Another Boat Trip From Seward

We made it as far as Fairbanks before deciding not to drive up to the Arctic Circle after all. Instead, we returned to Seward for another boat trip into Resurrection Bay and the Gulf of Alaska.

We did not see anything new for our bird list, however. Once again, we were working with faulty information and our expectations did not mesh with reality. Our paper bird-finding guide listed species that real, flesh and blood bird guides (Gavin Bieber of Wings and members of the boat staff) told us we should not expect. Still, we did see several species that we had listed as BVD birds (Thick-billed Murre, Parakeet Auklet, Red-faced Cormorant, and Kittlitz’s Murrelet) and we saw lots of sea mammals.

I didn’t get many good photos of the birds, but there were some good photo ops for the mammals. Here is a selection of shots from the trip.

We are on our way home and will be birding back along our route into Alaska, through Canada and through the western US and Great Plains.

Denali National Park

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!

Great Gray Owls

During our Big Year there were several birds that we counted for our list but that were classified as BVD birds; Better View Desired.

The Great Gray Owl was one of these birds. We heard it in Yosemite National Park during the year but never managed to see one. So, when a report of nesting owls at a campground about three hours from Anchorage reached us, we put that location on our itinerary.

We had to wait until we had completed our trip up to Nome before heading out and the owners of the campground thought the owls might be ready to fledge, so we were worried that we might miss them. That worry was unfounded. The three nestlings are still a couple of weeks away from fledging and the adults are actively feeding. We were able to see all five members of the Great Gray family.

The pictures that follow show a few moments in a typical day in the life of these owls.

#1. The female spends most of the day sitting near the nest in a cottonwood tree. She calls softly to reassure the nestlings that she is still there. Every once in a while she gives a short series of hoots.

#2. About every hour to an hour and a half, the male flies in and hands off a food item to the female. Mostly, the food items are red-backed voles, but I did see what looked like a thrush on one trip and another photographer saw what looked like a grouse being delivered.

 

#3. The female prepares the food for delivery to the nest.

 

#4. She takes the food to the nest and tries to feed it to the nestlings. Sometimes it takes several tries and the food sits on the nest for some time before being accepted by a nestling.

#5. The female watches as the nestling eats the prey before flying off to resume her watch in the nearby tree.

Every once in a while, the female flies off and hunts on her own, usually returning fairly quickly with a prey item.

I’d say we satisfied our requirements for this BVD bird, wouldn’t you?

Crazy Birder Strikes Again

We got back from Nome about 2:30 and by 4:00 I was already chasing a rarity.

True to form, unsuccessfully, I should add.

On Wednesday evening we saw a post about a Terek Sandpiper near Anchorage. Since our flight wasn’t until today, we had to hope it would stick around. It was reported at about 8:00 this morning but by the time we arrived it was gone. It did not return during the six hours we waited and searched for it either. I really have a very bad record of success lately.

But the missed rarity does not detract from our successful Nome adventure. We saw 103 species in Nome, a high number for the arctic for sure. I also added eight new species to the life list. Finally, we did the entire trip for about $3200, or $160 per person per day, about a third of what it would have cost had we taken a typical birding tour of the area.

That’s still a fair amount of money, but it is a good number for our idea of birding on a budget.

Eight Days, Eight New Birds

Today was day eight of our Nome adventure and I saw my eighth lifer.

Today’s highlight was the Red-necked Stint. We had spent days looking for one and were always frustrated. This evening I finally found one at the mouth of the Snake River where it enters the Nome harbor. It wasn’t easy. This is a classic needle in a haystack exercise. It brings to mind the Sesame Street rhyme: “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things is not the same!” I had to pick out a single stint from hundreds of Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers in a flock that was constantly moving and readjusting positions. Once I had convinced myself that I had the bird in the scope, it was impossible to find it in the viewfinder of the camera among the shifting mass of birds. So I just fired away and got an image or two, but nothing that is suitable for showing here due to very poor focus and lighting.

Tomorrow is our last full day here. It is highly unlikely that we will find anything else that is new for my 8 to 800 list, so the string of averaging a new bird a day will come to a halt. It was fun while it lasted.

Maybe I’ll just sleep in for a change!

Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Finally!

This is another case of “timing is everything.” When the experts say the birds will be back the first week of June, don’t expect them the last week of May!

Wagtails are listed as “locally common in western Alaska.” I expected them to be an easy bird to find in Nome. They are. You just can’t start looking for them before they arrive! We spent six and a half days being frustrated by our inability to find a wagtail and this afternoon we found five of them in about an hour. There may have been a bird or two before today, but the migration floodgates are open now.

The last picture of the gallery shows a fuzzy look at our lifer wagtail. The rest of the images are more highlights of our Nome visit.

Bluethroat!

We have been frustrated by the lack of easy sharing of information on bird sightings while we have been in Nome. But a chance meeting with a couple of birders early in the morning led to another lifer later in the day.

When you are on a high-dollar birding adventure such as our stay in Nome, you want to maximize your birding time to see whatever rarities and target birds are out there. The best way to do that is to have access to eBird, NARBA, and any local information on bird sightings. Sadly, we have found those sources to be lacking here in Nome. There is no organized way for easy info sharing. The Visitor’s Center and the major hotels have sightings lists but we have found that very few sightings actually make it to those lists in a timely manner. Plus, if you are not staying at the hotel, it is harder to make the time to see their list. There needs to be a birding hotline or some similar thing set up for the peak birding season.

Nevertheless, we were able to get some information this morning on several of our target birds and we were successful in finding our lifer Bluethroat! My image is very poor, but even it shows the striking features of this great bird. Renee heard it calling first and frantically waved for me to come and help her find it. I was 75 yards away and by the time I got to her she had managed to spot the bird about 50 yards out along the edge of the road, right where our info had said it would be. It was a distant look at first but the field marks were still unmistakable. Then we got a real treat as the bird flew up from its perch and began a high arcing display flight in full song. Its distinctive tail pattern was visible then.

It was certainly a lifer look, even if my photo does not do it justice.

Photos, As Promised

I am posting a picture of the Bristle-thighed Curlew that I reported on yesterday.

Also included are a picture of a young Brown Bear we saw and a small gallery of other images from our stay in Nome.

 

Enjoy the pics!

Ooops! The first two pics were included in the gallery too and I can’t figure out how to remove them. Oh well, enjoy them twice.