Monday, 11 June 2012

The Chronicles of Alaska: Driven to Bird

I could have stayed for two weeks.  I want to, and will go back.  There are so many more birds to see there, and it was too quick a trip to get all the birds I wanted, but considering the weather, I didn't do too badly. I still want the Arctic Warbler and a whole host of pelagic birds.  I will reevaluate after my Vancouver and Newfoundland trips.  There are some birds that do overlap.

I've been to some amazing places this year, but by far Alaska was one of the most amazing places I've ever been.  The sheer majesty of the scenery and all the incredible wildlife.  I came for the birds but was awed by moose and caribou and otters and whales had a whale of a time taking photos of it all.

On my last full day I drove 4 hours in the rain all the way up to Denali National Park.  I could only hope that the skies would clear by the time I got there, or my view of Mt. McKinley would have been more like Mt. Cloud.  McKinley is tall, the tallest mountain in North America, but it couldn't rise above the clouds.  I stopped a lot along the way, scoping the landscape and water for Arctic Loons and any other birds I could add to my Alaska list.  The best I could do were a lonely pair of Common Loons and Dark-eyed Junko,(which was listed on E-bird's rare bird alert for Alaska).

I made it up to Denali in time for both lunch and the clearing skies.  The sun came out, but so did the mosquitos.  Zillions of them.  It was like The Snake Bight Trail, only my target was a Willow Ptarmigan rather the American Flamingo of South Florida.  So I went back to the car for my can of Deep-Woods Off.  I bought it at a gas station after I was driven from the woods earlier in the day, where I was nearly devoured looking for a still unidentified flycatcher.  I made it about 50 feet into the woods before I was driven out after swatting the little buggers out of every open orifice above my neck.

I stopped at the next gas station for coffee, gas and a can of Off.  I filled the tank, grabbed a coffee and sprayed myself all over at the pump and thought I had put the can in the passenger seat.  I did not.  I think I left it on the roof of the car and someone scored a free an of bug spray.

At Denali, I walked the paths down by the Visitors Centre without being able to replenish my bug protection.  I managed, as it wasn't as bad as the bog I had visited earlier, and enjoyed a few birds, including juvenile Gray Jays, and one adult.  No Arctic Warbler, no Ptarmigans, but a fair number of Boreal Chickadees in the trees.

In order to get the Ptarmigan I had to drive to the furthest point in the park, Savage Lake Trail, and along with incredible views of the mountains and even some Caribou resting in a valley, I got a really close view of a possibly nesting Willow Ptarmigan.  It was my only new bird of the day but well worth the trip.

I had a little time on my final morning to bird down in Seward and was hoping to get myself two new birds, an American Dipper and the Chestnut-backed Chickadee.  I missed the Dipper on my first pass by Nash Road, where Ken, my guide from the other day had told me to look, so I headed over to the high school for the Chestnut-backed Chickadee.  Along the way I stopped along the water and found  pair of Harliquin Ducks bobbing in the surf.  At the high school I searched in the rain for about half an hour without finding Chestnut-backed, but heard and found a Gray-cheeked Thrush atop a small tree.  With just a half hour before I had to head back to Anchorage for the long trip home, I found the American Dipper right where it was supposed to be on Nash Road.  I heard it calling several times on my other two visits but finally got a short look at it as it flew and "dipped."  The Dipper was my 20th new Year bird and the 392nd of 2012.  I saw a total of 52 species while in Alaska.

Oddly enough, after 5 days of gourmet gas station cuisine and putting nearly 1600 miles on my rental car, it was on my way back to Anchorage airport that I had one of those "priceless" moments.  As I was passing the mudflats just south of city, I had to stop.  Out on mudflats, through my scope, I saw a dozen Bald Eagles.  8 adults and 4 juveniles.  Just hanging out, probably a mile from a stand of pines, where you'd think they would hang out.  Pretty amazing.

I also saw lots of cool animals.  The birds were great, but it was the total package, birds, mountains, scenery, land and sea life that made this trip a trip of a lifetime and a place I shall return to, perhaps even later this year.

Speaking of being driven to bird, after a 12 hour trip back to civilization, one of the first things Sue and I did after I arrived home was spend a lovely morning together birding in Colonel Sam Smith Park.  It was nice to just see birds without any targets in mind.  However, sometimes when you aren't looking for anything, that is when you find something.  In this case a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.  I first saw it, then heard it a few times, but Sue didn't and thought I was imagining things.  Finally, Sue heard it too,(verified by my iBird App), and I had my 392 bird of 2012.  With trips to Vancouver and Texas before the end of the month, I should be over 400 by Canada Day.

260 miles to Denali,(one way), was worth it for a Willow Ptarmigan:

Aeroplan Ticket to Alaska:            $119.00
Hotwire Hotel Room for 5 nights: $199.00
Seeing a dozen Bald Eagles on the mudflats, on the Seward Highway: Priceless

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