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Denali National Park & Chugiak

12 May 2001

by Ed Clark

Here is the report of our birding excursion to Denali National Park, and Chugiak, Alaska for May 12, 2001. John Wright, James Levison and myself left 6:00 AM on Saturday from Fairbanks, Alaska to look for White-tailed Ptarmigan and what ever else we could find Denali National Park. We also had a tip on a nesting Saw-whet Owl down in Chugiak.
Denali National Park:

Driving into the park we saw several Willow Ptarmigan along or on the road, American Tree Sparrows were singing their clear, fluid song at every stop. Flocks of passerines were winging about unidentified until they landed close enough to the road and they (or at least this flock) turned out to be Lapland Longspurs. We parked at Savage River Parking area and proceeded to climb the southeast shoulder of Mount Margaret in search of the White-tails. The morning was cool but a light breeze was moving the clouds off and we were fortunate to observe the courtship-or- territorial display of a male Northern Harrier. A Merlin buzzed past and landed in the top of one of the few remaining spruces at this elevation, long enough to give a brief, but identifiable look.

John spotted a pair of Golden Eagles circulating in a thermal that was rising out of the confined valley. A host of sparrows greeted us as we climbed up into the alder thicket with, Fox, American Tree, Golden-crowned and Junco's blending their songs on the light breeze. Climbing out into the open we started to see and hear the birds of the tundra areas: American Pipit,Horned Lark, Snow Bunting, many Common Redpolls, and just before breaking out over a small cornice of snow built up on the ridge, the beautiful, fluid song of the Townsend's Solitaire drifted down from above. The Solitaire made a hasty appearance long enough to see the eye-ring and the small buff patch in the wing before flying off.

Climbing over the ridge top put us into a stiff breeze and we moved over the edge to glass the open patches tundra sticking out from the recent snows. We spotted a small group of Dall Sheep ewe's and a single lamb resting in an open area. This is the place where Nan Eagleson and Carolyn Macintosh told us to look for the White-tailed Ptarmigan so we carefully used out field glasses to check every open patch of tundra for browsing White-tails.

We did notice a difference in this, the southwest side of the ridge. Much less snow and the bowl was now being warmed by the early morning sun. At this point John noticed some tracks leading to and from some of the open patches. These were smaller that the Willow Ptarmigan tracks that we saw on the east side of the ridge, so we decided to hike/climb down to were they disappeared behind a small buttress of rock. The snow was firm so kicking steps down to them made the slippery slope easier to traverse.

We no sooner got down to where the tracks ended and I noticed a head of a bird peering at us from the other side of a prostrate patch of willows. Here was our quest, a bird that John Wright had only seen a few times before in Alaska, and I had see at great distance in Colorado, but never in Alaska. James Levison had not seen this species before so we allowed him to be at the closest approach to study the feathering pattern. As It turned out the bird allowed us all to approach very closely, without being the slightest bit perturbed. I guess that all of it's predators come from the air, and since we were ground based, it kept an eye on us, but other wise could care less that we were there and went about it's business of  picking at the buds emerging from underneath the melting snow margins.

We looked around carefully to see if there were any others Ptarmigan in the immediate vicinity, but all that we could find was this one bird. It allowed us to get within 5 feet and I could not use my binoculars any longer because they would not focus that close! Of course the camera was back in the truck about 1200 feed down and over the other side of the ridge. The Ptarmigan was a female, we think based on a careful inspection of the Sibley Guide and it was in a beautiful state between full winter plumage and the cryptic summer dress.

This bird was distinctly smaller that the other Ptarmigan that we had just seen on the road and the other side of the ridge, and considerably grayer, where it wasn't pure white. It would run rather than fly as we negotiated to get on a level surface and it flew a very short distance up to a rock outcropping where we all could see the definitive all white tail as it banked to slow down and land. We left the bird to it alpine haunts and climbed back up to the ridge, looking back we could not tell that the bird was there with the naked eye, although it was only about 50 yards from us. It looked like a quartz cobble with some lichen on it!

Heading back down to the car we were treated to even better looks at the previously mentioned sparrows and a closer flyby of the Golden Eagle pair. Once back at the car the tourist feed, Mew Gulls came in to see what brand of white bread we preferred and became bolder than they should be for wild birds in a wilderness. The red skin lining around the birds eye was clearly visible with our unaided eyes.

With Lunch finished and some warm socks and boots on our feet we headed toward Chugiak and the Saw-Whet's. John had been given a tip on the location of these owls from Steve DuBois who works for Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Delta Junction. Steve had been down to see the owls a few weeks previous and he said that it was a "Gimme". I has been involved in some infamous Alaskan "Gimmes" before and with gas at $1.80/gallon the though of a several hundred mile marathon for a "probable" did not excited me!

We pulled into Any and Liz's yard and it looked real promising. There was a horse (plenty of grain to feed the shrews and voles which in turn would feed the young and adult Saw-Whets) and bird feeders and nesting boxes of every configuration. Andy came out to great us and showed us down to the box. Immediately the female popped her head out and looked at the intruders to here domain. We went up to the house to fetch some lawn chairs as we were all prepared to sit it out and wait until the male would come in and bring here some food. That was at about 8:00 PM and with the longer daylight hours we were getting at this time of the year, I could tell were in for a long wait.

8:30 came quickly, but the half hour to 9:00 seamed longer to me. 10:00 was even longer still and I though that Einstein and Hisenburg had proven that time was dimensionless and unchanging. They obviously never went owling, or conducted some of there famous time related experiments while owling!!! At 11:00 we were getting ready to throw-in-the-towel as they say, but decided that 15 more minutes would do the trick. We were just about to leave when the female popped her head out again and came out to stretch and preen on a nearby branch. She made no vocalization and flew off for about 5 minutes.

We then saw a bird come back and in the fading light could not tell if it was her or not (she has some displaced feathers on her head which made the ID of the pair easier). She/he popped back into the box as the timepiece declared another day and we thanked Andy and his wife Liz and headed for home. Our plan was to stop in Talkeetna and look for some Hooded Mergansers that had been reported in previous springs, but all three of us decided to head for the 65th parallel and our own comfortable beds. On the way home the northward migration was continuing in the faint light of an Alaskan evening and was punctuated by no less than three Short-eared Owls spotted by the attentive driver on the way home.
Ed Clark

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