North to My Future


For the fifth consecutive year, the Lower Cape Fear Bird Club took a major birding trip out west.  Prior to 2005, our destinations have been the Rio Grande Valley, Washington State, Southeastern Arizona, and Central California.  This was an “introductory” Alaskan trip in that it covered Anchorage, Seward, the Kenai Fjords, the Denali Highway, and Denali National Park and Preserve.


The title of my story is borrowed from the Alaska state motto: “North to the Future”.  My future began with this trip…and it served as a checkpoint for my birding “career”.  Checkpoint?  I hit a milestone on the trip…the Willow Ptarmigan was my 600th ABA-area bird…the state bird, how fitting!!!  I also needed to look ahead.Click to enlarge the Business Birder


My future, given semi-retirement, will be different in many ways….more time to bird and to make nature photography a huge part of my future explorations.  For the past twenty-five years, I have photographed birds and nature, never having time to master any technology.  I was always waiting for better technology and more time to master it before purchasing newer technology. 


That time arrived.  In mid-May, I purchased the camera of my dreams, a Canon EOS 20D with a 500mm Image Stabilized lens. 


I hate to read manuals.  Prior to the trip, I had learned only about twenty-five percent of the camera and lens functions, enough to get by while I take a couple of years to learn more and gain proficiency.  Fortunately, the camera’s basics are relatively easy to learn and my pictures from the trip turned out great.Click to enlarge the Glaucous-winged Gull


I arrived a day before our trip was scheduled to start.  I had done my usual “bang up” job (i.e. not much) of researching birding sites.  I reviewed the field guide on the plane and designed an “Anchorage Sampler” tour of brief stops for my day of solo birding.


At Arctic Valley, I found a Boreal Chickadee nest cavity because the two adults kept flying back and forth across the road feeding their chicks.  Pure happenstance!  I marked the spot with an arrow in the dirt in case I saw other early arriving club members. I found them on their way down and we exchanged notes.  They then found the chickadees and I found the Golden-crowned Sparrow they directed me to.Click to enlarge the Sea Otter 


Later at dinner, our group scored a Four-eyed, Skin-headed Skank at the restaurant.  Our attention was captured by a guy with eyes and eyebrows tattooed on the back of his “buzz cut” head.  We joked at first that “it” might be a new species of owl with false eyes in the back of its head.  We decided if he got tired of the eyes, he could always have sunglasses tattooed over them.  Then we really broke up over the idea of an eye patch tattooed over just one.  Click to enlarge Horned Grebe


On Saturday, we birded sites along the Seward Highway between Anchorage and Seward.  At our first stop, Potter Marsh, we walked out on the boardwalk and observed breeding birds including Arctic Terns and several species of duck.  We closely approached Tree Swallows sitting on the boardwalk rail that were so unafraid that one of my photographs shows a human finger less than a foot from the bird.


Across the highway from Potter Marsh, we climbed an embankment onto the railroad tracks to gain a vantage point for the mudflats of Turnagain Arm.  We found a number of gulls, including a Glaucous Gull.  We also found an Alaska Railroad engine bearing down on us.  The train was fairly close when we saw it so we scurried down the trail and a couple of us at the rear had a near death experience.  Okay, maybe not that close…      


As we drove off, we witnessed a “changing of the guard” by Horned Grebes in a canal along side the embankment.   One car spotted a grebe swimming and another car circled back to where they though they had seen a nest. We got to watch and photograph the female swim in and replace the male who was on the nest….and then the male swam out the other side.  How cool was that?>


Our leader took us next to the Chugach State Park Indian Creek site where American Dippers are reliably found.  We located a nest under a bridge and we watched as both adults flew in and out feeding the young. Other Seward Highway birds included Common Goldeneye, Northern Shrike, and Trumpeter Swan.


Our trip to the Kenai Fjords National Park was on Sunday.  We took the pelagic trip to the Northwestern Fjord.  The glaciers were impressive; the compressed glacial ice acts as a prism, reflecting mostly blue light.  One highlight of the trip was to pull up into the fjord, through the ice floes, to get close to the Northwestern Glacier.  We could see and hear the ice breaking off and falling into the sea from close range.  What an magnificent sound! Click to enlarge the Harbor Seals


Need I say it?  The fjords yielded an AWESOME collection of birds.  We found Marbled, Ancient, and Kittlitz’s Murrelets.  A three Murrelet trip!  Other species included: Sooty Shearwater, Red-faced Cormorant, Pelagic Cormorant, Glaucous-winged Gull, Pigeon Guillemot, Black-legged Kittiwake, Common Murre, Parakeet Auklet, Rhinoceros Auklet, and Horned and Tufted Puffin.  As you would expect, the mammals were also awesome.  We saw Sea Otter, Orca, Humpback Whales, Harbor Seals, Dall’s Porpoise, and Steller’s Sea Lions.   


On our return trip from Seward to Anchorage we added Olive-sided Flycatcher, White-winged Crossbill, and Varied Thrush.  The White-winged Crossbills were a treat since we had a male, female, and immature male all close together in a small fir tree. Click to enlarge the Tuffed Puffin


Near Anchorage, we stopped at a rest area just before Potter Marsh. As we drove in, we spotted a male moose on a hill atop the parking area.  We quickly jumped out and started taking pictures.  The “hackles-up” moose came down the hill toward me at an alarming rate.  While getting some great pictures, I subconsciously started to protect myself but left the door closest to the moose open, not the door opposite the moose.  Mistake! Fortunately, there was a six-foot ledge between the hill and the parking lot which saved me. Click to enlarge the Charging Moose


I believe that the moose mistook my camera lens for a rival or another threat with a large nose.  I learned a valuable lesson.  The first animal to take umbrage with the lens could have been a bear.  From then on, I wrapper my mosquito net jacket around the lens for makeshift camouflage.


We headed out Tuesday to Paxson, stopping first for a great breakfast at Gwennie’s Old Alaska Restaurant in Anchorage.  There was a sign in the restroom that is a great example of Alaskan humor:  “Wanted: Wife who can sew, cook, and pack a moose.  Send photograph of gun.”  That was humor, right?


The highlight of the day was finding a Great Gray Owl on its nest. We fought through a wall of mosquitoes to get to the owl. The mosquitoes were as bad as advertised!  They were so thick, it gave me the willies even though my insect repellant was working.  Other birds on the Glenn and Richardson Highways to Paxson included Northern Hawk Owl, Gray Jay, Pacific Loon, and Golden Eagle.


We spent two nights at the “Red Roofed” Paxson Lodge under less than Spartan conditions.  Holes in window screens had been plugged with toilet paper.  The curtains were flimsy at best and did not keep out the light which really interrupts sleep when you only have about four hours of twilight each night.  It never got completely dark. 


Bad accommodations?  My sister was the only one who had a TV in her room.  It did not work.  And the sign on the back of her door read:  “No pets allowed.  No cleaning of game.  Thanks!”  This sign was no joke.Click to enlarge the Tundra Death March


We left Wednesday morning headed to the nearby tundra area above the Alaska Pipeline.  Shortly after leaving the Paxson Lodge, we saw a moose and her calf just off the highway. Then, at the top, a herd of caribou on another ridge came closer to inspect us from afar.


Our leaders each have a zillion life birds.  You could, however, easily tell that one leader was driven to find Willow and Rock Ptarmigan and that the other needed the Smith’s Longspur.  We walked across the nearby ridges in a concerted search for those birds.  It became a death march!  We found Blackpoll Warblers and Lapland Longspurs but not the two target birds; however, for the next two days, we were at times “forced marched” across the tundra in search of the Smith’s.

 Click to enlarge the Moose Mother and Calf

 For the remainder of Wednesday, we covered the first twenty-one miles of the Denali Highway…the paved portion…and returned for another night in Paxson.  We found a Willow Ptarmigan just off the road and got some awesome pictures. At the Tangle River Bridge we were treated to a wad of Harlequin Ducks, a Porcupine on the ridge above us, and a mother moose and calf crossing the stream just down river from the bridge. Other nesting birds along the Denali Highway included:  American Tree Sparrows, Whimbrel, and several Long-tailed Jaegers.


First thing Thursday morning, we stopped at Mud Lake where we added Bufflehead and Pine Grosbeak.  We found huge bear tracks and fresh moose tracks plus the tracks of a mother bear with cubs.  Across the lake some saw a Wolverine and all saw a Red Fox.Click to enlarge the Denali Highway Vista

Any remaining doubts we were in the wilderness were dispelled by this stop.


We continued across the Denali Highway to the park.  We got our first Arctic Warbler at milepost 27 and saw three more up to milepost 43 where we had lunch at the McClaren River Lodge.  For desert we had Strawberry Rhubarb Pie with vanilla ice cream.  We immediately declared it the pie of the trip!  A tradition!Click to enlarge the Lapland Longspur


Soon after lunch, my sister and I had a Northern Wheatear fly over.  We did not get a great look; however, with the white on the tail, it could not have been another species.  Other trip birds along the Denali Highway included: Say's Phoebe, American Pipit, and Common Redpoll.  


The Denali Highway had just opened for the summer; one hundred and fifteen miles of bad road but not as bad as it had been days earlier before the road crew attacked it.  Some “washboard” grooves and deep ruts were still evident but the road was not as bad as it was wickedly long.Click to enlarge the Willow Ptarmigan


The Denali Highway runs between the two rings of the Alaska Range.  You are always surrounded by mountains.  You can see too much snow and too many mountains. However, just when the scenery gets boring…and it often did…the boredom is shattered by new vistas…like coming upon the pothole lakes north of the highway.


The following day we rode the park bus some twenty miles into the Denali.  Not long after we began the bus trip we found a Willow Ptarmigan.  It went off the road into brush and then returned showing no fear.  We got great pictures through the open bus window


We saw several Golden Eagles and a Gyrfalcon perched on a ledge across from her nest.  On the return trip, the adult Gyrfalcon flew to the nest and fed the young.  We could see the adult ripping up prey and feeding each chick. Click to enlarge the Denali Bear Sign


Our Denali adventure featured fantastic nature observations in unmanaged habitats:  a mother grizzly with two large, second-year cubs, a Red Fox den with mother and at least two kits being fed, and several moose (by now a junk mammal).


We came upon a warning sign meant to protect wildlife, specifically bears.  The bears had been gnawing on the sign so the park service hammered nails around the edge of the sign, leaving enough nail exposed to keep the bears from further munching.  Does a bear eat signs in the woods?


There was a great photo op of a Dall’s Sheep on the opposite side of the bus from me.  I already had pictures of one from a distance and was sp tired I tried to blow off this opportunity.  Two of our group would not let me.  So, after much nagging, I crossed the isle and saw how close the sheep was.  Dang! I got tremendous close-ups and told them next time to slap me if I tried to ignore such an opportunity.Click to enlarge the Dall's Sheep


A great trip! I have relived it many times while editing this story and my pictures.  One major theme smacked me in the face…sex….no, I should say breeding and the reproductive cycle…from young Orcas to chickadees flying to and from nest cavities to moose calves to suckling foxes to waterfowl and shorebirds on nests to fledgling Fox Sparrows to bear cubs to a Gyrfalcon feeding chicks to American Dippers feeding their young….and on and on…it was all about breeding.  I had never been to such a breeding ground….awesome!!!





The author, John Ennis, is a full-time healthcare consultant and a part-time birder, who is trying to reverse roles. 
He lives in the Wilmington, North Carolina area. 


Copyright ã 2005 by John B. Ennis



Additional photographs from this trip may be found at: