arrive at 1325 to a beautiful day.
- In 40 minutes we're loaded into our rented pickup and on our way.
stop is the Nome jetty. No White Wagtail. At the Nome Ponds more bad
They appear dried up. Only three species - last year we saw eight.
- Anvil Mountain produces five species, the same as last year. The
problem is to keep on track. It's so lovely atop the mountain, with the
whole world stretched out below on a fantastically clear day. The soft
tundra begs us to lie down and just watch, but it's 1542, and we have
- The mouth of the Nome River comes through big time -- 11 species,
a Pacific Golden-Plover, and Baird's and Pectoral Sandpipers. The
for Mark is a Black Guillemot, a lifer. Mike does not see it because his
highlight is figuring out how to get the pickup back onto the road
sinking up to the axles in sand. His planning is periodically
by Marks' shouts of delight from the distant beach.
- The road east from Nome to Council produces a Whimbrel and three
before we reach Cape Nome. Unlike last year, ice is virtually absent
Norton Sound, and therefore doesn't keep the birds close to shore.
hope that we can repeat our Peregrine find of last year at Cape Nome,
hear the characteristic high-pitched cry of a Peregrine over the cape.
- At Safety Bridge the huge mass of spinning, writhing shorebirds
last year, which produced a Rufous-necked Stint, is nowhere to be seen.
Just a deserted shallow pond. This entire area east of Cape Nome
13 species last year -- this year we see only five. A big blow to our
- Driving fast back west to Nome is pleasant this year as traffic
(it's a Friday instead of a Saturday),a nd a cross wind keeps the dust
off the road. At Cape Nome we find a Yellow Wagtail. All right! It's
- West of Nome on the road to Teller, the Penny River Bridge
Sparrow, and also an Arctic Warbler, after considerable sleuthing.
- Lesser Golden-Plovers, which were incredibly common between miles
20 on the Teller Road last year, are totally absent this time around.
numerous Short-eared Owls are also gone. At mile 20.5 we searching vain
for the Bluethroat we found last year. Mike manages to step through
aufeis and plunges one leg up to his knee in a creek. Talk about a
call -- such hardship.
- We head slowly back to Nome. It's 2320. Wait a minute. On that
a Short-eared Owl. What a lovely bird. Such dignity. At 2333 we see a
Tattler. Now there is a great find.
- At 2359, just as we reach mile 11, the vista south to the coast
with Nome to the south-east in the distance. "Let's take a last glass
a Tundra Swan" says Mark. Within seconds he says, "There's one". Sure
in the vast panorama that stretches before us to the coast and south to
the horizon, a lone swan flies eastward. search as we might all the
in view, there are no others. In our sleepy stupor we watch silently as
this great bird winged its way through the Arctic twilight to some
destination. We probably watch for only 10 minutes. It seems like 30 -
but we don't care if it's 300.
We finished the day believing chances were not good that we'd broken
our 1992 state record of 119, because we'd missed several species we
have seen in Anchorage, and we'd seen many fewer birds east of Cape
Mark's count came to 119, a tie, but something seemed strange. While
missed many Anchorage regulars, we had seen several species we'd not
The 83 species Anchorage count felt low. On slowly recounting each
in his field notes, Mark realised he's misread a hastily written "6" in
the number "26" as a "0", or as number "20". Thus, when he numbered the
next species sighted, it was logged as number "21", instead of "27".
we'd actually seen an additional 6 species in Anchorage, and had again
raised our record.