Monday, September 19, 2016

Alaska 2016 - Days 1 & 2 - Denali National Park

Ok, so it's been awhile since I've posted.  Close to two years actually.  I apologize for that, but a trip to Alaska seems like a great way to come back.

On the evening of Thursday, September 8th, my mom and I found ourselves finally landing in the Ted Stevens Airport in Anchorage.  For about 10 hours of flight time and a few hours of layovers, I had been studying field guides and dreaming of the life birds I would see on this trip.  Most of these would come on St. Paul Island a few days later, I figured, but still there were quite a few possibilities in and around Denali National Park where we would be spending the next day and a half.  With this in mind, I was primarily looking at my Sibley Guide to Birds and leaving the Rare Birds of North America in the bag.  I was studying the plumage details of the three species of Ptarmigan, Northern Pigmy Owl, Boreal Owl, Arctic Warbler and other species that we might have a chance of seeing.

Our friends, we already waiting for us at the airport when we arrived.  They had flown in the day before and had a rental car all set up.  We threw our luggage in the vehicle and headed toward Healy.  Just outside of Anchorage we ticked our first notable bird for Alaska - an American Kestrel that was hovering over a field near the road.  After a quick stop in Wasilla for dinner we continued on to Healy, stopping at a lake along the way to scope some Trumpeter Swans.  After checking into the cabin we would call home for the next couple of nights, we all went right to bed.

The next morning we awoke and scoped the lake outside of the cabin to find more Trumpeter Swans, Greater Scaup, and American Wigeon.  A Belted Kingfisher was also buzzing around the lake giving off his rattling call.  A few Dark-eyed Juncos were around, but not much else.

We headed into Denali National Park in order to hike the Mount Healy Overlook Trail.  This trail is roughly 4.5 miles round-trip with some decent elevation changes (1700 ft, if I remember correctly).  It ranges from boreal forests at the base to rocky, alpine tundra near the summit.  We figured with only a short stay in Denali, this was our best chance of hiking through many different habitats and seeing as many bird species as possible.

As we worked our way through the Spruce near the base, we almost instantly started hearing finches and chickadees.  The finches turned out to be mostly White-winged Crossbills.  In fact, this was probably one of the most prominent species we would see on the hike.  Mixed in with them were White-crowned Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Black-capped Chickadees and Boreal Chickadees (a life bird for my mom).

Boreal Chickadee

White-winged Crossbill - Adult Male and Female
White-winged Crossbill - Adult Male - Eating spruce seeds.
White-winged Crossbill - Adult Male
White-winged Crossbill - Adult Male
I had made the comment when we started out that this looked like Spruce Grouse habitat and it wasn't long before we ran into an adult male.

Adult male Spruce Grouse
Once we started moving again we noticed that there was also a young male just off the trail as well.

Young male Spruce Grouse

Shortly after starting out again we heard Gray Jays calling and it wasn't long before they found us (if you're not familiar with this species, yes, they find you).  We would run into many more along the hike.

Gray Jay
American Tree Sparrows began to show up along the trail as we climbed higher.  The biggest surprise was probably this Ruffed Grouse though.

Ruffed Grouse hanging out at high altitude
We later learned that the Ruffed Grouse in this area were all introduced.

Once we arrived at the top we searched for ptarmigans, but came up empty.  A couple of Townsend's Solitaires were hanging around, so that was pretty cool.  We could hear dogs barking back along the trail, which seemed odd considering to the best of our knowledge dogs are not allowed on trails in National Parks.  It turns out these dogs were aggressively jumping and barking at every person they came across, but the owners were kind enough to explain to everyone that dogs were allowed off leashes on the trail.  It was nice of them to share the info, although, when we ran into a ranger back at the trailhead later he was happy to let us know that they were wrong.  Dogs are in fact not allowed on National Park trails leashed or not.  In fact, they had already had so many complaints at the visitors center that the ranger was there dropping off a warden who was about to hike up the trail looking for the couple to ticket them and escort them out of the park.  They also had a helicopter doing something near the summit already, so it was now on the lookout for the couple so it could help the warden catch up with them.  Exciting stuff.

Here are a few images from Mount Healy Overlook.

Nothing new presented itself on the hike back down.  We had enough time after the hike to drive to the 12 mile mark - the farthest they let you drive in unless you are camping further on.  We did run across a couple of Caribou on the way.  They were shedding the velvet from their antlers as you can see in the follow photo.


After arriving at the end, we hiked a short ways up the road and found a few Dall Sheep on the side of the hill.

Dall Sheep

Nothing exciting was happening there otherwise, so we drove back a short ways to the Mountain Vista Trail.  Here I witnessed an incredible spectacle as somewhere around four thousand Sandhill Cranes flew overhead in the space of a little over an hour.  It was incredible.  The cranes were so thick that they were easy to spot in the scope, which meant we were able to share closeup looks at them with many of the non-birding visitors.  Also exciting was sharing a Northern Hawk Owl with visitors.  Everyone seemed to enjoy this bird, birder or not.  I can't, for the life of me, imagine why.

Northern Hawk Owl
Here is a look at the Savage River with some mountains in the background.

We headed back to Healy for dinner after this but returned to the 12 mile mark the next morning to look for Ptarmigan again.  Along the way we noticed that there wasn't a cloud in the sky - something that is unusual for Denali.  As rounded a turn we noticed Mt. Denali itself in the distance.  We would stop and view it many times along the way.  Here are a few photographs to show how much larger it is than other peaks in the area.  Keep in mind, it was much further away than the surrounding peaks you can see in the photographs.

When we arrived at the parking area at the 12 mile mark again, we started hiking up the road.  There was much less traffic this time because we arrived early in the morning.  We noticed a raptor making quick flights around the spruce trees on the peak next to us.  It was hard to pick out cleanly because it kept dipping behind the trees, but eventually landed on the top of a spruce a short ways off.  We had just gotten it in our scopes and binoculars for a few seconds when a bus pulled up and stopped in a position to block our view.  The bus driver opened the window and informed us that there were moose back up the road a little ways.  He must have noticed the annoyed looks on our faces because he sped off (relative to what a bus is capable of anyway) rather quickly.  Note to any tour bus operators out there - if you come across a group with spotting scopes and binoculars all raised and pointed in the same direction, just go on by.  There is a good chance they are more interested in what they are already looking at then what you feel you need to point out to them.  Once the bus left, the bird was gone and not to be refound.  However, we had gotten a good enough look at it to safely identify it as a Gyrfalcon.  It was a life bird for some in our group.

A few American Tree Sparrows were all that we saw along the road, so we started heading up into the tundra and spruce trees toward the peak.  Just after leaving the road we noticed another large raptor flying down the mountainside below us.  This one had the clear flight pattern of an accipiter and it was big.  After looking through the binoculars we were able to confirm it as a Northern Goshawk.  I have seen this bird a few times, but this is one of the few adults I have encountered.  Pretty cool.  We headed up into the tundra farther, but didn't make it too far before we realized it was time to head back and check out from the cabin.  There never seems to be enough time in Alaska.  However, we were far enough in that we decided it was easier to walk parallel to the road rather than turning back toward it.  This meant more time in the willow thickets that might reveal a ptarmigan.  Thankfully, just as we almost back to the road we flushed a bird.  It sounded like a Ruffed Grouse flushing, but the extensive white in the wings revealed it to be a ptarmigan.  It stopped a short ways away and hid below a spruce.  We were able to observe and photograph it from close range to reveal that it was a Willow Ptarmigan, which is what was expected in that habitat anyway.  This was my first life bird of the trip.

Willow Ptarmigan

Willow Ptarmigan
On our way back to the vehicle, we did run into the moose that the bus driver was so kind to point out.


Eventually, another would join it and they would both cross the road in front of us, much to the delight of many of the tourists who had gathered by that point.  And the sound of machine-gun style shutters going off filled the air.

Moose (Meese?)

This essentially ended out stay in Denali National Park.  I had hoped to pick up two or three life birds here, but had to settle for one.  Oh well, it was a great adventure anyway and I certainly didn't go away disappointed.

We made a few stops on our way back to Anchorage to look for American Dipper and American Three-toed Woodpecker, but all we really found was a few Common Mergansers alongside a "creek" that in Michigan would be considered a pretty good-sized river.

Common Merganser
Once we made it back to Anchorage we ate a quick dinner (the last non-cafeteria style dinner we would have for a while) and got into our hotel rooms.  The next morning we would catch our flight to St. Paul Island.  Stay tuned...

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

It's About Damn Time!

Somehow, I realized this evening that it is already February and I never did an end of year review for 2014.  In fact, I haven't submitted a post in a very long time (more on that later).

2014 was an interesting year.  I had no intentions, when I began the year of doing a big year in the state of Michigan.  I had set a goal of 250 species in the state for the year, but that was it.  In July, as I was already approaching 250, I was visiting a friend downstate and he casually mentioned to another birding friend that I was doing a big year, so decided why not?  In the end I ended up seeing 287 species in the state, which I consider to be not too bad considering I also have a full time career.  The last bird of the year was a Common Eider that was hanging out in Grand Haven.  Here is a picture of it.

And here is also a video of it.

I apologize, but that will be all of the photos and videos for this post (for reasons I will discuss later).

I've spent a lot of time in January thinking about my big year.  I can remember in October I was riding along with a birding friend I met this year, having dropped another friend off in Manistee after viewing the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in Ludington, and as we discussed the big year I told him I found myself at that point wondering "why in the hell am I doing this?"  Well, that's pretty much what I have been thinking about and now I am going to discuss that very question.

I can sum up the experience with three "e"'s - exciting, expensive, and exhausting.  It was an exciting year because, well, I saw 287 species in Michigan.  Forty-four of them were life birds for the state.  I haven't bothered to figure it out, but I'm sure that many of those were also life birds.  Some of them were super exciting as well - Black-headed Gull, Ruff, Costa's Hummingbird (in Michigan anyway) and Berylline Hummingbird top my list.  But there is no doubt that all the driving around, sleeping in hotels, and eating on the road were very expensive.  In fact, I believe I probably spent somewhere around $10,000 last year doing this.  There is a certain guilt I feel thinking that that money probably could have gone for better purposes.  Not to mention the environmental impact of all the driving.  Yikes!  And, as I said, it was exhausting.  There was hardly a day on the weekends when I wasn't waking up at 4AM or earlier to get on the road.  I spent some weekends crisscrossing the state numerous times.  And some weekdays I would travel for hours after work to see a bird only to get home well after midnight and wake up early the next morning to go back to work.  When January 1st came around, I felt a deep sense of relief.

I will say there were other benefits along the way.  One of the greatest, was the friends that I met along the way.  Weather from Manistee, Beaver Island, Holland, Ann Arbor, Charlevoix, Marquette, Traverse City, Kewadin, Frankfort, Saginaw, Harbor Springs, or wherever else in the state, you all made it more exciting and less exhausting and I thank you.  There are a lot of wonderful people in the birding community and it was nice to meet every one of you and I hope to see you all in 2015!

Now this is the part where I will get very introspective.  I had planned to spend a lot of time in 2014 looking at birds, what I didn't realize is just how much time I would spend looking at myself.  In many ways my big year was therapeutic.  All those hours on the road allowed me plenty of time to face events from my past going all the way back to my senior year in high school (I don't even want to think of how long ago that was now).  Events that I have never been able to fully understand.  Events that I have now come to realize shaped me in more ways than I ever expected or would have cared to admit, contributing to me becoming bitter, cynical, insecure and distant.  I now realize I have had difficulty making new friends ever since high school and for the last few years I have been distant even from those friends who I have known for decades.  To those friends I offer a sincere apology.  There really is no excuse and I hope to reconnect with many of you in the near future.  2014 was a year of both happiness and sorrow.  I laughed a lot, I cried a lot, and I learned a lot.  I'll have a long way to go to erode all the years of bitterness, but I plan to embark on that journey in 2015.  For those of you who know me, whether it has been for decades or days, I only ask that you please bear with me.  I have no illusions that this is going to be easy, but I think it is time to tell all those things from my past that are holding me back to fuck off!

So where does that leave 2015?  So far this year, I have spent very little time birding.  Most of the birding I have done has been as a field trip leader.  I expect that I will spend significantly less time birding this year, although I'm sure it will pick up a bit in the spring.  I hope to engage in many other outdoor activities this year that I always wanted to try in the past but never did or never did enough of.  It's also time to get my ass in shape.  Sitting behind a desk for hours every day is not so great for health.  So bring on the running, hiking, swimming, snowshoeing, and lots of other ings!  Another goal is to be able to get a group of young birders in Northwest Michigan meeting on a regular basis.  This, I can already tell, is going to be a monumental challenge, but I hope it will work.  I think, for bird conservation's sake, that it is important that my generation get excited about birds.  One of the things I noticed while driving around the state meeting birders, is that very few of them were my age.  Michigan has a great group of Young Birders, but now I want to grow the interest among us Young(ish) Birders.  My hope is that it can grow in Northwest Michigan and then catch on in other regions.  Will this become a reality?  Only time will tell.

This may be the last post for quite a while.  Like I said, I haven't been doing a lot of birding this year, but the real reason is that my internet service provider is no more, so I am on a capped service that only allows me a limited number of GB per month.  And when uploading photos and videos (that's what you all really come to the blog for right?), eats away at that cap very quickly.  I will try to post now and then, but forgive me if they don't come quickly (what's different about that though right?).  Also, for those of you who have been keeping up with this, thank you. But I will apologize for the quality of the writing.  I spent so many hours proofreading my thesis years ago that I sort of lost the taste for it.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Northern Hawk Owl and Krider's?

Saturday, I decided to spend the morning birding in the Eastern U.P. again after a report of a Northern Hawk Owl came in.  I was also hoping that I might find an Iceland Gull at the Dafter Landfill.  I picked up my mom and we headed to where the Hawk Owl had been sighted and found it relatively quickly.

On the way to the landfill we also found a nice flock of around 150 Bohemian Waxwings.  It's nice to see so many of them around this year with all of the field trips I'll be leading up that way this winter.  The landfill was closed but we scoped the Gulls that could be seen from the side of the road and came up with one Glaucous Gull and one Great Black-backed Gull in with hundreds of Herring Gulls.  We didn't have a lot of time left, but did manage to find two more Snowy Owls for the year along 7 Mile Road.  Here is the one that was sitting closest to the road.

Sunday was the day of the Petoskey Christmas Bird Count.  It was foggy in the morning and there were not a lot of birds moving.  Still, my mom and I managed to pick up 36 species on the day including a Glaucous Gull and a late Common Grackle.  I didn't have a lot of time for photography, but here are a couple of birds we saw.

Downy Woodpecker

Red-breasted Nuthatch

However, the most interesting bird of the day was a Red-tailed Hawk that we saw about five times throughout the day.  What is so interesting about a Red-tailed Hawk, you say?  Well, it just so happens that this one appears to belong to a subspecies that is quite rare in Michigan called the Krider's Red-tailed Hawk.  If accepted by the Michigan Bird Records Committee, as far as I can tell, it would only be the second accepted record for Michigan.  Here are a few horrible quality photos and a quick slow motion video of the bird.

Tuesday I helped out with the Cheboygan Christmas Bird Count.  It was rainy all day long and the birds were responding by staying deep in cover.  We managed 32 species, but we had to work for them.  Early on we had a White-throated Sparrow, but I think the most exciting part was when we saw six Great Black-backed Gulls on a single sheet of ice.

Another local birder reported finding a Snowy Owl along Burgess Road on Saturday, so on Monday after work I spent some time looking for it.  This is the road my parent's live on and I grew up on, so I still kind of consider birds seen in or from their yard to be my yard list (since my own yard doesn't attract many birds).  I knew that the bird was found in an open field about a mile down the road from my parent's and this is exactly where I found it.  I was meeting friends to play cards with my parent's at their house that evening so I continued down the road to their place.  When I left around 11PM, as I was pulling out of the driveway my headlights lit up an address sign for the neighbors house, and sure enough, there was the Owl sitting on top of it!  Another species on the yard list.

I went back this evening after work to look for the Snowy Owl again along Burgess Road, but did not find it.  However, on my way along Maple Grove Road I did come across one of our resident Barred Owls.

Well, that's it for now.  I'll be doing some more birding and another Christmas Bird Count this weekend, so check back for updates.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Birding Berrien

Last weekend I headed down to Berrien County with my Mom in hopes of finding both a Townsend's Solitaire and a Thayer's Gull.  Both birds had been reported there in previous days so I thought it might be worth the drive if I could pick up two new birds for the year in Michigan.  The fact that there had been a Ross's Goose hanging out in Holland was a nice bonus as well since it would not only be a new state bird for the year, but a life bird as well.

We arrived at Holland around 9:30AM and after a bit of driving around to figure out exactly where we needed to be, we found the Ross's Gull in a pond with a bunch of Canada Geese.  Here is a photo and a short video.

Ross's Goose with Canada Goose

After watching the Goose for a few minutes, we headed down to Warren Dunes State Park to look for the Townsend's Solitaire.  We found the area and spent the next couple of hours looking with no luck.  So we took off and went a few miles down the road to the New Buffalo Beach to see if we couldn't locate a Thayer's Gull.  After about twenty minutes of sorting through the numerous Herring and Ring-billed Gulls we finally located an adult Thayer's.  Here are a few photos of that bird.

Adult Thayer's Gull

Adult Thayer's Gull

Adult Thayer's Gull

Eventually someone walked by and scared the Gulls off.  Most circled around and landed again nearby, but some flew off over the lake.  The adult Thayer's must have been in the second category because we were unable to relocate it.  However, while attempting to refind it we did it we did come accross this first winter Thayer's.

1st winter Thayer's Gull

1st winter Thayer's Gull

1st winter Thayer's Gull

There was still a few hours of daylight left after this, so we headed back to look for the Solitaire again until dark.  Unfortunately, it never showed.  But considering it is December and new state year birds are getting very hard to come by, I can't complain about getting two on a single trip.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thanksgiving Weekend Birding

I spent most of my time this weekend, after Thanksgiving Day, birding around the state.  On Friday, my mom and I went birding in the Eastern U.P.  I found nine Snowy Owls between the Pickford and Rudyard areas.  Here are a couple of them.

We also spent some time at the Dafter Landfill.  There were plenty of Bald Eagles around as usual, although less Gulls than normal.  We did manage to pick out four Glaucous Gulls and a single Great Black-backed Gull, but no Iceland or Thayer's Gulls as we had hoped.

First Winter Glaucous Gull

First Winter and Adult Glaucous Gulls

First Winter Glaucous Gull and Adult Great Black-backed Gull

We were also fortunate to find Common Redpolls.

From there we headed up to the power plant in Sault Sainte Marie.  There wasn't much happening, but we did find nine Bald Eagles.

We then headed toward Dunbar Park where we were able to find Bohemian Waxwings and Pine Grosbeaks.

Bohemian Waxwings

Pine Grosbeak

On our way toward the Pickford area we located this late Sandhill Crane wading through the snow.

We were unable to locate any of the Short-eared Owls that have been seen near Pickford in recent weeks.

On Saturday we went down toward Lake Odessa to look for a reported Ross's Goose.  We saw around a thousand Canada Geese and a single Snow Goose, but no Ross's.  Other highlights include five Tundra Swans and a Ruddy Duck on Jordan Lake.

On Sunday, today, I spent the afternoon at a friend's house near Alanson looking for a Carolina Wren.  This bird has been coming to her feeder for almost two months now.  I spent all of last Sunday afternoon looking for this bird but it never showed.  I was afraid I was in for the same luck today, but luckily it made an appearance just as I was giving up hope.

This was my 283 species in Michigan since January 1.  With only a month left now, we'll see how many more I can add on before the year ends.