I'm always looking to visit a warmer location in the winter and a cooler location in the summer. Of course, opportunities for good wildlife photography is a key factor, and even more importantly, choosing somewhere that Alice would also enjoy is of the highest priority. We did a Natural Habitat Adventures wildlife tour to the Scottish highlands in May 2017, and both of us really enjoyed it, so we looked to see what other tours they might offer. Their Ultimate Alaska Wildlife Safari jumped out of their website! I had been on an Alaskan cruise many years ago, and Alice had never been to Alaska, so we booked the tour.
The main focus of this tour is to see the brown bears of Alaska, as well as Denali, the highest mountain in North America. Although all wildlife species are of interest to me, I especially enjoy photographing avian species, as there are so many to see. I spent several months studying all of the possible avian species that I might see there, and then compiled a target list of 41 avian species that I wanted to see, and researched the best locations on the tour where each of these species might be found. This target list included 33 life birds (species that I have never seen), 3 species that I have seen but never photographed, and 5 species for which I wanted either better or breeding plumage photos. My top 5 target avian species were Horned Puffin, Tufted Puffin, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Gyrfalcon, and Harlequin Duck. The first three are only seen in the northern Pacific regions. Gyrfalcons are primarily seen north of the United States, and only three times in all of the avian records of Virginia. Harlequin Ducks are common in Alaska, but rare here in Virginia, and have eluded all my attempts to see one.
Finding birds in locations other than breeding colonies might prove to be a challenge. In previous trips to Canada, even common species seemed to be few and far between. I suspect that the few roads where we could travel, combined with the huge expanses of good habitat, allows for birds to really spread out and not have to compete much for territory. I expected it to be the same in Alaska, and hoped to see at least 10 life birds on this trip. More than that would be a bonus. What I did not anticipate to see were juvenile birds of species that breed in the far northern latitudes, and that turned out to really be a treat for me.
We had been looking at weather information for the trip for a month before we left, and got concerned the last few days before the trip started. A large number of wildfires in Alaska had lowered the air quality in Fairbanks to "Hazardous," and "Very Unhealthy" in Anchorage. We left Charlottesville on July 12, changed planes in Atlanta and again in Seattle, and finally landed in Fairbanks at 1:30 in the morning on July 13. It was 5:30 in the morning our body time, and the excitement of anticipation for what would follow mitigated our tiredness, but only a little.
Fairbanks, July 13
Ultimate Alaska Wildlife Safari trip map
After getting a good night's rest, we had time to explore a bit in Fairbanks. The air was rather smoky, so we limited our time outside. One of the recommended sites there is the University of Alaska Museum of the North. It was really interesting, and the size of Alaskan brown bears became a reality for us. The brown bears are the same species as western grizzly bears, but there are a couple of big differences. Grizzly bears are primarily meat eaters, and can stand seven feet tall, while Alaskan brown bears are primarily fish eaters, and can stand nine feet tall. The museum had a preserved brown bear on display, and the size of these bears clearly can be appreciated.
In the afternoon, we took a short walk along the river near the hotel. I heard some birds in trees that I could not identify, and saw a yellow bird fly into tree foliage and disappear before I could identify it. But we did see a few Common Ravens and Rock Pigeons, and a few species along the river.
Mew Gull and chicks
Mew Gull chicks
Mallards and Mew Gull chick
That evening, we met the rest of the tour group. There were 13 of us, and our naturalist guide, Rachel Sullivan-Lord. Rachel is a marine biologist, and proved to be an excellent and highly qualified leader of our Alaskan adventure. She told us that only 30% of visitors to Denali ever get to see the mountain because of persistent cloud cover, and with all the smoke, our chances were reduced to about 20%, but we hoped for the best.Click here to continue on the trip to Denali on July 14