Birds and Rainbows on the Denali Highway

This post follows Kassie and my pelagic bird trip to Seward. For our trip back to Fairbanks, we decided to bird the Denali Highway which extends 135 miles to connect Cantwell to Paxson. The unpaved road curves south of the Denali Range surrounding it with incredible mountains. The shrubby, tundra habitat is prime real estate for several arctic bird species rare to most other areas of the state.

During our 12 hours on the Denali Highway we observed behavior of many exciting birds. We also saw a few moose and heard from one other traveler of a wolf only a couple miles down the road. The road is a transect through one of the very remote areas of interior Alaska. The end of our drive was punctuated by full rainbows arching over the mountains. As the sun and the rain played across the landscape we observed lasting rainbows which waxed and waned. The birding for the day was incredible; each stop was filled with singing birds. The cutest moment of the day was a spruce grouse poult which jumped up along the road, and fluttered into a tree. After trying to hide in its branches, the little poult finally listened to its mother, who cooed and bobbed her tail until the young chick became brave enough to fly to her and its siblings. Along the way we encountered Arctic Warblers which are North America’s only “old world” warbler. Other populations of this warbler breed in Eurasia. We also were privileged to see many of the “Denali Highway Specials” including Gray-cheeked Thrush, Red-necked Phalarope, Long-tailed Jaeger, and Arctic Tern. Incredibly, Arctic Terns migrate 25,000 miles per year, earning them the longest migration of any bird award!

An Arctic Warbler trills from the top of its spruce tree to any females in the area.
An Arctic Warbler trills from the top of its spruce tree to any females in the area.

This video captures in timelapse the beauty of the rainbows, the cuteness of the polt, the joy of singing warblers and the scenery of the Denali Highway. I hope you enjoy!

This list has most of the species that we observed for the day. Of course there’s PLENTY of birding to do between each of the miles listed, but these are the spots we stopped at.

Milepost Species
127 Fox Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Gray Jay, Wilson’s Snipe, Unknown Duck
119 Arctic Warbler, White-crowned Sparrow
113 Wilson’s Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Fox Sparrow, Unk. Raptor, Spruce Grouse and Polts, Raven
105 American Robin
103 Immature Golden Eagle
90 Scaup, Ring-neck Duck
89 Ring-neck Duck, Widgeon, Gadwall, Yellow-legs, White-crowned Sparrow
81 Tundra Swan, Unk. Duck
80 Widgeon and Ducklings, Scaup, Northern Shoveler and Chick
74 Bufflehead, Ring-neck Duck, Rednecked Grebe
50 Ring-neck Duck, Mew Gull, White-crowned Sparrow, Arctic Warbler, Savanna Sparrow, Wilson Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Scaup
49 Mew Gull, Arctic Tern, Merlin, Red-necked Phalarope, Bufflehead, Ring-neck Duck, Tundra Swan, Blackpoll Warbler, Sandpiper, Wilson’s Warbler
40 Bank Swallows
36 Long-tailed Jaeger

 

A spruce grouse female calls to its barely fledged chick sitting in a spruce tree...
A spruce grouse female calls to its barely fledged chick sitting in a spruce tree…
... and the spruce grouse chick laid low in the spruce tree waiting for Mom to tell him the best time to scram!
… and the spruce grouse chick laid low in the spruce tree waiting for Mom to tell him the best time to scram!
Western Roseroot (Rhodiola integrifolia). This flower blooms in sub-alpine regions and is in the sedum family.
Western Roseroot (Rhodiola integrifolia). This flower blooms in sub-alpine regions and is in the sedum family.
A gray cheek thrush calls in its unique voice from the top of the spruce.
A Gray-Cheeked Thrush calls in its unique voice from the top of the spruce.
A Red-necked Phalrope stretches its wings
A Red-necked Phalarope stretches its wings. These birds breed in the Arctic and may migrate to Eurasia and to the southern hemisphere.
Mew Gull
A Mew Gull flies over a lake somewhere along the Denali Highway.
An American Widgeon female paddles along with her small children
An American Widgeon female paddles along with her small children. This was one of many families of ducks we observed on the lakes. Families of Widgeon, Northern Shovelers, Teal, and Gadwall were all observed.
Common Goldeneye Female
A Goldeneye Female wakes up from her nap floating on the lake.
Wilson's Warbler
A Wilson’s Warbler pauses briefly from grooming itself to take a look around. Their black cap and yellow body are beautiful!
Arctic Tern
An Arctic Tern sits on its nest. A Mew Gull was pestering this tern who was defending its chicks. The chicks can be seen in the video above. Arctic Terns’ claim to fame is they have the longest migration of any animal on earth. Incredibly they migrate from AK to Antarctica… 25,000 miles!!
The scenery of the south side of the Alaskan Range is never ending! Snow capped mountains are reflected in the waters and cut the horizon to the north at all times.
The scenery of the south side of the Alaskan Range is never ending! Snow capped mountains are reflected in the waters and cut the horizon to the north at all times.
Posing for a quick photo underneath the Roy G Biv.
Posing for a quick photo underneath the Roy G Biv.
A rainbow arches over the mountains along the Richardson Highway.
A rainbow arches over the mountains along the Richardson Highway.

13 thoughts on “Birds and Rainbows on the Denali Highway”

  1. A 12-hour highlight reel for the K & I Denali Tour. That phalarope photo is a sleeper, the concentrics she creates are so distinctive, it creates a photographic vividity, And the moving rainbow was something special. And I loved the body language of mama spruce. Another keeper trip to place in your Alaska memory vault. And the

  2. Work on that Brit accent and you can create you own version of “Planet Life”! I love there is a double rainbow over the two of you. Makes me smile:)

    1. :), there were so many rainbows this day that the first one was an “ah ha”! moment. And then next was an ah ha! And so on, and so on until we saw our last one! They were a treat!

  3. Your photos remind me of the ones in my “Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds”. Thank you, Ian.

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