This post is a celebration of the beauty and invigoration fresh snow, and early winter days when a cold nose is not a drudgery. Instead, a rosy tip is acknowledged as punctuation to an exciting time as the season changes. During the early days of winter, fall has not quite relinquished its beauty. Animals and humans alike are fat-and-happy.
Setting the poetry and light thesis statement aside, to all who read this, beware! Winter is here in Alaska, and for my friends in the lower 48, it seems it will descend upon you in short order! On Thursday a friend and I left for the North Slope for some caribou hunting (Note : I can’t leave that story open ended. I was archery hunting, and was a mere 3 seconds from success on two occasions but did not have the chance to deliver the coup de gras on some keen caribou.) The trip over the Brooks Range was marred by sloppy roads and rain. My truck was caked in thick mud which was slippery to walk on, not to mention drive on. Fast forward 60 hours, and the trip south revealed 8 inches of snow 80 miles north of Fairbanks which had fallen in our absence. What a change, and so quickly! It is likely that winter is here to stay, temperatures are staying around freezing during the day and dipping to the lower teens at night.
The snow did bring some incredible beauty as only a first snow can. Rivers were still flowing, and the bending branches of snow-laden spruce leaned into river channels along the Dalton. On Wickersham Dome ghost-trees already heavy with their first layer of hoar frost for the year kept silent sentry.
I did observe a very novel phenomenon – I would love to hear if anyone has witnessed this before! Behold, the snowbow. On our drive home we were met by gray skies and the hills were wreathed in falling snow. However, at the end of the Dalton Highway the sun broke and the landscape was lit as far as the eye could see. A snow cloud hanging low to the north of us caught the rays and formed a snowbow. I have seen many sundogs, but had never seen a rainbow caused by snow crystals.
I will leave you with this northern hawk owl which was a great bird to see along the way. These birds are known for their boreal habits. They spend the days on spruces watching for rodents and can be hard to spot. This was my first time seeing this bird, although they do occur in Minnesota in the winters during owl irruptions (i.e. owls heading further south than their ‘normal’ range due to environmental or food conditions). The clip below is a short one of a hawk owl behavior, cleaning.
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!
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.
Fox Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Gray Jay, Wilson’s Snipe, Unknown Duck
Arctic Warbler, White-crowned Sparrow
Wilson’s Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Fox Sparrow, Unk. Raptor, Spruce Grouse and Polts, Raven