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Alaska birding and mammal safari June 2023


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Polar Bear




Steller's Eider 



In June my friend Roger and I went on a safari to Alaska.  Birds and mammals got equal attention. 



Gray Wolf in Denali National Park


Ermine at den entrance


Ermine pausing to look us over


Muskox near Nome 


Muskox calves


Arctic Warbler singing


Red-necked Stint 


Snowy Owl in flight


We always stopped for nice butterflies, wildflowers, etc.  

Arctic Bumblebee


Western Arctic Shootingstar


We were in Alaska from June 8 until June 26.  We stayed in Anchorage, Seward, then drove up to Denali National Park by a long scenic route, then drove back to Anchorage before flying to Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow) and then to Nome.  The main purpose of going to Seward was to take a boat trip in Kenai Fjords National Park for seabird nesting colonies and fjords with glaciers and marine life. 

Kittiwake breeding colony


Horned Puffin in flight


Kittlitz's Murrelet in flight


I have wanted to visit Alaska for decades, but kept putting it off for one reason or another.  Last year a friend who has been going to Alaska once or twice a year for a long time told me "if you want to see Alaska before climate change really messes everything up, you had better go in the next few years".   That got my attention, so Africa is on hold for a couple of years safari-wise.


This was a self-guided trip, but we benefited from some old Alaska hands giving us advice during the planning stages.  We also relied on "A Birder's Guide to Alaska" - a book that has been out of print since 2008 but is still very useful and accurate.  We rented four wheel drive vehicles in each area we visited.  Nome and Utqiagvik can only be reached by airplane (or boats during certain parts of the year), but they have road systems that feed out of town.  We hired a local guide in Utqiagvik (story behind that) to take us to Point Barrow.  He was an Inupiat hunter and guide.  He was a wealth of information about natural history and Inupiat culture.


To sum up, we were lucky with bird and mammal sightings almost everywhere we went.  The boat trip out of Seward was a good deal better than I expected, and produced 10 species of Alcids!  Alaska is the only place in North America (possibly in the world) where one can do that. In Denali National Park, we saw the "Denali Big 5" our first morning.  Nome gave us multiple extraordinary days and some species I have been dreaming of seeing for decades.  Utqiagvik was mind-blowing with confiding arctic wildlife, birds in bright breeding plumage, and behavior only seen on the breeding grounds.  June 18, 2023 around Utqiagvik was as good a day in the field as I can recall.  At times, things were so good it was downright surreal.  I met some wonderful people on this trip and made a couple of good new friends.  That is my definition of a great safari.


The itinerary was as follows:


June  8 - 9 Anchorage 
June 9-12 Seward area (June 10 Seward pelagic trip to Chiswell Islands and glaciers)  
June 12 - drive from Seward through Anchorage (stopping for groceries and supplies) and bird our way to Paxson. Night in Paxson http://www.denalihwy.com/.
June 13 - Bird and mammal the length of the Denali Highway to Cantwell area.   Overnight McKinley Creekside Cabins. https://www.mckinleycabins.com/
June 14 - Denali NP - morning bus ride, afternoon in our 4x4 in Denali NP or Denali State Park.  Overnight McKinley Creekside Cabins.
June 15 - Denali NP morning, then bird and mammal our way to Anchorage.
June 15-16 Anchorage hotel - Inn at Lake Hood.
June 16 - June 20  Utqiagvik - 330 miles above the Arctic Circle
June  20 - June 21  Anchorage - Inn at Lake Hood
June 21 - June 26  Nome area 
June  26 - fly home late night   

I am still processing photos and I have some photo requests in to Roger to fill gaps, so the pace of this trip report may start slowly, then quicken.

Semi-frozen Chukchi Sea



Edited by offshorebirder
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@offshorebirderI have been looking forward to your TR because Alaska is very high on my bucket list.


Great introduction photos!

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I just love the Bumblebee piccie - gorgeous.

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You got Snowy Owl! and stellar's eider, and wolves and ermine and of course the white bear! already looks like a highly successful trip. 


Looking forward to details and sightings and of course photos! We'd been to Alaska in the late 1990s but only on a cruise from vancouver to Glacier bay and back to Vancouver. We were looking at Denali for bears as an option for our 25th anniversary in 2020 but well we know what happened that year. 

It's still on our wishlist, so I'll be watching out for tips from you! 

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Great photos @offshorebirder.

The Red-necked Stint arrive in nearby Corner Inlet around end of August/early September departing late March/early April and I always think it amazing how such delicate looking birds travel such great distances.

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Anchorage and Seward - a change of plans

Our plan had been to spend two days in Anchorage at the start of our trip, looking for birds and mammals.  Anchorage has some great natural areas in town and on the outskirts - Kincaid Park, Potter Marsh, Hillside Park, the vast and wild Chugach State Park, and several more.  In particular we hoped to see and photograph Spruce Grouse and Moose in areas they are not hunted and where they are more used to people.  


But the evening of June 8, Captain John Maniscalco emailed to say that the forecast for June 11 was grim - 40 knot winds and 13 foot seas!   He had to cancel the trip on June 11 and asked if we could make it on June 10, and that he was holding two free spaces on board for us.  


Somehow we were lucky and I managed to find weekend lodging in Seward during the high season with almost no notice!   So I emailed John that yes, we would hurry to Seward the next day and see him the morning of June 10.   We did end up sacrificing the hotel night in Anchorage, as it was less than 24 hours prior and I could not cancel in time for a refund.  So it goes.


The morning of June 9, we rode the hotel shuttle to the airport and picked up our 4 wheel drive rental vehicle.  We rented it from Alaska 4x4 rentals and they also rented us a cooler for a reasonable price.  I recommend Alaska 4x4 rentals - they are a good operation, though like everything in Alaska they are pricey.  Then we hurried to do some grocery shopping, visit a beer store (Roger and I are craft beer aficionados), and visit a fantastic bakery before heading south to Seward, on the Kenai Peninsula.  


* If you are ever in Anchorage I highly recommend a visit to Great Harvest Bread Company.  They have several bread varieties available every day and a rotating list of daily bread options.  Same thing for sweets.  We got a loaf of 'Rustic Multigrain' bread and something fantastic - Lemon Blueberry Bliss Pound Bread.   Pound Bread is like Pound Cake, but without as much sugar.  It is superb at breakfast!   We also got a couple of custom-made sandwiches to eat on the way to Seward - they were very large and very good.  As usual, the bakery staff threw a few free treats (a cookie and a tart) in our bag with the items we ordered.




On the way to Seward, we stopped at a few vista pullouts on Turnagin Arm (a side bay of Cook Inlet) to scan for Beluga Whales.  But it was extremely windy and the vibrations and windy seas made scanning the water difficult.  We did not end up seeing any Belugas, but you can't see everything in one trip.   But the 'mountains meet the sea' scenery on the drive to Seward was jaw-dropping.  Lots of snow persisted on the mountains and habitats included forests, tundra, marsh, rivers, lakes, and more.


Typical pulloff along Turnagin Arm



Seward is a nice little town with some very nice establishments, though it is challenged by cruise ships injecting lots of passengers into town for short periods at regular intervals.  This does not tend to affect lodging, dining, chartering boats and other endeavors - but it can complicate a visit to a supermarket, drug store, or a sandwich shop in the middle of the day.  I imagine getting an Uber or Lyft when cruise ships are in town is difficult.  The good news is that the ships are docked for a few hours and not overnight.  


View out our living room window




After arriving at our lodging and unloading, we backtracked a few miles north, crossed the Resurrection River, and turned left onto Exit Glacier Road.  We wanted to scout our destination in Kenai Fjords National Park the day after the boat trip and maybe get lucky with birds or mammals.  We enjoyed superb scenery even though the day was cloudy.  A few birds cooperated but mammals were sparse.   


So we returned to Seward and an early supper.   We decided to try The Highliner and were glad we did!   My grilled Halibut with Rice Pilaf and grilled vegetables was sublime.  And they had an exceptional apple cider on tap - from a ciderworks in Talkeetna Alaska.  Very dry, not sweet at all and world-class in my opinion.







Back at the lodging, we checked camera cards, battery charge levels, laid out Gore-Tex jackets and pants, long underwear, gloves, and generally made ready for a chilly pelagic trip with occasional rain in the forecast.  


But our spirits were high - tomorrow we were going on a boat trip to the Chisell Islands and a fjord where the massive Aialic Glacier and a couple of smaller neighbors end their journeys.   A couple of Grail Birds were among our targets, so we were like the proverbial kids in a candy shop.

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Looks like a great trip Nate.  Your teasing photos are awesome so I look forward to more.  I remember our only 2005 Alaska trip fondly especially the cold Alaskan Ambers.  I think I drank more than I should have. 



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There was a light rain as Roger and I parked in the South Harbor parking lot and walked across the street to the Seward Boat Harbor.  We headed to the outer dock where the MV Kimu was docked.  Captain John Maniscalco welcomed us aboard.   John is a PhD Marine Biologist who offers bird and marine life tours and charters on his 38 foot boat.   John really knows his marine life, including birds, is a very capable captain and I highly recommend him.  I have been on many pelagic trips in a lot of places and I am also a leader for Seabirding, so I have some background behind that recommendation   https://patteson.com/trip-leaders/


More information about John and his business Alaska Seabird Charters is on their website:   https://www.alaskaseabirds.com/


This linked map from John's website shows Resurrection Bay, the Chiswell Island Archipelago, and Aialic Bay:


We chatted with the four other passengers - also birders.  They had just come from Nome, where they had hired a guide to show them around and spot birds.   When we told them our itinerary, they asked who we had hired to guide us in Nome and Barrow.   Roger and I looked at each other - I blurted "ourselves" for lack of a better answer.  Between our Alaska advisors, the bird guide book, and searches on eBird we felt that we had enough info to put us in the right spots at the right times.  Then it was up to us to see and hear our targets.  We also ran into multiple birding tour groups in the lobby, bar, and restaurant of our Anchorage hotel on our 3 stays during the safari.  I knew the leaders of nearly all of the tours and we traded info and tips via email as the trip progressed.  

Resurrection Bay was interesting right out of the dock - a flock of Black Brant flew past, then a mixed flock of Wigeon and Lesser Scaup.  A couple of Sea Otters looked us over and then dove for food.  Pairs of Marbled Murrelets were evenly distributed about 100 meters off the shore as we motored south past Lowell Point.  A Bald Eagle flew past looking like it was on a mission somewhere.  Then we began seeing Alcids (Auks) with Pigeon Guillemot and Common Murre spotted in quick succession.

Next, a pair of Sea Otters then gave us a fairly close view.





Before long, John said "I know we are seeing some neat birds, but I am going to pick up speed and we will hurry towards the Chiswell Islands for the sake of time.   But we will stop if we see noteworthy things."  Good for him, I thought.


Stop we did, when John yelled out "ANCIENT MURRELET at two o'clock" and slowed rapidly.   Ancient Murrelet was one of my top targets for the day and indeed the entire Alaska safari.   The little bird was pretty obliging - though unfortunately the light was terrible.   "Making Lemonade out of Lemons" photographically was a theme of the day, but everyone was over the moon at the good sighting.





As we got underway again after the encounter, I said to Roger "This guy is pretty good" - in reference to Captain John.  

After a run of about 30 minutes and some sightings of pods of Dall's Porpoises, the captain slowed the boat as the density of birds picked up near the Chiswell Islands.  We settled in and began processing birds and John started calling out new species.   Tufted Puffin, Rhinoceros Auklet, Thick-billed Murre.   I spotted a Red-faced Cormorant flying off the starboard bow and yelled "Red-faced Cormorant at 1:30".  


Common Murre




We could see a towering rocky island up ahead with a huge number of pale birds orbiting round, taking off and landing.  It was a gigantic nesting colony of Black-legged Kittiwakes.  The cliffs and outcrops were festooned with nesting Kittiwakes.  Zoom in on the photos and see how tough it is for each individual Kittiwake in terms of balancing a nest with eggs and then young.  Incredible.


Beehive Island (I think - not certain)




The islands all supported multiple species of nesting seabirds.  It was noteworthy how groups of birds segregated themselves - there were Kittiwake sections, Common Murre sections, and next to the Common Murres, Thick-billed Murre sections.  Since Puffins breed in burrows or beneath rocks, there were no puffin sections to view. 


I call this one "Upstairs, Downstairs"



As we neared one of the Puffin nesting islands, John pointed out the first of many Horned Puffins.   It was a lot of fun trying to spot Tufted Puffins and Horned Puffins in flight before they were near the boat, and then pass shoot them with our cameras as they flew by.  Roger was using animal eye focus on his mirrorless Canon and I found myself wondering when to make the leap to Mirrorless myself.


Horned Puffin



Tufted Puffin




Then we reached an area with some flocks of Parakeet Auklets off to the side of Murres, Guillemots, Puffins and "Rhino" Auklets.  Unfortunately all my Parakeet Auklet photos are too poor to share.

We motored around and past three or four more seabird nesting islands and then it was time to go up a different fjord named Aialic Bay, to look for Kittlitz's Murrelet near the mighty Aialic Glacier.  Kittlitz's Murrelets breed near glaciers and forage in the meltwater for small fish, krill, and zooplankton.  Sadly, climate change is not going to be kind to this rare and declining species.


Near the mouth of the bay, near the steep-sided north shore, we saw a raft of Sea Otters.   The floating otters against the background of vegetated steep cliffs, with mini-waterfalls and rivulets streaming down, was quite a sight.


Sea Otters resting in Aialic Bay



There were a lot of ice chunks floating on inner Aialic Bay.   No way to avoid them.  They were almost all very small, but it was disconcerting hearing them bounce off the boat's fiberglass hull.   The ice flotsam also made spotting birds on the water more difficult.   


We passed the Holgate Glacier on the way to the much larger Aialic Glacier - but the Holgate was very impressive.   


As we came into view of the Aialic Glacier, John said "oh no, there is a cruise ship in my best Kittlitz's Murrelet spot".  Indeed, a cruise ship appeared to be sitting stationary up in the very northeast corner of the bay.   Fortunately we soon started seeing Kittlitz's Murrelets and saw a total of 10 or 12 around inner Aialic Bay, mostly in pairs.  There were also Marbled Murrelets nearby and it was good to study the differences between them.   


Kittlitz's Murrelet in flight


Kittlitz's Murrelet Swimming



Kittlitz's Murrelets flying past a tiny iceberg


Marbled Murrelet




Here is the bottom right corner tip of the Aialic Glacier.   Note the comparatively tiny boat - probably 45 or 50 feet long - nestled up against the shore.   We all wondered how long they were staying there!



We enjoyed more good seabirding, Bald Eagle flyovers and amazing scenery.  Then it was time to head out into the Gulf of Alaska to look for whales and shearwaters among other birds.   We had a couple of Humpback Whale sightings but only more of the same Alcids, cormorants and gulls - and Sooty Shearwaters.


For the day, we had 10 species of Alcids:


Common Murre, Thick-billed Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, Marbled Murrelet, Kittlitz's Murrelet, Ancient Murrelet, Parakeet Auklet, Rhinoceros Auklet, Horned Puffin, and Tufted Puffin.  


I think Alaska is only state/territory in North America (and possibly the world) where you can reasonably expect to see 10 species of Alcids in a day trip from shore.  British Columbia, maybe 7 or 8.   California 6 or 7 depending on exact timing and latitude.   The Atlantic Seaboard could only reasonably produce 6 species - Dovekie, Common Murre, Thick-billed Murre, Razorbill, Black Guillemot, and Atlantic Puffin.


We got back to the dock around 4pm so it had been a nice eight hours at sea.  We thanked John and tipped him for his good route planning, spotting, educating and captaining.  


Before we could relax, Roger and I had to check into our originally scheduled lodging - the Sea Treasures Inn.  So far, our safari had involved frequent changes in lodging and a lot of toting luggage - which I have learned to avoid but circumstances dictated. The nice thing was that the new place was a two block walk from The Highliner so we toasted a successful day over another seafood dinner.   


Tomorrow we planned a trip up Exit Glacier Road and then a hike in a coastal temperate rainforest.


Edited by offshorebirder
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I'm really enjoying this report Nate. All completely new territory for me. 

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I could have sworn I posted a note thanking people for their encouraging comments, but I do not see it.


Thank you for the kind words and for following along @Treepol, @AndrewB, @Kitsafari, @Caracal, @Atdahl and @Soukous.  And thanks to everyone who liked the posts thus far.


I neglected to mention our Hotel in Anchorage.  Most hotels in Anchorage are either in the downtown business district (in a nature-free zone), lack onsite restaurants, or have other drawbacks.  We stayed at the Coast Inn at Lake Hood - near the airport, with good Internet and onsite restaurant and bar.  You can see some birds on the grounds and nearby walking paths and on Lake Hood itself.  We enjoyed several breeding plumage Red-necked Grebes, a Red-throated Loon, and several duck species on the lake.   Yellow-rumped Warblers, Orange-crowned Warblers, Black-billed Magpies and other passerines were also spotted.  All the birding tour groups stay there and they are eager to share info and tips on finding birds and also mammals and other wildlife.   The hotel lacks an elevator, though fortunately it only has two stories.   


We overnighted at the Inn at Lake Hood at the beginning of our trip, between Denali and our flight to Utqiagvik, and between Utqiagvik and our flight to Nome.   Utqiagvik is a dry town, meaning alcohol cannot be sold there.   But they allow you to bring a limited amount in your luggage.  So went to the main Brown Jug location (a beer/wine/liquor store chain) and bought a bottle of Cognac and some beers to carry in our luggage.



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On 7/15/2023 at 11:39 PM, Caracal said:

The Red-necked Stint arrive in nearby Corner Inlet around end of August/early September departing late March/early April and I always think it amazing how such delicate looking birds travel such great distances.


Next year if they are present around Utqiagvik, I will try and obtain some video of Red-necked Stints skylarking and singing in flight.   I have never seen anything like it.

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June 11 was rainy and windy - the storm that canceled our boat trip was coming ashore.  Nevertheless, we kept to our plan - which was to begin with an early morning drive up the road to Exit Glacier, then perhaps a hike up to Exit Glacier or a longer hike to the Harding Icefield.  The Harding icefield occupies over 700 square miles and is "drained" by over 30 glaciers.  With ice as far as the eye can see, people say it is like a glimpse into the past during an ice age.


The rain really complicated photography and we left our cameras in the car for most of the day.  It was liberating to just bird and scan for mammals and not have long periods of vision impairment due to a viewfinder in front of your face.  But the rain certainly dampened our sightings.


We saw Varied Thrushes one after the other  standing in the road in the gloomy light, so we drove slowly to give them more time to flush and get clear.  Since there were no other cars, we stopped and admired a couple through our binoculars.  


We also sighted Gray-cheeked Thrushes, Steller's Jays, Black-billed Magpies, Orange-crowned Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and a Bald Eagle flying over the Resurrection River.  


At times during our drive, the Resurrection River became what is known as a 'braided river' where the channel splits into many smaller channels through large beds of gravel.   Then the channels all converge and it becomes a unified river once again.


Braided River




We drove slowly and stopped to scan hillsides and mountainsides for bears, wolves and other critters but did not see any.   When we arrived at the end of the road, we expected to find trail maps in a kiosk or display stand.  We did not see any trail maps but a sightings board from the day before listed Brown Bears, Black Bears, Moose and other nice sightings.


But it appeared one had to go inside the ranger station / visitor's center to get trail maps and that did not open until 8am.  So we doubled back and stopped at a few nice overlooks and areas we had seen birds to kill time.   More scanning of hillsides and mountainsides yielded no mammal sightings but the scenery was gorgeous.


Resurrection River - upstream view



Resurrection River - downstream view





At 8am there was a crowd gathered to go on a ranger-led walk up the trail to Exit Glacier.   Between the rain and the boisterous crowd (including hyperactive children), we decided against the ranger-led walk and collected trail maps for potential future use.   


We decided on a Plan B of exploring the Lost Lake trail a short drive to the north. On the way, we saw someone taking photos of a subject in a willow thicket.   It was a moose.   We pulled over and Roger went back to try for a photo.   I decided to leave my camera in the car - between the light rain and thick habitat, I thought chances were poor for a decent photo.


Overall things were slow on the Lost Lakes trails, though we did encounter a nice flock of migrating warblers, with Wilson's Warblers, several Yellow Warblers, and a stunning Townsend's Warbler.  


We did some more birding and scoped Resurrection Bay from bluffs south of Seward but the weather gods were not in our favor and it was a slow day.

June 12 was the day we drove through Anchorage and up to Paxson, Alaska.  We stayed in Denali Highway Cabins, and Audie the proprietor was a wealth of info regarding birds and wildlife.  Audie wrote the Denali Highway section for 'A Birder's Guide to Alaska'.    


We arrived late in the day but had time for some birding - Wilson's Warblers and Yellow Warblers were singing everywhere and we had a nice look at a Blackpoll Warbler.  An American Dipper was loafing on a rock in the Gulkana River beside the bridge just downstream from our cabin.  


After supper, I walked out to see if I could spot the dipper again and a cow Moose suddenly appeared and strolled right next to me down to the river.   It is amazing how silently they move.  Quite the adrenaline-raising experience.  


Audie showed us a stunning up-close photo of a Collared Pika he had taken along the Denali Highway with his iPhone and gave us exact location instructions.  It was on a rock face right next to the highway near MacLauren Summit.  Spoiler alert:  we found a Pika there.


We went to bed anticipating our drive down what many call the most beautiful road in North America.



Edited by offshorebirder
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On 7/16/2023 at 9:15 PM, offshorebirder said:

 I recommend Alaska 4x4 rentals - they are a good operation, though like everything in Alaska they are pricey.


If it is not a rude question, what is the daily/weekly rate?

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Not rude at all @Soukous.    We rented a large 4x4 SUV and it was around $200 USD per day.






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9 hours ago, offshorebirder said:

Not rude at all @Soukous.    We rented a large 4x4 SUV and it was around $200 USD per day.







That is certainly not pricey by European or Australian standards. Very reasonable actually.

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The Denali Highway is a dirt and gravel road that opened in 1957 and provided the first road access to Denali National Park.  The road runs west of Paxson for 135 miles to the community of Cantwell, just south of Denai NP and 210 miles north of Anchorage. However, since 1971 the Parks Highway has provided a faster and more direct route from Anchorage and points south to Denali NP. So the Denali Highway has very little traffic these days, just the way we like it.  It is open to automobiles from May 15 to October 1 and traversable only by snowmachine or sled dogs during winter.


The easternmost 21 miles are paved now, as are the westernmost 2.6 miles - the rest is a dirt and gravel road through vast wilderness areas.  The highway traverses a marvelous variety of habitats - from Paxson it passes through spruce forest, then taiga, then tundra, then mountain ranges (Wrangell-St. Elias Peaks and Chugach Range), then the Tangle Lakes region which have been inhabited by humans off and on for 10,000 years, then MacLaren Peak then the MacLaren River Valley, then boreal forest.  The cultural traditions inhabiting the Tangle Lakes area were the Denali Complex 10,000-7,000 years ago, the Northern Archaic Tradition from 7,000-1,000 years ago, the Athapaskan Tradition from 1,000-200 years ago, and the modern historical period from 200 years ago until the present.


Much of the wilderness lands along the Denali Highway are subsistence hunting zones and a lot of hunters pursue Moose, Caribou, ptarmigan, ducks, geese, and more during the fall and winter.   So the density of game is lower than Denali National Park and it is not used to humans and vehicles.  This leads to more distant sightings, particularly mammals.  But we still had a grand time.


We began early at the junction of Richardson Highway and Denali Highway.




Within three miles, the spruce forest began dwindling and shrubby tundra began.  We stopped to approach a singing Wilson's Warbler and heard a lot of birds singing - multiple Wilson's Warblers, multiple Yellow Warblers, more Gray-cheeked Thrushes than we could distinguish, White-crowned Sparrows galore, Fox Sparrows, and Savannah Sparrows.   The Swainson's Thrushes we had been hearing in the spruce forest were replaced by numerous Gray-cheeked Thrushes in the short Dwarf Birch / Willow thickets.




I always tease my 'Old World' friends that we in the Americas have proper warblers.   Very colorful and for the most part distinctive - unlike the drab "green with a pale eye stripe' or 'little brown job' that describes many similar European and Asian breeding warblers.   


Wilson's Warbler - male defending his breeding territory






Speaking of drab warblers - Audie had told us that when he traveled the highway a few days before, Arctic Warblers had not yet arrived.  But he said they sing immediately upon arrival and we had a good chance of seeing the early birds on our journey.  Arctic Warblers were a major target of the safari - Roger and I had never seen one.


The shrubby tundra was alive with birds and I felt an urge to follow them far off-road.   But we had no bear spray and no gun, and a bear could have been lying down sleeping anywhere.  We also had all our possessions in the car and felt nervous getting too far out of sight of the vehicle.   So we stayed near the road but had some really good birding.  


In hindsight, we should have spent more time on foot during the first 20-30 miles of the Denali Highway.   That had the best concentrations of birds and game.   But we were mindful that we had a long way to go and could not go fast, for fear of puncturing a tire on the large gravel rocks that littered the road.


A little farther on we had a stunning male Yellow Warbler singing atop a willow bush.


Yellow Warbler




Then as we were scoping for Willow Ptarmigan and American Golden-Plovers, I noticed a Caribou peeping over a somewhat distant ridge.   We both admired what had previously been a mythical beast to us.   






We passed many lakes during our trip down the Denali Highway - most of the unfrozen ones had a few ducks or geese present.   A small lake near the beginning held a couple of distant Trumpeter Swans - a 'life bird' for me.  


This lake was still mostly frozen



This larger one was thawed



At these higher elevations, there was more lingering snow



After more good birding in the tundra, we started to work thickets of short willow trees for Arctic Warblers.   As we slowed to approach one thicket, a cow Moose darted across the road - too quickly for anything but a shot through the windshield.  



We had some good birding in a boggy area near Valdez Creek



Audie had given us precise directions for finding a Collared Pika.   We pulled over to scan just before MacLaren Summit, where the rock face drew closest to the road.  As we scanned for Pikas and spotted a distant one, Roger cried "Rosy-Finches" and I saw then heard the chirps of a small flock of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch.  They were circling a large boulder on the slope next to the road, and descending in a spiral.   But we noticed a large truck was coming down the highway towards us - the first other vehicle we had seen in two hours.   The Rosy-Finches kept chirping and descending, then the big noisy truck drew close, and the birds flared, and zoomed upwards.   Then they flew towards the next mountain range, abandoning our area entirely.    Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch is a really good bird and we were crushed at missing what would have been a good photo opportunity.


Well, at least we had a Collared Pika as a consolation prize.  It was a new mammal for both of us.  Sadly, it was nowhere near as close to the road as Audie's was.   


Collared Pika




We reached the MacLaren River Lodge soon after MacLaren Summit, and stopped in for lunch and to buy gas.  Lunch was excellent, as was the beer and they had nice t-shirts as well.  If you need a fishing guide, river trips, accomodations, breakfast/lunch/dinner, or a flat tire fixed - Maclaren River Lodge has you covered.

We checked some more thickets for Arctic Warblers, but as before, we did not find any.   Some creeks and rivers were full of meltwater.  Clearwater Creek was one of them.


Clearwater Creek



Potential Arctic Warbler habitat had run out, and birds were harder to find in the early afternoon.   Mammals as well.   The good scenery continued but we picked up the pace a bit.  We thought we might scout Denali NP a bit if we got into Cantwell and checked in at McKinley soon enough.



We began gaining altitude and eventually boreal forest began replacing the bare taiga habitat.  





When we reached the Parks Highway, we turned north.  We were staying at McKinley Creekside Cabins, which also has a cafe and an excellent bakery.  It is about a dozen miles south of the entrance to Denali National Park.  As we checked in, we asked the receptionist what time the dinner rush begins.   She advised us to show up by 6pm or the people getting back from the afternoon Denali NP bus excursions would begin arriving.   


We thanked her and drove back to our room, which was in the main lodge building.  McKinley also has cabins down by the creek, hence the name.  The room was nice and it had an outside balcony.  As we stood outside checking it out, a family group of Steller's Jays came through, and we slowly hustled inside for our cameras.   But they were nearly gone by the time we got back - so it goes.


We had time to do some unpacking, putting camera batteries on charge, backing up camera photos to hard drives and it was time to go to supper to beat the evening rush.

I had grilled Halibut with roasted potatoes, broccoli, and rape greens (all grown in the Mat-Su Valley).




Roger had what he said was a great bowl of Alaskan clam chowder.





The waiter asked us something we had been asked a couple of times before - "are you guys locals?"   As usual, we confessed that no, we were visiting.   I suspect that locals may get a discount and we sort of looked the part in our field clothing - mine camouflaged. 


We decided to leave early tomorrow to suss out Denali NP and the tour bus depot, where we would join our semi-captive bus tour in the morning.  But we were pleasantly surpised at the transit buses and impressed with Denali National Park overall.   I cannot say enough good things about park staff and rangers but I will give it a try in our next installment.

Edited by offshorebirder
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Here are some photos of the second floor room we had in the Homestead Lodge at McKinley Creekside Cabins.











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To get a glimpse of the dedication, thoughtfulness, and hard work of Denali National Park's rangers and staff (both canine and human), watch this National Park Service video.  I learned a lot watching it.  The segment at minute 14 is really impressive.


I had not previously known that The Wilderness Act requires that when weighing options for accomplishing a project or task, land managers must ask "what is the minimal tool we can use to do this job?"    Not helicopters, bush planes, snow machines, or ATVs - but "sled dog teams" is often the answer in Denali.




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I apologize for how long it is taking to assemble the next installment - lots of photos to sort through and find worthy ones to share, then process.   I hope by tomorrow or the next day.


In the meantime, here is the Gray Wolf we enjoyed - a wide angle view of it trotting up a steep ridge.  You can see the trail it is following and how the trail continues up the super-steep slope ahead of the wolf.




And here is a nice male Harlequin Duck, just upstream of the Savage River Bridge



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Alaska has some HUGE public land units.  The Tongass National Forest is 17 million acres in size.  Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is 13.2 million acres.  Gates of the Arctic National Park is 8.5 million acres.  Denali NP is 6.1 million acres.  Katmai National Park and Preserve is 4.3 million acres.  Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is 3.3 million acres.   Other federal lands in Alaska managed by the Bureau of Land Management total 70 million acres.  For comparison, Serengeti National Park is 3.7 million acres.


Of Denali National Park and Preserve's 6.1 million acres, a little over two million acres are designated wilderness and enjoy even stricter protections. Denali represents a fully intact ecosystem of sub-arctic habitat, roughly 16% of which is covered by glaciers.   






Denali Park Road is the only road within Denali - it is 92 miles long.  To control visitor numbers and limit their effect on the habitat and wildlife, private vehicles are only allowed for the first 15 miles.  Access to the rest of the road must be done by park bus.  Due to the Petty Rocks Landslide - essentially a frozen permafrost mountainside thawing and tumbling down - the road is temporarily closed at Mile 43 at Polychrome Pass.  A new bypass/bridge is slated for completion in 2026 after which the full 92 miles will be open to park traffic.


Private vehicles must stop at one of two parking areas beside the Savage River Bridge just past mile 15, where there are multiple hiking trails.  


Savage River




There are two types of buses you can ride to explore Denali.  Transit buses are green, allow passengers to get off and hop on a later bus after exploring, and have drivers who give basic info on wildlife and park history.  Tour buses are tan, do not allow people to get off or switch buses and have certified naturalists on board who can give more detailed info about plants, insects, wildlife, geology, and more.  They also have high-powered cameras that can zoom in on distant wildlife and display it on large screens in the bus.  Tour buses are more expensive than transit buses but not terribly so.  


Roger and I chose the Transit buses, since we wanted the flexibility to switch buses and do some hiking and lingering at special places or sightings.


When you are visiting Denali, you need to purchase two passes in advance - a park pass (good for a week) and a bus fare for a specific bus departure.  With half the length of the road being closed currently, bus rides take about half a day out and back with several stops and restroom breaks.  Roger and I had ordered packed field lunches the day before from McKinley Creekside Cabins and they were excellent.  


Roger and I arrived early at the Denali Bus depot, learned where our 7am bus queue lined up and then hit the gift shop for Tshirts and some other gifts.   Soon we boarded the bus and were on our way.  The drivers do a little spotting, but it is mostly up to the passengers to spot wildlife, since the driver has to mind the road.  
The first section of road passes through spruce forest - we saw a couple of Moose but they were partially obstructed and not very photogenic. We also had a Golden Eagle soaring along with us to the left.  And we saw rangers and the famous Denali sled dogs exercising at regular intervals - using wheeled sleds, bicycles and other training aids.  Arctic Ground Squirrels occurred at regular intervals - in and along the road.  





Several people spotted good things, including Roger and me, but a gentleman from Alabama in the back of the bus was particularly good at spotting wildlife. 


Before long things opened up and we transitioned into tundra habitat and vast rolling hills backed by mountains.  




Not long after we crossed the Savage River, we spotted a small herd of Caribou scattered around the slope of a hill.


Caribou Herd




After enjoying the Caribou a while, we carried on but stopped when some Dall Sheep were spotted on a rock face to our left.   They were distant and there was heat shimmer but we still got good looks through our optics.


Dall Sheep ram




Then we proceeded onwards, enjoying more sightings and then stopping at the Teklanika River observation point to enjoy the view and use the restrooms.  Then we continued on, past Igloo Creek campground.   Before long we turned around to begin the loop back.   Roger and I asked the bus driver to drop us off at the trail to Primrose Ridge, where we hoped to hike up and see American Golden-Plovers, Rock Ptarmigan, Baird's Sandpiper and other birds of the tundra.   


And then, the gentleman from Alabama shouted "there is a wolf running up on the ridge to the right!".   Sure enough, a Gray Wolf was loping along a ridge near the top.   We followed it and watched as it coursed up one ridge and down the next, paused, began trotting again, sat and scratched - all the while staying within viewing distance of the road.  We had the wolf in view for about 20 minutes!      


The wolf's stamina was amazing as it kept trotting across such rugged terrain.






It seemed to have a destination in mind, but kept to ridgetops (near and far) for the most part.   




The wolf paused occasionally to look us over - perhaps to confirm we were still not a threat.  






A couple of times it sat or had a brief lie-down.   




Eventually the wolf crossed over a ridge and did not reappear.   I was very happy with my first Gray Wolf sighting!





Soon after that, the bus driver stopped where the trail to Primrose Ridge led uphill to the north.  Roger and I thanked him and wished our busmates good luck.   The trail was not very evident and snaked through thickets of small trees a little higher than our head.  We squirmed our way through, and constantly fought to keep our tripods and spotting scopes from getting tangled.  I hoped the trees would end soon and we would have clear sailing - but they did not.   We had chosen Primrose Ridge due to the description from A Birder's Guide to Alaska - "One of the best birding day hikes is up Primrose Ridge in early to mid-June when wildflowers cover the hillsides and bird activities are peaking."  


But the brush did not thin out for some time and we began to be concerned about bears or even a moose in the thick cover with poor visibility.  So we decided to bag the idea of Primrose Ridge and made our way back down to the park road.   After admiring a Wilson's Warbler and some other nearby birds, we used a parked road grader machine by the road as a platform to eat an early lunch. 


Wilson's Warbler male



Then we flagged down a passing green bus and resumed our journey.  Not far past the Savage River, we came to a bus and some cars stopped at the side of the road.  Turned out they were watching a family of Brown Bears about 300 meters from the road, in medium-height dense brush.  


A mother bear was feeding on sedges or other vegetation but was mostly hidden - we could see her very pale head and shoulders and occasionally more of her.  Her two cubs were playing and rolling around in the undergrowth.  They stayed mostly hidden except for brief periods when they thrashed the bushes apart and created a gap.


Grizzly sow




People were very respectful at the sighting and kept their voices low.  The number of observers on foot fluctuated between about ten and twenty, with two buses passing each way (and viewing the grizzlies out the window) during the hour-and-a-quarter that we spent with the bear family.  A park ranger was on hand to keep people well-behaved and from bothering or stressing the bears.  And to keep people from doing foolish and dangerous things in quest of an Instagram photo.  She was a wealth of information about grizzlies, Denali ecology, and was very friendly + competent - a credit to her profession.  She was the first of several park staff to tell us how lucky we were with our lengthy Gray Wolf sighting.  We loaned her our spotting scopes to look for fine details about the bear's face and ears, and also invited other people to view the bears at high magnification.  


The opposite side of the road from the bears gave a view of Mount Denali's twin peaks.   Clouds obscured some of the lower mountain, but at least we were able to see Denali's summit.  





What a wild and magnificent place!  Denali's vast, rugged wilderness makes quite an impression.  It does not have the large game herds, ridiculous closeup views of big game, and nonstop sightings of an African safari - but it still packs quite a punch.


After a while, we reluctantly decided to move on and flagged down a green bus.  


After seeing more Moose, Caribou, Dall Sheep, Ground Squirrels, Willow Ptarmigan and other birds, we arrived back at the bus depot.  Needless to say, we were very pleased with our first day in Denali.   We had seen and enjoyed the Denali Big 5 before noon!


After checking Riley Creek campground area for Northern Hawk-Owls (and missing), we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon searching for Arctic Warbler in a couple of nearby places where it had been entered into eBird (the online bird database) within the past couple of days.  We proceeded back down the Denali highway to look for one, but ended up 'dipping' as birders say.  Same for the next attempt, south of Cantwell.   But we enjoyed the search and returned for an early supper at 6 at the McKinley Creekside cafe.


Tomorrow we planned to self-drive in the park after doing some hiking in boreal forest in the southeastern section to search for Spruce Grouse, Boreal Chickadee, Northern Hawk-Owl and other target birds.   And also to hike some of the trails in the Savage River Valley.  Spoiler alert - we saw the same Brown Bear family in the same location and also a male (boar) Brown Bear digging for ground squirrels beside the Savage River.



Edited by offshorebirder
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In terms of large Alaska wildlife preserves - I forgot to mention Arctic National Wildlife Refuge at 19.6 million acres and Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge at 19.2 million acres.

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  • 2 weeks later...


I am sorry the photo quality of this trip report has been substandard thus far, but that will not be the case when we get to the Nome and Utqiagvik.  


June 15 we headed into Denali National Park early and stopped at the Visitor's center just past the bus depot to pick up some trail maps and get some advice from the rangers.  The young ranger at the information desk was very helpful when we asked her which hiking trails led through spruce forest with a good canopy, mossy forest floor, and certain other characteristics.  We wanted to find a Spruce Grouse and were essentially describing their favored habitat.   Based on her advice, we selected the Horseshoe Lake Trail and a combination of the McKinley Station Trail + Spruce Forest Connector Trail + Morino Connector Trail and Triple Lakes Trail.


We decided to try the Horseshoe Lake Trail first.   It is a very pretty trail with views of mountains, valleys, a crystal-clear Horseshoe Lake, secluded streams, Beaver dams, and some nice boreal forest.  As soon as we entered the woods at the trailhead behind the Murie Science and Learning center, we saw a group of Boreal Chickadees.  Charming little birds - I had never seen one before this trip.  

Boreal Chickadee



Red Squirrels were plentiful.



We had a nice encounter with a Varied Thrush carrying multiple insect prey items (presumably for its nestlings).  



The trail loops around Horseshoe Lake but a spur also goes along the Nenana River.  Re-entering the woods from the river bank, we saw what I surmised might be porcupine damage.  I could not think of anything else that would be eating bark that high up a tree.  Sadly we did not see a Porcupine roosting in any of the trees.




As we started south along the west side of Horseshoe Lake, we saw some Bohemian Waxwings in some spruce trees.  That was a life bird and a big target for me.  Roger had experience with Bohemian Waxwings already but was glad to see them well.  




Soon after that, we started seeing beaver dams - large and small.  




They even tried to dam little isolated streams.



When we got back to the vehicle, we drove a short way and parked at the visitor's center to check out the trail to Mount Healy.  




A flock of Boreal Chickadees were flitting between deep shade and harsh bright sunlight - so it goes.




Lupines blooming




The trail was rather quiet so we decided to head into the park and check out some trails along the Savage River.  We decided on the Savage River Canyon trail.

Not far past the visitor's center, we saw a cow Moose coming towards the road.  She seemed interesting in feeding on some roadside willows.  






This was our best look yet at a moose!


The Savage River Canyon trail follows the river upstream from the parking area on the western bank from the Savage River bridge, then downstream to the parking lot on the south side of the bridge.   It passes through a ruggedly beautiful narrow valley.





We searched rocky hillsides and mountainsides for Pikas and Hoary Marmots but unfortunately did not see any.  But there were some nice wildflowers blooming.  This wildflower (species unknown) attracted an Arctic Bumblebee (Bombus polaris).  The "Arctic Bumbles" as we nicknamed them are the devil to photograph.




This wildflower is Western Arctic Shooting Star (Primula frigida)Western_Arctic_Shootingstar_Denali_NP_6-15-2023_25_tightcrop_21x20b.jpg.8e5d73aeb695e09bb8e899f886652137.jpg


This butterfly is a Melissa Arctic (Oeneis melissa).  It is a declining species that occurs above the treeline in alpine tundra, talus slopes, and ridgetops.




Sparrows were all over the place - either gathering food for young or perching on short shrubs and singing.  There were lots of White-crowned Sparrows but also some American Tree Sparrows. 


This American Tree Sparrow was singing and fluttering its wings in an aggressive territorial display.




This White-crowned Sparrow seemed to be carrying two moths. 




When we were following the trail downstream on the east side of the Savage River, we heard a male Willow Ptarmigan doing his funny guttural call.  We went a bit off trail looking for him and he came flying from behind us, over our heads jabbering and clicking, then landed in the short shrubby grassland on a hillside.   As we looked for him, we came upon a female who froze then slowly stalked into the undergrowth.  I like to think Mr. Ptarmigan strafed us and scolded us to protect his missus.


Willow Ptarmigan hen - such a gorgeous creature.



Here was the view back across the Savage River.




With experiences like this, Alaska really gets under your skin.



When we got back to the parking area, a couple told us they had just come from watching a male Grizzly just around the corner.   We hustled to our vehicle and were surprised to find the bear sighting was 200 meters from the parking area on the east side of the Savage River bridge!  In Denali, you never know what is happening right around the corner.


Location here:   https://www.google.com/maps/place/63°44'12.8"N+149°17'31.6"W/@63.7368972,-149.2933855,212m/data=!3m2!1e3!4b1!4m4!3m3!8m2!3d63.736896!4d-149.292098?entry=ttu


It was a Grizzly boar roaming the area just uphill from the riverbank.  It was sniffing around and digging for Arctic Ground Squirrels in animated fashion.  











After admiring the male Brown Bear a while, we decided to go visit the female and two cubs we had seen earlier in the morning and the day before. 


The Brown Bear family was still present, and still mostly hidden, but it was fun and informative to observe them.   The lesson I took from this sighting and yesterday's was how easy it would be to miss the bear family if you were down there with them hiking in thick cover!  I would not want to stumble upon the bear mother and cubs unawares.


After the bear family, we did a brief hike on a few trails near the visitor's center looking for Spruce Grouse, but again failed to find them.   They can be difficult and luck was not with us so far.   After the hike, we grabbed sandwiches and granola bars at a cafe next to the visitor's center and began the drive back to Anchorage.


Since I cannot seem to go on safari without some kind of travel difficulties, Roger and I hit a major traffic stoppage on the Parks Highway.  As we later learned, someone had driven off a bridge to their death - which prompted the police to close the highway for a few hours while they did crime scene forensics.  Traffic backed up for miles.  Fortunately Roger had a friend who lived very close to the scene of the accident and he gave us updates by phone.  We were wondering whether we should drive back, take the Denali Highway back east, then drive south to get to Anchorage in order not to miss our flight the next day.  Fortunately it did not come to that, as traffic was allowed to pass a few hours after the closure.


Next stop Utqiagvik, 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle.


Edited by offshorebirder
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Thanks for this report which I'm really enjoying. Alaska is one place I'd love to get back to as I've only been to the area around Seward, Katmai and Lake Clark. I'm really looking forard to the photos to come after your unnecessary apology about those you've posted so far!

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what a lovely report so far @offshorebirder and a man after my own heart- Alaska by beer and cakes!

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Beautiful landscapes and creatures.

I have really enjoyed your photos and storytelling 

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