We have been away from reliable phone and internet connections for the last 10 days as we explored Denali National Park and nearby areas. Here is an update on what we have been doing.
After leaving Tolsona Wilderness Campground and its nesting Great Gray Owls we journeyed north to Paxson and the eastern end of the old Denali Highway. This is a 135 mile road, mostly gravel, that travels through forest and alpine tundra from the Richardson Highway to the Parks Highway, just south of the entrance road to Denali National Park. The road offers beautiful scenery and even provides views of Mount McKinley/Denali when the weather is clear (which is almost never). But our reason for taking this route was the chance to see two of my target birds for the trip; Arctic Warbler and Smith’s Longspur (a BVD bird that is already on my life list). The weather was terrible during our three days along the road. It rained much of the time and even snowed on us three times. Under those conditions it is not surprising that we did not see either of our target birds.
Not wanting to beat a dead horse, we gave up any hope for productive birding and spent a couple of days just getting supplies, doing some general sightseeing, and making sure we were ready for our stay at Denali NP. Fortunately, there was a break in the weather just in time. We had some clouds and wind, but for almost all of our stay in Denali we had great weather for wildlife watching.
Wildlife watching is the correct term. Denali is not a great birding destination. We did search for the Arctic Warbler again, but our main reason for camping in Denali was the hope of seeing the large mammals it is famous for: grizzly bear, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and wolves. We were successful in all cases except that of the wolf. (We did see a coyote. Does that count as half a wolf?)
One of the reasons why Denali is not a good birding destination is restricted access for cars. The lack of cars on the road is a great benefit to the wildlife but having to rely on the shuttle bus system makes birding very hard. It is possible to get off the bus to look for birds along the single park road, but you might wait over an hour to be picked up by the next bus to continue on your way. We did get off the bus and hike in search of certain birds, and we were successful in finding the Arctic Warbler, but overall we had a very low species list for birds in the park.
The story of the Arctic Warbler (the only lifer for the Denali portion of our trip) provides a good lesson on the importance of finding the right people to talk to and getting the most up-to-date information. For most of our trip we have relied on the ABA bird-finding guide for Alaska by George West and on eBird and other internet sources. Our copy of the guide is dated 2002 and we did not see a more recent edition when we were doing our initial research. Much of that guide is out of date and so we have followed eBird whenever we have access to phone or internet coverage. Much of that information is unreliable as well, or is not detailed enough to be of much use. In this case, we finally talked to a park ranger who was a birder and got some very specific suggestions. He had not seen any of the birds yet this season and was not certain that the birds had even arrived yet, but we took his advice and set off to track down these elusive birds.
It turned out not to be too difficult after all. We got off the shuttle bus at the suggested point along the park road and started walking along the road and exploring the suitable habitat that we could see. We had tried this at the main site that was suggested in the bird-finding guide without success but the ranger’s site proved to be reliable. The birds were indeed back and singing and we managed to hear one after only about a half hour of looking. (This greatly pleased Renee since looking for Arctic Warblers means poking around in willow thickets in the middle of prime grizzly bear habitat, and the less time spent looking, the better!) The lighting was poor but I did manage to get a few pictures to document the find.
The next day we got off the bus at another location, and armed with our new knowledge of what Arctic Warbler habitat really looked like, we managed to find four more singing males in about two miles of walking along the road edge. That’s certainly not a high population density, but it was not too hard to find the birds. The light was better, but the bird was farther away for my second (and last) attempt to get a photo.
Our attempts to see the big animals of Denali were much more easily accomplished. The shuttle bus drivers were very good at helping everyone to spot animals and we saw bears, caribou, and sheep each of our four days in the park. (We saw moose on a couple of days, though not from the bus.)
The highlight of our mammal watching came on the last evening of our stay. We had been hiking the road much of the day and were out fairly late (6:30 pm) so we were on the very last bus that was returning from the Eielson Visitor Center to our campground. On that trip, and within the space of just about a half hour, we had three separate sightings of grizzly bears along the side of the road. Most of our previous sightings had been very distant, but these three bears were within a few yards of the bus. One bear put on a hilarious display by using a roadside sign to scratch its back. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment!
We didn’t just look at big stuff. I took photos of plenty of flowers and butterflies and other small critters. There is not space for all of them here, but here are a few of them.
Oh, and one more thing. We did manage to see Mount McKinley. Many of the park visitors only see the mountain shrouded in clouds (as seen in one of my pictures below) but we managed to be in the 10% club of visitors who get to see the mountain without clouds. On one day there was not a single cloud in the sky, but I included a picture of the mountain with a few clouds at its summit. It looked nicer that way.
We are on our way north to the Arctic Circle now. We still want to see wolves and we hope we’ll have a chance there. We’ll let you know!