Naturalist Journeys, LLC - Small Group Birding and Natural History Tours

Alaska Nature and Birding
May 27-June 10, 2008 - Trip Report
Guide Greg Smith, with 6 participants

Tuesday, May 27, 2008 - Arrival in Anchorage/Seward
After picking everyone up at the airport, and those that arrived early in Anchorage, we headed south in our van to the picturesque seaport of Seward.  Everyone was enthusiastic about how their arriving flights showed off the city’s surrounding mountains – still covered in snow.  Snowfall was heavy in most of Alaska and everyone’s flight from Seattle displayed a never ending diorama of snow-covered mountains! 

We stopped along Turnagain Arm after sharp-eyed Betty spotted a Dall Sheep on a vertical slope adjacent to the highway.  We all piled out and got pretty good binocular looks at this year-old ewe.  While watching this animal graze, we spotted another ewe (full grown) peeking over the edge of the cliff a few hundred feet higher.  A very nice start to our Alaska tour!

Snow, snow, snow!  Once we climbed a couple of hundred feet from the sea level, snow was everywhere.  It was especially deep as we cleared the passes.  This might have been why so few birds were seen from the van as we drove.  We made no special stops as everyone was intent on getting to Seward and setting up shop.

Our arrival in Seward revealed mountains on both sides of the bay covered with snow.  This view provided a dramatic setting for our outstanding welcome dinner at Ray’s Waterfront Restaurant. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2008 – Kenai Peninsula Boat Tour
Today was bright, sunny and windy as we walked down to the pier for our extensive boat tour of seabird islands, glaciers and open waters of the Gulf of Alaska.  Weather predictions were for 25 knot winds and a small five-foot swell.   It had been windy through the night, it was windy as we walked to the boat and it was windy as we motored out of Resurrection Bay.  But as soon as we got to more open water, luck was with us and the wind disappeared.  Not sure why, but we had no wind the rest of the day. Indeed it proved to be one of those exquisitely perfect days to be on the water.

We had two Dall’s Porpoise showing their characteristic rooster tail propulsion as they easily outran our boat, the Chugach.  We pulled into Fox Island to pick up a couple of passengers where Pigeon Guillemots and a Horned Puffin put in brief appearances!

The stop was short and as we headed west we had our first whale sighting, a pod of Killer Whales!!!  The large male and several females with young put on a nice show swimming towards the boat and then around it.  White-capped mountains stepping out of a deep blue sea filled with Killers was a truly amazing sight! 

Next the Northern Pacific Humpback Whales put in an appearance.  A large bull associating with a cow/calf pair surfaced continually as we idled off the point where we turned in the bay that held Northwestern Glacier.  They shared their flukes as they dived deep into the icy cold Gulf of Alaska.

Our turn into the bay reflected the snow-capped peaks in the surface of the sea.  It was a wonderful ride into the bay as we anticipated what the glacier would share with us.  Distant Rhino Auklets on the water with Glaucous-winged Gulls were present as we sliced the water like a finely sharpened knife.

We saw our first ‘burgie bits’ (chunks of floating ice) about the same time we saw the Kittlitz’s Murrelets.  Pretty cool sighting: burgie bits, Kittlitz’s Murrelets and a part of the Harding Icefield dropping pieces into the sea.  The word grandeur is the only appropriate descriptor…

After all this we had to go out to the Chiswell Islands.  Black-footed Kittiwakes, Red-faced Cormorants, lots of both species of puffins and other assorted water birds.  We had a great day as we headed back to Seward!  Seven marine mammals (two whales, two dolphins, two pinnipeds and lots of Northern Sea Otters!

Thursday, May 29, 2008 – Alaska Sea Life Center/Anchorage
We decided our first bird of the day should be that American Classic – The Harlequin Duck.  So we hopped in the van, drove over to a little cove outside the harbor and found a male foraging with a group of Common Merganser and Barrow’s Goldeneye!  Not a bad way to start the day!

Our next stop was the Alaska Sea Life Center, a small aquarium/museum/rehab center that was constructed with funds from the Exxon Valdez settlement.  The biggest secret of this museum are the seabirds they rehab and the views you get of these stunning little birds!  All of us were amazed at their plumages, their circus-like antics and the fact you could get so close to them.  And then there was the rest of the museum…

After many bowls of clam chowder we headed back to Anchorage for our evening at the Copper Whale Inn.  We made three stops along the way, the first at a very quiet campground in Chugach National Forest, the second at Potter Marsh and the last at Westchester Lagoon.

The campground was quiet on the people front, but all of us heard the numerous calling Varied Thrush and Myrtle Warbler.  Hermit Thrush made us all aware of what was the most common bird, but the male Orange-crowned Warbler stole the show with his appearance, strong voice and flared crown feathers!

Friday, May 30, 2008  - Nome
After a very tasty breakfast at the wonderfully comfortable Copper Whale Inn, we headed to the airport for our morning flight to Nome.  Our cloudy departure gave us no idea of how sunny Nome would be on our arrival.  The pack ice was still visible in Norton Sound as we descended into a bright, sunny Nome.

After unpacking, we hopped in our van and headed out Teller Road to explore.  As we drove we saw American Golden Plover in plumage that gave it its “Golden” name.  Next we sighted a bull Musk Ox quietly grazing on willows and other plants.

We stopped at Penny River and birded the willows that had yet to bud out.  Fox, Golden-crowned and Tree Sparrows were common, as were Wilson’s Warbler.  It was a great day to be outdoors in the wilderness north of Nome!

Saturday, May 31, 2008 – Kougarauk Road
After a hearty breakfast at the Polar Café (Fat Freddie’s closed permanently May 23) we set off to the Kougarauk Road.  Eighty-two miles long into the interior of wild Alaska.

Our first stop was to watch three bull Musk Ox grazing alongside the road near the refuse site.  We then turned our scopes in the opposite direction and searched for the odd gull among all the Glaucous Gulls.  Not much more than a Glaucous-winged mixed in with the flock so we moved on up the road where a cow moose grazed in a small patch of willows.

We saw various species of birds as we worked our way further into the wild interior.  A set of cliffs had a Golden Eagle nest, then a Rough-legged Hawk nest and finally a Gyrfalcon eyrie.  Not bad for a mile of road!

Further up along a river we found copulating Wandering Tattlers on a gravel bar.  We all commented how seeing these rocky shore inhabitants on their nesting territory, changes your perception of this species.  What a treat!

We had lunch overlooking a small, snow-ringed lake where spinning Red-necked Phalaropes were joined by a beautiful drake Long-tailed Duck.  The view was outstanding and didn’t portend what we were about to see next.

A half mile up the road we saw a vehicle stopped in the road with the group looking up hill.  We saw what they were looking at: a sow grizzly with her two small cubs.  These honey-colored bears were foraging and playing.  We set up the scope and had great views of this wild threesome. 

Continuing up the road, we had Tundra Swan, Willow Ptarmigan, and foraging Long-tailed Jaeger.  All this was a prelude to our hike up Coffee Dome for Bristle-thighed Curlew.

Four of us decided to do the hike up the tussock-covered hill to look and listen for the curlew.  We weren’t disappointed!  We had walked for about 15 minutes when a calling curlew flew over our heads and landed close enough for great looks.  Then it did a repeat flyover, directly over our heads, and landed again for more views.  That was the easiest Bristle-thighed Curlew and best views of a curlew after talking with other birders back in Nome!

Our drive back seemed to go so quickly, especially after the day’s sightings.  The weather, the bears and the birds made this an exceptional day!

Sunday, June 1, 2008 – Teller Road
All coffee’d up and ready to go, so out Teller Road we drove.  After passing the seemingly passé’ Musk Ox, we stopped at Penny River.  Lots of birds singing with the highlight being the pair of Dippers that are usually found nesting under the bridge.  Given the male’s food offering to the female, it was apparent that nesting had not been initiated.

The second highlight at this bridge was an early Alder Flycatcher.  Not all of us were able to get on this bird before it disappeared, but we all knew there were future opportunities to see this bird again.

We proceeded further north to a small river where a second pair of Dippers perched on a snow bank.  While watching these two, an American Pipit put in an appearance on the hillside.  Good looks for all.  But the pair of N. Wheatear that flew into view when we pulled up in the van were the show stoppers.  This medium sized thrush has a limited distribution and we were fortunate to get such a great view.

Willow and Rock Ptarmigans started dotting the landscape as we drove this wild tundra road.  Moose, musk ox and Arctic ground squirrels were common, as were Yellow Wagtails.  Mating Western Sandpipers seemed to prefer gentle slopes with hummocks as moved further north.

We turned down towards Cape Wooley to look for Black-bellied Plover and were rewarded with close looks at a stunningly beautiful male in alternate plumage!  Add the fine looking Parasitic Jaeger harassing the Ruddy Turnstone and this short stop showed us more of the wonderful bird life on the Arctic plain.

Monday, June 2, 2008 – Council Road
Today’s primary quest was the BLUETHROAT, but Safety Sound had treats in store as we headed south.  Oh, and we had to find a Slaty-backed Gull for Gwyneth.  And we did, two second year birds at the Nome Dump gave everyone great looks.  They certainly stood out against all the pale Glaucous Gulls…

Bar-tailed and an uncommon Marbled Godwit were side-by-side at the Nome River which made for an easy comparison.  Numerous black-bellied Dunlin were foraging among the rowdy Western Sandpipers.

Next stop on the “Sound” had Ellen spotting a nice rust-colored Sandhill Crane.  Every stop seemed to turn up another handsome species: Common Eider, Pacific Loon, Long-tailed Duck and more. 

Down by the Bonanza Bridge we had Aleutian Terns flying overhead competing with the Arctic Terns in the area.  Displaying Lapland Longspurs and Yellow Wagtails competed with the terns for the wide open airspace. 

We turned inland at Solomon to look for BLUETHROAT and any other treats the area might harbor.  As we headed up the road we noticed that the snow accumulation on this road seemed to be greater than Kougarauk.  At one point we passed through a snow bank alongside the road that was fifteen feet tall; yes a lot of snow.

No luck on the BLUETHROAT until we pulled over on the side of the road to eat lunch and listen to Rough-legged Hawks scream at Ravens.  We spread out as we ate lunch when a muffled scream from Gwyneth and Lynda told us all that they had seen a BLUETHROAT.  Unfortunately, it dropped into the shrubs before any of us could get a look.  Thirty minutes later it reappeared long enough for all of us to get stunning views.  What a fine way to end a day of birding!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008 – Council Road
We had one more day and we all decided to head back out to Safety Sound.  A flock of Tundra Swans held two larger swans which turned out to be Trumpeters.  That small falcon on a log turned out to be a male Merlin.  Large groups of Glaucous Gulls were lollygagging  on sheets of ice with two Slaty-backed Gulls.  A stunning Short-eared Owl on a piece of driftwood had everyone riveted as it took flight on its lofty wings.

With the ice still pushed up against the shore, it made it difficult to see what those little, black dots were out in the open water.  Most of us felt the majority were Red-breasted Mergansers by the hundreds.

Three different nesting Pacific Loons provided us with wonderful views of their velvety plumage.  One was as close fifty feet from our van as it stretched its neck trying its best to imitate a black and white log.  One of the prettiest birds of our trip!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008 – Travel to Fairbanks oops Anchorage, oops Fairbanks
Today we were to travel to Fairbanks on the morning flight out of Nome.  Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate and the pilot turned back to Anchorage.  We did get rescheduled on the afternoon flight, but that wouldn’t get us into Fairbanks until tomorrow.

Everyone was a great sport about the weather and flight changes as we headed off to Kotzbue.  This small community lies on the Arctic Circle and as you fly in you pass over that geographic milestone.  And then we passed it again and for good measure one more time.  As we started to gain elevation it became clear we weren’t going to be landing in Kotzbue.

The pilot verified our assessment and explained that they could not get the flaps to work and hence, could not land at Kotzbue.  We were diverting to Fairbanks where longer runways would allow us to land without the use of flaps.

After getting detailed instructions on the “Drill” we prepared for our “abnormal” landing in Fairbanks.  Thirty minutes we were on the ground in Fairbanks which was ultimately only an hour later then if we had caught our original morning flight!

Then it was off to our lodge and then dinner at Pike’s Landing to celebrate our brave new world!

Thursday, June 5, 2008 – Fairbanks
We started the morning off with a hike around Creamer Meadow.  That unidentified singing warbler was most likely a Townsend’s, but we’ll never be sure.  Slate-colored Juncos and a field full of Sandhill Cranes were highlights for this early morning walk.  But we had to get back for that breakfast meal…

After a great buffet, we went back out into woods and watched Black-capped Chickadees and a Yellow-shafted Flicker.  But the highlight was the pair of Great Horned Owls that Jill found with four recently fledged chicks.  The birds allowed close approach and what became apparent was that one of the adults (the male) was of the southern race (common to most of North America), while the female was of the subarcticus race (gray facial feathers as opposed to orange-buff).  What a treat.

Next we went to the Museum of the North on the U of A Fairbanks campus.  An excellent natural history museum plus a wealth of Alaskan art made this an outstanding stop!

A short birding venture at the University’s Georgeson Botanical Garden showed how twenty hours of daylight can benefit plants.  Cabbages were on their way to becoming 40+ pound monsters.  But the highlight for a couple of us was the bright male Bohemian Waxwing!  Stunning!

Back to the Creamer Meadow where we saw a Solitary Sandpiper feeding in the creek and numerous Black-capped Chickadees!  Mixed in with those chickadees was a Boreal, which most of us got to see.

We finished our day with a two hour visit to Mary Shield’s home.  She was the first women to finish the Iditarod Dog Sled Race!  Mary is a gracious hostess with a genuine knack for sharing her story and her dogs; we were all delighted that we had this opportunity.

Friday, June 6, 2008 – South to Denali
An eight in the morning departure from the Fairbanks train station moved us south on the Alaska Railroad.  The diner car provided breakfast and the wilds of Alaska provided the view.  Stunning views as we slowly made our way through boreal forest and vast wetlands.  No new birds on the train trip, but gorgeous weather and stunning views made the trip seem short!

We were met at the station by Brian (aka Red) and Dan, two incredibly friendly staff members from North Face Lodge.  They picked up other guests scheduled for a visit to the lodge and off we went on a leisurely drive to the other end of the park.  Caribou, grizzly, fox and Alaska ground squirrels all put in appearances as we headed deeper into the wilderness.  The austere beauty of volcanic slopes to the north and the grandeur of the Alaska Range to the south were punctuated by broad, alluvial rivers that spawned gray ribbons of rock intermingled with snow melt from all sides.  It was a challenge to take your eyes off of the scenery and look for wildlife

After a brief introduction to lodge guidelines, everyone took one last look at the base of Denali and headed to their rooms for a well deserved night of sleep.  Tomorrow was a new day…

Saturday, June 7, 2008 – Denali National Park
After lots of coffee, eggs and bacon we headed out on our nature foray with Esther.  Hoping for new trip list birds, we were soon rewarded with a Bufflehead, our first for the trip.  Bonaparte’s Gull mixed in with an assortment of waterfowl were added to the list, as was our first Lesser Scaup!  We saw four examples of the seven trees found in this national park along with a third of the thirty willows.

Next stop was lunch overlooking Wonder Lake, a glaciated relic from the Pleistocene.  We drove down to the shore of the lake where we saw a Common Loon on its nest.  A new family of Gray Jays was being the rowdy party guests they always are when we spotted a Bohemian Waxwing sitting atop a spruce.  By the end of this stop we had five in sight at the same time!  What a charismatic bird with those yellow and red tips to their feathers! 

Still no appearance of Denali’s upper peaks, but the power of positive thinking was strong as we headed back to the lodge for a dinner of grass-fed Oregon beef accompanied by garlic spiced potatoes and assorted vegetables.  A staff member started her thirty minute presentation on waterfowl at eight-thirty but was interrupted by a shriek of “Denali! Denali!”

We all rushed outside to see a brightly lit, cloud free north peak of Denali gleaming in the late evening sun!  Rain to our west outlined the tree covered hills, but it was “The Mountain” that held us transfixed for the next forty five minutes.  As we headed back into to hear the final fifteen minutes of the presentation there was a collective sigh of awe for having seen the highest peak in North America!

Sunday, June 8, 2008 – Denali National Park
The day dawned partly cloudy, but no one cared as Denali had put in the personal appearance the evening before.  We headed into the park looking for birds and soon came upon a pair of Velvet Scoters (Black) resting on one of the many kettle ponds.  No wind to mar the surface, just those two birds and the clouds reflecting from the water’s surface.

Deeper in the park we stopped at the new Eielson Visitor Center that opened today after being closed for reconstruction for four years!  The center was built into the side of the hill and used the latest green technology in its design.  Exhibits were mostly finished as we stayed and enjoyed the view!

The crowd stopper at the visitor center was outside as we watched a black cross red fox (this particular race has a black cross over its shoulders giving it a very wild-eyed appearance) take three Arctic ground squirrels in twenty minutes.  No sooner did it corner one in the rock retaining wall and catch it, when it repeated the scenario two more times.  All of this within fifty feet of the on looking visitors!  After the third squirrel, it took a breather in a patch of willows as we continued into the park.

More caribou, a Wandering Tattler and “Another bloody Jaeger” were highlights for the rest of the day.  Before heading back to the lodge we did one more short hike where we came upon a caribou skull with an enormous rack!  Given the condition of the teeth, it was an old bull that had fallen to the rigors of some past winter.  It must have been a magnificent animal!

Dinner tonight was started with a black bean soup followed by salmon on a bed of white rice spiced with jicama, basil and white pepper.  A very tasty meal to end another spectacular day in one of the country’s wildest parks!

Monday, June 9, 2008 – South to Anchorage
We left the lodge at 0645 to make sure our arrival at the train depot in Denali left us with some time to shop and grab a quick bite.  The drive back was punctuated by quick stops to see three different moose, caribou and a typical red fox.  But there is always a highlight of the day when birding in Alaska and today was no different.  Just short of the Eielson Visitor Center we visited the previous day we came to a quick stop as we watched a sow grizzly and her two two-year old cubs walk past the bus not more than forty feet away.  Not a care in their world as we all whispered how these three were another representation of Alaskan wilderness and nature!  Not what we expected (especially the forty-foot distance) but certainly what we had all been hoping for!

After getting on the train, we all settled into catching up on books, journals and lists.  While having lunch in the diner car we added another species to our mammal list – black bear.  We had a total of five, a sow with three cubs and a solo individual.

Our eight o’clock arrival in Anchorage left us plenty of time for dinner at Simon and Seafort’s before saying good night and good bye at the Copper Whale Inn! 

As we waited for our flights the next day, we reminisced about the 132 species of birds, 22 species of mammals, the new friendships, our affection for Alaska’s wilderness and the lifetime of memories we were taking home! 

 

Photo credits:
Pg. 1  Pilgrim Creek, Greg Smith; BL Kittiwake, Peg Abbott
Pg. 2 – both by Peg Abbott
Pg. 3 – Musk Ox, Tony Beck
Pg. 4 – Nome Scenic, Peg Abbott and Long-tailed Duck, Tony Beck
Pg. 5 – Teller Spit, Peg Abbott and Rock Ptarmigan by Dennis Lankford,
Pg. 6, Arctic Tern, Greg Smith and Train to Nowhere, Peg Abbott 
Pg. 7, Nome Gold Dredge, Peg Abbott, 
Pg. 8 Mary Shields and Denali Bus, Peg Abbott 
Pg.. 9  Bohemian Waxwing, Tony Beck
Pg. 10  Denali and Grizzlies, Peg Abbott
Pg. 11  Northern Wheatear, Tony Beck

 

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