The alpine tundra was spongy beneath my feet and rose up in clumps and mounds from the permafrost action. Occasionally I had to maneuver over or around dwarf birch bushes. I pulled the hood of my windbreaker over my fleece cap to block the chilly breeze against my neck. A thick fog was moving across the tundra. It was 7 a.m. and we were searching for longspurs that were preparing to nest.
One of the only accessible places to see Smith’s Longspurs in breeding plumage is near milepost 13 on the Denali Highway. Our trip leader Mark Garland, as well as Barbara Jean, had ventured out on the tundra first to scout the bird’s location, and then whispered into the two-way radio for us to join them.
Because my pace is slower, I envisioned the longspurs flushing as the others arrived ahead of me. However, Mark asked the rest of the group to wait a short distance away until we were all together. The longspurs seemed unperturbed as they busied themselves with scrounging in the grass.
Our first find was a male Lapland Longspur. As he foraged, he would pop up on a bush or tussock to scout his territory, which gave us great views. Lapland Longspurs occasionally wander through northeastern New Mexico in the winter, but they look like a drab sparrow. In its breeding plumage, the male is quite striking with his black face and chestnut nape.
As we watched, a male Smith’s Longspur appeared. It had a buffy-golden chest with black on its head. It is not a territorial or monogamous bird, and did not have the same behavior as the Lapland Longspurs. It was worth the early morning outing in the cold to be able to see this uncommon bird. Now that I had seen it, I could buy and proudly wear one of the Denali Highway Cabin’s t-shirts that sports a Smith’s Longspur on it.
As we tramped across the tundra, we kept stopping in amazement to examine the flowers that were beginning to push their heads through the permafrost. “These plants are adapted to take advantage of a short growing season,” Mark explained. “By mid-August, there may be snow again.” The alpine tundra plants tend to be matted against the ground to protect them from the wind and have dark colors to better absorb heat.
Our base of operations on the Denali Highway was the Denali Highway Cabins. Owner, Audubon (Audie) Bakewell IV, and one of the author’s of the Alaska Bird Finding Guide, went with us into the field one morning.
“There are only two routes across the Alaska Range,” Audie told us. “That goes for birds, as well as people,” he continued. “On June 10, yesterday,” he clarified for those of us who had lost track of the date, “the Arctic Warbler winged its way through Isabel Pass, the end of its journey that began in the Philippines where it spends the winter.”
In less than 24 hours, the male Arctic Warblers had staked out their territories and were busy displaying to protect those territories and attract a mate.
Above the tree line the lakes were in various stages of thaw, some still pretty much covered with ice.
Despite the cold, Orange-crowned, Wilson’s and Yellow Warblers, Golden-crowned and Fox Sparrows and Gray-cheeked and Hermit Thrushes were already active in the low willows. When I stood still, the air was filled with an orchestra of melodic bird song.
A variety of waterfowl swam languidly in the thawed ponds, including Long-tailed Ducks and Trumpeter Swans, as well as favorites that winter in New Mexico.
A Semi-palmated Plover had already laid her eggs – in the gravel on the side of the road. We unknowingly pulled over near her nest. She tried to distract us by bobbing away from the nest area, then finally resorting to her injured wing routine. Other shorebirds nesting in the area included Whimbrel and Lesser Yellowlegs.
A Willow Ptarmigan, Alaska’s state bird, scurried off the road, weaving in and out of the bushes, as we drove by.
As we headed back to the cabins, we stopped to look at caribou grazing and a Golden Eagle on his perch atop a rocky outcropping.
That evening we donned rubber boots for a float trip along the Gulkana River. As we floated along, Audie and Jenny gave a running narrative on the geology and avifauna. A group of Harlequin Ducks scurried ahead of us, and then finally flew off. They were replaced by several Red-breasted Mergansers and Barrow’s Goldeneye.
“This river is fed by the Gulkana Glacier and is important to the life cycle of the Copper River Salmon,” Audie explained. The salmon lay their eggs in the gravel created by the glacial melt, which are then fertilized and protected by the males until both the male and female die. “When the salmon die, they make an ecological contribution to the soil of the river,” he added.
Several species of sandpipers also lay their eggs along the banks of the Gulkana. We saw them feeding all long the willow-lined banks as we floated along.
As we rounded the bend in the river that leads into Paxson Lake, three Arctic Terns were perched atop the bare branches of a dead spruce.
And, as we drifted into the lake two Trumpeter’s Swans swam languidly.
As I lay in the cabin that night, I pondered how lucky I was to visit the interior of Alaska, where few tourists venture.