Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Island Birds and Mammals Cap Alaskan Tour
August 11, 2018
by Steve Grinley
First, I would like to thank Pat Greeley for a correction to my last week’s column. I had stated that Denali was the nation’s largest National Park, but it is, indeed, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, also in Alaska but more than twice the size of Denali. She also pointed out that Elias is the least visited as “no private vehicles are allowed, only the buses that take you through the park. It’s an 8 hour round trip and worth every moment.”
Now to finish my tale of our Alaska trip of ten years ago:
We left Denali National Park with a sense of awe, unsure that there could be any more spectacular scenery, wildlife and birds ahead. We drove east across the Denali Highway, which was really a dirt road – a well-maintained dirt road, but a dirt road non-the-less. It was raining that morning, so it put a damper on the experience of birding the highway that others had described as a highlight of their trips. After seeing families of northern shrikes and some long-tailed jaegers along the way, we arrived at the eastern end of the highway, near Paxson, and settled in for the evening.
We stayed at cabins that were run by a birding guide, whom we hired to take us out on the tundra in search of the elusive Smith’s longspur. Neither the cabins nor the guide turned out to be a positive experience, as we unsuccessfully searched the tundra with him the next morning. But that afternoon, we used the same strategy as we did in our successful search for the bristle-thighed curlew in Nome. We split up into small groups and covered different areas of the tundra ourselves. This search was less strenuous and although it was still tundra hiking, it was relatively flat and with less area to cover.
My group headed out and found Lapland longspurs, white-crowned sparrows, Wilson’s warblers, and one very curious caribou. Then, we got a call over the FS radio that another group had located the Smith’s longspur. We hiked to join that group and after much patience, everyone had great looks at this bird perched up on a small willow. We were even lucky enough to see a couple more Smith’s longspurs during our hike off the tundra.
The next morning, we headed back to Anchorage by way of the Richardson Highway and the Wrangell Mountains. Majestic, snow-covered peaks with glacier running through the passages, these mountains were every much as spectacular as the Denali range, if not more. We didn’t encounter as many birds or wildlife (bald eagles, Harlan’s hawks, gray jays and a bank swallow colony), but the scenery was unparalleled.
The following morning, we left for the last leg of our trip – the Pribilof Islands, three hundred miles from Russia. We landed on Saint Paul in the clouds and mist and the weather went pretty much unchanged during our four day stay. But the weather didn’t dampen our spirits, nor the birds, as we had some of the best birds of our trip there. We arrived mid afternoon and before dinner everyone had a life bird, a red-legged kittiwake. After dinner, we added a few more lifers for everyone.
Speaking of dinner, we ate our meals at the Fish Processing Plant cafeteria and we were pleasantly surprised. There was halibut and other fish, every lunch and dinner, and prepared differently each time. Plus there was delicious chicken, beef and pork, crisp vegetables and full salad bar. After being disappointed with our meals in Alaska, this turned out to be the best culinary experience of our trip.
The birding highlights continued the next day as we saw kittiwakes, puffins, murres, and auklets, all nesting on cliffs within a hundred yards. It was like being on a pelagic boat trip, only standing on dry land. Fulmars, sooty and short-tailed shearwaters, and fork-tailed storm petrels were feeding close offshore. The few perching birds on the island included snow buntings, some very fat gray-crowned rosy-finches, and a very plump winter wren. I guess more fat is needed to survive those cold winters!
The mammals were spectacular as well. Large colonies of northern fur seals, Steller’s sea lions and harbor seals crowded the beaches. It was fun watching the huge sea lions in the water, swallow large, thirty inch fish – whole. In the “very cute” category were Arctic foxes, including a family by our residence at the airport. These foxes are all dark brown – almost bear-like. The kits were especially cute, stumbling just to get around.
Rock sandpipers and ruddy turnstones were the shorebird highlights on Saint Paul, and, oh yes, one other. We had stopped at the Post Office just to let a couple of people buy stamps. While they ran in, the guide checked out a water inlet across the street and yelled “gray-tailed tattler”. You’ve never seen a bus clear out so fast. Our people in the Post Office left their line and came running out. This rarity from Siberia wasn’t even on our expected bird list and it was THE highlight bird of the Pribilof’s.
Saint Paul is covered with wildflowers and had the weather been better, the island would have been even more beautiful. The sun finally came out as our small plane taxied down the runway to return us to Anchorage and, ultimately, home. It was a whirlwind three weeks of birds, wildlife and scenery we will never forget.
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