Category Archives: Birding

Birding and Blooming on the Denali Highway

On our last trek to Alaska, we somehow missed the Denali and Richardson Highways and the region called the “Interior”.
Yah. I know. I don’t know either.

Our plan this time is to spend more time in different regions, settling into an area and really exporing it for a week or two, rather than just cruising through and skimming the surface.
So, having by-passed this region last time, this time it was on our A-list. Good choice.We found a great boondock spot in Paxton on an old highway road alignment right near the junction of the Denali Highway and the Richardson Highway.

Paxton Boondock Camp

Paxton Boondock Camp

It had a wheeler road for hiking up to a higher elevation. A little muddy in spots, and a place where you really want to have that bear spray ready.

Ric Foot and a Bear Print

Ric Foot and a Bear Print

During our stay here we were richly rewarded with absolutely stunning scenery, beautiful wildflowers, glaciers and great birding all in one package.

Gulkana Glacier and Summit Lake

Gulkana Glacier and Summit Lake. Taken from the Denali Highway. Dimmed by Smoke from the Many Fires that Were Burning in Alaska – But Still Beautiful.

The Richardson Highway runs all the way from Fairbanks to Valdez. We accessed it from Delta Junction at the end of the Alaska Highway, and then headed southwest toward Paxson and the junction of the Denali Highway (Route 8). (If you were to follow the Denali Highway all the way, it would take you to the town of Cantwell, which is just a short distance from Denali National Park.)

Interior Alaska Map

Map of Interior Alaska Region

We found an excellent boondock site conveniently located near the Richardson/Denali Highway intersections. It was on an old section of hardtop that paralleled the highway, but was abandoned for a highway re-alignment. It was a bit mosquitoe-ey, but that is to be expected in Alaska, and besides, we are fairly used to dealing with mosquitoes from our time in Maine.

"Mosquitoes" at Delta Junction

“Mosquitoes” at Delta Junction

One of our first explorations out on the Denali bought us to a great roadside rest with interpretive signs. This one picture pretty much explains why the scenery is so spectacular…

Diagram of Alaska Range Geology

Diagram of Alaska Range Geology. Yep. That’ll do it.

This area is, of course, riddled with faults. You can’t just push mountains into the sky without some sort of payback. The Denali fault produced a 7.9 magnitude earthquake in 2002. It’s probably overdue. But we only think about that constantly.
At about 13 miles out on the Denali Highway we came to a BLM rest area. There was a hiking trail across the road so we decided to explore. The path quickly rose into alpine tundra. Luck was with us as we soon encountered another birder (named “Dan”) who was a board member of Audubon and did birding walks for members. He gave us a lot of his time and wonderful advice about what birds to look for in the area… plus some excellent tips on binoculars for birding. We really appreciate his taking time for us. It just turns out that this location (13-Mile Hill) is one of the primo birding hikes in this area.

Ric on 13-mile Hill

Ric on 13-mile Hill

We would come back to this trail again in a few days, and between the two hikes here, plus one at Landmark Gap, we managed to bag most of the birds he mentioned, including American Golden Plovers, Lapland Longspurs, and Arctic Warblers. (The Ptarmigan are a gimme in Alaska.) Thanks again, Dan!

American Golden Plover

American Golden Plover on 13-mile Hill.

Rock Ptarmigan?

I’m leaning toward “Rock Ptarmigan” for the ID. Please comment if you disagree!

We really hit the wildflower timing right on this trip. June and early July  are a good time to catch them in bloom. We have taken many photos, and are working to ID them using an excellent wildflower guide we recently purchased. We’re not always thrilled about every field guide we purchase, but this one is a good one:
Field Guide to Alaskan Wildflowers: Commonly Seen Along Highways and Byways

Book - Alaskan Wildflowers

Alaskan Wildflowers by Verna E. Pratt. I Love This Book!

One of Linda’s goals this trip is to create an album of Alaska flower reference photos for future botanical paintings. Here are a few highlights of the kazillion floral pics we taken. We’ll post the best of the rest in a Flikr album, and add to that as we go along. As always – feel free to correct us if we screw up an ID!

Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala)

Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala)

Pink Plume (Polygonum bistorta)

Pink Plume (Polygonum bistorta). An easily identified edible plant. Leaves may be eaten raw or cooked.

Nagoonberry (Rubus arcticus)

Nagoonberry (Rubus arcticus). Love that Name!

Here’s the link to Linda’s Alaska Flower album on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/34102695@N00/sets/72157656113830226

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Filed under Alaska Journal, Birding, Hike, Uncategorized

Cross Canada Plains to Alaska 2015

Ric is Ready to Drive the Alaska Highway

Ric is Ready to Drive the Alaska Highway

We had figured on taking about three weeks to cross Canada from the Sweetwater/Coutts border crossing to the US border at Poker Creek. We’d be taking the “plains” route  through Calgary and Edmonton, rather than the “Icefields Highway” that we took last time (in 2011).

As we crossed the border from Sweetgrass, Montana to Coutts, Alberta our young Canadian border officer raised his eyebrows when we said we would be three weeks crossing Canada.
“Three weeks?” he queried. “The truckers can do it in 3 days!”
“We’re old” we said. “We move slow, we only travel 180 miles a day.”
“Ah, OK then, I guess that works out about right if you visit some Provincial Parks.”

Turns out the young man was right. Three weeks was a bit on the long side, especially since we didn’t stay at any Provincial Parks. It only took us a week to get to Dawson City, where we lingered a few days to goldpan in the Klondike. In fact, we stayed at no campgrounds at all across Canada, boondocking the entire way (right about 2,000 miles).
We didn’t spend a single loonie on camping.
We didn’t miss out on the sights, however, at least not the ones that are important to us. Like this GIANT beaver in Beaverlodge

Giant Beaver in the Town of Beaverlodge

Giant Beaver in the Town of Beaverlodge

and plenty of roadside wildlife through the Canadian Rockies…

Stone Sheep along the Alaska Highway

Stone Sheep along the Alaska Highway

Mom Moose and Baby Crossing the Alaska Highway in Canadian Rockies

Mom Moose and Baby Crossing the Alaska Highway in Canadian Rockies

The WalMart boondock RV camp in Whitehorse was the most extreme we had ever seen. Three-quarters of the lot was filled with overnighting RVs. Lots of RV-er dinero being spent inside from what we could see (including us!). Bless you WalMart!

Whitehorse WalMart RV Overload

Whitehorse WalMart RV Overload

A special treat was the Yukon river trail, right across the road from where we parked our RV at the edge of the WalMart lot. The islands on the river host the largest nesting colony of Mew Gulls in the Yukon. We had a nice break walking the trail after a day of driving.

Mew Gull Sign in Whitehorse

Mew Gull Sign in Whitehorse. The Gulls Have Added a Few Artistic Touches.

Mew Gull - Nesting and Preening

Mew Gull – Nesting and Preening on an Island in the Yukon River, Whitehorse.

From Dawson City we took the ferry across the Yukon to the “Top of the World Highway.” We only had to wait about fifteen minutes for the ferry to come back across the river,and then we were on our way…

We crossed the border at Poker Creek, on June 9th, well ahead of schedule.

Inukshuk Management Near the AK Border

Inukshuk Management Near the AK Border

Poker Creek Border Crossing Station

Poker Creek Border Crossing Station. The Most Northerly Land Border Post in the USA.

Poker Creek Border Crossing

Poker Creek Border Crossing Stamp. A Nice Touch!

From there we made it to the Taylor Highway and started to scout around for a suitable campsite, somewhere in the Jack Wade Creek area. The BLM allows public gold panning for a considerable distance along the Taylor Highway in this region. As luck would have it, we found an idyllic “back-in-off-the-road” site, right along the creek. It was more level than a lot of campsites that we have paid good money for, and we were ready to stay in place for a few days for R and R. We did a little panning, and found several wheeler trails nearby for hiking, as well as a maintained trail (rare in Alaska) to the Lost Chicken Creek Dredge.

One of the Last Groomed Trails We Will See in Alaska!

One of the Last Groomed Trails We Will See in Alaska!

Ric Hiking Near the Taylor Hwy

Ric Hiking Near the Taylor Hwy

We also put the canoe in the water on the South Fork of the Forty-mile for a short paddle, and saw this rather incredible sculpture in the boat launch parking area. It is made up of debris and wreckage taken from the river…

River Debris Sculpture. Flotsam from South Fork Forty-Mile River.

River Debris Sculpture. Flotsam from South Fork Forty-Mile River.

We stayed five days at the site, during which time we were blessed with blue skies and warm temperatures. It has been a warm and dry spring here and it is beginning to show in the water levels in the creeks, and in the forest fires burning across the state. The streams are surely looking bony. The trout, who liked to spend time in a nice deep pool nearby have started to move down stream. Probably an instinctual move to get to deeper and colder water. Lin spent a few pleasant afternoons panning for gold in the creek.

Lin Panning for Gold along Jack Wade Creek

Lin Panning for Gold along Jack Wade Creek

We decided to move downstream as well – onward to Tok where we can get a phone signal and touch base with friends and family, before moving on to the Denali Highway in the Alaska Interior.
But we couldn’t go to Tok without stopping in Chicken to see THE Chicken…

Muddy Rv at Chicken, AK

Muddy Rv at Chicken, AK

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Birding: Paint Box Colors on the Arizona Trail

We were looking for a short hike while staying a few days at Pine Grove Campground near Lake Mary (which is near Flagstaff, AZ). So we checked out our maps and discovered that there was a trail head for the Arizona Trail on a nearby forest road. The surprise for the day was that it was a fabulous area for birding.

The open meadows edged with pine and dotted with juniper and sage were muted earth tones, but they were splashed with flying primary colors right out of an artist’s paintbox.

There were Western Bluebirds…

Western Bluebird Out on a Limb

Western Bluebird Out on a Limb

and amazingly intense Male Mountain Bluebirds…

Male Mountain Bluebird Perched on a Branch

Male Mountain Bluebird Perched on a Branch

Brilliant Male Mountain Bluebird

Brilliant Male Mountain Bluebird

and slightly more subtle females.

Female Mountain Bluebird Eating a Fat Caterpillar

Female Mountain Bluebird Eating a Fat Caterpillar

There were brilliant Western Meadowlarks both high…

Western Meadowlark Singing at the Top of a Pine

Western Meadowlark Singing at the Top of a Pine

and low…

Western Meadowlark Foraging in the Grass

Western Meadowlark Foraging in the Grass

Western Meadowlark in the Grass

Western Meadowlark in the Grass

All in good numbers, and all in a relatively short span of only a few miles.

There were, of course, many of the more conservatively clad avian representatives, striving to keep a lower profile.

Lark Sparrow Just Blending In

Lark Sparrow Just Blending In

It’s always fun to stumble upon a little birding hotspot when you least expect it. Kind of lifts your spirits if you know what I mean.

Thank you little dinosaurs!

 

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Scaled Quail Video – Rockhound State Park

Friends and family have already seen this little video we made while at Rockhound State Park in Deming New Mexico, but we wanted to post it here as well for the bird lovers on wordpress.

Rockhound is a gimme for quail. Both Gambels’ and Scaled Quail run around like little chickens in the barnyard. It is one of the things that brings us back to this park again and again. We just never get tired of watching them, along with an abundance of other birds who call the park their home. Enjoy. And get yourself over to Rockhound if you want to see quail!

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Birding and RVing and Citizen Science

Over the years we have met some very avid birders in our RV travels, and while we enjoy watching birds and trying to figure out who’s who among the birds we encounter, we never really made a concerted effort to master the art and science of birding.

Curve-billed Thrasher Perching on Yucca

Curve-billed Thrasher Perching on Yucca

Recently while visiting some friends who are excellent birders (talking to you – Shorty and Hazie!) we decided that the movie The Big Year would make a nice birthday gift for Hazie. So we tracked it down. We had also wanted to watch it ourselves – so it was one of those “everybody wins” kinds of gifts. “The Big Year” stars Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson, a stellar lineup. The supporting cast includes three of our favorite actresses, Angelica Huston, Rashida Jones and Diane Wiest – quite a cast! (The last we heard, our friends had watched the movie three times!)

The movie was based on a book called The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession, and it follows three men on their pursuit of a Big Year, a competition to see who can identify the most species of birds in a given year. We are in the process of reading it right now and it is a very entertaining book. (Can’t wait to finish this blog post to get back to it!)

Anyway- back to us. The movie made an impression. Not that we could ever aspire to such lofty heights as a BIG YEAR, but as we are traveling the country we are exposed to many more species than usual. Couldn’t we become better birders with some level of concerted effort?

We weren’t sure. It seemed like birding required a photographic memory or some alien level of recall that neither of us could muster:
–> Birding seemed to require a good memory for connecting bird names to birds. We do not have good memories.
–> Birding seemed to require observing fine details and being able to bring a similar species to mind to contrast and compare details. Again “meh” on the memory.
–> Birding seemed to require that you could remember and differentiate among bird calls and songs. Again – the memory challenge seems to be the issue here. We’re getting low on memory, and battery too, for that matter.

Enter the internet.

Lin had been tooling around various internet resources, trying to ID a rather gregarious robin-sized bird, and a rather dramatically marked sparrow-like bird that could sing up a storm here at our campsite at Oliver Lee State Park. She came upon two very important websites and an App that can run on smartphones.

The first site was AllAboutBirds.org, a Cornell University (School of Ornithology) site that had remarkably easy and effective search features for identifying birds. It made figuring out these birds, (which turned out to be a Canyon Towhee and a Black-throated Sparrow), seem like child’s play.

While exploring this site there were, of course, some interesting “Google Ads” to be seen in the sidebar.
One of them was the Sibley Birds of North America.  Hmmm. An app. Maybe this would help in field identification too.

The Sibley eGuide App

The Sibley eGuide App

$19.95 later, Linda was trying out the app in our campsite. She decided that although it was the MOST money she had ever spent on an app, it was also worth every penny, and it worked amazingly well on her aging Android. When Ric returned from town a little while later, she demonstrated the app by “calling in” the black-throated sparrow:

Black-throated Sparrow

Black-throated Sparrow (singing)

The little guy proceeded to serenade us from a nearby perch, allowing us to photograph him.

While the song-playing feature is a useful tool, there is a lot of discussion in the birding world about the use of such “disturbing” techniques in the field. Sibley has an excellent post about this on his blog that fairly presents the pros and cons of the technique. We could see that it had an immediate effect, and I plan to use the feature from time to time, but also understand that moderation is best. I think one way a birder can use the technique is to employ headphones in order to play the birdsongs in juxtaposition with what he or she is hearing in the field. The novice can learn – but nobody else (other birders or the birds themselves) would be disturbed.

It is hard to understate the quality of the illustrations by David Allen Sibley.  He has a skill for creating illustrations that show off the important defining characteristics of the birds. The illustrations are far better than photographs, which often don’t portray color well – or miss an important feature due to the position and the momentary posture of the bird. The Aha! moment came when we realized that this tool could become our “portable” field memory and help us overcome our personal memory shortcomings so that we could become more proficient birders.

So Ric downloaded the app on his phone too.

Later in the day Lin found another website (also by Cornell Lab of Ornithology) that is a citizen science project for birders. The website is eBird.org, and you can learn how to take your birding observations and do them in such a way as to contribute valuable data for scientific research. eBird is amassing one of the largest and fastest growing biodiversity data resources in existence, reporting millions of bird observations each month! Their help pages guide you through the process of how to conduct observations and submit them to the eBird database.

That was the icing on the cake – we love doing “Citizen Science” projects.

So there you have it. We are officially “birding”now. We think we’ll get better at observing with consistent practice and mutual support in our efforts. But more importantly, we are sure that this is one more little thing that will enrich our lives and keep our brains from ossifying any more quickly than necessary.

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Filed under Amazing Critters, Birding, Citizen Science, Uncategorized