Alaska: Birds, People, and Science

    Posted on Tuesday, Oct 08, 2019
    Alaska. An endless wilderness. The last frontier. It captures our imagination with scenes of wild and powerful rivers, towering mountains, and abundant wildlife. It’s somewhere that many of us have dreamt of visiting ever since we were kids. I was no different! Alaska had thus far eluded me in my 27 years, even though I’d been fortunate to travel quite a bit elsewhere. This summer I finally got my chance- I had the opportunity to attend the annual conference of the American Ornithological Society (AOS) and present a poster on some preliminary results of my graduate research. Each year this conference is held in a different location in North America, and this year it was in Anchorage, Alaska. I stayed in an Airbnb for the conference with some friends from Cornell University and the University of Chicago. It was a quirky place (in a good way), conveniently located right along the greenway only a mile walk from the convention center that was headquartering the conference.

    Conferences of the American Ornithological Society are generally on the larger end for subject-specific scientific conferences, and this year was no exception. Just under a thousand people were in attendance, comprised mainly of graduate students and faculty from an incredibly diverse range of North American academic and research institutions. What a fantastic opportunity to meet cool new people! Texas A&M was well-represented, with at least seven of us from the Wildlife & Fisheries Department and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Program. Between us we had the opportunity to engage with numerous high-profile researchers in the fields of ornithology, ecology, evolution, and conservation through posters, talks, field trips, and social events. It was a great way to build connections, learn about exciting research taking place, and garner ideas and inspiration for our own projects. The conference itself was only the start of the fun though!

    Many attendees, including most other Aggie attendees, stayed a few days after the conference to explore. How could one make the trip to Alaska and not? Unfortunately, I had a wedding to attend immediately after the conference, so I had to amend by schedule accordingly. I instead chose to do my exploring on the front end of the conference- before the “festivities” kicked off. But first, a bit of background: along with a subset of other AOS members, not only do I study birds but I’m also an avid recreational birder in my spare time. What that means is that if I go to a new place, then you can bet your bottom dollar that I will be trying to observe, study, and photograph as many of the bird species there as possible. Alaska was certainly no exception! I managed to squeeze in four days of exploring before the conference, so I rented a car and developed a detailed plan to maximize my time that entailed seeing as many bird species as possible and visiting several places that have been high on my wish list. And with over 20 hours/day of daylight, there was plenty of time to explore and bird. Sleep was just an afterthought. I figured I could catch up on that upon my return to Texas- priorities, right?

    After flying into Anchorage, I headed south to the Kenai Peninsula where I would spend two days exploring and birding around the Homer and Seward areas. From there I would head north through Anchorage again and then up to Denali National Park, followed by a long loop east along the old Denali Highway. This would take me all the way over to the Valdez-Cordova borough before landing me back in Anchorage (counties in Alaska are called boroughs).  Exploring around the Anchorage area could be done in the early morning and late evening hours during the conference week, before and after the day’s events.

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    The Kenai Peninsula is arguably most famous for its salmon runs (and subsequent stellar fishing opportunities) and is also home to some of the most beautiful scenery in Alaska. Around Seward, towering peaks directly abut the rocky shorelines of numerous bays that border the Gulf of Alaska. Colonies of seabirds such as puffins, murrelets, and auklets nest on some of the rocky cliffs and are easy to see if you take a boat tour. Much of the land around here is protected by its designation as part of Kenai Fjords National Parks. Bald Eagles are seemingly everywhere- soaring overhead, perched atop a prominent snag, or dining on a fish or carcass along the shoreline.

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    Outside of Anchorage and the touristy areas of the Kenai and Denali National Park, there are very few people. Towns and villages are few and far between. Several hours of driving through unbroken boreal forest north of Anchorage finally brought me to Denali National Park. Six million acres of wilderness spoiled only by a single road. Yes please. It’s also home to North America’s highest mountain- Mount Denali, formerly known as Mount McKinley, at 20,310 feet. I had a full day to spend in the park and chose to spend it by exploring as many hiking trails as I could. The birding was good, with common taiga species such as Wilson’s warblers, white-crowned sparrows, and common redpolls everywhere. The scenery was breathtaking, and I even saw a couple moose. To access the most westerly parts of the park you have to take a park bus (there is very limited parking for personal vehicles so park administration long ago decided to implement this bus system instead), but since I had limited time I chose to remain in the more accessible parts of the park where I could explore at my own pace. I already have plans for when I can go back! One thing I’d like to do is bike the entirety of the 92-mile Denali road and then backcountry camp for a couple nights before biking back out again. This would be a great way to experience the whole park at my own pace and get off the beaten track at the same time- and all while getting in some good exercise too.

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    After visiting the park, I decided to drive the old Denali Highway. 135 miles of unpaved gravel road that traverses through some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever come across. So remote, with nary a human structure to be found along the whole road with a couple of rustic lodges and cabins the only exceptions. From a birder’s standpoint, this is a special place because of several noteworthy bird species that can be found here. It’s arguably the best, most accessible place in Alaska (and all of North America) to find Arctic Warblers, a small olive-colored songbird that primarily lives in Asia. Smith’s Longspurs are also reliable at one spot along this road and are another species that’s highly sought after among birders. A scattering of small lakes and marshes along the highway were full of nesting ducks, grebes, and terns. I’d also see the occasional moose along the roadside or down in a willow thicket. At one spot I also stumbled across two Willow Ptarmigan, a cold-hardy chicken-like bird that’s the state bird of Alaska. And it was all I could do to resist the temptation to stop around nearly every curve to photograph the landscape! I took the equivalent of a full day to explore this road before making my way back to Anchorage where conference proceedings would begin the following day.

    The Anchorage area is in close proximity to a number of scenic and accessible public lands. Adjacent to Chugach State Park just outside of Anchorage, the Arctic Valley Ski Resort has miles and miles of trails that wind through the tundra up and down a number of ridges. What makes this place particularly intriguing to birders is the fact that one can (in theory) find all three ptarmigan species on site- Willow, Rock, and White-tailed. I made a couple of quick trips up here during my time in Anchorage. At one point we nearly stepped on a family of Rock Ptarmigan in the tundra- male, female, and four chicks. Another morning a group of 11 of us made the journey up and we witnessed an adult male Rock Ptarmigan doing a flight display and also got stunning looks at a male Willow Ptarmigan. It was vocalizing too, and for those that don’t know what Alaska’s state bird sounds like you should look it up! Guarantee you’ll be in for a good laugh.

    One of the birding highlights from the trip was a Falcated Duck- a Eurasian species of which a wayward individual will occasionally show up somewhere along the west coast of North America. The bird in Anchorage stayed for over two months, delighting the hundreds (if not thousands) of birders that were able to see it during the duration of its “visit”. It made a temporary home in Potter Marsh, a roadside wetland sanctuary on the south side of Anchorage. It’s a big place, and admittedly the bird was not always easy to find. It in fact took me three tries of stopping by there before I finally saw it- a group of 3 us were out there together when the bird finally became visible from behind the marsh grass. So, why’s this bird so special? Although it is a pretty attractive species, it looks kind of like a Mallard- so aesthetically not really a big deal. Its significance lies primarily in the fact that it’s an extremely rare species that only shows up anywhere on the North American continent every few years. As a birder, I was inclined to make the trip and see this wayward individual if I at all could. From a more scientific perspective, studying vagrancy patterns in migratory birds could potentially give us clues to any population shifts, range shifts, or effects of climate change.

    In total I ended up finding 125 bird species during my time in Alaska, hiked close to 100 miles, and managed an average of only 3-4 hours of sleep a night with the nearly perpetual daylight. I came back with a multitude of new personal and professional connections from the conference and I’m already looking forward to going back next year- which will be in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Exposure to so many diverse presentations also gave me exciting ideas for my own research and sparked a couple of potential future collaboration opportunities. And it is truly hard, if not impossible, to overstate Alaska’s natural beauty. It was every bit as beautiful, wild, and enchanting as I had imagined!

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    ---Michael McCloy
    Michael McCloy is a Ph.D. student in the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences


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