Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Boats and Busses Provide Close Encounters with Alaskan Wildlife 
August 9, 2008
Steve Grinle

     Returning to Anchorage from Nome, we rented cars and drove down the Kenai Peninsula to the beautiful seaport of Seward. Surrounded by snowcapped mountains, this charming, touristy village contained the headquarters for the Kenai Fjords National Park. Here, we boarded a boat and motored down the Fjords for a spectacular ride. The mountains and glaciers came right down to the sea, and as we proceeded along the shore and between islands, we were constantly surrounded by tufted and horned puffins, common murres, rhinoceros auklets, pigeon guillemots, and red-faced cormorants.

     Mammals were present too, as we watched sea otters laying on their backs, eating kelp. Dolphins followed the boat and orca whales breached in the distance. Along one inlet, we peered up the hillside as a black bear tried to find its way along a ridge to where a herd of mountain goats were grazing. We made our way to the Northwest Glacier where we found Kittlitz’s murrelets, a life bird for most of us, swimming among the ice floats. For a while, we sat silently with engines off to absorb the natural wonder around us, and heard the thunder of ice crashing into the sea as it melted off the glacier. As we motored back through the fjords, we continued to be surrounded by birds, mammals, and spectacular scenery.

     From Seward, we made our way back through Anchorage and headed north for Denali National Park. We stopped along the highway a couple of times to try to glimpse a view of Mount McKinley, but the 20,000 foot mountain creates its own climate and was always in the clouds. We stayed in Healy, just north of the park entrance and spent the next two days riding the buses through the park.

     Denali is our nation’s largest National Park, comprised of six million square acres. The first fifteen miles of roadway into the park is paved and allows private vehicles. The rest of the ninety-five miles of road is unpaved and restricted to Park buses, which shuttle people to Wonder Lake or to stops along the way. The bus stops for wildlife when a passenger calls out, and the drivers take time for everyone to see the bird or animal, and for pictures as well. The road can be narrow in spots, and there are cliffs down to a glacial river bed, so the ride itself can have some excitement. We did have excellent views of grizzly bears with cubs, caribou, Dall sheep, moose and red foxes with kits. Some of us also saw wolves and lynx.

     For birds, we saw many golden eagles, including one that swooped close, right over the bus. Willow ptarmigans, the state bird of Alaska, were seen frequently along the road with chicks. There were a few ponds with ducks, including pintail and greater scaup. At Wonder Lake, we saw a common loon with baby chick on its back. We didn’t see a hawk owl from the buses, but did see a couple of them from our cars when we drove back into the park after dinner.

     The first day, we failed to see Denali (Mt. McKinley) due to the clouds, as is the case with most visits there. However, the second day, the clouds moved off and we had tremendous views of this majestic peak. Mountains don’t usually move me, but this one blew me away! What a sight!

     Also on the second day, a few of us decided to get off the bus at a river ravine and hike down to the glacial river bed below in search of a gyrfalcon nest that wasn’t visible form the road. Now this area was the same habitat that contained the wildlife which we enjoyed watching from the safety of the buses – wildlife like grizzly bears, wolves and caribou. So as we hiked along, we weren’t our quiet birding selves. Instead, we made sure to make plenty of noise so as not to surprise a bear or other predator that might be lingering in the small willows.

     Along the way, we did see black-billed magpies, redpolls, tree and white-crowned sparrows, and more golden eagles. We did have a few close encounters with caribou but, luckily, no bears. We finally did spot the gyrfalcon perched on a far rock ledge and had great scope views. We then watched it fly up to the cliff where its nest was supposed to be.

     We relocated the falcon and then saw its nest tucked into the cliff. It was angled such that we couldn’t see if there were young in the nest, and the adult bird remained perched, never moving from its spot. We decided to retreat. Though we were a great distance away, we didn’t want to be cause for it to interrupt its normal routine. We were thrilled with our views. Seeing a gyrfalcon, a rare bird of Massachusetts winters, on its nesting grounds, was the birding highlight of our visit to Denali.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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