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Alaska: Birds and Mammals of the Great North (1 Viewer)

lgonz1008

Well-known member
United States
Alaska is considered by many as the final frontier, whether this is an American bias, the fact that anyone wishing to reach the state needs to spend a lot of time traveling or simply that this is one of the great wilderness regions left on earth, it's up to each person to decide. Personally, I saw it as the complete opposite of where I've lived most of my life (Florida), but didn't see it as big a priority in my travels since it was "within the US borders". In hindsight, this was a dumb mindset, as it took me longer to reach Alaska, than it took to reach Kenya last year and much more packing was involved, but I wouldn't trade my experience for anything in the world.

This trip was also made as a family trip as way of thanking my mother for all of her efforts in raising me and my brother, so I did my best to bring to her the place she dreamed of seeing ever since we moved to the US. However, anyone who's met me knows that family trips just means I bird while sacrificing a few hours or activities to my family, combined with the fact that we all wanted to see the beautiful landscapes of Denali and Seward and some of the amazing wildlife that calls this state home. I can proudly say that my trip ended with 110 bird species and 14 mammal species, of which 16 birds and 9 mammals were lifers.

Detailed Itinerary:
  • March 23-24 (Flight to Anchorage and first afternoon)​
Due to time constraints, flights to Anchorage tend to be early morning, this meant that we had to spend the night in Seattle unless we wished to be tired travelers in an airport at 1AM for a 6AM flight. The flights from Miami to Seattle via Los Angeles were peaceful, and even a 30 minute birding break around the hotel gave me a chance to get used to some Western species including Bushtit, Dark-eyed (Oregon) Junco, and the default song for the upcoming week, White-crowned Sparrow.​

A 10:00AM flight had us in Anchorage by midday, following a quick rental car pickup, a delicious lunch at Spenard Roadhouse, and a failed attempt to do an early checkup at the hotel. We decided to spend over an hour in Westchester Lagoon to get used to some of the birds and sights that call the Anchorage area home. In the waters of the lagoon, a colony of Short-billed Gull and Arctic Tern shared the area with Red-necked Grebe, Trumpeter Swan and Greater Scaup. The more reedy areas had a breeding pair of Sandhill Crane along with some shyer (by comparison) Gadwall and American Wigeon.​
From there, we managed to check-in to the hotel, and decided to indulge me in a failed attempt to find a Northern Saw-whet Owl that had been reported the day before. The peaceful park did provide good background noise for the most common songsters I would hear throughout the trip, including Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Dark-eyed (Slate-colored) Junco, Yellow-rumped and Wilson's Warbler. Final stop of the day took us up the Arctic Valley Ski Area, which has reports of some big target species, but maybe due to the time of day, not much was seen outside of the usual suspects, along with a family of Canada Jay and my first lifer in the form of Common Redpoll. The true highlight however, came in the shape of our first Moose, one of our big targets and thankfully one that we ticked off by having great views before another vehicle scared it off. Dinner was repeated in Spenard Roadhouse (our go-to restaurant in Anchorage) and went to sleep some time around 10:30PM, though the sun showed no signs of going down.​
 
  • March 25 (Morning in Anchorage and transfer to Denali)​
Early mornings are a must whenever traveling is involved, whether it's due to jetlag, the bed not being your own or excitement from being in a new place, it doesn't change the fact that every day I woke up around 4AM and was out and about by 4:30AM. Birding this morning began with a slow drive around Lake Hood and Lake Spenard near the airport, these lakes hold a variety of waterfowl in the spring and summer, and this morning, the birds in attendance included the first of many Barrow's Goldeneye for the trip, along with a pair of Ring-necked Duck, Northern Shoveler and American Wigeon. Second stop took me to Connor's Bog, a site that had a Pacific Loon staying the past few days, but due to the access to the lake being hidden, I simply settled for a walk around the trail, which did provide some new species, including a displaying Lesser Yellowlegs and my lifer Boreal Chickadee. Final stop of the morning before heading back for checkout was at the Smokejumper Trailhead, that while it failed to give me my soon to be main target of the trip, American Three-toed Woodpecker, it did provide better views at Boreal Chickadee, Lincoln's Sparrow and lifer views of White-winged Crossbill.​

After a difficult attempt to find breakfast around Anchorage, we ate in a place that made it clear that all of their ingredients were Costco bought with a long wait time and extra cost that left us a bit disgruntled, but we had a long drive north to the Denali area, so we weren't going to waste more time. The drive was scenic and beautiful, as we moved from the Anchorage area through open bog-filled prairies enclosed by mountain ranges, to small towns and boreal forests. We also noted the railroad that goes from Anchorage to Denali, but after making the drive, I can't in good conscience say the scenery is not as beautiful by car. Our first proper stop was at the Willow area near the Sockeye burn site of 2015, this area is historically great to find some of the toughest woodpeckers that call Alaska home, but due to the habitat bouncing back, the woodpeckers were few and far between, but we did note the squeaky calls of a Downy Woodpecker and a Black-backed Woodpecker briefly flew across the road in front of the car, showing off its namesake black back and yellow cap. The only other bird of note in the area was a pair of Common Redpoll in a nest that showed off much better views than the previous day.​
A stop at the Denali Viewpoint South, provided us a rare chance to see most of the imposing Denali, North America's tallest peak. The mountain is usually covered in clouds due to its unique climate, so while we didn't get to see most of the peak among the clouds, we count ourselves lucky to have seen 2/3 of this iconic piece of landscape. The area was also dotted with American Red Squirrel, and the song of a Northern Waterthrush, gave away my only encounter with this species during the trip.​
We reached our cabins for the upcoming 3 nights around 5PM and while we enjoyed a wonderful lunch in the cabin's restaurant (which was also the best eatery in the area), we decided that a late preview of Denali National Park was needed. Driving the road into the park until the Savage River (final self-driven point of the park), we encountered beautiful landscapes, but the wildlife encounters were brief, White-crowned Sparrow were the default song in this region, but sometimes, you could hear a Varied Thrush in the forested areas or American Tree Sparrow in the meadows. A stop around the Savage River Bridge helped us connect with the first pair of Harlequin Duck, a cute Arctic Ground Squirrel, and after much battle with the cold wind, our first Willow Ptarmigan of the trip, which we affectionally decided to call "Paco" due to it's call, but after tomorrow, their charm would be slightly lost as they turned out to be the most common bird we would see in Denali National Park, due to their preference for the hanging around the main park road. The drive back to the cabins made sure we stopped to see the tamest North American Porcupine we would encounter throughout the trip (so tame that a pair of Asian travelers decided to take selfies with it, much to the worry of everyone watching on). We enjoyed dinner in the cabin's restaurant before they closed, bought some food for breakfast tomorrow, and an early sleep in preparation for tomorrow when we would explore Denali National Park.​
 
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  • March 26 (Denali National Park and Preserve)​
Currently the third largest protected area within the US National Park system, Denali National Park and Preserve is also considered an UNESCO biosphere reserve and it's probably the closest you can get within the US to the variety and quantity of megafauna that you'd expect to see in other parts of the world, like the savannas of Africa or the forests of Asia. The park was originally founded for the protection of the endemic subspecies of the Thinhorn Sheep, best known as the Dall Sheep, combining that to the namesake mountain and millions of acres of land, and you have a place whose natural history is as diverse as the wildlife that calls the place home.​
With that said, I should make clear that whether it was due to the overcast weather, the nature of having to move around the park exclusively within a bus or simply that being shown around safari park isn't our style, the park felt a bit disappointing at times. While the mammals did come in a decent variety throughout the day, including bachelor herds of Caribou, family units of Dall Sheep, and even a cow Moose with two young, the overall experience felt a bit diminished as it was sharing the same bus with 50 other people who weren't as interested in the natural wonders of the area. To make matters more interesting, outside of the many Willow Ptarmigan that call the park home, few birds were noted, with the few exceptions being a Northern Harrier flying over the plains, a Belted Kingfisher Teklanika Rest Stop, and a nesting pair of Common Raven, and a flyover Short-eared Owl at the Polychrome Pass. At the current time, Polychrome Pass is the westernmost point you can visit into the park courtesy of climate change, and the park expects to have the complete road open by the 2027 season, so consider making your visit after that date if you want to explore the full park.​
We returned to the bus depot by midday, and still wanting to make the best of the park experiences, we made way to the Sled Dog Kennels to see the Alaskan Huskies that help rangers, biologists and artists explore the park in the winter, alongside a presentation of how they do this. The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the main park road that could be driven, in hopes of finding our own wildlife encounters, but sadly, the overcast weather was turning into snow and rain at times, due to this, we called it quits and I left confused on how I was able to find a Bald Eagle for Denali, but not a single Golden Eagle, which is the more prominent raptor within the park.​
 
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Off the top of my head, I reckon Bald Eagles, being fish eagles used to getting wet in the course of hunting activities, probably ignore bad weather more readily than Golden Eagles engaged in more active hunting for which tip-top plumage condition including dryness could be the difference between success and failure. If it's not a great day I reckon Goldies will just perch up somewhere and sulk (I mean save energy!) making them less easily detectable. They also don't have bright white heads and tails!

John
 
Off the top of my head, I reckon Bald Eagles, being fish eagles used to getting wet in the course of hunting activities, probably ignore bad weather more readily than Golden Eagles engaged in more active hunting for which tip-top plumage condition including dryness could be the difference between success and failure. If it's not a great day I reckon Goldies will just perch up somewhere and sulk (I mean save energy!) making them less easily detectable. They also don't have bright white heads and tails!

John
I agree, the weather didn't help much for raptors (or any carnivores for that matter), but it probably helped the Dall Sheep and Moose cows relax a bit since no predator was coming for their young!

Overall Bald Eagle is supposed to be rare within the park, simply because the park's rivers have little to no fish life, glacier fed rivers have too many fine sediments that make it impossible for most fish to breathe through their gills.
 
  • March 27 (Denali Highway)​
Early morning meant that I had some time before the restaurant opened and in hoping to make the best of my time, I decided to explore Denali National Park on my own in the morning hours. This turned to be the best decision I made for the trip, the park is full of visitors once the buses begin running around 6:30AM, but for the first two hours prior to that, the visitor center and even the main park road is mostly left to you and the early morning encounters flourish because of it. Starting by walking around the trails of the visitor center, I was greeted by the morning chorus of mostly Swainson's Thrush, but Boreal Chickadee and American Red Squirrel also provided some distraction. Since the weather was much better than yesterday, I wondered how that would affect activity in the park road, and let's just say that few words describe the pleasant experience of having a Moose foraging next to your car or seeing a North American Porcupine cross the road.​
Just before the habitat changed from spruce forest to prairie, I noticed a weird shape on the side of the road, by this point I was used to Snowshoe Hare, Willow Ptarmigan and American Robin being roadside outlines, but this one looked different. Sure enough, I slowed down and I started making out the colors of a plump, chicken-like bird with a black throat and speckled white chest, a Spruce Grouse! I managed to stumble on a male grouse on the side of the road and after a bit of back and forth, I managed to get great views of this sought-after target from the north. Once I had my fill of the bird, I decided to test my luck and continue driving to the vantage point that sometimes gives you clear views of Denali, but even with clear blue skies, the peak remained hidden by the clouds, but the Double and Sable mountain made a good compensation prize. The prairie was also alive in the early morning with the songs of various sparrow species, including American Tree, Savannah and the omnipresent White-crowned Sparrow, the latter was so common that I encountered over 50 singing individuals in a 5 mile stretch! At this point I began driving out of the park, the Spruce Grouse was encountered again, this time displaying on the road, and checking the roadside pools gave views of Northern Shoveler and Green-winged Teal, a final Moose encounter for the morning made it clear that I did right thing to explore this beautiful park on my own before the buses began their run.​

After a delicious breakfast in the cafe of the McKinley Creekside Cabins, I made my way to the Denali Highway with a passenger that seemingly forgot that 3 hours for a birder in a birdy area is not the same as 3 hours for a driver. Warnings aside, the breakfast was good enough to last through the day until dinner, and it allowed me to focus on the many birds that call pond and potholes close to the road home.​
The full Denali Highway is a 130 mile unpaved road that was the original access road to Denali National Park and it is only open during the summer season as many areas of the highway are snowed in during winter. My goal today was Thirteen Mile Hill, a spot nearly on the other side of the highway from where we were staying that is good to find Lapland Longspur at this time of year. However, the unseasonably cold weather made it so the songbirds were still hunkering further south. This however, didn't make the birdlife in the highway any less spectacular, all 3 American Scoter species were seen in glorious breeding plumage (Surf, Black and White-winged Scoter), in the faster moving streams another pair of Harlequin Duck was seen, while in the smaller pools Trumpeter Swan, Horned Grebe and Red-necked Phalarope were observed preparing for the nesting season. Once we began climbing in elevation, Fox (Red) Sparrow was heard singing, while Wilson's Warbler and Common Redpoll were foraging in the bushes while a Merlin flew over.​
As we reached the midpoint of the Susitna River Bridge, I noticed the active beaver dams, but no beavers in the forested parts, but stopping at the middle of the bridge gave one of the best surprises of the day with a single Tundra (Whistling) Swan, casually foraging in the far bank. Views left a bit to be desired, but thankfully the camera managed to get an ID shot that shows the yellow spot near the eye and base of the bill to distinguish it from the more common Trumpeter Swan. The Waterfowl Lakes were mostly frozen over, which gave a stark reminder that it was a weirdly cold season with a late spring, but in the clearings, the waterfowl congregated in great variety, American Wigeon, Mallard, Ring-necked Duck, Bufflehead and Red-breasted Merganser were all seen, along with a surprise flyover Least Sandpiper, and a lifer pair of Long-tailed Duck. On the mammal front, a North American River Otter was noted swimming in the frigid waters, but we soon moved on as the wind was not helping our cause to remain in the area.​
Upon reaching the Maclaren Summit, there was not much activity as the weather was turning, becoming more overcast and colder, so all we could do is enjoy the beautiful winter scenery in the middle of May. As we reached Thirteen Mile Hill, we noticed small settlements, along with some bold Caribou foraging in the middle of areas that allow sustenance hunting. The hill itself was cold, windy and without much to be heard or seen outside of the display calls of (Hudsonian) Whimbrel, I called the bird a dip and began the long drive back to our cabin. Along the way, we noticed the Arctic Ground Squirrels doing sentry on the road that reminded us of someone praying, and made plans to change our schedule for the next day and repeat this road, so the two that missed out on the winter scene of the summit could enjoy it, even if it meant adding an extra 4 hours to the drive south towards Seward. Overall, it was a wonderful day and my personal best in Alaska, great views, good food, interesting lifers and the outdoors all to myself, what more could I ask for?​
 
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  • May 28 (Long drive to Seward)​
Today we had a 10 hour drive to Seward, normally this drive is about 6 hours long, still a long trip, but it was made longer from the request of the family to go back to Denali Highway and spend some time in the winter scenery of Maclaren Summit. The drive there had us pumping gas and getting some gas station coffee by 6AM in hopes of making most of the drive without much difficulty. Little to no stops were made on our way east through the highway until we reached the Waterfowl Lakes, the variety was different from yesterday, less species of duck were seen, but in it's place, we had a resting Common Loon in the open water and a displaying Wilson's Snipe on the road. Little past 9, we arrived at the Maclaren Summit, indulged ourselves in playing in the snow for the first time in our lives, but I made sure to note the constant calls of the Gray-cheeked Thrush and had close-up views of a spiffy Golden-crowned Sparrow that didn't seem to care about being so close to humans.​

I made a second attempt at Thirteen Mile Hill for the Longspurs, as the weather was much nicer than yesterday, but all I got to show for it was a flyover Sandhill Crane and a breeding pair of Long-tailed Jaeger. Well out of Denali Highway, we noted a few raptors on our way south through Richardson Highway, including a perched Bald Eagle and a flyover Osprey, the latter would be the only one we'd see on the trip. Past midday, we had reached west of the census town of Glennallen and into prime Northern Hawk-Owl habitat, sadly no owl was seen during the drive towards Anchorage, but a much rarer animal gave us a brief appearance as it crossed the Glenn Highway in front of us. To paint a picture, by this point, we were well familiar with the various domestic dogs that people keep as pets in Alaska, and how they tend to be larger breeds, we were also well familiar with Coyote from various trips around the Lower 48 states, so when I say that we saw a large gray and brown canid crossing the road, we couldn't accept it as anything else besides a Yukon Wolf, the prominent subspecies of Gray Wolf found throughout most of Alaska. We drove slowly up to the area that we saw the animal cross the road, but it was already hidden deep in the thickets, and after asking around local naturalists, they made it clear that Coyote would have been too small an animal to match what we saw, so it seems like we lucked out and saw a wolf!​
The rest of the drive to Seward was long and uneventful, outside of trying to find something to eat at the world's worst Dairy Queen (everything on their menu was missing at least one ingredient needed to make the food), the only thing of note was the beautiful scenery around Glacier View and the Turnagain Arm complemented by seemingly every single road construction project in the state deciding to start up after the Memorial Day Weekend.​
By 6:30PM, we had finally made it to our lodging the Steller Inn, just outside of Seward, which I can only advice as the place to stay for the visiting birder due to how productive the grounds of the inn are. During our two night stay some of the best birds seen right on the property included Golden-crowned Kinglet, Brown Creeper, Chestnut-backed Chickadee and Varied Thrush, the latter two were sometimes seen coming to the seeds dispersed on the ground by the owner.​
We had dinner in a seafood restaurant overlooking the Harbor, and while service was slow, the food was tasty, and we were happily distracted by a pair of Wandering Tattler, alongside a lone Sea Otter and a female Steller's Sea Lion, the latter two were giving us a preview of what was coming tomorrow. Tired from the long day, we tried sleeping early that night and prepared ourselves for our glacier and wildlife pelagic trip tomorrow.​
 
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Thanks for this great write up! We just returned from 3 weeks in May, starting at the Kachemak festival, then winding through Seward, up to Anchorage, Denali, and across the Denali Hwy to return back to Anch. Great trip with good birds but unfortunately it's taking me forever to sort, edit, cull, over 2000 images (the curse of fast shutters and digital imagery), such that I'm not yet finished with lists or tallies :-<

I am pretty sure we did NOT get a Golden Eagle (tho in logical places for it) tho we did see LOTS of Baldies. We also missed the Tattler and we were probably two weeks too early for the Arctic Warbler <sobbing>. But we did pick up some good pelagics/shore birds (Kittlitz was a pleasant suprise) and a fair smattering of other good birds such as Dipper, the Three Toed, and Ptarmigan. I'm guessing we'll come in around 100 species with 25 lifers, more or less.

We also failed at finding bears (excepting one brown bear which ran across the road, but distant), tho we did see lots of sign. We were very prepared since we were mostly hiking less-used trails and alone mostly, but we sure couldn't find them :-( We did see lots of Moose, Caribou, Porcupine, Dall Sheep, Mtn Goat, Otter, Sea Lion, Seals and other small mammals, and three - Fin, Humpback, and Orca) marine mammals which was a treat! I fly fished a little (trout/Grayling) but got skunked... my only solace was 2 other fishermen I chatted with who said it was early and conditions were sub-optimal. Lot's of places had ice ledges on banks making access very difficult.

It's an incredible place and I wish I had visited decades ago!
 
Thanks for this great write up! We just returned from 3 weeks in May, starting at the Kachemak festival, then winding through Seward, up to Anchorage, Denali, and across the Denali Hwy to return back to Anch. Great trip with good birds but unfortunately it's taking me forever to sort, edit, cull, over 2000 images (the curse of fast shutters and digital imagery), such that I'm not yet finished with lists or tallies :-<

I am pretty sure we did NOT get a Golden Eagle (tho in logical places for it) tho we did see LOTS of Baldies. We also missed the Tattler and we were probably two weeks too early for the Arctic Warbler <sobbing>. But we did pick up some good pelagics/shore birds (Kittlitz was a pleasant suprise) and a fair smattering of other good birds such as Dipper, the Three Toed, and Ptarmigan. I'm guessing we'll come in around 100 species with 25 lifers, more or less.

We also failed at finding bears (excepting one brown bear which ran across the road, but distant), tho we did see lots of sign. We were very prepared since we were mostly hiking less-used trails and alone mostly, but we sure couldn't find them :-( We did see lots of Moose, Caribou, Porcupine, Dall Sheep, Mtn Goat, Otter, Sea Lion, Seals and other small mammals, and three - Fin, Humpback, and Orca) marine mammals which was a treat! I fly fished a little (trout/Grayling) but got skunked... my only solace was 2 other fishermen I chatted with who said it was early and conditions were sub-optimal. Lot's of places had ice ledges on banks making access very difficult.

It's an incredible place and I wish I had visited decades ago!
I'd say you got better luck with some of the marine mammals compared to us (the next post will be about the Seward boat trip).

The Tattlers were a welcome surprise, because the next day they were gone, my guess is that they stopped briefly on their way north to the mountains for breeding?

The Arctic Warblers were a similar experience for me, I knew they didn't arrive until the first week of June, but seeing how cold most of Denali Highway was, I wouldn't be surprised if they have a late season and start appearing after the second week.


I 100% agree with Alaska being great though, so far it's been the only place in the world that I missed the moment I got on the plane to go back home. The closest place that holds that emotional impact for me in the US is probably Washington?
 
Great write up, bit confused your posts are dated in March? Yet you mention May in the post and the species in Breeding Plumage would mean it was May?
I completely overlooked that! Thank you for letting me know. I can only update the entry I put today, but I'll be sure to make it May moving forward.

The whole trip was in May of this year, I can confirm the date numbers are correct.
 
  • May 28 (Kenai Fjords National Park and Seward)​
Pelagics are the dream experiences for many birders, it gives us a chance of seeing birds that while shown in our country's field guides, rarely do we connect with them unless we go out to sea. The Seward area is not a traditional pelagic spot in the US, like Westport, Washington, Monterrey Bay, California or Hatteras, North Carolina, however, seabirds do congregate in these waters and the off-shore seabird colonies makes the region sought-after for many birders, add to that beautiful glaciers and fjords, and one of the best concentrations of marine life in the North Pacific, and you'd be hard pressed to not find something great on a day out at sea in this region.​
The trip was done through Kenai Fjord Tours and while I can heavily recommend their service to see the glaciers and marine mammals, along with great overall hospitality, keep in mind that this is not a traditional pelagic with focus on birds or even a spotter onboard to identify the birds for you. Add to that, the amazing experience of the trip was partially dimmed for me when I realized that the captain was going to prioritize giving the audience more glacier views over visiting the seabird colonies in the Chiswell Islands, due to this, species like Parakeet Auklet, Thick-billed Murre and Red-faced Cormorant, plus any potential storm-petrels or shearwaters were also out of the picture. Please note that this was just my experience, and tours before and after mine have visited the colonies, so it all depends on the captains reading of the weather and time.​
Taking the caviats out of the picture, the boat was large, great view of the sea without any worries for seasickness, not surprisingly, the staff soon figured out that I was the only birder onboard since everyone else was warming up inside and drinking hot chocolate while I enjoyed the wind and waves to find my lifers. Some of the first wildlife sightings of note came soon within the harbor with Harbor Seal and Pelagic Cormorant resting on the rocky berm. Quickly passing through Resurrection Bay helped me connect with Pigeon Guillemot, Common Murre and my first Marbled Murrelet of the trip. A stop around the Porcupine Cove region helped us see a Humpback Whale with her young, while looking out to sea, a flock of over 50 Brant were seen flying north, while a Pomarine Jaeger moved south avoiding the cliffs. While passing the Cheval Narrows, I noticed the first Horned Puffin of the trip, while giving some attention to a Steller Sea Lion colony made it easy to scan through for flocks of Surf and White-winged Scoter, alongside a lonesome Pacific Loon.​
Past 9:30AM, we had made our way through the Aialik Bay of the Kenai Fjords National Park, this made the bird variety drop, but the quality increase as I had good views of Ancient Murrelet passing the boat. Once at the Holgate Glacier, I enjoyed comparing between Tufted and Horned Puffin while experiencing the bitter cold brought about by the glacier. A lunch break was taken on a different side of Aialik Bay, where our company were many beautiful waterfalls and a playful pair of Sea Otter. Our final stop of the morning (and the trip) was at the Aialik Glacier, probably one of the most spectacular sceneries we enjoyed on the trip and one that made the cold we felt in the Holgate Glacier seem tame. Add to that experience seeing the glacier do a ice calving big enough to rock the boat, finally connecting with glacier dependent Kittlitz's Murrelet and a loud trio of Black Oystercatcher, and you can say it was a very memorable experience! Sadly from there, the captian would not make any other stops until we reached the cliffs of Resurrection Bay, where we saw small family groups of Mountain Goat and we disembarked by 2PM in Seward.​
With the afternoon open to us, we decided to change clothes in the inn, before visiting the famous Ava's Place, a residential home that the owner has made it accessible for birders to enjoy her feeders from the road. My main target here was a Pine Grosbeak reported the previous day, but I had to settle with a flock of around 60 Red Crossbill and over 50 Pine Siskin; other birds of note in the feeders included Hairy Woodpecker and Rufous Hummingbird. Time was plenty, so we made a visit to Exit Glacier and hiked the 2 mile loop to see this retreating wall of ice, while the view left a bit to be desired, we were kindly reminded how many Moose use the area as there parts of the trail that were completely covered by their dung. On the bird front, activity was slow, but Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warbler were plenty active and I counted over a dozen singing males of both species while hiking. The highlight of the hike came was finally managed to connect with our first bear! A mama Brown (Grizzly) Bear and her cub was being seen by a group of people on the opposite cliff and we managed to get on it just before they disappeared into the bush. Since nothing was going to beat a bear, we decided to head back down the mountain, enjoy an early(ish) dinner and sleep to help our tired bodies recover after a long day.​
 
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I'd say you got better luck with some of the marine mammals compared to us (the next post will be about the Seward boat trip).

The Tattlers were a welcome surprise, because the next day they were gone, my guess is that they stopped briefly on their way north to the mountains for breeding?

The Arctic Warblers were a similar experience for me, I knew they didn't arrive until the first week of June, but seeing how cold most of Denali Highway was, I wouldn't be surprised if they have a late season and start appearing after the second week.


I 100% agree with Alaska being great though, so far it's been the only place in the world that I missed the moment I got on the plane to go back home. The closest place that holds that emotional impact for me in the US is probably Washington?

You started right as we were leaving (memorial day weekend)...

Yeah, we rented a small camper van which turned out to be pure awesomeness for the Denali/Den Hwy portion of trip. My biggest worry was the road not being clear, but it was well graded and 100% non-issue. The best part was being able to use the BLM campgrounds (with nice pit toilets) and having them essentially to ourselves - literally empty. The snow (and melting snow = mud) were only an issue in that it was harder to hike into the backcountry, but we did ok overall.

The marine mammals were in the one 'organized' event we did which was opening day of the full day NP tour boat. The wx was miserable (and it was VERY hard to try to 'bird') but it was still a highlight of trip.

Your final comment is interesting... it's one place where I found myself thinking 'if I was a 30yr old again, I might move to AK'. Similarly, WA, and maybe Patagonia, have felt that way. I think it's the huge areas with few people that are a draw for me.
 
  • May 30 (Seward to Anchorage)​
Final full day in Alaska had us going back to Anchorage on a steady pace without many hurries, but since I got up early as usual, I made a visit to the Lowell Point in Seward, in hopes of getting better views of Marbled Murrelet, this was easily achieved, along with fly-by views of Harlequin Duck, and driving back to Seward, a pair of Common Merganser were noted close to the road, while the sea was covered in a large flock of Black-legged Kittiwake.​

Stops were made in the Bear Creek Weir for American Dipper, but sadly the bird was a no-show for my second attempt this trip, but a Belted Kingfisher gave some variety, alongside some Sockeye Salmon swimming in the creek. A second stop as Ava's Place gave the same bird variety of the previous day, but a roadside stop at the creek that flowed behind the inn proved to be successful as a pair of American Dipper are nesting under the bridge, and one came out in an open branch to preen and collect nesting material as soon as I parked.​
After a late breakfast and pumping gas, we began the drive north for one last time, along the way a stop produced great views of a singing Townsend's Warbler before leaving the Seward Highway, but other stops in Tenderfoot Creek Campground and Beluga Point produced little outside of a singing Golden-crowned Sparrow. Past midday, we stopped in Potter Marsh and despite the windy conditions, I was able to connect with some Cackling Goose, but it was difficult tell them apart, until I was able to see the image on the computer of what I thought were "small Canada Goose". Turns out that the smallest subspecies of Canada Goose breeds in the area and telling them apart takes a lot of practice and patience.​
Following a late lunch, the groups split, some went to the Alaska Zoo to see some of the native and cold-weather animals they have on display, while I went on a failed hunt between 3 locations for American Three-toed Woodpecker, outside of some good hiking and seeing different parks around Anchorage not much was achieved until they were picked up by the time the zoo closed.​
Final stop of the day had two of us doing a 4 mile roundtrip hike in the Chugach State Park in hopes of finding a Northern Hawk-Owl a fellow birder shared the pin for from earlier in the week. Sadly, no owl was seen while hiking, but it was beautiful hike through great scenery and sunny weather from 7-9PM. From there, we picked up a pizza and celebrated our last day in Alaska before the afternoon flights tomorrow.​
 
  • May 31 (Anchorage and departure)​

Only time during this trip that the alarm ringed before I woke up, but the early rise was worth it if I got my targets, American Three-toed Woodpecker and (what I thought I still needed at the time) Cackling Goose. First stop was Kincaid Park, a large protected area south of the airport that acts as the main family park in Anchorage, while also being a good biodiverse spot. The park gates were still closed when I arrived, so I parked outside of the gates and slowly walked through the main road until I reached the Myze Loop, which is the trail that mainly goes through the spruce forest that the woodpecker prefers. On the walk there, there was a cow Moose with her young on the forest's edge and thankfully she did not notice me, as there were signs later in the trail warning about her aggressive tenacities.​


At the start of the trail, there was a Canada Jay foraging for scraps left by RV campers and the tapping of a woodpecker was heard on the other side of the trail, but the bird could not be located. As time kept passing, the bird continued to elude me, but the warming temperature made the other birds of the forest begin their song, first with a flyover flock of Pine Siskin and White-winged Crossbill, followed by White-crowned Sparrow and Orange-crowned Warbler in the open areas, while Lincoln's Sparrow and Swainson's Thrush called from the forested parts. A single Lesser Yellowlegs was relaxing by a puddle in the middle of the trail, while looking up at a passing Merlin helped me notice a foraging family of Boreal Chickadee. At this point, I was beginning to cut my loses due to time, but thankfully the undulating flights of a woodpecker, combined with the distinctive "pweek" call helped me get very brief but countable views of an American Three-toed Woodpecker as it moved through the gaps in the trees. The walk back to the car had another Moose on the side of the road, this time an uninterested bull, while the sweet calls of Yellow Warbler were standout due to how few were encountered this week.​
A second run of Lake Hood and Lake Spenard by the airport did not provide views of the reported Red-throated Loon, but it did give a nice close-up to a pair of Steller's Jay, alongside some Red-necked Grebe and Bonaparte's Gull in the water. Final stop of the morning was at Westchester Lagoon, the first site of the trip, which gave amazing views of Cackling Goose, alongside Greater and Lesser Scaup, Sandhill Crane and the final bird of the trip, a Semipalmated Plover.​
From there it was a quick checkout, a hefty brunch in the Spenard Roadhouse and we went to the airport for an afternoon departure from Anchorage. The flights home were thankfully uneventful and we arrived a bit ahead of time for once, making this the best ending to an already amazing trip to Alaska. A quick mention needs to be given to my family and their request, as Alaska is a place that should be high on everyone's bucket list, but due to my priority for lifers, I was putting it on the backburner, this place is one of those dream destinations and one that everyone with the chance to experience it should definitely take the opportunity and explore this final frontier of North America.​
 
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Pictures from the trip:
  1. Aialik Glacier
  2. American Dipper
  3. Caribou
  4. Denali Highway (Maclaren Summit)
  5. Denali National Park
  6. Denali State Park (Viewpoint South)
  7. Harlequin Duck
  8. Moose
  9. North American Porcupine
  10. Red-necked Grebe
  11. Spruce Grouse
  12. Steller Sea Lion
  13. Steller's Jay
  14. White-winged Scoter
  15. Willow Ptarmigan
 

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  • Aialik Glacier.jpg
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  • American Dipper.jpg
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  • Caribou.jpg
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  • Denali Highway.jpg
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  • Denali Viewpoint.jpg
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  • Harlequin Duck.jpg
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  • Red-necked Grebe.jpg
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  • Steller Sea Lion.jpg
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