The Alaska Songbird Institute has a goal for people during their second annual “Bird-a-thon” : find as many birds as you can within 24 hours in Alaska. We, team MRI (Madi, Ross, and Ian), decided to take the task seriously! We started our 24 hour window at 8:00 PM by birding a range of Fairbanks hot-spots. From there we headed south along the Richardson highway with the goal of making it Paxson to bird the Denali Highway – a 134 mile stretch of wetland potholes and alpine tundra chock-ful of birds.
May 15th was the first day the Denali Highway was officially open, and much of the Denali Highway’s tundra was still covered in snow due to 3000′ elevation gain. Because of the low-productivity of snow-covered areas, we targeted melt areas and ponds. There were many, many species of birds. Some of them, such as red-throated loons were still passing through to breed on lakes further north over the Brooks Range, using the Denali Highway region as a “stopover” until the ponds further north were ice free. But, the site was not a stopover for most. Many of the birds were there to make a nest and raise young in the 24 hour light. The tundra is the summer home of many species which are found in vastly different habitats during the winter. For instance, the long-tailed jaeger is an ocean bird. During the summer they nest in the tundra and eat berries and small rodents. Quite a change from the fish they traditionally consume! Wilson’s warbler migrate to South America, and arctic terns migrate to Antarctica (the longest animal migration). In fact, the Alaskan tundra is so unique and special that birds from six of the seven continents can be found on it. For those that see the tundra frozen in the winter, it is easy to forget the tundra is a highly valuable and necessary ecosystem!
Aside from the birds, the scenery of the Denali Highway is never ending! The melting ponds and flowing rivers created a patchwork of light and dark across the land. To the north, the horizon was ragged like torn cloth with the mountains of the Alaska Range. In the twilight at 2:00 AM (because it no longer gets fully dark here), the Alaskan Range stabbed through the colors of the sunset and on bluebird days like the one we had its snow covered peaks starkly contrasted the thawing tundra and blue sky.
Along with the birds, there was plenty of mammals to see. By the end of the trip we watched well over 20 moose and probably 30 caribou. Arctic ground squirrels fed along the roadsides, and frolicked across the snow. The young animals of spring are out and about, and we enjoyed watching a red fox kit chew on some grass outside of its den after we returned to Fairbanks.
So, bringing it back to where it all started, why go birding for 24 hours straight? It seems that it might be a bit crazy (for instance getting about 3-4 hours of sleep). To understand that, you simply have to understand what I believe birding is. Birding is a chance to observe the natural environment either individually or with friends. An opportunity to go birding with a two great friends (we rock, MRI!) in a place as remote and diverse as Interior Alaska is a moment to relax and learn something new (essentially a guarantee); it should not be passed up. Even if observing wildlife is not for you, my definition of “birding” can be modified to fit almost any hobby. Don’t pass up opportunities to learn and be with good friends. After 24 hours, we identified 68 species of birds; a pretty remarkable list and I cannot wait until next year’s Bird-a-thon!