by Macklin Smith
I lived in Alaska for a little while, and had some nice birding experiences. Although walking only a mile will limit your experiences, there are many things to do within that framework which could be fun, if your base of operations is Anchorage. I would actually suggest staying outside of Anchorage, just so you're out of the city. I had a splendid experience at the ski lodge in Palmer. The lodge is open in the summer and is a beautiful base of operations. Other places would be B&B's in Seward or Homer. You should go in late May - early June if possible, otherwise sometime until mid-September would be OK.
Also be aware that many of these highways are often gravel, and that some rental car agencies forbid taking their cars on gravel roads. Make sure that's not in your rental agreement, or you'll not get far out of Anchorage (most of Alaska's roads are gravel - it's a very silly requirement). In fact, if you're going far out of Anchorage, I'd rent a truck or 4-wheel drive. If you can't find one at the regular car rental agencies, call the Toyota dealer in Anchorage, which also rents cars (I had a good experience with them before).
Potter Marsh (you will surely hear about this spot from others): A fantastic freshwater marsh just 15 minutes out of Anchorage, south on the Seward Highway (Highway 1). Rusty Blackbirds, Red-necked Grebes, ducks, all nesting here.
Portage Glacier: south of Anchorage on Seward Highway. The creeks in the park have Harlequin ducks. Forests should have Boreal and Black-capped Chickadee. Maybe Spruce Grouse. The glacier is fantastic! If you are a trekkie, this is the glacier that Capt. Kirk and Dr. McCoy were on in Star Trek VI (when they were escaping the Klingon gulag on Rura Pente with the shape-shifter Marta).
Chugach State Park: At the eastern end of Anchorage, this is a splendid park. A steep trail goes up the mountain, but you don't have to do that to see birds. White-winged Crossbill and Boreal Chickadee should be here. If you can get above treeline look for White-tailed Ptarmigan.
Eagle River Ski Area: North of Anchorage on Highway 1. Boreal Chickadee, Blackpoll Warbler, nesting Golden-crowned Sparrows. Possible White-tailed Ptarmigan.
In Anchorage, the 'green' strips, Goose Lake area, and Russian Jack Park are all fun places to bird in spring/summer. Northern Shrikes nest in Anchorage. Russian Jack is a very nice park, with many easy trails to walk in a nice forested habitat.
Homer Spit has nesting Aleutian Terns.
Resurrection Bay cruises (from Seward) in May-July have great views of several alcids. I highly recommend this 6-8 hour boat trip for views of glaciers calving and bird-watching. Ask for the companies which go by the Barren Islands or near them for best birdwatching. Expect Northern Fulmar, Sooty Shearwater, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, Common Murre, Thick-billed Murre, Rhinocerous Auklet, Parakeet Auklet, Marbled Murrelet, Kittlitz's Murrelet, Ancient Murrelet, Tufted Puffin, Horned Puffin, Red-faced Cormorant, phalaropes, jaegars, whales.
Also Kenai Fjords National Park in Seward is nice. Unfortunately, the hike to the icefield is long, steep, and rugged. But the lowland trails are nice too. Hikers who make it up to the Harding Ice Field can find White-tailed Ptarmigan up there, and have lunch with Mountain Goats. Bears in this area are usually Black Bears (on the hillsides). I suppose Rosy Finches also would be up here, but I missed them.
On one trip, I drove with a friend east to Chistochina (on highway 1 east of Glenallen). This is a 2 or 3-day round trip. There are a few lodges in Glenallen and one in Chistochina. The view from this area of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is so awesome I cannot express it in words. The massive glacier pouring off Mt. Wrangell will cause you to pull off the road and gawk for several minutes. Throughout this region, you may find Northern Hawk Owl by scanning the tops of spruces. Bohemian Waxwing, Blackpoll Warbler, Boreal Chickadee, Spruce Grouse, White-winged Crossbill, Three-toed Woodpecker, Black-backed Woodpecker could be anywhere in this region (any of the typically 'boreal' birds). Trumpeter Swans nest in larger ponds in the area. Migrant ducks include several Oldsquaw. Also Boreal Owl, but I have yet to encounter one. There are very few people out here, and the silence is golden. I went the first week in June, when it is still typically cool. But I bet the place can be Hell due to mosquitoes later in the summer.
I've never been north to Fairbanks or Denali, but I've heard it's fabulous. Try that also.
If you really want to get 'Boreal', then you'll want to head north out of Fairbanks on the Dalton Highway (you must get permission to take this road all the way north - ask the state Dept. of Transportation). Once you're out of Fairbanks, there are no towns of size anymore. Just a few small villages every hundred miles or so. This highway traverses the Brooks Range and continues north to Deadhorse, near the Arctic Coast. It ends in Prudhoe Bay, which is closed to the public (oil operations - I used to work here as a biologist). The road follows the Alaska pipeline. The Brooks Range (on the south slopes) is your best bet in North America for Siberian Tit. And throughout the area are all the boreal birds I've mentioned earlier, plus wolves, wolverine, grizzly bear, caribou, etc. This is pristine country. The last frontier. Ponds and marshes in this area support nesting Lesser Yellowlegs and Solitary Sandpiper. Forests in the area will have nesting Goshawks and Merlins, cliffs support nesting Gyrfalcon and Peregrine Falcon. Rough-legged Hawk is the only Buteo throughout this area. North of the Brooks Range, you will flatten out onto the North Slope. Shrubby willow patches in the foothills support nesting Bluethroat, Yellow Wagtail, American Tree Sparrow, and Smith's Longspur. Coastal arctic tundra here supports millions of arctic-breeding shorebirds. I've attached below a list of species I recorded on the North Slope, in the event you decide to go that far. If you're interested in seeing Spectacled Eiders, try the large ponds in Deadhorse. Males are prominent during the second and third weeks in June. After that, they leave and only females are left. King and Common Eider males stick around until the 4th week in June. Redpolls up here are 'Hoary' if you believe that species is 'good'.
And of course several other areas I've never even been close to: Barrow, good for shorebirds, eiders, etc., the northernmost point in Alaska; Seward Peninsula - Bristle-thighed Curlew, White Wagtail; the Aleutains; the Pribilofs; Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
Species list for Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, summer 1991 (from my web-site)
* = nesting in 1991, (BR) = Brooks Range site (outside Prudhoe Bay)
Greater White-fronted Goose*
American Tree Sparrow(B*)
Michael R. Smith
Univ. of Washington, Seattle