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U.S.A. - ALASKA: Fairbanks

11-12 April 1998

by Jeff Bouton

I haven't been spending near as much time on line since birds have begun returning, but wanted to share my experiences this weekend with a trip for the local Audubon Society.  We met rather late at the parking area of one of the best early waterfowl sites, Creamer's Field Refuge.  While waiting, we glassed the few Canada Geese that had only just arrived that week.  Then the trip participants starting filing in.

One after another until we had nearly 30 people lined up.  Normally this wouldn't be a huge problem, except today's trip was to Delta Jct. nearly100 miles away.  The length of the drive by highway makes stopping en route difficult enough with one or two vehicles, let alone ten!  Despite this initial stumbling block, we headed out and had a great time.  The annual trip to Delta Jct.  is taken early each year because they generally get the migrants a bit ahead of us here in Fairbanks, and also because the habitat allows for greater concentrations of both waterfowl and raptors.  We see many early waterfowl at Delta Clearwater Lake as it is spring fed on one end and generally opens earlier than other areas.  The warmer water may well allow for more biotic matter for food as well.  The other areas of interest are the Delta Agricultural fields that attract many migrant and nesting raptors.

I had to pass the Bald Eagle nest I had intended to scope because of the limited parking, but we were fortunate to spot an adult over a large gravel pit used for road construction and an immature at our first official stop, Rika's Roadhouse.  Also known as Big Delta State Historical Park, this is a wonderful area to look for eagles on the flats and in the trees along the Tanana River.  Later in the year, Peregrine Falcons will be here as well.  Today however, the only birds other than the young Bald Eagle and the ubiquitous Raven were Herring Gulls.  My first for the year and always a welcome site after 6 months with very little bird diversity!  After one of the few official restroom stops we were off again heading East down the Richardson Highway toward Delta Junction (where the Alaska Highway joins the Richardson Hwy).  After a short drive we pulled off the Highway and on to the gravel roads through the agricultural projects.

We didn't have to drive far to find our next exciting bird.  After a few short miles, a Northern Hawk Owl was spotted sitting at a deciduous wood edge overlooking one of the barley fields.  We pulled off and began setting up scopes as the rest of our entourage parked in turn and made their way toward the front of the line.  In doing so one of the groups near the back flushed a second bird from a 10' high stump right off the road.  This new bird landed low about 50' in front of us, where she was joined (literally) by the second.  They copulated two times right in front of us and then the female landed very low in a spruce alongside the stump.  It was at this point that someone said, '...that's right where she came from originally.' Suddenly, I realized that we had unwittingly discovered a nest and the females strange tail wagging was not a post-copulatory display so much as a threat to us.  I urged everyone to get back in their cars and move on as we were keeping this bird from eggs!

A little further down the line an adult 'Harlan's' Red-tailed was perched up in a lone Cottonwood in the middle of another field.  I hoped it would be cooperative and stay long enough to be scoped but only those in the first few vehicles got to see it.  This was actually the second of the trip, but the first was alongside the Richardson where there was no shoulder let alone a suitable spot for 30 people.  We were almost back to paved roads, so I announced we would be heading for Delta Clearwater Lake next.  The trek in was a bit dicey due to the snow and ice chunks still on the drive in, but all made it.  (I bravely assumed there would be plenty of bodies to push if some of the smaller passenger cars got stuck!  Fortunately, I didn't have to test the theory.) Here we added a number of new species including small flocks of Trumpeter Swans, Common Goldeneyes, Common Mergansers, and Mallards mixed with many Canada Geese (the swans and goldeneyes were both new for the year for me).  There were as many as 6 'Harlan's' soaring in the distance and a pair of White-winged Crossbills in the tree over the parking area.  I tried hard for White-fronted Goose, but we were unable to locate any.

The group size was slowing the pace a bit, and it was already nearly mid-day.  I announced we would head toward Clearwater Campground for lunch.  This is a beautiful spot with a crystal blue pebble bottom stream that is spring fed and remains open year round.  A wonderful setting that as a bonus also offers a few picnic tables and the last toilets until we end in Delta.  This is a favorite of canoe enthusiasts and fly fishers alike.  En route, we saw the sillouhette of a Spruce or Ruffed Grouse up a side gravel road, but we were once again on a 55 mph road and stopping with this group was not possible to do safely.  As we ate, we joked a bit and the sun kindly came out to warm us a bit.  Among the many native Fairbanksans, were a young couple from Germany originally (I believe), although I didn't get a chance to hear their story, and friend Sean Smith who heads St.  Paul Island Tours.  He was kind enough to put me up and show me the Siberian Accentor the day after Christmas, and this was my chance to return the favor with a Sharp-tailed Grouse for his state list.  (I thought it was a fair trade and would do it again!  ;))

Our relaxing lunch was interrupted by a flash of grayish brown shooting across the river on bowed wings.  It looked suspiciously like a goshawk but it too may have been a grouse.  Unfortunately, it was only a teasing glimpse of a gliding bird and was never seen again.  After this excitement and a little goodie bartering (" have cookies......) I gave last call for toilets and we were off again.  This time we were headed for the larger agricultural area North of the Highway, and East of Delta.  It took us about 20 minutes to reach our destination.  Along the way we saw a bull moose, some penned reindeer and penned bison, but not many birds.

The agricultural areas were lacking the usual numbers of raptors, but I had to remind myself that this trip was nearly a week ahead of previous year's dates.  We saw only ravens which had me a bit concerned, but not panicked as I knew the most productive areas were ahead of us yet.  I came around the first major bend where the habitat and birding improves and was stunned to see a shaded stretch of road that held a three foot high snow drift with a 1/4 mile long snow field behind.  Clearly without a front end loader and some time we were stopping here.  While we were assessing the situation, Sean spotted his own Sharp-tailed Grouse at the edge of a hedge row through the open field.  (That was easy!) They were doing their best to stay out of sight, but we split up and walked up either side of the hedge.  Everyone was afforded excellent views this way.

Many voles (tundra or meadow) were scurrying around at our feet as we walked back to the cars and I was still annoyed by the lack of raptors.  They must have heard me because we spotted another 'Harlan's' soaring high overhead just then.  As it sailed out of sight being harrassed by as many as six ravens, an adult male dark Rough-legged Hawk glided over low.  Then as I attempted to describe the field marks, a Northern Hawk Owl began "whisper-singing" from the tall spruce along the road.  The bird sailed low over our heads and perched in perfect light atop a short sapling within 30'.  Cameras appeared from many packs and vehicles.  After five minutes of intently watching the short, wet grass below the owl gave up and sailed back into the spruce stand.  I couldn't believe it hadn't seen a vole, but perhaps they were all taking a breather after being herded by us.

Back on the road, we would add an adult male Northern Harrier and a few more light Rough-legged's and Harlan's Hawks.  Also we nearly tested the strength of the windshield on my new Ford Windstar against a male Spruce Grouse before having to turn back toward town.  We would never see the areas most productive historically on this trip either, but all wuld have wonderful memmories.  All in all, I would add 7 new migrants for the year (Trumpeter Swan, Com.  Goldeneye, Northern Harrier, Bald Eagle*, Red-tailed Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, and Herring Gull) but none of these would be trip highlights.  The near unanimous stars of the show were the Hawk Owls, although there were a few that presented a weak case for Sharp-tailed Grouse!

Jeff Bouton
Fairbanks, Alaska

* Bald Eagles regularly winters along coastal Alaska in large numbers (>3000 at some locales).  I consider it a migrant only in the interior, even though it rarely winters here as well.

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