by Roger Linfield
Earlier this month, Brenda Wistor and I spent 17 days in Alaska, visiting Seward, Anchorage, Denali National Park, Fairbanks, Barrow, and Juneau. We saw a total of 136 species of birds, as well as 15 species of mammals.
Tom Arny joined us in Barrow June 10-11. His report to BIRDCHAT last week covered our birding there. After Tom left, Brenda, Keith Wiggers, and I hiked out to Point Barrow (9 miles round trip, with tiring hiking on loose gravel). Hiking along a gravel spit with pack ice on both sides was quite novel. We enjoyed hiking to the northernmost spot in the U.S., but saw no wildlife of interest on the hike.
Jumping back to the beginning of our trip, we arrived in Anchorage on June 1, and drove south to Seward. Along the way, we stopped at Potter's Marsh, at the south end of Anchorage. Hiking along the boardwalk there, we had good looks at Bank Swallows, and we saw Northern Waterthrush, Lincoln's Sparrows, and Common Redpoll in the wet woods near the parking lot. Near the south end of the marsh, we scoped from the side of the main road and saw numerous Arctic Terns and Greater Scaup.
In Seward, we drove south from town, following the western shore of Resurrection Bay. A flock of 10-20 Harlequin Ducks were resting on a nearby gravel bar, giving Brenda her first look at this beautiful bird.
After a day of unsuccessful land birding (we missed Pine Grosbeak, Three-toed Woodpecker, and White-winged Crossbill), we went on a superb 8 hour boat ride with Kenai Fjords Tours. Conrad, our captain, was an avid birder, and goes by the nickname Captain Cormorant. Brenda and I were the only serious birders among the 40 or so passengers, and Conrad was thrilled to have us on board. He and another crew member made major efforts to help us find our target birds, and let us visit the captain's cabin to get a better view of birds on the water. Tufted and Horned Puffins were common, as were Common Murres. We saw a few Red-faced Cormorants fly past the boat, close enough to easily separate them from Pelagic Cormorants (which also occur there). Conrad took us into one small cove where he had often seen Parakeet Auklets. Sure enough, about 10 of these birds were sitting on the water, giving us excellent looks at a bird which is uncommon in the Seward area. As we arrived at the Chiswell Islands, home to large numbers of nesting alcids, Conrad took us near a small nesting colony of Thick-billed Murres. Once again, we picked up a bird that we wouldn't have seen without a knowledgeable and helpful crew. As we cruised up into Ailik Bay, Conrad slowed the boat so that Brenda and I could see the Rhinoceros Auklets which frequent the area. Further up, there were several dozen murrelets in the water. We identified Marbled Murrelet and one Ancient Murrelet, but no Kittlitz'. This was a better than average trip for Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, as we saw 5-6 birds, one of them quite closely. We saw one Short-tailed Shearwater.
A large, active tidewater glacier in Ailik Bay was The Attraction of the trip for most of the passengers. During the 30 minutes that we were parked 1/2 mile from the glacier (icebergs kept us from approaching more closely), we saw and heard several large chunks of ice fall into the water. The deep roar that accompanied each calving conveyed the awesome power in the glacier's motion. We saw several Humpback Whales during the day, and there were at least 20 Mountain Goats on the steep hillsides of Resurrection Bay (the boat came close enough to the shore that we had good looks at these sure-footed animals).
In Anchorage, we joined about 20 other birders for an evening owl tour led by Bob and Lisa Dittrick. They have set out many nest boxes, and each year Boreal and Saw-whet Owls use some of these boxes. It was June 4, and only one Boreal Owl was still at her box (the females stay at the box until the young fledge, while the males hunt). Saw-whets are more numerous, and there were several boxes that were still occupied. Even at 10 P.M., the lighting was excellent, and we had the pleasure of observing a Saw-whet Owl and later a Boreal Owl through a scope at a distance of less than 30 feet. The boxes were several hundred yards from the road in hilly woods, but we managed to carry one wheelchair-bound birder in to see his life Boreal Owl.
In the Denali area, our best birding was along the Denali Highway. At mile 8 (measured eastward from the start of the road in Cantwell), Brenda spotted a swan in a lake north of the road. Shouting at me to get my scope, she started running in towards the lake (seeing a Bohemian Waxwing along the way). Once I arrived, we saw the diagnostic head profile of a Trumpeter Swan, and then watched it feed like a puddle duck, tipping upside down while it used its long neck to reach food too deep for a Mallard or Pintail. It then took off, trumpeting as it slowly rose above the lake, with large snowy mountains as a backdrop.
Further along the road, we hiked through some woods to find a singing Gray-cheeked Thrush. At mile 31 (0.7 miles east of a campground), we hiked north for about a mile, reaching the treeless, short-grass plain where Smith's Longspurs nest. After a few minutes of searching, we spotted a bright male. Later, we saw a cow moose and two frisky calves in nearby woods.
>From Fairbanks, we drove east-northeast for 100 miles along the Steese Highway (mostly gravel, but in good condition) to Eagle Summit, the highest pass on the road. A sign at the trailhead there told us that this trail was only open for hiking, cross-country skiing, and mushing. Our 6 mile hike went through beautiful alpine tundra. Although we didn't see any Gyrfalcons, we did see two displaying male Northern Wheatears, as well as a territorial pair of Long-tailed Jaegers, several American Golden-Plovers, and a few Lapland Longspurs.
As we drove south from Fairbanks (after our time in Barrow) on June 13, we heard and then saw a singing Alder Flycatcher in the Denali area. That was our first one of the trip, as they apparently do not arrive in Alaska until the second week of June.
In Juneau, a scenic hike in Bridgett Point State Park, 30 miles north of Juneau, produced a very tame Blue Grouse, and we saw a second Blue Grouse (with young) from the road on the drive back south. The next day, we joined three other birders (one from Pennsylvania and two from Juneau) for a helicopter flight to see the Steller's Sea-Eagle in Taku Inlet. After a spectacular flight over some sharp mountain passes, we spotted the bird and landed on a gravel bar. There we set up a scope and had superb looks at the sea-eagle, perched in a spruce tree with a Bald Eagle (with which it was apparently bonded). We stayed far enough away from the birds that we did not flush them, and climbed back into the helicopter for the scenic flight back to Juneau. Temsco Helicopters was very accomodating in helping us contact other birders to share the cost of the trip (they must have fielded 10-20 calls just for our one flight). I was pleasantly surprised by this, since their very popular glacier helicopter tours for rich cruise ship passengers must run much more smoothly.