We had an early start and travled via a minibus to Denali National Park. We made a refreshment and rest stop in the village of Nenana (population 378). This village is the first Iditarod checkpoint and the origin of the dogsled relay in January 1925 that carried diphtheria antitoxin to Nome. If you are ever in Nenana, make sure to get a cinnamon bun at the small store there - best I have ever eaten, and they are famous for this treat. There were lots of adult and a few juvenile Cliff Swallows on the wires and flying about, Herring Gulls, and Common Ravens. I got a quick look at my first sparrow of this trip, but only saw it as it was flying away from me. It appears to have dark sides to its crown and the appropriate back and wing markings for a Golden-crowned Sparrow, but not enough certainty for me to add it as a life bird.
Denali National Park, July 14
We arrived at a small commercial area just before the entrance to the park, where we had lunch and time for a few photos of the magnificent scenery. We then traveled a short distance to the small train depot, where we had to board a larger (and less comfortable) bus to enter the park, along with others who were not part of our group. While we waited for the park bus, I saw juvenile and adult Dark-eyed Juncos and a few White-crowned Sparrows. These western (Taiga) White-crowned Sparrows have yellow-orange bills instead of the pinkish bills we see here in the east.
Near the entrance to Denali National Park.
Juvenile Dark-eyed Junco
Juvenile Dark-eyed Junco
Once we boarded the park bus, we started on the 91 mile, 7 hour bus ride to our lodge at the end of the road. The first 15 miles were paved and ended at a park campsite. Private vehicles are permitted on this part of the road, but only park approved vehicles beyond that on the windy and narrow, gravel road with sharp turns and steep drop-offs with no guard rails. The long travel time included four rest stops, stops along the way to view large animals, and stops for on-coming buses to make their way around some narrow curves of the road. I saw several small flying birds that I could not identify, and tried to take photos through the windows of the moving bus as best as I could. We saw a female and shortly thereafter, a male Northern Harrier, and one of my poor quality photos is included in the additional photos section at the end of this report.
Rachel must have had to hold her tongue and not say, "Just wait, that's nothing" when we spotted three Alaskan brown bears high up on a cliff. I'm sure that she didn't want to minimize our excitement.
Alaskan brown bears
We saw, and the bus had to stop several times, for caribou on and near the road.
I saw a Mew Gull at one of the rest stops. At another stop, the appearance of the mountains started to change. Rachel spotted a Golden-crowned Sparrow and came to get me to see it, but we could not re-locate the bird.
Rachel asked the bus driver to stop at a spot where she had seen a Gyrfalcon on a previous trip. Yaayy!! My first life bird of the trip.
At this same spot, we saw an unoccupied Raven's nest, and our first Arctic Ground Squirrel of the trip.
Arctic Ground Squirrel
Shortly thereafter, we saw a flying Golden Eagle, and I got a few photos through an open bus window.
I saw a bright rufous and white Willow Ptarmigan fly from a cliff near the bus, but the bus was moving and I couldn't get a photo. We also saw some very distant Dall's Sheep. These sheep are the primary reason Denali National Park was created as a wildlife refuge in 1917.
Near the end of the trip to our lodge, the terrain changed and we saw numerous small lakes that sometimes had waterfowl in them. At one point, I saw a large shorebird that was sitting in a shallow pond. It had the posture of a Godwit but with a white underside with dark streaks. I only got a quick look at it, and assume that it must have been a Greater Yellowlegs, but cannot confirm its attribution. I did see and photograph a few duck species through the moving bus window.
Female Black Scoters
Two of the ducks looked like juvenile Teals to me. I don't think that their dark bills were slender enough to be that of Green-winged Teals, and presume that they were Blue-winged Teals.
As we neared the lodge, we saw a female and two juvenile Willow Ptarmigans running along the side of the road, and they quickly disappeared into the brush before I could get a decent photo, but a very blurry photo is at the end of this report. The bus driver stopped where we might get a view of Denali, but it was completely covered by clouds.Click here to continue on the trip at Kantishna Roadhouse in Denali National Park