Monday, July 8, 2019
Our first stop was Creamer's Field Migratory Bird Refuge. This is probably the best known birding spot in Fairbanks. Previously a dairy, this location of over 2,000 acres, inside the city limits, draws both birds and birders. The refuge has water, fields, and forest. During migration the number of birds passing through can be impressive. Even outside of migration it is a great spot. One of the open fields by the entrance had a large number of Sandhill Cranes, and our only Canada Geese of the trip. Tree and Cliff Swallows were zipping everywhere.
Our next stop was the Peat Ponds Wildlife Area. Martin was thinking it might produced some good dragonflies, and it is another site for breeding birds. We saw a few birds, but no new dragonflies. We then stopped at Smith Lake, part of the University of Alaska's grounds. It was quite a walk in, on a winding path through forest and fields. We got to the lake, but the nesting Mew Gulls weren't having it. One was diving at us over and over. We left them in peace.
The smoke from wildfires had cleared, so we decided to drive up to Murphy Dome again. I was very glad to be riding in an air-conditioned car. I was hot and feeling incredibly tired. The long days of the trip were taking their toll, and this was the warmest day of our trip, about 85, which is almost sweater weather in Texas, so I am not sure why it was bothering me. There was no sign of smoke as we drove up, so we thought maybe the fire was done. Boy, were we wrong! We couldn't even drive all the way up. The road was barricaded a mile or so down from the dome. A man stationed there told us it was off limits, the fire was worse, the wind was just blowing the smoke the other way. I couldn't believe it when Martin said "We only want to go up for a half hour or so." Even his magic English accent couldn't budge the guy.
We went back to town for lunch. We were both so beat we took a long time, not looking foward to going back out. This is not our usual method of operation.We finally felt a bit rested and went back out. I wanted to see a Musk Ox, even if it wasn't a wild one, so we drove by the Large Animal Research Station. We didn't want to do a tour, but we could see a couple of Musk Ox from the roadside. I wish I could have afforded to buy some of the yarn they sell there, but at $90 a skein, barely enough to knit a small hat, I passed. Musk Ox yarn, called qiviut, is considered one of the finest yarns in the world. If anybody has any laying around that they don't want, let me know.
We went back to Ballaine Road. Martin walked around for quite a while. I wimped out and went back to the car. He finally returned and asked me what I wanted to do. I had nothing. Neither did he. We decided to go have an early dinner and then maybe go back to the airport. We found a fast food place that was cool, had dinner and lingered for a lot longer than we normally would. I am not sure why we were so tired, but we both were done.
We weren't far from the airport and I knew there were some eBird hotspots nearby. We decided to go see what we could find. The first spot we tried was the seaplane float ponds. They are not visible from the road, so that was out. I remembered a pond by the car rental parking lot at the airport, so we headed over there. We found a place to pull over and scan the pond. There were the ever-present Mew Gulls, a few ducks, and a beautiful Red-necked Grebe. We called it a day, went and filled up the car and returned it. We were way early for our flight, but it was nice to sit, and to buy some over-priced trinkets from the gift shop.
I enjoyed this trip so much! Even with little glitches, it was an incredible experience. I don't know very many people, (maybe any?) who have been to Fairbanks for birding or butterflies. I would highly recommend it. You won't get a huge bird list, but we saw some great stuff. We ended up seeing 12 species of mammals and 74 species of birds. We are still working on butterfly IDs. The wildflowers were breathtaking. If you read my posts, thank you for taking the time!
Sunday, July 7, 2019
Most bus ticket sales are advanced purchase. There are a few available at the bus station, but it is a gamble. I went online to see what was available. I had trouble connecting to the web page, so I called. The 11AM bus was full, but there were two seats on the 12 PM bus. This would get us back to the but terminal at 8PM and we would still have over a two hour drive back to Fairbanks. We decided it was totally worth it. We hustled up, though we had plenty of time. We stopped and got way more food than we needed in Healy. (There is no food or drinks available in the park.) We arrived at the park and went in to check in. We were over an hour early.
They told us to start lining up outside for the bus about 15 minutes before departure. We got in line over a half hour before, to make sure we got first choice of seats. People started filtering in and we chatted a bit. Finally, the bus pulled up. We decided to sit one row back from the front, thinking it might be a better view. The bus loaded up and we were stunned that no one sat across the aisle from us. I figured if no one wanted the seat, I would move over there, as that would have us on both sides of the bus to spot stuff. I felt a little guilty, having a seat to myself, but not guilty enough to move.
Our driver Brian got on and we took off. He gave us the lowdown on how the transit buses operate and what he expected from us. The transit buses run on the hour. Some go to Toklat River, which is at mile 53; some go to Eieslen Visitor Center, at mile 66; two other buses go further into the park, the farthest to mile 92. We had chosen Eieslen, which would be four hours in and four hours back. You are free to get off the bus whenever you want, hike or whatever, and flag the next bus down and get on. Of course, if that bus is full, you have to wait for the next one. They make rest stops every hour or so for 10 or 15 minutes, and stop for any wildlife.
Brian told us to keep all body parts inside the bus, though it was ok to put camera lens out the windows. He also said IF we had any wildlife encounters to try and maintain silence. He stressed how we were visitors and the park was the animals' home. They don't want them to be accustomed to hearing a lot of voices. The bears and other mammals don't associate the buses with human beings. If they hear hikers talking they take off to avoid them. The park wants it to continue this way. We were also instructed to not eat food outside of the bus. I was a bit concerned about his use of the words "IF we have wildlife encounters."
We covered the first fifteen miles pretty quickly, aiming to get into the part of the park not open to the public. Brian shared a lot of good information with the bus. He had been working in the park in various capacities for the last 15 summers. We found out he was a birder! Even before we passed the gate at mile 15, we were looking for animals, with no luck. Shortly after passing it Brian called out to look ahead on the road, where a Willow Ptarmigan was sitting. He looked for chicks, but didn't see any. A few people asked questions about what to expect. He was noncommittal, saying there were no guarantees. He said because it was so warm the mammals were likely to not be active. This did not make me happy. Deep inside a voice was saying, "No bears for you!"
We finally saw a Caribou by the Toklat River. It was a bit manky looking, shedding its coat, but still impressive. We pushed on. We were getting near the end of the line, where we would turn around, and still had not see any bears. I had asked Brian if there were trips where they didn't see them. He answered they usually did, but he had had several this year without any. I was feeling more and more uncertain, but still happy we had come. The scenery was unbelievable, and Brian was a fountain of knowledge. (Boy, does that sound trite!) He explained why the rivers were so muddy. The water was from glacier melt, which happens every year. He did remark that with climate change the rivers were higher and the glaciers were shrinking. The water is muddy because glaciers pick up debris as they move. The melt is full of dirt and stones. So much for pure glacier bottled water! I had to laugh.
We passed many buses on the way. Martin and I both were surprised at how much traffic we saw. Besides the transit buses, there are actual tour buses, cruise ship operated buses, and camp buses, going to the various camp grounds. I wondered how they saw any animals at all. As we passed one of the buses, a passenger asked Brian a question. He said "I'm sorry. I was distracted. The driver of that bus signaled me on something." We came around the bend and I saw three pale brown shapes in the grassy field below us. BEARS! That was what the driver was telling Brian.
We stopped at the Eieslen Visitor Center and walked around for about a half hour. We were delighted to get reasonable views of Denali itself, making us part of the 30% club. Only 30% of the people who visit Denali National Park actually get to see the mountain. We were pretty sure we had seen it the day we visited earlier, but this nailed it. I photographed some wildflowers. An Arctic Ground-squirrel looked at us with begging eyes, but we resisted giving him something to eat. Some of the passengers chose to stay and do some hiking. Some new passengers got on to return to the bus depot. The bus was still empty enough that we each had our own seat. Now I really felt guilty. :-D Martin and I had talked that maybe we would see more animals going back, as there was less traffic and it was later in the day.
We picked up a few passengers, but none of them wanted my seat. I quit feeling guilty. We made our last rest stop and Brian suggested that if we wanted to, to walk ahead on the road and he would pick us up. I was debating whether to walk, or be lazy. I heard a high pitched wheezing sound, and thought "Waxwings!", though when I hear waxwings here the sound is more constant. Brian asked me if I knew what the call was. I said "Waxings?" rather tentatively and he said "Yes!" One flew onto the top of a spruce and I got a distant photo.
We got back to the bus depot near the park entrance at about 815PM, only a little late. I wish I could express just how amazing this bus trip was. We ended up with 9 species of mammals, Snow-shoe Hare, Arctic Ground-squirrel, Red Squirrel, Caribou, Moose, Dall's Sheep, Red Fox, Grizzly Bear, and Canadian Lynx. We didn't have a big number of birds or butterflies, but who cares? I would highly recommend doing this trip. I hope you are lucky enough to get a driver as good as Brian was. This will stay with me for the rest of my life!
I only have one album for the day, the mammals. I am sorry I don't have one of the lynx. - https://www.flickr.com/photos/sngcanary/albums/72157709494863127
Bird list for the day:
I had been wanting to do a bit more birding, and Martin still needed to see a Spruce Grouse, so we made a couple of stops. There was a promising looking road about twenty miles up the highway, with some woods, where we thought we might see the grouse. We had no luck with that, but did have several Varied Thrushes. Their song sends chills down my spine! There was a little boggy pond at the end of the road, where we heard a Boreal Owl calling. It was in an area where we couldn't see it, but we were still happy.
We drove a bit further on and noticed some birds at a puddle off the side of the road. We turned around and were delighted to find a male Pine Grosbeak and several White-winged Crossbills, neither of which we had seen on this trip. There were a few butterflies on the west mud, including a couple of Cranberry Blues, a species I thought was going to be hard to see before the trip, but had been almost common. We found another bog nearby, which Martin wanted to check for dragonflies. He didn't find the type he was looking for, but we found Dorcas Coppers, a new butterfly for both of us.
We saw a pond on the side of the road that looked promising for one of the dragonflies he hoped to find, Canadian Whiteface. There was a nice wooded area next to it with a little trail, so I could do some birding. I like dragonflies, but I always seem to be in the wrong place, and move too clumsily, and flush them, so I usually find something else to do while Martin looks. I was happy to see a few birds, nothing rare. Martin came back with a huge grin on his face, showing me his camera. He had found his target.
As we drove, we saw a shape on the side of the road. We slowed down, not wanting to flush what ever it was. As we crept closer we could see it was a Willow Ptarmigan, Alaska's state bird. I almost squealed when two little fuzz balls emerged from the roadside vegetation, very young chicks. We kept back to make sure we didn't upset them. They seemed completely comfortable with the distance. We watched as they poked around. Finally, they crossed the road, one at a time and disappeared.
We pressed on to the area we had been to two days prior. We had not worked the 12 mile Summit area much, so we decided to give it a go first. There was a "trail" that consisted of single boards laid end to end up the hill. I started up it and flushed an arctic, a type of butterfly. It finally landed again on the board and we got a few photos. Unfortunately, the exposure on my photos sucked. Then it took off and landed on Martin's jeans, where I got a great shot. We puzzled over the ID, but it turned out to be a Jutta Arctic, which we had seen earlier in the trip.
We stopped at Eagle Summit briefly, but decided to go on, to see what habitat was down the road, and if it looked interesting, to drive on to Central, the next settlement on the highway. We went a couple of miles and saw that the road quickly dropped back into spruces and thought we would do better to turn around and look for some rocky habitat on the side of road, as there are a few butterflies that prefer that. As we turned around I realized this was the farthest north I had ever been, less than 100 miles from the arctic circle.
Not far back we found exactly the type of place Martin was looking for. On one side of the road was a rocky cut going up, on the other were rocks extending down the hill. Our hope was butterflies flying from one area of rocks to the other might stop and allow us to photograph them. We did see quite a few, but almost all kept sailing right on by. I heard an odd call, one that didn't sound quite bird like.It turned about to be a Collared Pika, a chunky little mammal that lives in rocks and loves to call. They look like big rodents, but are actually related to rabbits. I had seen American Pikas in Washington state and Colorado, but this was a different species. Martin called out and pointed down the road where a Northern Wheatear was perched on a post. This bird is most commonly found in the "old world", but some do summer in Alaska and Canada. A second one was calling up the rock face. Martin was particularly happy, as this was his "spark" bird that got him started birding back in England.
We started back to Fairbanks, looking for more rocky spots to explore. We saw a bird sitting in the middle of the road. We expected another Willow Ptarmigan. Again, we slowed down to a crawl. The light was a little harsh, but we could finally make out details as we got closer. There was barring. It was not a ptarmigan at all, but a female Spruce Grouse, the bird Martin really wanted to see. I had seen a few in Washington state years before, but despite searching for them several times in the past, it had eluded Martin. This is a bird that we expected to get in the forest, which is where I had seen mine. This one was out in the open, in an area where there were only scattered spruce in the fields on either side. It capped off the day for both of us!
Bird photos for this day: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sngcanary/albums/72157709477736506
Butterfly photos for this day: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sngcanary/albums/72157709477711366
Wildflower photos for this day: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sngcanary/albums/72157709477535127
Birds seen this day:
Red-tailed Hawk (Harlan's)
Thursday, July 4, 2019
Alaska highway 3 runs along the top of a ridge south of Fairbanks, giving beautiful views on either side of the road. We pulled into a rest stop not far from Nenana and as soon as I got out of the car I heard a Boreal Chickadee calling. There was also an Alder Flycatcher and some Black-capped Chickadees. An Arctic White Butterfly skimmed by and then lit on some flowers. We also found a Western Tailed-Blue, a tiny bug, but still beautiful. There was a side road just past the rest area, so we decided to go down it and see what else we could find in the woods. The first bird I saw a Canada Jay, which had been called Gray Jay in the past. This was the first spot where the mosquitoes were a bit of a problem, but still not horrible. We drove a bit further down, but then spotted a guy on a bicycle laying a log across the road up ahead of us. He looked a little shady, like maybe he had a meth lab in his trailer, so we turned around.
We crossed a "braided" river by Nenana, which was flowing fast with muddy looking water. Braided rivers are fed by glaciers. I always thought of glacial water being clear and pure, but it's not. Glaciers pick up a lot of dirt and debris as they move, so that is mixed in with the melt. So, when you see bottled water claiming to be from glaciers, unless it's thick and brown, something has been done to it! We decided to press on to Healy, which is not far from the northern edge of Denali National Park. I found one of the roads where I had seen some birds reported.
We drove down the road and didn't see much for the first mile or so. Then we found a power-line cut, which can be great for butterflies. We pulled off and almost immediately a utility truck pulled in on the other side of the road. Martin talked to the two workers, who were really nice. They told us to go ahead and walk there, they wouldn't be doing anything on the side we were one for a couple of hours. One of the guys told us which gas station was best in Healy and where we might get a peak at Denali. We walked around for about an hour and did find quite a few bugs, but most of them were "patrolling" and not stopping to feed. We decided to head further south towards the national park.
We stopped and picked up some food at a grocery store and talked to the clerk. We asked her about a location on the map called McKinley Park, which we thought was a park. It is not, it is actually a small town right by the entrance to Denali. She went on and on about this great strip mall to do some shopping down there. We decided, what the hell, we would go into the park and maybe stop to buy some trinkets at the shopping center. On the drive down we passed a couple of pull outs, where we checked for butterflies and saw a few.
Denali National Park has limited access. You can drive in about 15 miles to one of the camp grounds; past that you either have to take a permitted bus. We stopped at the bus station right after we entered to see what was involved. We parked and several people were getting out of a car next to us. They explained the bus trips were at least eight hours, or longer, depending on which location you went to, four hours in and four hours out. The tickets were about $45 each, plus park admission, Most people purchase them in advance, so there was no guarantee we could even get on a bus that day. It was about 1PM, so even if we got on the next bus we wouldn't get out of the park until 9PM. We decided to not do it, and just drive in as far as we could.
We drove down towards the camp ground, making some stops along the way. There was an overlook where you can sometimes see Denali. We were not sure which way to look, but asked a ranger, who gave us vague directions. The mountain is 72 miles away, so unless it is pretty clear, there isn't much chance of seeing it. We could see some mountains, but nothing looked like what we expected. To be honest the road was nothing like I expected. In my head, I had always thought it was straight and through a flat boggy area with some spruce. I have no idea why I though this. The road is actually a bit twisty and there is some nice forest. We got to the camp ground, got out and looked for butterflies for a bit. We had hoped that we might see a bear or moose, but we didn't. The only mammal we found was a brazen Arctic Ground Squirrel, who looked fearless.
We turned around and headed slowly back to the entrance. We saw some more Canada Jays, and just enjoyed the park. We stopped at the overlook again and this time we were successful! At least we think we were. We could just make out a big mountain beak through the clouds. It came and went. I was really excited, even if it was not the best view. Only 31% of the people who visit the park actually see the mountain. Martin had seen it well on one of his work trips to Alaska, so it wasn't as big a deal to him, but he was still happy to get a glimpse.
It was going to be a long ride back to Fairbanks, so we left the park. At least with the very, very long days, we didn't have to worry about driving back in the dark. It is about a two hour drive, so it wasn't awful. I will be honest, I don't remember much about the drive back, except when we crossed the Alaska. I was a little bemused, as Denali seems well within the interior. By the way, if the picture I posted is not Denali, that is cool. There is more on this later.
Bird photos for the day- https://www.flickr.com/photos/sngcanary/albums/72157709433878322
Butterfly photos for the day-https://www.flickr.com/photos/sngcanary/albums/72157709434129541
Wildflower photos for the day-https://www.flickr.com/photos/sngcanary/albums/72157709433854872
Bird list for the day:
American Tree Sparrow
Wednesday, July 3, 2019
We came to Alaska to mainly look for butterflies. There are a number of species that have restricted ranges in the north and use the tundra. I was also intrigued by the wildflowers of the tundra. There are even a few good birds found in this habitat. Our main butterfly target was Eversmann's Parnassian. Parnassians are usually found in mountain habitat and are white with some black markings and red spots. Eversmann's is the only one that is yellow. It also is in an area not covered by most people. Martin had really wanted to see this species ever since he started butterflying. I really wanted, to, also.
We started the day going up to Murphy Dome, near Fairbanks, where another couple of species were supposed to be found. We were a bit surprised when we got to the top and there were dozens of people milling around. It turned out there was a wildfire nearby. We asked if we could look around for butterflies and they said sure, just stay out of the way. Martin was also surprised by the vegetation. In Google Maps photos it had appeared very low and more grassy. It was now waist to head high willow and not really walk-able. He asked one of the fire fighters about it and he told us that the photos had probably been taken a couple of years prior and that tundra can change very rapidly. We did poke around for a bit, but we were not seeing what we expected. We could see the smoke from the fire a couple of miles away and decided to go a different direction.
The Steese Highway runs northeast of Fairbanks. Highway really isn't the best description of this road, at least 80 miles or so along it. It turns to an unpaved road at this point, though it was not bad at all. We had a couple of spots marked for the parnassian, one called 12 Mile Summit, about 86 miles from where the highway starts, and Eagle Summit, about 106 miles in. The weather was a bit cloudy and became very windy, the farther we went, so it wasn't ideal for butterflies. We didn't dawdle much, heading up. The lower part of the highway passes through fairly open spruce forest. We did pause at a pond, where a beaver was swimming around, giving us good looks. We arrived at 12 Mile Summit and did a little walking, but not much was flying. We decided to move up to Eagle Summit.
Martin had looked at Eagle Summit on Google Maps. He said there was a small building and a parking area. We drove up about as far as we thought it was and spotted a parking area. Who knows what had happened to the building? We got out and walked up to the tundra from the parking area and got jaw-dropping looks at a Rock Ptarmigan, strolling by. I took a bunch of photos and little video. It finally scooted into the willows. I had seen the one in flight the day before, but this was much better! Martin went farther in, and I poked around the parking lot a little, since it was wet and I was hoping for "puddling" bugs. I found a hoof print of a caribou and a piece of fur in the willows. Unfortunately, I didn't see the actual caribou. I photographed a few flowers.
The sun was in and out and the wind was howling. It was far from ideal conditions. We saw a few frittilaries, which can be brutally difficult to identify, some sulphurs and alpines. Martin crossed the road to an area that was a bit more sheltered from the wind. I crossed over, too. He said, "If you see the parnassian, put your arms up like this!" I was picturing myself falling down the side of the hill with my arms up over my head, frantically waving as I tumbled down." I found my favorite flower of the trip, Monkshood, also known as Queen of Poisons, which is a way better name! I mean, seriously! If you eat this flower you can die within two to five hours. I love the drama, which is why I am calling this post Queen of Poisons. It sounds like we were in Game of Thrones!
I looked down the hill and saw a pale yellow butterfly flying low to ground, right past Martin. It landed briefly and he shouted "It's the parnassian!" He did not raise his arms over his head, but I forgave him, since he shouted. I got over as quickly as I could and got some photos. It was a male, slightly worn, but we were ecstatic. My experience with other species of parnassians is they rarely land. This one flew, and then landed, flew and landed, over and over again. I think the wind was actually working in our favor. We saw a few more butterflies and decided to drive up the highway a bit farther.
We got in the car, and started driving. We quickly realized we had not been at Eagle Summit at all. We saw a sign and the little building Martin had seen on Google Maps. We stopped and walked around a bit. We didn't see much as far as butterflies, but a Common Redpoll was sitting up singing. We decided to return to the place that wasn't Eagle Summit and quickly saw another parnassian. We got a few more bugs and started to head back, figuring we could see some other bugs and birds in different habitat.
We were about fifty miles out of Fairbanks when the low tire light came on. This is not what you want on a deserted highway with no gas stations for at least 45 miles. Martin got out and checked and thought the rear left tire looked a little squishy, but not bad. We drove on and he checked again in about another ten miles. He said it definitely looked a little low. Of course there was no cell service. We kept on, checking the tire from time to time. Of course the first gas station didn't have a tire gage or air. We called the car rental company and they said to bring it in. If the tire was not fixable, we would be responsible. We finally came to a station and Martin put air in the tire. It still wasn't flat. We got to the airport and Dollar car rental gave us a new car. We called them a couple of days later, and it looks like the tire was fixable, so we weren't stuck with it. A good ending to the day!
Links to photos:
Butterflies of the day (please feel free to comment on my IDs.)-https://www.flickr.com/photos/sngcanary/albums/72157709413140541
Birds of the day_https://www.flickr.com/photos/sngcanary/albums/72157709413087866
Wildflowers of the day (again, please feel free to comment.) -https://www.flickr.com/photos/sngcanary/48184432221/in/album-72157709413180321/
Bird species seen: