Birding Alaska from a Cruise Ship
Wednesday, 31st July 2002
Arrive in Anchorage 4pm, pick up the Avis car and head for the Hotel Captain Cook, where my husband's business meeting was being held. After unloading our luggage we drove to Potter Marsh at the southern end of the Coastal Wildlife Refuge, along the Turnagain Arm, south of Anchorage. It was a glorious sunny evening and we stayed there for a couple of hours, watching the shorebirds, gulls and ducks, and also the salmon that were making their way up Rabbit Creek, flowing through the middle of the marsh.
Thursday, 1st August 2002
Birdwatching Tours of Anchorage picked me up at the hotel at 8am. They have a comfortable minibus, seating about 12 people, but there were only 4 of us that morning. Our guide/driver was very informative and took us to some places in Anchorage that I would never have found on my own. The first stop was at Westchester Lagoon, where the first bird seen, a Greater Scaup - was a lifer for me! Also seen here: Red-necked Grebes on floating nests, Common Loon, Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper, Mallard and Herring Gulls. The next stop was on a section of the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail near the mouth of Chester Creek, which overlooked the Knik Arm of Cook Inlet. The clear weather gave us a good view of Mount McKinley in the distance. Here we saw an Alder Flycatcher - my 2nd lifer, and a pair of Steller's Jays, in the trees by the trail. Out on the mudflats, there were Short-billed Dowitchers, Mew Gulls, Arctic Terns and Mallards. We then drove to Lake Spenard, a docking area for most of the float planes in Anchorage, and saw more Greater Scaup and Red-necked Grebes, plus a family of Common Goldeneyes. At the fourth stop, we found a pair of Pacific Loons on Delong Lake, making my 3rd lifer of the day. Apparently, this pair of loons has nested here annually for the last 11 years, but have never successfully raised a brood, due to predation of the young by Bald Eagles.
Drinks and snacks were provided mid-morning, while we looked down on a couple Sandhill Cranes on a section of the Coastal Wildlife Refuge, bordering the Turnagain Arm. We ended the morning at Potter Marsh, just south of Anchorage, where a Bald Eagle's nest was pointed out to us. It was only visible through a spotting scope, which our tour leader had carried along the boardwalk. Just as we were leaving a juvenile Bald Eagle was seen soaring overhead, being mobbed by ravens. Just south of Potter Marsh is the HQ for the Chugach State Park, and whilst stopped here for a few minutes, we had great views of a Common Redpoll (see top of page), which popped up right in front of us while we were actually watching a female moose and her calf! At the end of the 4-hour tour we were dropped off at our respective hotels. This was a great introduction to birding in this Alaskan city and I would highly recommend it to anyone who has never birded in Anchorage. [NB: as of June 2004, I think this company has ceased to operate, as their website is longer on the Internet, and e-mails are not being answered]
After lunch I returned to Westchester Lagoon with my cameras and scope to see if I could get some digiscoped photos of the Red-necked Grebe on her floating nest. Unfortunately, by this time of the day, I was trying to photograph into the sun and my first attempt at digiscoping away from home, was not very successful. A little work in the digital darkroom, has salvaged one image (see top of page). The warm weather had brought out lots of people and boaters, so I would definitely recommend an early morning visit to this lake.
Lesser Yellowlegs and Mew Gull photographed at Potter Marsh, Anchorage on 31st July, 02
That evening we had dinner in the 10th floor restaurant at the Hotel Captain Cook. We had a great view of the Knik Arm of Cook Inlet and were able to watch a pod of Beluga whales passing by quite close in to shore.
Friday, 2nd August 2002
I had researched the Eagle River Nature Center on the Internet, before arriving in Anchorage, and decided that, as the weather was perfect (clear, sunny and unusually warm for Alaska in August!) this was my birding spot for the morning. The 25-mile drive north on Glenn Highway (Hwy 1) took about 40 minutes. There was a $5 daily use/parking fee at the Nature Center, which had an excellent Visitor Center. The docents advised me on which trails would be the best for birding and also, which ones to avoid. I was alone and would have to be careful of bears, which were beginning to come down to the creeks now that the salmon were running. I was told to make plenty of noise and did in fact come across a couple using a bell to warn the bears of their presence. Hardly the best way to bird, but I value my safety and would rather not meet face to face with a bear in his territory!
The Rodak Trail (0.75 miles), which was recommended as the most suitable for me, descended from the ERNC Visitor Center (above right) through mixed woodland, to a small lake formed by a beaver log dam (above left and center). This lake had been formed on a tributary of the Eagle River, and there were great views of the 7,000 foot peaks. The beaver lodge was visible in the center of the lake, and the beaver dam could be seen from one of the two boardwalks. The Rodak Trail led into the historic Iditarod Trail (also known as the Crow Pass Trail) which continued eastwards along the valley from the lake. It is a 26-mile one-way route to Girdwood, so I only continued through the woodland as far as Four Corners, about 1 mile from the Visitor Center, specially as the next section was labeled "Bear Meadows"!!
Although I didn't see many birds at ERNC, the scenery was beautiful and the wild flowers and butterflies made up for it. On the lake there was a family of American Wigeons and some Mallards, and a pair of Belted Kingfishers were roosting in a dead pine tree by the beaver dam. In the woodlands Black-capped Chickadees were common and I was pleased to find some Boreal Chickadees, which were my only lifer of the day. Other passerines seen were: a Lincoln's Sparrow, 2 juvenile Dark-eyed Juncos, 4 Yellow-rumped Warblers and an Alder Flycatcher.
I drove back to Anchorage, staying on the Seward Highway (#1) through the city, to make another visit to Potter Marsh. This time I went to the southern end first, turning left into Potter Valley Road and then turning left again into a gravel parking area to turn around. There is not much view of the marsh from here, but by returning to the Seward Highway north, you can find a small pull-in right on the edge of the marsh (center photo in the Potter Marsh section above). Here I spent some time digiscoping the gulls, before driving back towards Anchorage and turning right where the signs indicated Wildlife Viewing/Potter Marsh. Here there is a parking lot and access to the long boardwalk out over the marsh. I carried the scope and cameras to the very end of the boardwalk, in the hope of spotting the Ruff, which had been reported on the RBA for a couple of weeks. However, on chatting to another birder there, I found out that it hadn't been seen for the last 4 days, so I took a few more photos before heading back to Anchorage. New birds here for today, were a pair of Common Snipe flying in to the center of the marsh, 3 Savannah Sparrows and a Downy Woodpecker heard in the trees by the parking lot.
After dinner that evening, we walked around Anchorage town center and down to the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail - a 13 mile walking and cycling trail which begins at the western end of 2nd Ave and follows the coastline south to Kincaid Park. On the coastal plain we saw lots of Canada Geese (photo below showing a goose with a numbered neck band) working over the mudflats.
Three views of Potter Marsh
Knik Arm of Cook Inlet from the Coastal Trail
The beaver log dam forming the lake
The lake and beaver lodge forming the small grass covered island
© Helen Baines 2003
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This page was last updated on: February 25, 2013
Canada Geese seen from the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, near owntown Anchorage. The goose on the left has a numbered neck band.
A Mew Gull, resting at Potter Marsh. This is a digiscoped image.
Some of the wildlife seen at the Eagle River Nature Center
L-R: female American Wigeon, Belted Kingfisher, Comma Butterly
Red-necked Grebe on her floating nest on Westchester Lagoon, Anchorage.
Eagle River Nature Center visitor's center