Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Vast and Approachable Alaska

Remember #1? Alaska is huge. They like to ask you where you are from and then tell you how many times bigger Alaska is to your state. I swear they teach Alaskans that in grade school math class. "Now class, how many times does Alaska divide by Texas?" "That's right Jimmy, 2 times." I can hear it now. I'll ask Mandy about that since she is a grade school teacher.

The vastness of Alaska makes birding and wildlife viewing a challenge. While there are many species to see, you have to drive (or fly) a long way to see them all. You may appreciate our trip by looking at our driving route. We covered 1400 miles in just that little section of the state. (In 8 days!)

Alaska Map
You can imagine that the girls were squirming after our trip across the Denali highway. Our butts were sore from being bounced around in the van. And the van was taking a beating too.

Barbara trying to escape the van
We did see wildlife. Sometimes in the distance and sometimes up close. For instance: this is our first encounter with a Golden Eagle. Can you see it? Its that little pimple on the cliff ridge. We found this bird on our first bus ride in Denali National Park.

Golden Eagle near nest
Here is the view we had on our second (and much better) bus trip in Denali. Can you see the difference?

Golden Eagle
How about this example. These are the Grizzly Bears that we saw on the first bus trip. A mother and 2 cubs wandering in the grass.

Grizzly Bears
On the second trip, we saw these bears. First this guy. This photo isn't cropped. That's how close the bear was to the bus. Poor Todd. His camera lens was so big that he couldn't fit the entire bear in the frame. This is one time that my inferior lens came in handy.

Grizzly Bear
Barbara shot this video on her iPhone when he walked past the bus. He was so close that we could hear him breathing.

Here is a shot of him wandering off. Check out the size of that paw!

Grizzly Bear
We were so excited. Our bus driver told another bus about it but he told her about other bears just up the road. A mother and 2 cubs.

Grizzly Bear - Mom and cub

Grizzly Bear cub

Grizzly Bear cub
You really don't get closer than that. Or cuter! The cubs pretty much laid around and ate every blade of grass and every flower that they could get to and then moved and did it again. Wow.

Another example of wildlife that you can see far in the distance or up close and personal. Remember the Moose that we saw on the first day? Well, we saw many other Moose on the trip including this gal along the creek.

But then we saw this mother and calves on the side of the road. We stopped the van and they didn't care at all.

Moose and calves
The calves stayed close together.

Moose calves
These next photos are cropped. But really, look how adorable.

Moose calf
 Totes Adorbs (that's slang for Totally Adorable).

Moose calf
Some wildlife never got close, like these Dall's Sheep. You take what you get with these high mountain sheep. Lori and Tara did have closer looks on a hike one day but these are the only views that I got.

Dall's Sheep
Same with the Caribou. We saw plenty, but never really close. Here is a video of the herd moving across the mountain slope.

On the other hand, this is the only view of Hoary Marmot from the trip. He was hanging out at the Visitor's Center. While everyone else was inside peeing, Todd, Laura and I were snapping photos. Never saw another one on the trip.

Hoary Marmot
The bottom line is that you have to get out there to see wildlife. Sometimes they keep their distance and other times you get up close views. but you are guaranteed to see nothing if you stay home.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Venturing Along the Denali Highway

There are 2 problems with Alaska:

  1. Its huge which isn't really represented well on maps
  2. The sun doesn't set which makes it hard to tell how much time has passed

This became obvious to us along the Denali Highway. There were a few target birds for our trip including one life bird for Todd. We heard that bird on our first stop but never got to see one until our last stop - some 11 hours later. Yep, we left Copper Center at 9 AM and never got to our Denali hotel until after 10 PM.

The weather didn't cooperate for our Denali highway trip which made it long AND cold AND damp. The birds up here don't seem to mind the weather as much as we do. We came across this Red-tailed Hawk along the road.

Red-tailed Hawk
We persevered and headed out on a little hike anyway. Here are the girls wandering the path through the tundra. That's right, the Denali highway is far enough north that there are tundra patches where no trees can grow due to the permafrost below the surface.

Tundra Hike
 And here is evidence of the permanent frost - snow piles in June.

We found some really great birds in the tundra including this adorable Red-necked Phalarope. These are shorebird that we usually only see during migration when they fly far out at sea. They can swim and do so at sea and on the tundra ponds. Stunning breeding plumage on this male pales in comparison to the female.

Red-necked Phalarope
Another shore bird that we usually only see during migration is the Greater Yellowlegs. Like the Lesser Yellowlegs at Potter Marsh, he was none to happy that we unintentionally stopped near his nest site. Its funny to see them in bushes rather than in the mud.

Greater Yellowlegs
We also found this Long-tailed Duck in breeding plumage.

Long-tailed Duck
The coup de gras for this stop was finding Rock Ptarmigan. You may remember that Todd and I were recently on a trip to Colorado where we found White-tailed Ptarmigan. Rock Ptarmigan are close cousins. Like all ptarmigans, they are white in winter and then change to brown tones in summer. This guy is just starting to get into his summer duds.

Rock Ptarmigan
We also had our first encounter with Arctic Ground Squirrels along the road. Here is an accommodating squirrel who didn't really mind us taking his photo while he chomped on the dwarf willows.

Arctic Ground Squirrel
Other plants thrive in the tundra including many wildflowers.

Speaking of ptarmigans, we also found a few of the more common Willow Ptarmigans. They are so common that they show up in many habitats including in the willows, in the tundra, along the roads and even in the restaurant parking lot. This pair seemed to really like the parking lot. Here is the male with his version of the "mullet" - summer on top and winter on the bottom. Check out his furry feet.

Willow Ptarmigan - male
Here is his mate. Notice how camouflaged she is. She is obviously getting ready to hide on the nest.

Willow Ptarmigan - female
In fact, we saw a ptarmigan nest in the tundra. We didn't find the nest but we found the web cam that someone had posted to keep tabs on the nest site. Her mate wasn't trying to hide at all. In fact, he wanted us to know that this was his parking lot and proved it by guarding the gate.

Willow Ptarmigan
We wanted to stay on the tundra but knew that rule #1 was closing in on us so off we went heading west. What a surprise to find this Gyrfalcon sitting on a pile of stones!

Impressive! Of course, he didn't stay long enough for better photos but we got to watch him flying over the tundra.

The long drive was paying off already when we stopped at the place on the road where the boroughs change from Matasukna to Denali. That's the spot where another birder told us to look for one of Todd's target birds - Arctic Warbler. Now Di, Barbara and I had seen one in Singapore a few years ago but never saw one in the ABA area. This was our chance to finally get a lifer for Todd. We heard the warbler singing immediately and headed into the bushes to see if we could get a look. Todd pished and the bird obliged.

Arctic Warbler
Here he is eating a bug. This is the only warbler of the "Old World" variety to breed in North America. Birders go to great lengths to see this little wonder.

Arctic Warbler
What a day and it wasn't over yet. We rounded a bend in the road and there it was - Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America. Oh, I mean Denali which is the new name that President Obama gave it a few years ago to honor the native people. Look closely. The top of the mountain is above the clouds in the twilight photo.

First Look - Denali
Look how happy Connie is after waiting 42 years for another glimpse of the mountain that she first saw in 1975 as a teenager.
Connie on the Denali Highway
You should also notice that the road is gravel. I forgot to mention that. What a tough but rewarding drive across part of Alaska.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Headed Out to Explore Alaska

The rest of the gang arrived late Friday night. By that time, Connie, Di, Barbara and I already had our 8 passenger van plus some groceries, sodas (and beer) ready to go. We picked them up at 8 AM on Saturday morning and headed out on our adventure! The plan was to be as adventurous as possible without overdoing it. We failed from the very first day. Mandy told us about a glacier that we could stop by to see on our way to our first destination so we stopped. The Matanuska Glacier is accessible as a short hike. The catch is that in order to get to the glacier, you have to drive through private property. The land owners have cashed in by charging $25 per person to drive up to the glacier terminus.

The terminus is the end of the glacier where all of the rocks that the glacier pushes through the valley ends up. When the glacier recedes, the rocks remain leaving a moon like landscape only it is wet with run off from the melting ice.

The owners have makeshift boardwalks to help the tourists get out to the glacier face.

As you can see, the weather was miserable which made the glacier trip a nice diversion. We learned that the ice was still below our path and visible where the rocks and dirt were worn off. You can see it here - the light blue bits showing through.

You can see the size of just one piece of the glacier in this photo. That's me standing on million year old ice!

More about glaciers later.

We were headed east from Anchorage out to Copper Center which was our planned starting point for the next day's birding trip across the Denali highway. We knew we were out of civilization when we saw this sign in the hotel restaurant.

Copper Center is very close to America's largest national park. No, not Canada. Wrangell-Elias National Park which is 7 times larger than Yellowstone. More proof that #1 is deceiving - Alaska is really big. We didn't explore the park at all. It is so big that the Visitor Center doesn't even have little hiking trails. You have to travel hours to get to any of the attractions. We stopped long enough to buy a T-shirt and snap a group photo.

The Denali highway stretches from Paxson, just north of Copper Center in the east to Cantwell, the gateway to Denali park in the west. The road is dotted with birding hotspots which is why we decided to take this route rather than a more direct route straight north from Anchorage.

Friday, June 16, 2017


We are on day 8 of our Alaska trip and I finally have time (and Internet access) to get a quick post out. One word - WOW! Alaska is awesome. It's huge. It's beautiful. It's ... wow. Our first day in Anchorage was spent with a "local" who is a friend from our hockey team. Mandy and her husband moved to Anchorage 8 years ago and she offered to show us around. She took us to Chugach NWR for a great view of the area.

She took us to Potter Marsh which is a pretty famous birding destination right along the main highway.

It has a boardwalk where we saw a few birds including this Arctic Tern.

Arctic Tern
And this Lesser Yellowlegs dive bombed us and hung out on the railing. I think they had a nest near the boardwalk. BTW, that's Diane and Barbara in the background.

Di and Barbara (Lesser Yellowlegs)
The main attraction though, was this Momma Moose and her twin calves.

The babies mostly laid in the grass but then had a quick milk break.

Twins get some milk
Mandy told us that mother Moose can charge and trample people who get too close to the babies. We were all safe up on the boardwalk. Mom felt so safe that she actually wandered closer to the boardwalk after the twins laid down again.

Momma Moose
On top of dragging us all over Anchorage, Mandy then invited us to the house where she and Mike made us this feast of 3 different fish (all caught by Mandy and Mike)! Now that's hospitality.
More with Mandy later.