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U.S.A. - ALASKA: Interior

Big Day (Bird Race)

23 May 1997

by Anna-Marie Barber

Big Day Statistics:

The purpose of this trip was to raise funds for the Alaska Bird Observatory and Arctic Audubon Society. Although our team beat last year's winners by nine species, the 1997 winning team saw 96 species. Still, it wasn't bad for our first Big Day, and we raised $1,100 of the $7,000 total proceeds. We also saw Dall sheep, black bear, caribou, moose, beaver and a muskrat...just another typical Alaska road trip! Our original plan was to spend the night at Maclaren Ridge on the Denali Highway, and begin birding around 4:30 AM on Saturday morning. After spotting our second Peregrine Falcon--this one chasing a Golden Eagle--and then three Short-eared Owls near the Gulkana Glacier, we officially declared our starting time at 6:45 PM Friday.

The drive through the Alaska Range was breath-taking, and we scored Red-throated Loons, Harlequin Ducks, and Wandering Tattler on the way to Paxson. Although most of the larger ponds along the Denali Highway were still frozen, we added some nice waterfowl, shorebirds and Willow Ptarmigan to the list. Past Tangle Lakes, the snow became deeper and the only bird life comprised two shivering Semipalmated Plovers. By then Anna-Marie and Carl were unconscious, so we turned back to Tangle Lakes to make camp at midnight. Four hours later we were back on the road, spying Lapland Longspur, Long-tailed Jaeger and Whimbrel before swinging north .

During one stop, we heard and then spotted two Upland Sandpipers on Donnelly Dome--a first-time sighting for half the group. We missed the Great Gray Owl and ever-present Sharp-tailed Grouse on Sawmill Creek Road east of Delta, but spotted a Northern Hawk-Owl and Olive-sided Flycatcher alongside the fields. Arriving in Fairbanks with three hours on the clock and just under 70 species, we wearily headed for the South Cushman ponds to see the Least, Stilt, and Pectoral Sandpipers we had scoped out ahead of time. Much to our delight, we also found a Buff-Breasted Sandpiper at the ponds and Red-necked Grebe, White-winged Scoter and Black Scoter along Peger Road.

With time ticking away fast, we hurried over to Creamer's Refuge to stretch our legs on the nature trails, adding the expected birds but missing our resident Ruffed Grouse (a flock of Bohemian Waxwings made up for his absence). From there we sped to Susan Grace's house to visit her nesting Boreal Owl and then slogged a mile through swamp to seek out a reported sighting of a Red-winged Blackbird in Goldstream Valley. We didn't find him, but we added Ring-necked Duck, Rough-legged Hawk, and Rusty Blackbird to our list. With 45-minutes to go, we dragged our tired selves over to the university in hopes of hearing some thrushes on the west ridge. We were too early for their evening serenade, but we added a Cliff Swallow down at Smith Lake before we collapsed--exhausted and a little cranky. Overall, we were pleased with our results but now realize we should have stuck to our original plan and started the Big Day on Saturday morning. We've already started planning for next year's event, confident that we can break the 95 species mark!

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