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!!