Chapter 3. Interior Alaska
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2006 All rights reserved.
(Shari) “This is fun; we get to start a new list,” says Nancy D. as we cross the border into Alaska. I just elevate her status to 9 on my birding scale. Anyone who makes individual state lists is a serious birder in my book. Nancy retorts that her husband Ray does not make it though, yet he is the one who spots the gray owl for the group. We have traveled 27 mi. this morning and have been gone 3 hrs. We have stopped for an eagle’s nest, two swans, gray owls, a border picture, customs, some sort of phalarope and now the visitor’s center at Teslin. I learn that new birder Barbara is now studying the book BEFORE she even sees the bird and she identified a Bonaparte’s Gull this morning. I guess she won’t be going shopping with me any time soon. Bert says she’s hooked. We stop in Tok for lunch and pick up our mail. At an overlook of the beautiful Wrangle Mountains I hand out candy as a treat. The day is turning out to be long and tedious owing to poor roads and road construction where we are twice delayed for about 45 min. Luckily we gain another hour as we set our clocks to Alaska time, but still get into camp at 5:30. The wine I bought in Tok has been calling my name for the last two hours and Don says by the time we get into camp it will be singing a chorus of names. Everyone is ready for a welcome to Alaska wine and cheese and gobble it all up. Bert gives an owl talk and true to form calls in a Northern Hawk-Owl for the delight of everyone. I think the owl thinks the sound was coming from a potential mate because it does a sexy dance with its tail for hours and we can get all the views and pictures we want. I am exhausted and finally get to bed at 10. Bert is still outside looking for other owls and stuff.
(Bert) At last night’s show a local resident told me the location of an eagle’s nest. A few miles into today’s drive I stop at the muskeg site and scan the spindly Black Spruce, wondering how they could support the large nest. After a 5-min. search I see a cluster of partially toppled trees forming a dark knot holding the nest. A white spot in the nest transforms through binoculars into the eagle’s head and through spotting scope into two fierce eyes staring straight back to me. We stop again a few miles farther when I see a pair of Trumpeter Swans parading in a small pond at the edge of the highway. They pose for a dozen photographs. At the Alaska border we park our rigs and I take a group photo beside the sign. Snowshoe Hares hop between both countries at the concrete border marker. Passage through the border check is fast and uneventful. I always take note of the first species I see when I cross into another country. I’m surprised when this time it is a Northern Harrier. While I wait for the others to catch up I stop at a lake where several dozen Bonaparte’s, Mew and Herring gulls feed. Among them, six Red-necked Phalaropes dance in circles, the first of our trip.
Advertised as the cheapest in 200+ miles, we stop for fuel ($2.999/gal for diesel). As I am maneuvering into position, I hear Nancy on the CB. She excitedly exclaims Ray sees an owl flying in front of my rig. I see the large dark gray bird across the road and as it turns I get a clear view of its broad oval facial disc - a Great Gray Owl for sure. It wings toward the horizon hills and is joined by another. Together they ride a thermal, flapping and gliding, slowly gaining altitude. The higher they climb in the thermal, the less they need to flap their broad wings. Even though they are now far away, I keep my binoculars peeled on the pair, enjoying many minutes of this precious sight. Amazingly, about 40 mi. farther along the Alaska Highway and still in the Tetlin National Forest, Nancy sees another Great Gray Owl. I’m a mile ahead of her rig, but those near her position get close-up views of the perched owl.
From Tok, we turn south on the Tok Cutoff. Our travel day is lengthened on both ends - first by birds, now by roads. At construction zones we wait for a pilot car to reach our side and then slowly worm a few miles over gravel and through the earthmoving equipment. Like motorized brontosaurs and tyrannosaurs, the giants feed on ground, callously pushing aside anything in their path. Even our big RV’s cower beside them and drivers are happy to keep distant. For miles, a thousand frost heaves make my ears ring with last night’s song, “Bumpity bump, bumpity bump, on the Alaska Highway!” but now it’s the Tok Cutoff instead for which the song lyrics should sing. Road pain is more than offset by grandiose scenery. For fifty miles we parallel the Wrangle Mountains, dominated by Mount Stanford (16237 ft.). The snow white dome rises so high above the horizon it can easily be mistaken for white clouds. Offset by powder blue skies, angled by shadowed crevasses and drifts, illuminated by blinding sunlight, the snow mountain is a photographer’s magnet.
None to soon, we reach our campground and while others set up camp, Shari and I rush to prepare for our Welcome to Alaska Wine & Cheese Party. Road-wearied caravaners are quickly revived as we enjoy the food and drink and the camaraderie of shared stories about today’s travel. I offer a presentation on Great Gray Owls and finish with playing recordings of local owls, hoping I can attract a Northern Hawk-Owl as I did the last time I made this presentation at the exact same campsite four years ago. For the moment the hawk-owl ignores me, but just after almost everyone has returned to their rigs, the hawk-owl alights on the weather vane not far away. Shari and I scramble to get birders out of their rigs and for the next few hours the owl poses atop one spruce or another, offering the most fantastic photo ops. We continue prowling the campground for birds, hoping to find purported Boreal Owls that hunt at dusk (10:30-11:30 PM). Although the boreals are a no show, we add Common Redpolls to the list and are delightfully entertained by an ermine scampering through a metal dump on the back side of the campground. As the sky darkens and most birders have turned in, a few of us remain. A beaver paddles silently upstream and still later, when eyesight fails, I hear the ducklike quack of Wood Frogs, the northernmost amphibian of North America.
(Shari) I hate mail days. Yesterday we picked up our mail in Tok and today I had to sort through it. I always find problems in the mail and today is no exception. I have to fax proof of insurance to our rental place, I have a charge on my MasterCard that I do not think is mine, I have extra charges on my phone bill that are not mine, I have to change addresses of a company that is an automatic pay and I have two bills of my father’s to take care of. In addition I have bank statements to reconcile for my father, our rental units and us. Yuck! I start on it after Bert and I have a great breakfast at the lodge overlooking a fast flowing stream and I do not finish by our social hour at 5 PM. After that we head for pizza. The owner has been left all alone to handle us and he is severely understaffed. I see Curt ladling out beer from the tap, Kay and May helping set the table and I set out the plates and put out the pizza. I like the different pizzas but Bert finds them tasteless and cold. I did not hear any remarks from the other folks so I will have to ask them. I do not want to recommend a place that is mediocre. I had intended to go out for the late night owling tonight since I got 11 hours of sleep last night. But after my 20-ounce glass of beer and pizza, I am suddenly tired. It is too bad that I have not had the luxury to enjoy this absolutely gorgeous day, sunny and warm and bug free.
(Bert) With nothing on the agenda until this evening, I fill my day with writing journals, entering bird sightings and sorting the many photos I’ve taken so far on this trip. I tally the Canada sightings and am pleased we found 136 species in our transit through northern British Columbia and southern Yukon Territory. Birding starts at 8:30 PM, specifically in search of owls. The many lakes and ponds in this region are a magnet for birds and we stop at each one to scan the open water on the edges of the floating ice. At the first one we find a pair of Pacific Loons, Surf Scoters and two scaup that we think are Greater, but will examine photos for confirmation. At the next lake we see a pair of Red-throated Loons. Another had been seen earlier by others in the group at a lake many miles from here and before the night is out we see yet a fifth Red-throated. For a species that is rare to these parts, these numbers are unusual. We have another great find when Ralph points out to me a small duck with a white patch on its head. I think it is a Hooded Merganser and start rushing down the hill in the direction of the distant pond to get a better look. The ID holds up and we’ve found a duck that is labeled “rare migrant and summer visitant to central Alaska” in George West’s book. Ralph and Virginia report a Northern Hawk-Owl and we U-turn the car to see it perched atop a spruce. It puts on a show by flying to another perch and then crossing the gravel road just above Paul’s head. Snowshoe Hares are out in good numbers tonight and my tally reaches twelve. After the sun sets around 11:30 we find porcupines at two locations. One waddles into the brush and disappears after half our group sees it. The second climbs an embankment and goes up a tree where Curt attempts to photograph it, but with so little light his camera will not focus on the object. Returning to the cars, I hear a thrush that isn’t Hermit or Swainson’s. I play several recorded songs, coming to Veery as a near fit. Chris suggests Gray-cheeked is said to be similar and I try that one. That’s it! When I increase the volume, a second Gray-cheeked calls from the opposite roadside. It’s too dark to find the singers. Just then an owl flies across the road and disappears low into the spruce forest. We see just enough to identify it as a Great Gray Owl. Shortly after 1 AM we return to camp, the starless sky an eerie leaden gray with black clouds, dimly illuminated by a sun below the horizon.
(Shari) I am not the only one who choses to sleep late this morning. I meet Ralph, Virginia, Nancy S. and Paul, Don, Barbara, Larry and Maureen in the lodge dining room. We all have a taste of the wonderful breakfast. Even Bert comes strolling in and has an omelet. We have a late departure today, 11:30, since we only have about 120 miles to travel. Even though the mileage is short, it takes us 4 hr. We stop twice for views, eat lunch and wiggle up, down and around to the other side of the mountains. At 4:30 Bert gives a talk on warblers of Alaska and his recording actually calls two in. We are also treated to a Downy Woodpecker as well as a Hairy. We sit on the edge of the cliff overlooking the valley below and the mountains above. A wonderful setting for a social, some of us take more time there just to soak in the weather and scenery. On the news I hear that Anchorage broke a record temperature for this time of year: it was 74 deg. I think here in Palmer my thermometer read close to 80. I know all I needed was a pair of shorts and a short-sleeved shirt. Unbelievable! With the nice weather comes fire and we hear of one burning not far from us. The sky is hazy and I can smell smoke. I hope that is not a sign of things to come.
(Bert) Another travel day through mountains, but this time up close and personal, the Glenn Highway threads between the Chugach Mountains to the south and the Talkeetna Mountains on the north. A broad new highway makes the uphill climb easier than the last time we passed this way; downhill is still as curvy, narrow and congested as I remember and, again, we transit on Memorial Day weekend when all Alaskans are camping out for the first great day of spring. Over the rim, we follow the Matanuska Glacier downhill for fifty miles, its immensity overwhelming. The blue and white ice becomes dirty brown at the firn line where tons of glacial silt are exposed. We ride high above the glacier on 30 ft. of loess overlying hundreds of feet of glacial outwash. On the opposite side, miles distant, another lateral moraine interposes the mountains from the Matanuska River which runs silt-laden gray and turbulent. High on the mountain sides, the aspen and birch are just coming into leaf with the gray limbs preponderant over newborn green leaves. As we descend toward Palmer and warmer climes, springtime green is lush and dense. At our 4:30 social, we sit on a grassy cliff overlooking the snowcapped mountains and a broad tree-covered valley.
(Shari) Even though we attended this Palmer church 4 yr. ago, I do not remember it. I do remember that the congregation is friendly and that is still the case today. The pastor talks about how we are to go out into the world. This often perplexes me since our circle of friends is so much like us. Are we really going out into the world? While I shop at the great Fred Meyer store in Palmer, Bert searches for a free WI-FI connection. After lunch he takes a group 40 mi. down the road to chase a rare gull. Barbara, Pat, Richard and I tour the town, the visitor’s center and the muskox farm. One Muskox delivers not quite 10 lbs. of quiviet, the under fur. The farm then cards it and must wait for 1000 lbs. of the stuff before it can send it off to be processed. We figure with 48 animals they can only send every other year. It comes back looking like stings of yarn that is then sent to the natives to knit into scarves, hats, mittens and sweaters. Supposedly the rarest fiber in the world, one ball of the “yarn” sells for $80. A finished hat can go for as much as $180. I think I will stick with synthetics. When we return it is time to get ready for our grilled meet potluck. By the time I have finished preparing my salad, Pat and Bert have already set up the grills and put cloths on the tables. As each of our various meats cook on the grill we sit outside, enjoying each other, the weather and the wonderful cooking smells. After eating, Bill and Richard entertain us with a sing-along with ukuleles. Bill also sings two songs that he wrote from our last trip. It has been a fun day.
(Bert) My success at chasing after birds announced on rare-bird-alerts is less than 50%. So, I am not getting up my hopes at finding the Ivory Gull - first time ever for Anchorage - at Campbell Creek. The occurrence is unusual enough that it was announced on the 6 o’clock Anchorage news and the RV park manager told us about it just as we arrived yesterday. Three carloads are prepared for the chase and after about an hour’s drive we arrive at the Sourdough Mining Co., the restaurant where gulls are frequently seen beside the creek. Ralph and Virginia find gulls on the river and when I reach their position the gulls have started to rise on a thermal. I can clearly see one gull different from the others: smaller, almost completely white, black legs and a partial yellow bill. The small flock circles higher and higher, until it becomes hard to crane my head straight up. So, I lie flat on my back on the pavement and continue to watch the gulls through binoculars. I’m convinced I’ve seen the Ivory Gull, but consult the field guide anyway. No other expected gull fits my observations. The gull is a life bird - first time a species is seen in one’s life - for everyone except me. Some in the group are reluctant to add it to their lists however, since their binoculars did not pick up details, such as the black legs. I discuss field trip plans with Terry and he decides to bring back the group in a few days after we move campsites to a closer location. Hopefully the rarity will still be around.
Since we’ve driven so far already, I suggest we visit Potter Marsh. Now, in mid afternoon, the marsh holds only a few of the expected birds. I’m happy to find an unexpected one. Not unusual in much of North America, but listed as “hard to find” in the Anchorage area, a male Gadwall glides smoothly on the pond’s surface close to the boardwalk. Later, after we return to Palmer and head past the campsite toward a water-filled gravel pit, we find another “hard to find” duck, a pair of Redheads. I expect that some of the birds today I’ve not seen before in Alaska, but later when I check my computerized records I recall that I’ve seen all three rarities on previous Alaska trips.
(Bert) Still piling out of cars, only some of us see the Harlequin Duck fly downstream in a blur. Like the painted face of a clown, the white ovals and circles and the slivers of rusty red offset a background of slate gray. We’ve come to the right habitat to find these beauties: a fast-rushing mountain stream gyrating and ricocheting off smooth boulders, remnant erratics of a past glacier. The Little Susitna River through Hatcher Pass runs clear and cold along a canyon wall. Chris T. notices an American Dipper on the opposite side and then we see a pair, actively gathering nest material to fill a cavity in the rock wall. Repeatedly, the rotund gray bird bounces elastically on its legs. Near the river several bouquets of Nagoonberry blooms blush pink among strawberry-like serrated leaves, one of the few flowers showing this early in spring. Farther up the valley, Virginia halts our train when she announces Harlequin Ducks. This time the two pairs remain on a downhill beaver pond and we have ample time to study them. One pair engages in a courtship dance, each extending its neck across the water and paddling in circles. The ritual climaxes with exuberant water splashes. Our climb up the pass transitions from lush riparian woods to barren ground sparsely covered by short willows and, above us, steep rocky slopes patched by winter’s snow. At a pullout Terry is scanning the mountain sides for bear when he sees a ptarmigan flying. Even though the mountain is nearly a mile distant, through binoculars the white chicken-sized birds stand out against the dark gray rocks when it is in flight. At rest it takes a spotting scope to find the pair. Three species of ptarmigans reside in Alaska and we joke about identifying this one a mile away. Through my scope, I continue studying the pair and when they take flight again I can clearly see their fanned tails as they glide over gray rock and patches of bright white snow. Pure white tails, no brown or rufous, tell me these are White-tailed Ptarmigans, the species I suspected, given the mountain top habitat they reside in. A few miles farther on Hatcher Pass Road I see another ptarmigan close beside the road. We stop and watch a Willow Ptarmigan hiding in willows, this bird in mid plumage - mostly rufous above and mostly white below. Bright red combs form protruding eyebrows on this male trying to attract a mate. Now in the alpine reaches of the pass we park our cars and walk a mile uphill on the closed road, snow still covering most of the blacktop but for a narrow melt along one side. With temperatures pushing 60º, rivulets of ice water flow from the sticky white snow and across the black pavement. Georgia packs a snowball and tosses it in my direction. I reciprocate, but neither of us has good aim. Some find a Hoary Marmot among the rocks; I watch an Arctic Ground Squirrel. Around us Savannah Sparrows and Golden-crowned Sparrows sing, the latter a new species to our trip list. We stop for lunch at the restaurant that overlooks the valley below. I can’t imagine a better script for today’s play than this morning’s experience.
(Shari) I can’t believe I have not done this side trip in our previous years. Twenty-two of our now closest friends are taking the road up Hatcher Pass. It takes us 3 hr. to go 18 mi. because we stop frequently for scenery and birds. Our target birds are a dipper, three ptarmigans and a Harlequin Duck and within the first hour we have seen three of them. I joke we might as well go back now since we have already seen them. Glorious sunshine, warm temperatures and gorgeous scenery unfolds before our eyes as we wind up the road to the pass. The road at the top is closed due to snow but that does not stop us from walking the 1.2 mi. to the old mine. My shoes start to leak and when the road becomes mostly snow and water, I return to the parking lot. It is time for lunch anyway and the lodge opens at 12. I join Mike, Kay, Chris and Curt at a table overlooking the valley below and the mountains above. Soon I see Don, Barbara, Larry and Maureen here too. I decide to supplement the packed lunch I brought along with a dandy coffee. The dandy part is Kailua, brandy, crème de cocoa and whipped cream. Later Bert joins us. We get back by 2:30 but both of us are so tired that we nap until 4. Before we know it, it is time for our LEO “Let’s eat out” activity and 18 of us drive to a nearby restaurant. Life does not get better than this.
(Bert) A day of errands and preparation for my flight for Gambell, this day slips by without a photo or an experience worth remembering. I’ve reappropriated a proverb: Time spent birding is not deducted from one’s lifespan. Today added an uneventful one to my lifespan.
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