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August 1996

by Michael Partridge

I recently returned from a two-week Alaska trip, which was excellent, and not just for birds. Many kind and helpful people responded to my RFI in early August, and I have thanked many of them off line. Again, thank you very much.

A list of birds, their numbers, and locations follows. Rather than give a day-to-day rundown, I would just like to offer a few observations, general and specific, which may help birders planning a trip there.

Timing, Weather:

We went in mid-August, which is apparently not the best time to bird. No matter. We saw plenty without trying too hard, including many new birds. Next time, though, I will probably go in June, if only to see a different mix of birds and to get even more sunlight. The days are still long in August, but I'm led to believe that the skies are somewhat drier in June(I didn't say warmer). We had two days of all rain, and every day that we weren't in the Homer area we got at least some rain. We didn't bring adequate rain gear, and were forced to buy full vinyl rainsuits. Recommend good rain gear strongly.


We camped and saved a lot of money on lodging that way. But all camping is not cheap. We were a little surprised to be paying $17 for the privilege to camp on gravel with pump water and an outhouse. The Lonely Planet Alaska is a pretty helpful book, but hope for an updated edition next year. Things change fast, it seeMs. We rented a car with a local outfit called A Affordable, and were very satisfied. We paid just $660 for 15 days in a 1997 Altima (smooth, good passing car, ergonomically pleasing), which was $100 less than it would have cost to rent a Ford Aspire from Hertz with a discount coupon. A 4WD is really not neccesary. If you plan on doing a lot of gravel road driving, factor in the possibility of a smashed windshield (rocks flying up from passing cars). You are generally not covered for this with rental vehicles in Alaska, even with your own insurance/credit card, etc. We met two sets of folks who were getting ready to pony up several hundred dollars for their bad luck.


A rather unusual assortment. Where were the terns? We didn't see a single one anywhere. We saw just one species of swallow, but got good looks at four different flycatcher species. Common birds that I expected to see but didn't were Canada Goose, Mallard, and Red-Tailed Hawk. Raptors were everywhere. I saw as many different Merlins (20-25) as I probably have my whole life, including two active nests in Denali N.P. I expected hordes of Golden-Crowned Sparrows. I saw just one. I had very explicit directions to a family of Hawk Owls on Denali Hwy., but they would have taken us too far out of the way. Met several people who saw Hawk Owls around MP 10-11 in Denali N.P. We missed them. Our general attitude was to go where we wanted, and let the birds fly where they may. (My companion is a far less enthusiastic birder than I.) This helped us enjoy more of what Alaska had to offer. A bird I'm glad I don't have to look for ever again is a Kittlitz's Murrelet. Two hours in a cold rain. Brrr!

Denali N.P.:

Denali's tourist and camper services are now basically run by a private corporation. What we didn't know is that you no longer have to pitch up at the park gate and hope for the best in terms of making camping/bus reservations. You can now call a 1-800 number (I don't have it--sorry) and accomplish this in advance. Still, 60% of all spaces are reserved for "walk-ups." The corporation gets mixed reviews. We had no problems, but heard complaints from past visitors (the price of everything went way up) and former employees ("they treated me like a dog", etc.)

Scenery, Bears, Animals:

The Alaskan landscape is spectacular. The tundra, taiga, etc. make the trip worth it. The animals and birds are just frosting on the cake. Interestingly, we got lots of different advice about bears, summed up as follows:

Denali Park Ranger- "Stand your ground. Wave. Talk calmly to the bear. Don't run." Anchorage Daily News Article- "No research has proven that playing dead or standing your ground is any better than running." George West, Birding the Kenai Peninsula (book)- "If you are going into grizzly country, rangers recommend that you bring a rifle no less than a 30.06."

We saw plenty of bears, as well as caribou, Dall's sheep, and moose, and did not have guess which strategy to use, but a definitive text on how to behave around bears has yet to be written. I think that the general consensus is that bears, like humans, probably won't hurt you, but are totally unpredictable and probably highly individualistic. So, give them a wide berth. This is oversimplification, I know, but it's what it all boils down to.


Recommend highly George West's on Birding the Kenai. Very detailed and very helpful. Nick Lethaby's book Bird Finding in Alaska was also helpful, and he does a credible job with a very large state. Non-bird reading that I highly recommend are short stories (or White Fang) by Jack London (really puts you in the pioneer mood) and Coming Into the Country by John McPhee (very well written book about Alaska in transition during the 1970's--this book is controversial among some Alaskans). These authors are, by the way, refreshingly accurate when it comes to birds.

We wish we had hooked up with the Dittricks in Anchorage to look for owls, but that is our only regret.

75 definite I.D.'s on different species, 28 lifers, in 16 days in mid-August. One life bird that was not definitively identified at the time that I'm going to count anyway. 9 birds, 8 of them potential lifers, "got away."

Locations, times:


* = life bird
00s = hundreds
000s = thousands
Many = I lost count; always more than 20
Common Loon 3,3 Kenai NWR, Trout Lake
Red-Throated Loon 1 Kachemak Bay State Park
Horned Grebe 1 Seward
Sooty Shearwater* 30-50 Kenai Fjords
Fork-Tailed Storm Petrel* Many Homer Spit
Double-Crested Cormorant 00s Kenai Fjords (10 in Homer)
Pelagic Cormorant 2 Kenai Fjords
Trumpeter Swan* 1 off George Parks Hwy.
Green-Winged Teal 2 Denali N.P.
Common Eider 5-8 Homer Spit
Greater Scaup 3,2 Denali N.P., Seward
Common Goldeneye 2,2 Kenai NWR, Trout Lake
Red-Breasted Merganser 6 Kenai Fjords
Spotted Sandpiper 1 Kachemak Bay State Park
Wandering Tattler* 2 Seward
Red-Necked Phalarope 40+,50+  Homer, Kenai Fjords
Pomarine Jaeger* 3 Kenai Fjords
Mew Gull* Many Denali N.P., Anchorage, etc.
Glaucous-Winged Gull* Many Homer, Seward
Black-Legged Kittiwake Many Homer, Seward
Common Murre 000s Kenai Fjords (plus a few in Homer)
Thick-Billed Murre* 10+ Kenai Fjords
Rhinoceros Auklet* 1 Kenai Fjords
Tufted Puffin* 000s Kenai Fjords (1 in Homer)
Horned Puffin* 00s Kenai Fjords
Pigeon Guillemot 3,2 Homer, Seward
Marbled Murrelet* 100+ Kenai Fjords (20+ in Homer)
Kittlitz's Murrelet* 1 Kenai Fjords (1 definite I.D.)
Golden Eagle Many Denali N.P.
Bald Eagle Many Homer, Seward
Merlin Many,1 Denali N.P., Trout Lake
Gyrfalcon* 1 Denali N.P. (Eielson)
Peregrine Falcon 3 Kenai Fjords
Kestrel 1 Denali N.P. (Teklanika)
Sharp-Shinned Hawk 1,1 Denali N.P. (Teklanika), Trout Lake
Northern Harrier Many Healy, Denali N.P., Trout Lake
Rough-Legged Hawk 1 Trout Lake
Willow Ptarmigan* Many Denali N.P. (Sanctuary River esp.)
Spruce Grouse* 5,11 Kenai NWR, Trout Lake
Rock Dove 30+ Anchorage
Great Horned Owl 2 Cooper Landing (Mile 54, Sterling Hwy.)
Belted Kingfisher 1 Kenai NWR
Three-Toed Woodpecker 10 Kachemak Bay State Park
Western Wood Pewee* 2 Denali N.P.
Olive-Sided Flycatcher 2 Denali N.P.
Say's Phoebe* 1 Denali N.P.
Alder Flycatcher* 1 Denali N.P.
Violet-Green Swallow 4 North of Homer, off highway
Gray Jay Many Denali N.P. (very common)
Black-Billed Magpie* Many Anchorage, Denali, Kenai Penins.
Song Sparrow 1 Seward (largest song spw. ever)
Northwestern Crow* Many Kenai Peninsula
Common Raven 5+ Denali N.P.
Black-Capped Chickadee Many Kachemak Bay State Park
Boreal Chickadee* Many Denali N.P.
Brown Creeper 5 Kachemak Bay State Park
Arctic Warbler* 2 Denali N.P. (Igloo)
Golden-Crowned Kinglet 6-10 Kachemak Bay State Park
Ruby-Crowned Kinglet 2 Kachemak Bay State Park
Hermit Thrush 1 Kachemak Bay State Park
American Robin 5-10 Denali N.P., Kenai
Northern Wheatear* 3 Denali N.P. (Cathedral Mtn.)
Northern Shrike 1 Denali N.P. (Wonder Lake)
American Pipit 3 Denali N.P. (Wonder Lake)
Orange-Crowned Warbler 3 Denali N.P.
Wilson's Warbler 15+ Denali N.P.
Townsend's Warbler* 5 Kachemak Bay State Park
Yellow-Rumped Warbler 20+ Denali N.P.
Golden-Crowned Sparrow* 1 Trout Lake
Dark-eyed Junco Many Denali N.P., Trout Lake, etc.
Savannah Sparrow* 2 Denali N.P. (Wonder Lake)
White-Crowned Sparrow Many Denali N.P. (very common)
Lincoln's Sparrow* 8 Denali N.P.
White-Winged Crossbill 10 Russian River, Trout Lake
Common Redpoll Many Denali N.P., Trout Lake

Almost Certainly (I'm counting this one!):
Lapland Longspur 1 Denali N.P. (Cathedral Mtn.)

Possible: (Just not sure of these, mostly had bad/short views; not counted)
Black-Backed Woodpecker 2 Kachemak Bay State Park
Short-Eared Owl 2 Denali N.P. (Two different times!)
Surfbird 1 Denali N.P.
Lesser Golden Plover 5 Homer (near Spit)
Saw-Whet Owl 1 Denali N.P. (audible, but not definite)
Long-Tailed Jaeger 1 Kenai Fjords
Northern Fulmar 1 Kenai Fjords
Rock Ptarmigan 2 Denali N.P.
Gray-Cheeked Trhush 1 Denali N.P.

All of the "possible" birds would have been lifers, with the exception of Golden Plover.

Michael Partridge

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