Kenai to the Last Alaskan Bird
Septentrional is a great word that means of the north. I first came to serious grips with the word concerning a type locality of an African hornbill. The collector of the type specimen, the one from which the formal description is based, did not have his GPS turned on. The time discovering the hornbill was, after all, in the Nineteenth Century in the days of sextons and guesses. Nonetheless, any good hornbillologist knew the bird could not possibly be from northern Africa, but where in Africa did it come from. The outcome of where the type originated and the published description of the hornbill had nomenclatural ramifications important to some people, but not so much with the subject hornbills. Unlike the hornbills that care little about global-positions and more about food and mating, I do care about locations although admittedly food and mating are up there in the top ten. Regardless, the hornbill was not septentrional to the continent, but direction and distance in Africa were relative and exact back in the 1800s. As for our present hornbill free journey, we truly experience elements of the north. The days in Alaska, with the tundra, taiga and muskeg, of Seward Peninsula curlews and other amazing species and the Bering Sea, glaciers, caribou, frozen beaches and nesting shorebirds, instills only a taste of being Septentrional. That morsel is inspirational to our souls. However, being of the north is for us temporary and the realization of our eminent departure becomes the harbinger of regret and sadness that we press back in our minds, behind the excitement of days to come.
Revisiting Alaska, being septentrional, will be for another journey, some other lucky time. Meanwhile, we have miles to go and birds to peek, not to mention the two species remaining on the list of target birds before departing the state. Bountiful panorama remains to reveal itself and dazzle our senses. Then, there are eastern warblers to see in British Columbia before heading southwest and home with memories to keep, but I am getting ahead of myself.
30 May 2013
The flight yesterday from Nome was mostly uneventful since clouds obscure the majority of the sky except for a great view of the glimmering white-topped Gugach Mountains hovering in the eastern backdrop of Anchorage. Spring must have happened the last few days away, with new leaves of trees unfolding and snow wilting in the warm sun. I gave Linda a set of earrings handcrafted at Wales. It was great to be home and enjoy this morning.
A quick check on the laptop does not reveal any unusual sightings reported for Anchorage and vicinity. Once packed, we turn up the air conditioner to counter the blazing sun coming down and its reflection from the miles and miles of pavement. Although the temperature is hovering around 70, it feels sweltering after the days on Seward Peninsula. We hurry out of Eagle River and south to Anchorage. Traffic is not heavy in town, but becomes uncomfortably dense once on Seward Highway. We are soon traveling on the highway along the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet. Some time since reading Jack London and West’s bird finding guide to Alaska, I had puzzled over the name turnagain. It goes back to Captain Bligh, who sent a survey party up the Knik Arm north of present day Anchorage. They were on the proverbial hunt of the Northern Passage, but discovered only the mighty Matanuska River. The party returned and then went up the southern body of water, but discovered only another river. The party turned around again, hence the name turnagain. Another source states that Cook, realizing the danger of the bore tides, ordered the ship to return to sea. We do not marvel at an incoming bore tide, which are so strong and regular to generate electricity according to some. We also do not witness anyone sinking in the quicksand like mudflats or any birds daring such dynamic water.
Somewhere, perhaps at the town of Portage, we are on the Kenai Peninsula. Kenai is from the Russian Kenayskaya. Kenai Peninsula stretches 150 miles southwest to the Gulf of Alaska and is bordered on the west by Cook Inlet and on the east by Prince William Sound, the water body home to Valdez. The peninsula is about 100 miles wide at its maximum girth and occupies about the same space as Massachusetts and New Jersey combined. The eastern part of the peninsula is relatively flat; the western part contains the highly glaciated Kenai Mountains ranging up to 7,000 ft. and down to many deep fjords. I had read that Kenai Peninsula is one of the most visited tourist region of the last frontier state. Alaska, along with Louisiana, is the only state without counties for political divisions, Kenai Peninsula is in the Kenai Borough. The 1964 earthquake that damaged so much of Anchorage and decimated many villages including causing a tsunami that destroyed the port at Seward.
Near the turnoff to the town of Hope, we stop along Seward Highway for a used coffee break. There is no choice; we cannot have every bird we see washed with unnecessary shades of yellow and kegel ourselves along a roadside trail. I am grateful that the deciduous plants along the trail are showing only a few tiny leaves that might otherwise hide a grizzly, but will they hide us from traffic on the highway. It is comforting that the well-worn path reveals only human tracks. Our trail takes us to the needed destination where we quickly take turns clearing our eyes of any yellow tint. While standing watch for any inquisitive mammals, I am also watchful for any curious birds. While Linda takes the watch, she realizes the trail leads dizzyingly high above what we are reasonably sure is Canyon Creek. From our vantage cliff we look straight down to aqua marine water carving through rocks on its route to Seward.
Traffic lightens at the intersection with the Sterling Highway that goes to Homer some 120 miles down the Cook Inlet. The Sterling passes through Kenai National Wildlife Refuge that, with its 150 million acres, occupies a hefty portion of the Kenai Peninsula. I will pass on an invitation to see nesting Aleutian Terns in the refuge since finding the species near Nome. At home, I must send a thank you. Further south on the Seward Highway, we again parallel Alaska’s first railroad beginning in 1903 at Seward and ending in 1923 at Fairbanks.
While wondering if anyone was keeping a Kenai Borough bird list this year, we drive deeper into the foothills of the Kenai Mountains. Trees are larger here. It is beginning to look similar to the wet clime of western Washington and Oregon, but without glaciers and grizzlies. We remind ourselves of the Tim Treadwell, who believed he could be one with the bears. We had seen film on his exploits. It was just a matter of time when playing with grizzlies became far more dangerous than playing with fire. In the vernacular: he, along with friend Amie Huguenard became dead wrong about the bears loving people, except perhaps for food. The grisly tale happened ten years ago in Katmai National Park and Preserve just one Alaska peninsula to our west. This is not a time to grin, but a time for caution. Grizzlies may attack and even kill people and Kenai Peninsula is apparently a good place for the bruins. We declare not to attempt a close observing of any kind with four long-clawed legs and gnarly teeth. If we do, our plan is to be inside the birdmobile, with the engine running.
The Milepost instructs us to turn onto Herman Leirer Road at milepost 3.7. Watching for mileposts, cars and other human conveyances, birds, mammals large enough to cave in the birdmobile, birds, grizzly bears and leave little time to discern milepost 3.7 from milepost 3.3 assuming there is one. The road is also access to Exit Glacier and luckily, we turn at the correct intersection. Eight miles of pavement takes us to a busy parking lot near the Exit Glacier visitor center inside Kenai Fjord National Park. Four or five people are huddling around a telescope. The scope is aimed up a nearby snow-covered mountainside and I remember that this use of a scope at this location often is productive for Rock Ptarmigan, a species I hope to show Linda. A group is looking for goats and my searching with binoculars reveals the same blank snowfield.
We push onward up an easy trail to the edge of Glacier Creek. The closeness of Exit Glacier cools the narrow valley and appears to be holding back spring leaves. A ranger is explaining to a half-dozen people that Exit Glacier is shrinking. The glacier has already exited considerably since signs show where it was during different years not so long in history. In fact, we are standing at its 1926 terminus. Ninety-six years earlier, the foot of the glacier would have covered the trail we had walked. Exit Glacier is one of 38 mostly retreating glaciers fed by the 700 square mile Harding Icefield. Is the retreat of so many glaciers the result of an average temperature rise of 1.36 degrees worldwide? Are glaciers retreating faster in Alaska than elsewhere? The rise in temperature in Alaska is historically 3.6 degrees warmer. Alaskan residents we meet often relate concerns about ramifications of shrinking glaciers that go beyond scenic esthetics such as loss of tourism, wildlife resources such as depleted fish populations from reduction of cold water, dangers of rising sea levels and effects on overall climate. Exit Glacier, shrinking at a rate of 43 feet per year, is a powerful example of climate change.
The milky Glacier Creek bubbles over round worn rocks, carrying away eroded rocks and soil ground to bits by the glacier. We wonder if Exit Glacier will be so accessible years from now. On the way back to the parking lot, we stumble on our first Black-backed Chickadee. Our fortune for target species has been great, but we truly were not trying hard for most other species. An additional scan of nearby slopes will not give us goats or the elusive Rock Ptarmigan.
Glacier Creek joins Resurrection River that parallels the road back to Seward Highway. The wide shallow river reveals a gravely past of erosion and flash floods before it travels into northern Seward. We locate our motel, which is delightfully cozy and clean. It is late, but there is enough light to drive through town, explore the west side of Resurrection Bay to Lowell Point, walk the docks and treat ourselves to dinner at a restaurant. I cannot count the time Linda said that this is the freshest air she has ever breathed. I agree.
31 May 2013
After quickly eating leftovers of last night’ dinner, a noodle/chicken/bean medley, I leave our room to walk about a half mile to pick up my ticket for a cruise for birds. From a conversation with a National Park ranger on the dock, I learn that his wife, Lanie will be on board my cruise and that I should let her know about the birds I hope to find today. At 11 a.m., I board the Glacier Express, a 95-foot single hull craft that will be for my personal bird cruise. It will be a nonbirder cruise for everyone else. The boat has a capacity of 200 passengers, but people from India to New Jersey and Europe do not seem to crowd. I make a beeline to the ranger-naturalist so she and the captain know my target species. Whether this will help or not remains a question.
We are heading south down Resurrection Bay and away from the port of Seward that is presently under the shadow of a giant 965 foot cruise ship with its 11 or more decks. I wonder if anyone onboard had been on the lookout for shearwaters and other pelagic species, especially ones that might have been chummed by sewage commonly dumped into the ocean. Bear in mind what is discharged apparently varies with whose jurisdiction might float the, huh, ship and the vagaries of the captains. This puts a completely new meaning to the term poop deck. As we slip by Lowell Point, someone standing nearby tells me various governments are working to have an impact on the foul use of such toilet behavior. The water in the bay, which appears clean enough, is about 85 feet deep and remains ice-free in winter. In less than four miles further south, the depth goes to 972 feet, which is near Caines Head and the former site of Fort McGilvray that was in operation when Japanese military held Attu and Kiska Islands of the Aleutian chain in 1943. Caines Head is where I see Bald Eagles and mountain goats.
Turning southwest, the boat enters Kenai Fjord National Park. The area began as a national monument in 1978. The populace of Seward was incensed thinking their way of life was lost. Nonetheless, and despite political and sometimes violent opposition and considerable red tape to cut, Kenai National Park was born in 1980. Within five years, Seward’s economy welcomed tourist who are now principle drivers of the economy. Seward never had to worry about the park taking away valuable marine fish since the park’s boundary stops at mean high tide. The nearly 700,000-acre park includes allotments of federal, state, Native Alaska lands, historical cemeteries and what the brochure calls “unpatented” mining claims. Kenai is the only park in Alaska that prohibits hunting and fishing. I had to ask about the “unpatented” mining claims. The explanation is that it is a claim to minerals but with no rights to the land above. That does not make me feel better since mine shafts and drill holes may come from anywhere but up—and they may someday. In the meantime, Kenai Fjords National Park encompasses glaciers, fjords, islands and 65% of the Harding Icefield. Kenai National Wildlife Refuge protects the remaining 45%.
The ranger directs everyone to see Dall’s porpoise about the time we are near Cheval Island bordering Aialik Peninsula and when I spot a cormorant. Noticing Double-crested Cormorant near Seward and a smattering of Pelagic Cormorants along the cruise had been encouraging that Red-faced Cormorant is a possibility. The boat slows, thanks to the captain, a mid-thirty something woman at the wheel. The cormorant is a target species and a couple more cormorants join the first one providing me an embarrassment of Red-faced Cormorants.
With ABA 682 behind me, I turn attention to the alcids. Rhinoceros Auklet and Tufted Puffin are showing on the cold hard blue water. Pigeon Guillemots are not shy, but only a couple of Thick-billed Murre allow approach close enough for a satisfactory view. We sail on, now southeast to what my map names the Harding Gateway. Turning again, the boat is at the edge of the Gulf of Alaska where the water becomes slightly choppy. I am glad I am wearing my seasick begone bracelets. The captain pilots around Aialik Cape and sends the boat between Chat Island and Harbor Island, northward up Aialik Bay. The water surface is flat. I lose track of our exact position, but somewhere in the vicinity, I see Horned Puffins. The only individual I have earlier seen when looking from a northern California shore was in drab winter plumage, not the clownish decor of the puffins today. A distant flying bird looks to be a Common Murre, but I cannot be certain to count the species. A handful of familiar Cassin’s Auklets first drift on the gentle water, and then they dive into the glacial dark.
As the boat inches slowly north toward Aialik Glacier, I begin hearing chunks of ice, some up to basketball size, clinking against the metal hull. Six or more small motley pale brownish birds jump into the air. A couple more, either too brave or too frightened to fly, are floating among the mini icebergs. They appear just as illustrated in my field guide. Besides, I had already seen the white belly of the flying birds and even noticed the white outer tail feathers of a couple of the birds. Before it is possible to spell Brachyramphus brevirostris, the scene of Kittlitz’s Murrelets is over. I doubt any of the passengers, except the park naturalist and captain, took notice of any of the seven species of alcids seen so far. Probably a passenger or two do wonder why that guy is spending so much time on the bow in the frigid cold wind staring at specks of birds. Yes, it is cold. I heard it is about 50 in Seward and out here, in the land of ice and water hovering close to the killing mark of abrupt hypothermia is reason to keep my heavy winter coat zipped and my hood tight around my ears. The cold moist wind freezes on my beard. I may seem strange to the others, but who else can say they saw Kittlitz’s Murrelet and liked it.
There probably were more Kittletz’s Murrelets camouflaged by the myriad of icebergs near the size of a husky short-tailed American Robin. The boat idles now, as people exit the warm cabin for a photo session from the bow. Most are venturing out for the first time and do not realize the temperature in the close proximity of the glacier is actually colder than further out in the bay. I stake out a space as more people marvel at Aialik Glacier. Sunlight, shining through an unseen hole in low pale gray clouds over the glacier, explodes a blinding white somewhere up the slope. The face of Aialik Glacier is a dangerous heap of white and blue. We idle in the black water as ice clanks and tinkles against the boat. Ten or more minutes pass and then a small portion of the glacier crashes into the ocean. This is termed calving. During the 30 or more minutes near the foot of Aialik Glacier, a few more large pieces of ice calve into the water. The captain turns off the engine. I can hear the glacier rumbling deep-throated thunderous cracking sounds reminding me of thunderstorms while huddled between Natural History and Justice across Constitution Avenue, but on steroids. I would love to have that sound for percussion in a symphony.
Before heading back to Seward, a couple of crew members net a small piece of ice to break up for alcoholic drinks. How neat, but at what price? I am not thinking the immediate monetary price, but the price to pay down the road or down the gut. That ice is floating the very same water the cruise ship navigated. It also is floating in the same water I saw a herd of Steller’s sea lion and the same water used by the Black-legged kittiwakes nesting on Chat Island near Cape Aialik. No one seems sick, but I like my ice from tape water and any animals and bacteria well cooked.
From the map I have, it is apparent we are not going to the Chiswell Islands. My chance to see Parakeet Auklet, a species I had wished might be a flyover when on Seward Peninsula, is highly unlikely today. Contrary to the advertised route, my boat is heading for Seward. The Captain had already lengthened the cruise beyond the prescribed 7 hours. Finding Parakeet Auklets that nest in the Chiswells is always possible anyway. Maybe or maybe not, the situation is disappointing. Still, the day has been full of birds, marine mammals, even a goat and sights to stir the imagination.
1-2 June 2013
We left beautiful and expensive Seward under a heavy overcast and cool air. We stop briefly at Potter’s Marsh, but this was not a day for birding. Along our route, we could not miss a pair nesting Trumpeter Swans and a female moose with twins. Once north of Anchorage, we began feeling Alaska again and it was a relief to get to Palmer after the day of weekend traffic.
The next morning it is in the 50s and more overcast than yesterday. Maud Road, a short distance from Palmer, seems worth exploring, but too many Sunday drivers have splashed rainwater from the numerous potholes on the dirt stretch. Perhaps this country road has a different feel during weekday traffic and offers up Spruce Grouse and most of the 20 species listed in the finding guide. Trying hard reveals only a few, with foraging Black-capped Chickadee and Orange-crowned Warbler. Not one Boreal Chickadee or American three-toed Woodpecker is around. Hermit and Swainson’s Thrushes, though, are singing along with Yellow-rumped and Yellow Warblers. Returning to Palmer on East Arctic Avenue, which is part of the Old Glenn Highway, I cross the Manuska River and pull to the other end of the bridge for a closer look. The river is angry and heavy with silt-laden water. Ten days ago, ice was chocking the mighty Manuska and formerly bare limbed riparian deciduous are now lush with new leaves. Spring is here.
3 June 2013
Departing Palmer under the overlooking snow-capped Gugach Mountains to our south, we leave our motel with its night of our overhead neighbor stomping the floor in reaction to drugs or lack thereof. Last night I had called Henry about a stay at his Nelchina Lodge. He said if he were not around, he would leave our keys on the end table of our room. A good night’s sleep and quiet night would be a certainty.
Construction is continuing on some of the windy and narrow sections of Glenn Highway, but we have a short distance to travel today. We stop at a couple of overlooks, one to scout for birds at the Matunuska Glacier overlook and to search for Arctic Warbler in some willows. Neither sites yield anything. Are we still early for the warbler? The small leaves, yet to unfold for spring indicate more time must pass. Maybe they will be here in a week, but by then, we will be somewhere in Canada.
Our second time on the Glenn Highway passes rapidly, and sooner than we think, we are at Nachina. Our room key rests on an end table as promised. After unloading what we will need for the night, I head out to check the sites birded 11 days ago. A walk around the compound is not productive. Even the pair of Pine Grosbeaks is missing from the feeder. Yellow-rumped Warblers are now scarce, but Tree Swallows are busy nesting and a territorial Yellow Warbler is a new addition. I drive to the gravel pit just west of the lodge and park at nearly the same place I parked earlier. A nearly identical tin of sardines is my afternoon snack, but contrary to 11 days ago, I do not hear a singing Fox Sparrow. Again, I work to find one Yellow-rumped Warbler and no amount of hunting will produce sparrows of any kind. Circling west, I sneak to a vantage point overlooking the gravel pit that earlier had contained so many shorebirds. Water in the pit had long since disappeared as had any representative of a shorebird.
Further west, I locate the road I walked a little over a week ago when it was covered with snow. Today the gravely surface is dry and the water standing below the scattered spruce is dried. Walking the same distance on the road reveals an alarming absence of birds, with no Fox Sparrows or Yellow-rumped Warblers, species that were everywhere only 11 days ago. I manage to tease out a Blackpoll Warbler before returning to Nachina Lodge. Henry is at the office and gives us a $10 discount for our second visit. For June in Alaska, $75 is a definite bargain.
4 June 2012
Sound through the window left open during the night fails to wake us during the silent night. The clouds left a clear sky and the crisp goldern hours of early light brought Gray Jays creating jay like noises and a pair of Tree Swallows gurgling around the nest box near our room. Otherwise, there is no morning boreal chorus. A walk around the compound was no more productive than yesterday afternoon although a cooperative Common Redpoll was a nice bird for any southern birder.
Leaving Nelchina and driving east on Glenn Highway generates a different mood than the one felt during our recent trek from Tok to points west. Even so, the advancing season reveals what we had seen in our rear view mirror earlier is taking on a new life of more green vegetation and less white due to melting snow and ice.
Now thawed, a road near Nelchina, once frozen (right)
On our way west, we had passed the sign reading Tolsona Wilderness Campground and RV Park. Today, we explore the campground. Tall white spruce rise over a dirt road to the campground. A man exits a building and we slow to a stop. We tell him we are just looking whereupon he hands us a brochure and map. The map proves useful as we meander the dusty road accessing 80 campsites and past the RV hookups. There are no campers or RVs, which is promising for us since we are still looking to find an American Three-toed Woodpecker for Linda’s life list. The finding guide also mentions the possibility of Great Gray Owl, Pine Grosbeak and Boreal Chickadee. No amount of searching, spishing or wishing produces any sightings. We witness only the rush of brownish-gray Tolsona Creek that the brochure describes as sparkling. Snow banks, compacted by the thickening creek ice during winter clings to the banks, poised to slow to the warming creek a few feet below.
A few minutes later, we are admiring near 12,000-foot Mt. Drum just inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. This highly photogenic volcanic peak, similar to those of Mt. Rainier and Mt. Shasta, rises 9,000 feet above the relatively flat tundra on its western side. From our lowly elevation of approximately 1,500 feet, colossal Mt. Drum formidably looms over Glennallen where we pull into a gas station before heading north. Besides gasoline, which is well over the $4.50 mark and enough to put me into petrel denial, I purchase a couple of Zagnut candy bars at $1.10 each. In thousands of miles of travel, we happen to set foot in a store that sells our favorite candy bar. Its rarity, or poor distribution, accounts only for a tiny portion of the good taste, a mix of mostly peanut butter and roasted coconut. Its lack of chocolate is especially appealing since it is a taste we do not like and the bars don’t leave a gooey and staining mess. I could have used one or two at Salton Sea. Today, they go well with the backdrop of Mt. Drum.
Motoring north, we soon pass the junction with Tok Cuttoff to new territory up the Richardson Highway. Flanked to the west by the Gulkana River and to the east by the more distant Gakona River, our route essentially parallels the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Built in the 1970s, the 48-inch pipes stand imposingly over an otherwise pristine landscape. The pipeline runs 800 miles from Prudoe Bay at the north end of Dalton Highway south to coastal Valdez. Most of the pipe is above ground since the crude bubbling through is warm. It seems that builders of the line have taken into account everything from earthquakes to people shooting at the pipe. Like most everything in Alaska, permafrost supports the pipeline and Alaska already spends millions on righting the wrongs, no pun intended, from melting permafrost. We wonder what will happen when more permafrost melts. We try not to think about the dire consequences.
Our drive is leisurely as we climb gradually to the shore of Paxson Lake, the headwaters of Gulkana River, find the junction of a gravel road and begin the climb up a hill to an AT & T communication tower. Willow and White-tailed Ptarmigan and Lapland and Smith’s Longspurs are possibilities. White and gray clouds swirl overhead. The road passes over a section of buried pipeline where spruce represent the only green plants, the sparse understory of bushes barely showing leaf buds. It is winter again. Traveling only about 50 vertical feet, two or three stunted spruce are visible in anyone direction. Even the lowly bushes are sparse and I am beginning to understand why White-tailed Ptarmigan may frequent this location.
On the way, the pipe line The upper speck is a golden grizzly
Something is running across the rocky slope about 100 feet higher than our location west. It is a big gorgeous golden animal. It is a grizzly. It is our first grizzly. The bear stops to glance our way and continues running along the ridge, stopping a couple more times to look our way before trundling over the top of a rise and out of sight. The bear looks hungry since its skin ripple loosely over a body not yet fattened since hibernation. This is the way to see such an unpredictably dangerous animal, 500 yards away and us inside the birdmobile, with the engine running. Regardless, binoculars and telephoto lenses let us safely admire such a magnificent animal. We instantly remark that the bear’s coat is not rich brown all over, but is amazingly pale, even white and golden. Earlier, at Exit Glacier, I overheard someone state that interior bears are usually called grizzlies while coastal bears are called brown bears. Why? Interior bears lack the protein rich diet of salmon mongering coastal grizzlies.
The gravel road climbs to 3700 feet elevation where it terminates at the communication tower. Blue sky is visible through the thinning overhead clouds, but the frigid breeze at the summit and darkening clouds on the horizon prevent forecasting weather warmer than our winter day. Snow covers the foreground of a great panoramic view of the Alaska Range to the north. If there were ptarmigan, the grizzly on a mission may have scared them into hiding. A few Wilson’s Warblers pop up during our descent to Richardson Highway.
Seven miles to the north is Paxson with its somewhere less than 50 inhabitants at the junction of Denali Highway. Much earlier, I had rejected staying overnight in Paxson. Probably due to their remoteness, lodging there is higher than the average Alaskan bed. Today, we have plenty of time to drive west on the Denali and back and still arrive in Delta Junction for the night. So far the clouds are ranging from ambivalent to snow that might soon be coming down. Our paved route leaves Richardson Highway in a northwest direction before arcing west, much like the Alaska Range that runs from the south, arcing northwest and gradually curving southwest, with Mt. McKinley at the summit and then more southward toward the Alaska Peninsula. The Denali Highway is the only major highway in Alaska that closes during winter. Normally, it is open by 15 May, but this year, due to exceptional cold and amount of snow, it had just opened. The west end of the highway near Cantwell closed not long ago, apparently from being flooded. That would have prevented our travels should be have been on that end of the highway. Today driving the short length of Denali Highway offers scenery we will have time to only sample.
Even before reaching an elevation of 3700 feet, winter had a hard grasp of the landscape. Snow, at least a foot or more deep nestled against the narrow shoulders of the highway. Short bushes pushed up to a temperature in the mid-40s, and did not show any signs of leaf buds. Willow Ptarmigan must have been finding something to eat. The birds are common. Despite the preponderance of snow cover, they are acquiring the reddish rust of male plumage and the subdued brownish hues of female plumage. The milepost markers are missing or under snow, but we get our bearings at milepost 13. Two miles more of national park panorama begs a stop. Not a bird is in sight, but we hear a Fox Sparrow singing from some low perch over the tundra. More Willow Ptarmigan have the run of the snow, with only a few attempting to duck out of sight behind the dwarf birches. Most of the birds are males.
Denali Highway Willow Ptarmigan
Imagination cannot turn any of the Willow Ptarmigan into rock solid Rock Ptarmigan. More and more bare spots appear as we travel west. Too much snow is not a good thing for Smith’s Longspurs. Nonetheless, no amount of trying will produce our main target bird, as all of the Lapland Longspurs are so far Lapland Longspurs. Is our trek on the Denali Highway limited to mere outstandingly stupendous scenery? How much further should we drive? Our answer is let’s see what is around the next corner (our mantra), we should go just a little further west, we will turn around when the pavement ends or we will call it a day once we find a male Smith’s Longspur.
A Long-tailed Jaeger sallies low over the rolling tundra. It seems to ignore our intrusion. Maybe it would have been wearier, but Linda and I are the only humans in sight. That we have not seen any vehicles since leaving Paxson might be of concern, but we love the wild isolation. Linda ticks off the life jaeger. Stops are periodic and each time, with windows open, we loudly broadcast a recording of vocalizations of a Smith’s Longspur. The cold entering the open windows is invigoratingly promising and persistence pays with an answering longspur. It is not to the common Lapland Longspur, and as it fills the binoculars, it is a Smith’s Longspur and it is a male. Longspurs are beautiful birds, with the striking patterns of southern Chestnut-collared and boreal Lapland Longspur and even the subdued features of McCown’s Longspur, but male Smith’s Longspur is to this beholder a prize. The female is more subdued, and the one seen over a week ago, the fractional Smith’s Longspur now seems more countable. Certainly, the male today is worth marking down as my ABA 684 species.
We agree that it is time to return to the Richardson Highway. The detour out on the Denali Highway, besides the Smith’s Longspur, adds to our list, common Laplands, Golden and White-crowned and Savannah Sparrows and with migrant Willson’s and Orange-crowned Warblers. We see a few more Long-tailed Jaegers and ample numbers of Willow Ptarmigan. A roadside bush, one of the few taller than the birdmobile, is loaded with at least two-inch catkins and one Peregrine Falcon. Owing to its wide mustache and small size, our falcon is a male belonging to the more sedentary subspecies anatum. We watch from a respectable distance, which is only 30 feet. A male Willow Ptarmigan freezes in its tracks. We are still not too worried about blocking nonexistent traffic while soaking in a pleasingly unobstructed view of the Peregrine until the falcon watching us and we, Linda and I and the ptarmigan, watching it, are abruptly in sight of a Northern Harrier. Where did that come from? The harrier drives the falcon into the air and a chase is on. Both birds disappear out of sight and we reluctantly merge north on the Richardson Highway.
We pass Paxson’s slightly above 50 population and hope that this section of Richardson Highway will have fewer road construction stops than we earlier endured. While checking our photographs on the Denali Highway, Linda tells me she took 21 pictures to my three. I feel like turning around and re-driving our little section of Alaska’s most beautiful highway, but it is getting late, and we have 80 miles to our next destination.
Where are the Gyrfalcons? Our finding information states we should keep a lookout for a species I had been sure we would see by now. Maybe we will see North America’s largest falcon up the road. Perhaps somewhere along Summit Lake, but we are raptor free. A couple of miles beyond the lake, we cross Isabel Pass a low summit of only 3,280 feet, a mere 70 feet above Summit Lake. According to the Milepost, the pass’s name is for Isabel Barnette, who was a prospector. However, other sources spell her name as Isabelle and that she was married to the founder and first mayor of Fairbanks, one E. T. Barnette, also known as a riverboat captain, banker and swindler. In no way should that defame the pass and the beauty of the flanking mountains. Late melting snow disguises Gulkana Glacier that should be in sight to our northeast. The name of the glacier is another appellation anomaly of sorts since melting Gulkana Glacier does not flow into Gulkana River to the south, but flows into the Delta River, a tributary of the Yukon River. Of course, go figure concerning etymologies of names of birds. Nashville Warbler, for example, does not sing country. That is just the tip of the iceberg, which here is to the left and right snowy and rocky shoulder of the forbidding Alaska Range. Nomenclatural glitches aside, this is a wonderland. Glaciated peaks, around a dozen miles from the highway to the east range up to 9,000 feet and nearly 14,000 feet to the west that nearly obscure the sky and produce scenes only few could ever paint or photograph. Occasionally, I see cliffs close to the highway. Surely, a Gyrfalcon might nest on one of those rocky locations. No birds are in sight, no Gyrfalcons, Dall sheep, just magnanimous landscapes that continue to make us almost cry. It is not difficult to believe that a 7.9 earthquake shook the region in 2002. Geological turmoil and a frosting of ice and snow is what this scenery is all about and it is now becoming an imprint in our grateful minds.
The highway along the silt laden Delta River takes us past Black Rapid Canyon. Spruce trees invite the possibility of Northern Hawk Owl or a flock of White-winged Crossbills, but these species cancel the party due to inclement weather. The sky darkens as chill goes to cold and time tilts against us. The itinerary includes a stop at Donnelly Dome for possible Arctic Warbler, Upland Sandpiper and Rock Ptarmigan, but weather and time drive us north for a night in Delta Junction.
5 June 2013
Last night, tired and anxious for sleep, we treated ourselves to a restaurant. It was a rare digression from our budget-minded meals cooked with a motel microwave and it was not as good. Perhaps the food explains why we were the only customers. Of course, when you are hungry, most anything is worth eating. As for our motel, the cost range up to a whopping $134, a figure noticeably above our average night thus far. The high price for a motel may be due to U.S. Army East Donnelly Training area beginning over 20 miles south of Delta Junction. We had driven along it boundary and through it beginning at Donnelly Dome. Certainly, when you are tired, a high-priced bed is worth sleeping in.
Sixteen miles out of Delta Junction is another junction, one with Sawmill Creek Road leading northeast into the Delta Agricultural Project. Over 100,000 acres of croplands occupy the flat terrain from the Tanana River roughly south to the Alkan Highway. The region promises leking Sharp-tailed Grouse, which we are about three weeks too late and Upland Sandpiper, which I hope we are on time to find for Linda’s life list. We turn southward off Sawmill Creek Road onto Barley Way, but all we see are a couple of isolated farms surrounded by huge expansive fields and swaths of trees, more fields and high and low mountains in the distance. Tree Swallows are flying over the few trees and Savannah Sparrows are hiding in the fields. Where are the Upland Sandpipers? Backtracking north and then across Sawmill Creek Road are more fields and a stretch of road’s deciduous plants that have recently been mowed to produce a wide-open shoulder. Dan Gibson had mentioned that most highways in Alaska are similarly cut periodically to reduce collisions between motor vehicles and wildlife, most likely and especially moose. The wide clearings along the highways prevent wildlife suddenly bolting across roads. Why there was such a mowed berm along the rough and bumpy section of Barley Way does not make sense. Sure enough, no moose, not even a mouse, is in danger of us hitting it. To our north, the field produces more Savannah Sparrows, but no Upland Sandpipers. Perhaps they, along with nesting Sharp-tailed Grouse, are out there, but time pushes us forward and a couple of hours fly by before we give up and head back to the Alkan.
The north slope of the Alaska Range falls precipitously from snow engulfed summits to the patchwork of melting snow fields exposing dark rocky slopes above the spruce forests down to the valley floor. An hour later at a boat launch to the Tanana River, we pick up a Spotted Sandpiper. Otherwise, it is the usual suspects, the Myrtle and Orange-crowned Warblers and American Robin. This day is not a good day for birding. Several more miles southeast, we come to a Bear Creek and a sizable pull off to stretch, grab a snack and look for bushes that might have birds in them and that will provide a good place to give some water back to the environment. We find a trail along the creek that leads away from prying eyes of passing vehicles, but not to any birds eyeing us. No birds, but we accomplished concurrent goals behind two adjacent bushes, all the while watching out for bears. We also take a picture of the sign designating Bear Creek, laughing since our hometown has a Bear Creek running through it. I do not know how many Bear Creeks are in Oregon, but Alaska has at least 68 Bear Creeks not to mention four Bear Rivers among its thousands of rivers and uncountable creeks. Thin black letter painted on piece of pressed board barely standing upright states “Mitch Stadelhi Trapline.” A couple of our high school classmates once ran trap lines in our southern Oregon Bear Creek that today might sport a muskrat but more than likely not.
Our arrival in Tok is early enough to allow me to go to the Tok clinic for my monthly Coumadin check, what I call having my dip stick checked for rat poison. Keeping my blood from clotting prematurely means more stroke free days for birding and other important activities. I have a prescription from my home clinic and hand it to a woman who appears harried. She smacks a silver bell, the kind you see at hotel desks. A small balding man wearing a white lab coat appears, picks up my prescription and disappears. Twenty minutes pass. Is the staff that busy? I am the only patient around and finally the balding man motions for me to come down a hall and into a room. There, he cuts, not the usual poke, one of my fingers and squeezes it hard. Enough blood pours from my finger to satisfy his needs. I pass, meaning I am somewhere between not having to worry about bleeding internally because my clotting factor is too high, or is it too low, and I do not have to worry about a dirty little clot clogging up my gray matter.
We are staying in the same motel we used several days ago. Now it is the high season for rates, but still, our room was only $85. A grocery shop cost us $12 for a couple of oranges, a box of all-bran cereal and a quart of soymilk. My finger hurts and our budget winces, but the brooding clouds of the day have all but disappeared.
6 June 2013
A check for birds near the motel yesterday evening and this morning is disappointing. Any avifauna resembling what I found on 23 May is long gone.
There are no singing Myrtle’s and no Lapland Longspurs. The gravely lot and adjacent field I enjoyed earlier are empty today. Other notable differences between or first and second visits to the motel is that a few more travelers checked in last night. So far, this is going to be a good day.
We are now traveling the same route that got us to Tok days ago and will be motoring the familiar route as far as Haines Junction, Yukon. Of course, we are far too new to all this to deem any of our route, whether coming or going, as familiar, word that suggests becoming accustomed to this glorious land. It is very easy to understand from some that they have revisited Alaska numerous times. In a few miles, we stop at the bridge crossing Tanana River, the same location hosting Lapland Longspurs and Myrtle Warblers on 22 May. Ice choked the river then, but today the stream is open, running full of brownish gray water under the bridge earlier lifeless and today home to a colony of hundreds of Cliff Swallows. They flock to a boat landing disturbed by numerous tires that produce an abundance of mud for their nests. The swallows remind me of a study I did on the geographic variation of Cliff Swallows. Based on color and pattern, I concluded that any previously named subspecies from western North America, including an earlier one attributed to Alaska, are not recognizable. There was too much overlap in characters. The birds also reminded of a recent study about wing length of Cliff Swallows. The authors think the species might be evolving shorter wings that allow them to out maneuver oncoming traffic. Traffic from what? Internal combustion engines is the answer, from motorized vehicles passing through colonies during the last few decades, not from something else that might have had an impact during several thousand-years. Would traffic from cars and trucks have a taxonomic bearing? Should I re-conduct my early study to consider speed limit signs near specimen localities?
The next 70 or so miles takes us gently up the Tanana, then the Chisana, another of the thousands of river, and past the trailhead to elusive Hidden Lake. Slowly, our veiled thoughts come to the fore as we realize that today is our last full day in Alaska. Thinking of scenery behind us that almost made us cry makes us almost cry. Our last birding stop in Alaska is at Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge that encompasses nearly a million acres. The refuge, founded in 1980 shares boundaries with Alaska’s Wrangell-St.Elias and Yukon’s Kluane National Parks and Preserves. Formerly occupied by Athabascan speaking Indians, elevations in the refuge range from 1,650 feet in the basin to over 8,000 feet in the inaccessible Mentasta Mountains, providing habitat for nesting American Golden-Plovers and cousins to the ever-elusive Rock Ptarmigan. Thousands of migratory birds of eastern Alaska and western Canada use the Tetlin Passage in the Upper Tanana River Basin and 65% of the refuge is forested to protect landbirds.
Abandoned trapper’s cabin Spruce Grouse investigating us
Prospects of adventure and birds buoy our spirit with a hike down a trail beginning at the visitor center. Volunteers Dusty and his wife, describe the trail that leads down the slope just outside. They say buildings down the short trail were once occupied by a trapper who abandoned his cabin about 10 years ago and that since then bears often occupy the buildings.
Warned but not ready to forgo a chance for Alder Flycatcher, a species I thought I glimpsed at the visitor center in May, we start down the trail thinking that American Three-toed Woodpecker and other species might be welcoming. The trail is easy, although a sign near the beginning repeats the warning about bears and instructs us to make noise as we walk, a behavior contrary to anyone looking for wildlife. We are the only people on the trail dropping us gradually down the slope towards the relatively flat marshes and creeks and lakes of the refuge. Green leaves and an occasional flower signal winter, at least here, is over. If any bears were looking for shelter in the trapper’s buildings, maybe they are gone looking for wild prey and not pic nick baskets. Signs tacked above the doors again warn us that bears may be in the vicinity, even lurking in the shadows of the dark structures. We should have brought a flashlight. Our eyes strain to see into the dark building as we bravely poke our heads in the entrances of the trapper’s discarded home. We look, albeit most cautiously inside the broken down doors of the buildings. We see trash including old metal containers, a heavy cast iron-cooking stove and further up the time line, glass and even a little plastic. A galvanized tub is weathering the harsh elements, but a mattress and what may have been clothing is not lasting so well. Most of what we see is deep inside the dark buildings is broken. We see chaos. What we witness probably is the trapper’s trappings stirred by the long claws of hungry bears.
Fortunately, we do not find any bears. We hear singing Myrtle Warbler, Swainson’s Thrush and Fox Sparrow. While taking a minute sitting on a stump and contemplating the small trees and grasses growing on the roofs of the log buildings, we hear something coming down the trail. It has our full attention until we realize the sound is coming from two humans. Although we expect to see them, they turn back up the trail. Miraculously, the primate activity does not dissuade a Spruce Grouse that Linda spots strutting near the trail. If had been a bear, it would have bit me. From close scrutiny, we see the orange rust tips of the tail feathers identifying our bird as the interior population. Back at the visitor center, we learn the two people on the trail were the volunteers who were worried about our safety. Driving away, we wonder if our trip down the memory lane of the trapper could have been a close encounter of the third kind with a bear.
Not far southeast and down the hill we reach Border City Lodge, where we spent our first night in Alaska and where we will spend our last night in this glorious state of surprise and wonder. Cliff Swallows, building nests at the visitor center are attempting to do the same at the lodge. The manager wants to dissuade them, but he is barely winning. When we check in, we are told that they are out of drinking water and essentially out of water for washing and flushing.
Before calling it a day, I revisit the areas birded in May. I hope there is not another unpleasant meeting with one of the unhappy border agents. There is not and that is not all that is missing. Longspurs had forsaken the gravely back lot, shorebirds had long since departed the flats along the creek and scoters and other ducks on the water are gone.
Migration is over. What will be our last bird in Alaska? My guess it will be the Gray Jay couple as we load up for points toward Canada tomorrow morning. It could be one of the many Tree Swallows coursing the parking lot or a Cliff Swallow trying to build a nest on a lodge wall. With the sadness of leaving our dream state and excitement of continuing our journey, what ever the last observed species in Alaska remains elusive. After rechecking our checklist of Alaskan birds, we realize we cannot add another species on our exit and settle for the 141 species seen in the state. That total might be embarrassing to some, but we are early for some species and frankly did not attempt a large count for Alaska. Our primary goal was to find a few life birds. We in fact found most of those missing from my ABA life list by adding 18 lifers. What was the last species checked on the Alaskan checklist. It might have been one of the 18 ABA life birds, but the records omit such detail. Besides, it does not matter. Someday we will return for the beauty of the state and yet another last Alaskan bird.