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July 2004

by Larry Gardella

Helen Baines posted about her August 2002 trip on Princess from Seward to Vancouver.  Andrea and I traveled in the other direction.  Since she said a lot about the options a birder has on such a trip, I will write a short report concentrating on the differences from her cruise and then mentioning some highlights from our time in Alaska after the cruise.  But I start first at the beginning, pre-cruise.

On July 15, Andrea and I flew to Vancouver, B.C., along with her parents for a 2-week Alaska vacation.  We chose an itinerary that would not be too taxing for her parents (who are pushing 80), and that would allow us to partake of some of the beauty of southeastern, southern & central Alaska - and let me do a fair amount of birding.

We had to change planes in Salt Lake City, & I was able to identify a California Gull from the E-Terminal.  By the time we got our rental car and checked into our hotel, it was almost time to get ready for dinner.  I drove us to a good Malaysian restaurant (Banana Leaf) and parked in an unattended parking garage - not noticing the sign saying the gate would be locked at 7 pm.  So, we had to take a cab back to the hotel.  The next morning, I took a long route to the garage and saw Glaucous-winged Gull, Black-capped Chickadee, White-crowned Sparrow and several other birds before arriving before the garage opened.  The gate was unlocked, so I just drove back to the hotel.

After a quick breakfast, Andrea and I drove to Cypress Provincial Park.  At the first pay station, we saw Band-tailed Pigeons, a singing Willow Flycatcher, a Warbling Vireo, some Rufous Hummers and another bigger-headed hummer that had some gorget feathers but not a hint of rufous or buffy tones.  The park list did not include Anna's, but that's what it appeared to be.  A local birder, Larry Cowan, later said that a male Anna's had a territory a bit below the spot we found our bird.  We hiked briefly on a trail to the chalet, walked the Yew Lake Trail, checked the sky from the Cypress Bowl parking lot and stopped a few places going down.  From the bowl we had Vaux's Swift and Black Swift in view at the same time.  Some of our other birds included Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Hermit Thrush, Swainson's Thrush, Varied Thrush (heard), Western Tanager and Spotted Towhee.  Vancouver was wonderful: great parks, great food, great ambience.

We boarded the Coral Princess in Vancouver at 1 pm.  That day and all of the next we stayed out at sea.  I set up my tripod and scope on the balcony outside our tenth deck room and spent some time looking at gulls, Common Murres & Marbled Murrelets.  Before turning in the first night, we were able to see the red afterglow of a great sunset.  It's good we enjoyed it.  Once we got farther north, it was light when we went to bed and light early the next morning.

Sunday morning, I went down to deck 7 from which I could check out birds from near the water surface.  The view from the front is blocked, however.  I went up to the top deck for a 360-degree view.  But there is colored plastic, plus it's quite far from the water.  I did spot a Bald Eagle on a large cross and shared it with some fellow passengers.

After breakfast, I listened to the naturalist talking on whales and bears.  Ironically, while she spoke, some of the crew (and presumably some passengers) got to see the only Orcas for the journey, a pod the crew had seen in the same area when the ship was heading south.  When the talk was over, I saw 100 porpoises, a group of Cassin's Auklets and a Pink-footed Shearwater.  I went back to find the naturalist still answering questions and heard someone ask about a dark porpoise he had briefly seen.  I mentioned seeing the white sides on the higher jumping porpoises, and the naturalist ID'd them as White-sided Porpoises.  We also discussed birds - and she suggested I go through doors marked for "emergency use" to get a view from the front of the 10th or 11th deck.  The people on the captain's bridge waved to me when I got there, and crew members assured me passengers were permitted there.  Since few knew that, it was a great place from which to watch in peace.  I spent much time there during the rest of the trip.

On my first day looking from the bow on the 10th deck, I did not share Helen Baines's good fortune of finding Parakeet Auklet well south of its regular range, but did see good numbers of Cassin's Auklets and Rhinoceros Auklets, along with Common Murres and Marbled Murrelets.  Several of the Common Murres were paired up - an adult with a half-sized fledgling.

In Ketchikan I hiked up Deer Mountain without finding many birds - and without taking a camera to memorialize a great view of the Princess.  I was supposed to meet Andrea and her mother in town but missed them.  Too bad, Andrea's non-birding mother looked into the creek as they crossed it and said "What's that bird?" when she spotted an American Dipper.  The ship pulled out in mid-afternoon.  Just before my birthday dinner, I looked out from our balcony and saw a young Long-tailed Jaeger harassing a pair of Bonaparte's Gulls.

In Juneau, like Helen, I took a cab to the airport (and later back) to get a rental car.  Later, we learned that a shuttle was available to Mendenhall Glacier for $5 a person each way.  We might have been able to arrange to have a taxi pick us up there and take us to Mendenhall Wetlands and then to have a taxi take us from the wetlands to the ship.  Since I had to go back to pick up Andrea's late-sleeping parents, that probably would not have worked for us.

Andrea and I started out at the wetlands.  Lots of Bald Eagles, a clump of River Otters, and a nice mix of warblers and sparrows.  And a missed opportunity.  While we were walking back from the mouth of Mendenhall River, we noticed a group of people on the dike trail looking out with binoculars.  It turned out that they had seen a young Black Bear cross the trail between them and us.

After taking Andrea and her folks back to the ship, I went out near the glacier one last time and did a climb.  Birds on the way up included Townsend's Warbler, Wilson's Warbler and American Redstart.

We left at dark for Skagway.  When I disembarked the next morning, I went up to Lower Dewey Lake and then explored in several directions without heading uphill to Upper Dewey.  I saw a female Western Tanager on that first trip and then a male when I returned to the same spot later in the day with Andrea.  In the same area, I saw one of the only two woodpeckers I saw in Alaska: a Red-breasted Sapsucker.  A bit of a way down another trail, I had the only other: a Northern Three-toed Woodpecker low on some trees across from a steep clearing.  Before boarding the ship, I checked to see that we could bring wine and beer on board and then came back with a bottle of each.

From Skagway, it is not far to Glacier Bay.  The series of views from the front of deck 10 was sensational - even though I managed to miss both a Black Bear and a Brown.  Most of the puffins were Tufted, but Andrea spotted a Horned Puffin on the way in, and we saw another in about the same spot on the way out.  Right next to a glacier, we saw a group of three Black Oystercatchers.  A murrelet that took off as the ship approached showed much white in its tail, revealing it to be a Kittlitz's.  Both on the way in and on the way out, Hump-backed Whales put on a display.

From Glacier Bay to College Fjord, the ship crossed much open water.  When I woke up and got to the front of deck 10 at about 6:00, I could see a large island to the north and east that I believe was Kayak Island.  Sooty and Short-tailed Shearwaters showed up in front of the ship, allowing me to study the differences in wing beat and wing shape.  A whale kicked up its flukes a good distance from the ship.  From the shape, I could readily tell it was not a Hump-backed or an Orca, but I could not make an ID.

College Fjord was different from, but as beautiful as Glacier Bay.  We missed another Brown Bear, but this time I spotted a Black Bear and got most of the people in the front of the ship on it.

While we were near the ship in Whittier waiting for our limo, Andrea spotted a Bald Eagle carrying a large salmon.  I watched it go to a nest with young.  The limo took us to Anchorage to pick up the rental car we used to drive to Homer to start the land portion of our vacation, thinking back at being surprised at how much I enjoyed our first cruise.

Going from Whittier to Homer by way of Anchorage was a bit of a long trip, but beautiful all the way.  Great views of glaciers and mountains and a chance to watch a major tidal change.  An option worth considering is going to Seward and taking a Kenai Fiord boat ride, which gets very close to some remote glaciers and to an island where birds nest.  However, Homer proved very much worth more than the one night we spent there.

On the way out of Anchorage we stopped briefly at Potter's Marsh for an assortment of shorebirds and a few ducks and then saw some more ducks in small ponds on the way.  After awhile, everyone in the car voted in a no-more stop policy, and we made it to our bed and breakfast outside Homer before too late in the afternoon.  Andrea's parents were not used to B&B's and not happy about being asked to remove their shoes to enter their rooms.  I probably would have made the crew happier by booking a room at Land's End on Homer Spit.  As it was, we just ate at their restaurant, which was quite good.  Fresh enough, Halibut can be pretty good, but it can't stand up to Silver, King or Sockeye Salmon.

I got up early on the morning of July 25 and went up the steep hillside, finding some Golden-crowned Sparrows and a female moose.  As I started back down, I spotted a calf at the edge of the woods right near the path.  Since moose kill more people than bears do, I opted to take a different path that got me to what I initially thought was a way out-of-range Bullock's Oriole but was surely a White-winged Crossbill not seen well.  Belly-flopping over some ferns and high grass, I eventually re-found the path in the woods and got back in time for breakfast.  Then, it was back to Homer Spit to meet up with Bay Excursions for the cruise I had reserved.  There were about 12 people on board, and we all had a great 3 hour cruise.

Karl Stoltzfus has been making this trip for several years and has a great touch.  After getting incredibly close-up looks at Sea Otters and sorting through some shorebirds, we set out toward a nesting colony of Aleutian Terns.  Before long, Karl spotted an Aleutian in flight, and most on board got an identifiable view.  But for those who didn't, not to worry.  Karl spotted a tern on some debris out in Karchemak Bay, and we approached it very slowly.  There was an adult Aleutian Tern standing next to a fledgling that had doubtless made its first flight from land.  The adult flew off, but we got to admire the cinnamon-edged fledgling.  And then the scene repeated itself with another adult and young Aleutian.

We headed toward a part of the bay with glacial moraine and were soon amongst both Marbled and Kittlitz's Murrelets.  Floating there, we got an excellent opportunity to study the differences in plumage.

Aside from a mixed flock of scoter (mainly White-winged, but several Surf) things slowed down for a bit - until we approached Gull Island.  There, we saw nests with young Glaucous-winged Gulls, some baby Common Murres, Horned and Tufted Puffins, nesting Pelagic Cormorants and nesting Red-faced.  Again, we got to know them personally before we headed toward shore hoping for an early White-faced Storm-Petrel, but being disappointed by a false alarm (an Aleutian Tern that had been pattering.)

Andrea and her parents met me by the boat, we bought some crackers and (delicious) smoked salmon for lunch on the road, saw the Trumpeter Swan on Lake Beluga that Karl had mentioned to me - and several singing White-winged Crossbills, too.

Then, we headed out on the long drive back to Anchorage.  Had we stayed another night, I could have checked for Ancient Murrelet and White-faced Storm-Petrel from the spit (the other side from Karchemak Bay.)

We stayed at Anchorage and prepared to take an early train the next morning to Denali.

After we found the wallet with ID that Andrea's mother had accidentally packed in the checked luggage, we boarded the Alaska Railroad for the trip from Anchorage to Denali.  Close to town there was a lot of construction and other disturbance, but once we got a ways off the scenery was beautiful, even on a cloudy day.  We were not long out of Anchorage, when I spotted a male Moose that was running away from the train.  Another we spotted later was calmer, and most in the train car got to see it.

A bird atop a cedar looked suspiciously like a Northern Hawk-Owl, but I didn't spot it till we were almost past it.  It may well have just been a hawk.  We got much better views of Trumpeter Swans, usually in pairs and occasionally with a gray young.  Just past the continental divide, Andrea and I were riding in the higher viewing area, and I found a Black Bear.  Most people in that part of the car got to see it, but no one down below did.  The guides the railroad provides are not wildlife spotters.

The wind was blowing fiercely when we arrived at our lodge in the afternoon.  I walked across the street and down a path behind the Princess Lodge to the river and then came back along a road.  Not too many birds, but I enjoyed close looks at Boreal Chickadees and Gray Jays.

On July 27, I got up early and took the lodge's shuttle to the Visitor Center.  From there, I walked along the road and took the path that started at the railroad tracks and walked down to Horseshoe Bend Lake.  Several Varied Thrushes showed themselves well, as did a Beaver.  I walked through a patch of conifers to an opening and found a Bohemian Waxwing perched atop a 4-foot tree.  It stayed there long enough for me to appreciate it from every angle and then flew off with a second of its kind.

I went back to the Visitor Center and met Andrea for the first shuttle ride to Savage River at 9 am.  We didn't see much wildlife on the ride out, and clouds covered Mount McKinley completely.  When we took the little side trail to the river bar, we found a family group of Willow Ptarmigan that let us take pictures from a few feet.  Other birds included Orange-crowned Warbler, American Tree Sparrow and Lincoln's Sparrow.  On our way back to the Visitor Center we stopped to admire the North Peak of McKinley - the only time we saw any of the mountain.

On the morning of August 28, I got up extra early and took the shuttle to the Visitor Center in time to catch the 5:30 bus to Eileson Center, on which I had reserved a seat.  The notion that the early bus gets to see the wildlife held fairly true.  We had Moose before we even got past the worker housing - a collared female with 2 calves.  We saw more Moose, groups of Caribou and Dall Sheep (I called them when I first saw white dots on a hillside) before I got out of the bus at Igloo Creek to look for Arctic Warbler.  It took a bit longer than I expected, but I found a group of five hopping about and calling in a medium-sized willow.

A bus person had told me I would need to walk back 3 miles to mile 29 to be sure of being able to join Andrea and her folks on the 8 am bus.  Unfortunately, Igloo Creek was around 34.5 miles out, not 32.  I walked back at a brisk pace slowing only for a Snowshoe Hare and some WW Crossbills.  I was about to cross a bridge over a river around mile marker 30 when a bus driver pulled over and told me to watch out.  Down in the river was a female Grizzly and two cubs.  The driver said it was safe to continue along the road, although the next driver also stopped and told me I had to cross to the far side of the street - and that it would be better to wait for a bus to take me across.

I compromised and walked across the bridge on the far side and did not look down at the Grizzlies until I was following the road uphill from the river.  The bears were quite unperturbed.  After rounding a curve, I looked down at the river and saw a couple walking downstream along the same river the bears were walking upstream (or vice versa.) I yelled down "bears." They heard me, but instead of leaving the river and going up to a nearby rest area, they just crossed to the other side of the river and proceeded on their way.  .  .  .

Not long after I walked by the rest stop, I met the bus with Andrea and her parents.  Although the bus had already passed the campground I was supposed to walk past, there was a seat for me.  Since the bus had to stop at the rest area, I had plenty of time to talk about the bears.  We had barely left the rest area when someone spotted them and yelled out.  Everyone on the bus got great views, although we had to pull away a bit early so that a bus could get between the bears and those two people who had been in the river.  They were still too close to the bears.

The rest of the drive out, we saw some more Caribou and Dall Sheep, as well as more Grizzlies.  When we reached Polychrome, the driver said that a Gyrfalcon usually hung out on one of the rock formations.  The driver didn't see it and was about to leave when I spotted the Gyr - and patiently got everyone onto it.  As we got near Eileson, Andrea's father spotted a group of adult Long-tailed Jaegers.  When I got excited about it, someone on the bus said to someone else, "It's just another bird."

It was raining and foggy at Eileson, so we did not venture far.  Some folks had just seen a Wolf - but I had to settle for the Wolf scat I'd seen the afternoon before.

After we reboarded and started back for the Visitor Center, Andrea spotted a Golden Eagle.  Everyone on the bus enjoyed watching it fly right by us.  I got off at Polychrome to hike a bit hoping for Rock Ptarmigan.  No luck there, although it was exciting to find a fresh Grizzly print in the mud by a pond that held some Solitary Sandpipers.  After a bit of climbing and blueberry-munching, I boarded another bus 90 minutes later that ended up getting the best Grizzly views.  Right after we saw a sow with triplets quite close to the bus, we saw a lone bear just off the roadside.  We could study its claws and teeth as it ran berry plants through its mouth to get off the fruit.

The next morning, we left by bus for Anchorage stopping at Talkeetna.  Again, no view of Denali, but a good-sized group of Common Redpoll and an Olive-sided Flycatcher.  And a very tasty scone.  At Houston, Andrea and her folks got ice cream, and I saw a Western Wood-Pewee, strangely the first for the trip.

We got into Anchorage early enough for me to walk the sea path and look for ducks and shorebirds.  I found a pretty good assortment of both - with the Hudsonian Godwits at the sea's edge taking best of show.

A friend was at Denali two weeks later - and Willow Ptarmigan were "everywhere" - forcing the bus to slow down as they crossed the road.  She also got a view of all of McKinley.  Each trip to the park is different, but they are all spectacular.

On the flight out of Anchorage, we were able to look down and see a few glaciers from a vantage point that really showed them to be frozen rivers.  A fittingly pleasant end to an Alaska visit that worked out so well on many levels.

Larry Gardella
Montgomery, AL
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