I spent the past two weeks on a family vacation to Alaska, with one week on a cruise, and one week exploring the Alaskan Interior. The parents were excited to see the scenery and to get the cruise experience, while I was excited to see the scenery and the birds. I had extremely low expectations for the cruise, but I was really pleasantly surprised by it; things ran very smoothly and it never got painfully dull. The highlight had to be playing Ping Pong in high winds during a stormy day in the Gulf of Alaska. From my side, you could hit the ball off the table to the right, and watch the wind slam it all the way over to the left edge of the table, just over the net, for a perfect shot. Shots from the other side would just blast right by me, and I had to chase a few errant balls all the way down the length of the slippery deck, narrowly avoiding a few dives into the frigid arctic waters.
But really I was still more interested in the birds I could potentially find, as Alaska is a treasure trove of hard-to-find species that I may never get another shot at in my lifetime. I’d been hoping to pick up murres, murrelets, loons, and other ocean-going species on our first full day in the Inside Passage, but I saw absolutely nothing but gulls en route to other destinations. Birding in the open ocean is always a bit difficult, as I learned many many years ago on a whale-watching excursion in the San Juan Islands of Washington, and a few years ago on a ferry across the Pamlico Sound in North Carolina. But even on those trips, I could count on a few interesting sightings per hour at the least. Here: nothing. On the ocean, I saw nothing but gulls until our third day, on another whale-watching excursion coming out of Juneau.
On land, I was hoping to find many of the boreal species that only rarely venture in the Lower 48, but I was again met with surprising disappointment. In Ketchikan, I spent the morning in the Tongass National Forest, and heard nothing but crows, gulls, and a single Bald Eagle, with no songbirds to speak of. An afternoon exploration of a wooded hillside on the edge of town yielded two Townsend’s Warblers, which was nice, but again, I was completely unaccustomed to the absolute silence in the woods. On the next day’s 5 mile hike through old growth rainforest outside Juneau, there were still no birds to be heard, which had me very downtrodden. At least the hike was possibly the most amazing I’ve ever done.
Townsend’s Warbler, one of two species of western yellow-faced warblers. I picked up the other, Hermit Warbler, while at the 2004 YBC in California. Photo by Peter LaTourette.
I would eventually pick up a few of my desired seabirds in Glacier Bay, with a single Kittlitz’s Murrelet being the undoubted highlight, but many of the more common species (such as Marbled Murrelet!) still eluded me, which was incredibly frustrating. Glacier Bay was my last chance on the ocean birds, as the Prince William Sound’s avian populations were still recovering from the Exxon Valdez oil spill almost 20 years ago, so it was time for me to move on and try my luck with the landbirds.
On the land portion, extensive time was spent at the Alyeska Prince Resort south of Anchorage, and at Denali National Park, the latter of which I expected to be a gold mine of birds. But again, at both locations, birds were few and far between. Reading a book on the Birds of Denali while in the visitor center’s gift shop, the author made a note that due to the area’s extreme northern latitude, the density of birds was extremely low, which the author claimed made any encounters all the more magical.
The passage really struck me. Indeed, I’d just spent 3 hours climbing the 3,000-ft Mt. Healy, and only came across three species of birds, with no more than 4 individuals of each. Of those three species however, all three were completely new to me until this Alaskan expedition. All in all, I spent one full day and significant portions of two other days in Denali National Park, yet I totaled a list of only nine species of birds in that entire span. In a comparable period of time at a place like Huntington Beach in South Carolina, I could likely approach eighty species. Yet those nine species in Denali were all incredibly unique birds that I rarely get the chance to observe, if ever. Birding in Alaska was most certainly a case of quality over quantity.
So which would I prefer, a single Spruce Grouse foraging on a trail in Denali, or a massive flock of Starlings nearly blocking out the sun? Well, both, really. I enjoy the small pleasures of birding enough to see the beauty in both. But I must say that it’s far easier to bird in a quantity-rich environment, as the constant movement and sound is enough to keep your senses in shape. Birding in Denali was such a desolate experience; staring over miles of open tundra with no sounds except that of the wind and the rain, and no movement except that of the taller grasses leaning with the wind. I did treasure the few birds I found, but it still remained an incredibly numbing experience. I could imagine spending years and years in Alaska slowly building up my lists, and I would find that extremely enjoyable. But I only had a short amount of time to spend, and to spend that time wandering around an empty landscape was anything but fulfilling. Nonetheless, though the birding was disappointing, it was a memorable trip in many other different aspects, and one I would be eager to repeat sometime in the future.
- Kittlitz’s Murrelet – single bird dove in front of the ship in Glacier Bay
- Spruce Grouse – male foraging on the trail only 20 yds ahead in Denali National Park
- Willow Ptarmigan – family group foraging on the side of the Park Road in Denali. Probably one of my favorite birds ever now, ptarmigans are so gosh-darn cool.
- Townsend’s Warbler – female feeding juvenile in Ketchikan
- Tufted Puffin – several individuals in Glacier Bay (but no Horned Puffins!)
- Varied Thrush – small groups seen at Alyeska and Denali
- Trumpeter Swan – several pairs along Seward Highway and Alaska Railroad
Non-bird organism highlights:
- Dall’s Porpoise – common throughout Inner Passage
- Humpback Whale – common throughout Inner Passage
- Steller’s Sea Lion – common in Juneau and Skagway
- Harbor Seal – several seen in front of glaciers in Glacier Bay
- Sockeye Salmon – many in Juneau and Skagway, with best observations coming from kayak on beautiful Chilkoot Lake in Haines
- Chum Salmon – many swimming upstream in Ketchikan
- Black Bear – fishing for Sockeye Salmon on Chilkoot River in Haines
- Moose – Denali
- Grizzly Bear – Denali
- Dall Sheep – Denali
- Caribou – Denali
Non-trip linking highlights:
- A waterfall in Penn Station.
- Beautiful libraries of the world.
- The 100 most-viewed pages on Wikipedia. Kind of disturbing, really.
- John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats list his top of albums of 2006 so far, including no metal sadly. That’s for a different list, sez he. It’s an interesting list.
- If you need more bling, get this iced-out refridgerator to round out your presentation.
- And finally, some rare Calvin and Hobbes art, including an unreleased strip, by the reclusive Bill Watterson. Endlessly fascinating.
Mt. McKinley, also known as Denali, the tallest mountain in North America, on 8.24.2006 as seen from near Highway Pass in Denali National Park. The mountain itself was still 30 miles down the road, but this was the furthest we would go on that day.