Saturday, July 4, 2015

Denali and Mt. McKinley, Alaska

 Alaska 2014 continued:


What can I possibly say about Denali? Words are not enough. While I was only there for a day, and viewed it primarily from a bus, it has left such an impression on me. The whole state did, really, but this place....  The National Park is two million acres. Two MILLION. Add to that the four million acre refuge surrounding it and you have a whopping SIX MILLION ACRES of protected land. This is about the size of the state of New Hampshire.

We arrived at the park early and boarded a bus that would take us to the Eielson Visitor Center and back, a round trip of 132 miles. The shuttle bus service is pretty much the only way to enter the park past the Savage River--private vehicles are not allowed, and you have to take a bus, bike or hike past that point. The park has a short season--May to September--and over 300,000 people visit in that time. Allowing cars in made for an awful mess of traffic, so shuttles were implemented.

Map of the park road in Denali National Park. The road past Eielson Visitor Center opened the day after we were there.

Unbeknownst to me when we departed, you are allowed to disembark pretty much anywhere in the park, except for areas closed due to nesting eagles and bears with cubs. You just stand up, holler "Stop!" at the bus driver, and they will pull over and let you out. You can wander around, then when you're ready, you walk up to the road and flag down the next bus that comes by. Wow. I don't know if I would have taken advantage of this had I known about it, but I was not prepared for hiking in the Denali wilderness, so had to be satisfied with the shuttle bus.

The shuttles will also stop for wildlife. Again, if you spot something you holler stop, then give the driver coordinates and what you think you saw--"Grizzly, two o'clock!" They allow us to lower windows to get photos, but ask that everyone be quiet. This is an attempt to not habituate the wildlife to humans. They know the bus, but maybe not that it's full of gawking people, and the park wants it to stay that way.

One of the main draws to Denali is to see Mt. McKinley. It is visible periodically throughout the tour, first at mile marker nine. We were thrilled to see it there, cloudless. Woo hoo! 30% Club here we come!

Mt. McKinley from the shuttle bus. Clear as a bell in the morning light.

The road into the park passes through tiaga forests up into alpine tundra. It's arid and wet at the same time, with much of the park relying on melting snow to keep the streams running. There was not a bad view in the place.

Tiaga forest in Denali NP.

As we wound through the park, the mountain loomed larger at each viewing area. Here's what Wikipedia says about the mountain:

"Mount McKinley or Denali is the highest mountain peak in North America, with a summit elevation of 20,237 feet (6,168 m) above sea level. At some 18,000 feet (5,500 m), the base-to-peak rise is considered the largest of any mountain situated entirely above sea level. Measured by topographic prominence, it is the third most prominent peak after Mount Everest and Aconcagua. Located in theAlaska Range in the interior of the U.S. state of Alaska, McKinley is the centerpiece of Denali National Park and Preserve."

As we neared the visitor center, a lenticular cloud began to form above the highest peak.

McKinley looms above the tundra.

While McKinley dominated the landscape, it was not always in view--and not always the prettiest thing out there.

Tarns in the tundra.

At miles 30 and 53 the bus stops for 15 minutes for bathroom breaks and some quick explorations. At one of the stops there was a large tent set up with gifts and books and stuff. There are also two observation stops where clear views of the mountain can be had. I think this was taken from the Stony Hill Overlook. McKinley was still cloudless!

Mt. McKinley from the Stony Hill Overlook (I think). What a sight.

By the time we reached the Eielson Visitor Center, clouds had begun to obscure the mountain. We spent about a half an hour here. A few from our group actually went looking for birds, but I hung behind, taking in the center and the views because, well, this.

Mt. McKinley from the Eielson Visitor Center. You get a sense of McKinley's size when you look at the snowline. It's so tall most of it is above the snow line.
As we headed back, more clouds descended upon the mountain. I was very glad we'd gotten out so early and had a chance to see it unobstructed.

Next we take a look at the park's wildlife.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Birding the Parks Highway, Wasilla to Denali

 Alaska 2014 continued:

Our 8th day in Alaska marked the unofficial end of the birding tour, for me at least. We were heading to Denali, a place of my dreams, and I could not wait to get there. I couldn't care less about birds at this point--I wanted bears and wolves and moose and.... But there was more birding to be done, so I had to be patient.

We made several stops along the Parks Highway between Wasilla and Denali, looking mostly for the Arctic Warbler (which we never did find). We did come across a Gray Jay along a rutted dirt road, looking after a noisy fledgling.

Gray Jay, or Whisky Jack, or Canada Jay, is a member of the Corvid family

Little one begging for breakfast. Loudly.

We made our way to the South viewing area for Mt. McKinley, but the mountain was veiled in clouds. At 20,320 feet, it is the tallest peak in North America. Not only did it loom above the other mountains but it was entirely snow-covered, looking much like a ghost haunting the other peaks. This view is not unusual--clear views of McKinley happen only about 30% of the time, while the other 70% the mountain is either partly or totally hidden in the clouds. There's even an unofficial "30% Club" for those who have gotten a clear view.

When we first saw Mt. McKinley on the horizon from the Parks Road, I thought it was a cloud bank. This image is from the South viewing area along the Parks Road. McKinley is in the background, shrouded in clouds.

But McKinley--and the rest of Denali--would have to wait. From the viewing area we traveled to the little town of Cantwell, where we stopped at a bandstand used for the annual bluegrass festival and had our cold-cut lunch. Sled teams in training passed by, pulling two large fellows on an ATV.

Sled dog training--the ATV was not running.

The McKinley Express also passed by. I think this would be an interesting way to see the area.

The McKinley Express passes through Cantwell.

As I have a tendency to do, I wandered off down a trail along a creek, just be alone in the quite for a few minutes. I stopped and waited, encased by shrubs, until the birds got curious and decided to check me out. The first visitor was a Wilson's Warbler, who landed about six feet away--what a treat to have him so close!

Wilson's Warbler

Then a Grey-cheeked Thrush appeared. These were some very good looks at birds I'd seen earlier in the trip but not gotten good shots of. I was so happy to be out of the van I really had to drag myself back.

Grey-cheeked Thrush

Leaving Cantwell, we drove about 20 miles down the Denali Highway, and took a side road down to the Savage River to look for waterfowl. The scenery was, as usual, fantastic.

A creek along the Denali Highway

There were a few birds out on the river, including Bufflehead and Surf Scoter, but they where a long way away. We did get great looks at a pair of Lesser Yellowlegs, one of whom attempted to perch atop a small spruce. The wind messed with his balance, making this long-legged bird look even more ridiculous perched in a tree.

Lesser Yellowlegs has its balance tested on a spruce.

We dropped our gear at Creekside Cabins, where we were staying just outside Denali. We drove north up to Heely for dinner, and Bill was going to take us up to the trailhead where Chris McCandless (made famous by the book/movie Into the Wild) wandered off into the wilderness, but there was road construction and we didn't want to wait in traffic. So we went back to Denali, and drove as far as private vehicles are allowed to drive into the park, about 15 miles. It was late, and there was little bird activity, but there were a couple of caribou gazing below the road grade.

Shades of things to come!

Caribou in the evening sun.

Next: Denali!!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

From Seward to Wasilla, Alaska Day Seven

 Alaska 2014 continued:

The drive from Seward to Wasilla was punctuated by several stops for birding. Traveling up along Turnagain Arm, a branch of Cook Inlet, we stopped at a roadside park where a creek flowed under the road, and found a pair of fledgling American Dippers sitting on a log. We never did see an adult. If you're not familiar with the dipper, it is the only aquatic songbird in the U.S.  That's right--the dipper feeds entirely on what it catches underwater clean, swift-moving streams, which is about the craziest thing I've ever heard. (If you'd like to see the bird in action, follow this link. Notice how the bird nearly always faces upstream.)

Immature American Dipper waiting for lunch.

We made another stop near Anchorage, at what I think was a ski park, and walked the trails there after having lunch. I don't recall exactly what we were looking for, but I got another great look at what was one of my target birds, the Boreal Chickadee. I'm pretty sure nothing so cute has ever lived.

Boreal Chickadee posing.

The big birding spot of the day was Westchester Lagoon in Anchorage. This pretty, public park surrounds a large pond which has a small island. It was in the 60's, sunny, but breezy. Even so, the Alaskans were out in number, dressed in shorts and t-shirts and enjoying the sun. You could tell us apart from them because we were all in jackets and long pants.

The man-made lagoon is a waterfowl sanctuary. Downdown Anchorage and the Chugach Mountains frame the park.

 Right off we got great looks at an Arctic Tern sitting on a post near the boat launch.

Arctic Tern. I love how tiny their feet are in relation to those long wings and tail.

A mother Mallard took to the water with her brood as we approached.

A Mallard hen with chicks because who doesn't love chicks? Like the sign on the Kachemak Bay boat tour said, they're all good birds.

Bill pointed out a small flock of Hudsonian Godwits resting on the shore of the island. The lighting was terrible for photos but I was excited anyway as these were a new bird for me.

Hudsonian Godwits with a Herring Gull.

While there wasn't the abundance of waterfowl that Bill would have like to have seen, what was there was pretty close to shore, probably used to being fed. I got some nice shots of a Lesser Scaup preening.

Lesser Scaup preening.

This pair of Greater Scaup floated by too.

Greater Scaup. They are differentiated from the lesser primarily by head shape as well as size.

A Gadwall also made an appearance near to shore. While none of these were new to me I was quite happy to get some really nice up-close photos.

Gadwall drake.

We finished the day with a drive up to Wasilla, where we stayed at the Best Western on Lucile Lake. After dinner I crashed on the shore, utterly worn out. The short nights and busy days were starting to get to us all. I really wanted to climb in a canoe and paddle to the middle and sleep. We saw Lesser Yellowlegs on the hotel dock and several pair of nesting Red-necked Grebe, and heard Common Loons calling from across the lake. It was a picture-perfect evening.

Next: We travel up to DENALI!!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Exit Glacier--Alaska Day Seven

 Alaska 2014 continued:

As had most of our Alaska tour since leaving Nome, Thursday June 5th dawned bright and clear. We gobbled down breakfast and climbed in the van for a trip to Exit Glacier, whose terminus is fairly close to Seward.

Visitor's Center at Exit Glacier. 

Exit Glacier is part of the Harding Icefield, and comes down off the mountains to the north. Its outwash plain feeds Exit Creek, which drains into Bear Creek, and on to Resurrection Bay. This is the only part of Kenai that is accessible by car, and there are two trails--one leading the glacier itself, and another leading up to the Harding Icefield.

Map of the Seward/Exit Glacier area.

While we were looking for birds here (the Grey-cheeked Thrush comes to mind) I was much more interested in the scenery, which was as usual spectacular. It seems you can't be anywhere in the southern two-thirds of Alaska without having snow-capped mountains within view.

As with most glaciers these days, Exit is in retreat. There were signs everywhere--made-made as well as those left by the glacier itself--that showed its past. Rock scoured and scored by the glacier's push were visible throughout the area.

Glacier-scoured rock.

As the glacier retreats, plants slowly fill in the bare areas left behind. You can read about plant succession here, but in a nutshell, as the glacier retreats the first plants to move in are mosses and lichens, followed by herbaceous plants. These help anchor the thin soils while adding humus. Next shrubs appear, once there is enough soil to support them, and then trees will become established, usually fast growing, short-lived species first, followed by longer-lived species. In the photo below you can see areas of bare rock nearest the glacier, where plants have yet to get established, followed by low vegetation and then shrubs.

Exit Glacier from a distance. Note the bare rock still surrounding the glacier.

Several things served as a stark reminder of the glacier's retreat. One was this sign, which marked the glacier's terminus just 20 years ago.

No glacier here!

The other is this sign, which is also a PDF currently downloadable from the National Park Service. It shows the glacier's tip reaching the outwash plain, but now the tip of the glacier barely reaches the end of the trail (see where it says "Edge of the Glacier" middle left). It has also shrunk considerably side to side.

The glacier now only reaches to where this graphic says "Edge of the Glacier"

We hiked up the trail to the edge of Exit Glacier, and there it was, looking somehow forlorn. There was a tremendous amount of melting going on, creating some whitewater in the streams leading to the plain.

The terminus of Exit Glacier.

I hung back from the group, as I often do, looking a little closer at the landscape. I like this image for scale. The end of the trail brings you within about 50 feet of the edge of the glacier.

Birding at the glacier's edge.

Finally I made my way to the end of the trail.

Exit Glacier up close. It was not that long ago that it filled this entire valley.

Once again, I was gobsmacked.

Terminus to outwash plain to Exit Creek.

Next: We drive from Seward to Wasilla, with a few stops along the way.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Birds of Resurrection Bay--Alaska Day Six

Alaska 2014 continued:

It is not lost on me that my trip to Alaska was a year ago already, and I'm only halfway through blogging about it. So many other things are going on, so many other places to write about, but I just can't keep up! I will be gone for several weeks in June, doing shows in the Midwest, so let's see if I can get through a few more posts before then.

Our tour of Resurrection Bay and the Northwestern Glacier was without a doubt one of the highlights of our trip. It was, however, much better for mammal watching than for bird watching, although we did see some spectacular birds. I'm saying this mostly from a photographer's standpoint--it was difficult to get good pics from such a large boat. The tour of Kachemak Bay from Homer was much more intimate and we got better looks at the birds, but I would not suggest skipping the Kenai Fjords tour if you're reason for being in Alaska is to bird. It was just too spectacular to miss.

In all I counted 32 species on Wednesday, including the ten we saw on our early morning walk in Seward (asterisk denotes new species):

Wilson's Snipe
Tree Swallow
Violet-green Swallow
Chestnut-backed Chickadee*
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
American Robin
Yellow Warbler
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow

On the boat tour I added sixteen species, four of which were new:

Parakeet Auklet*

Parakeet Auklet, one of several Alcids we saw on Resurrection Bay. Birds in the Alcidae family spend their lives out on the open water, coming ashore only to nest.

Harlequin Duck
Double-crested Cormorant
Pelagic Cormorant
Bald Eagle
Kittlitz's Murrelet*

Kittlitz's Murrelet. It has adapted to the cloudy waters of glacial run-off, able to feed where many others cannot. They nest above the tree line on south-facing slopes on inland mountains, and have not been studied much.

Glaucous-winged Gull
Pigeon Guillemot
Marbled Murrelet
Rhinoceros Auklet*

Rhinoceros Auklet. This bird is a close relative of the puffins.

Tuffted Puffin
Horned Puffin

Horned Puffin on takeoff. This is how we saw most of the birds--they were usually seen either from behind, swimming away from the boat, or taking to the air.

Ancient Murrelet*
Common Murre

Common Murre. We got good looks at this bird at Gull Island in Kachemak Bay, but they are worth another look. 


A flock of Brandt fly by our boat.

Rock Dove
Northwestern Crow
Black-legged Kittiwake

We'd seen lots of Kittiwake on Gull Island as well, but I love this shot of a nesting
pair having a conversation.

Once we were back on solid ground and had eaten dinner, we visited Ava's Place, a private residence outside of town. This woman has a whole bunch of feeders that bring in a whole bunch of birds. We had stopped by the previous evening looking for the Rufus Hummingbird with no luck, so we returned Wednesday, and this time got lucky.

Varied Thrush
Pine Siskin
Downy Woodpecker
Rufus Hummingbird*

Not the best photo of a Rufus Hummingbird the world has ever seen, as I was shooting out the van window, but I'll take what I can get!

Next: We visit Exit Glacier before heading up to Anchorage and Westchester Lagoon.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Steller Sea Lions

 Alaska 2014 continued:

As we chugged along the edge of the Gulf of Alaska and the shore of Kenai Fjords National Park, the boat's captain pointed out various goings on around us. Our first sighting of Steller sea lions came on our starboard side, with a large group of them frolicking in the water. Brown shiny heads bobbed up and down--where they watching us as we watched them?

Steller sea lions near Resurrection Bay, Alaska

Much like the harbor seals we'd seen earlier, I was amazed that these lumbering animals with flippers for legs could climb so far out of the water and up the faces of these cliffs.

Basking in the warm mid-summer sun.

They are a vocal animal, often bickering over resting places. It was rare to pass a group and not see some sort of disagreement going on.

Get off my rock!

According to NOAA and Wikipedia, Steller sea lions are the largest of the eared seals, and smaller only than walrus and elephant seals. Males can be huge, 10-11 feet long and up to 2,500 pounds. The males also grow a thick mane, and so are easily distinguishable from females, who only reach 550 to 770 pounds.

Bull and cow Steller sea lions bickering.

Sea lion pups are born on a rookery, where many females will haul out to give birth. Pups are around 50 pounds at birth. These rookeries are defended by a male, who presumably has mated with the females in the colony.

Steller sea lion rookery. Note the reddish tinge of the blood-stained rocks from the afterbirth.

Sea lion moms identify their pups through smell and sound. The pups retain their dark brown coats for several months before molting into a lighter brown coat.

Oh, and did I mention they like to bicker?

This one's staying above the fray--for now.