Alaska - August 10th-20th, 2007 - The quest for Dippers

Published by Mike Nelson (madbirder AT

Participants: Mike & Susan Nelson


We took a short trip to Alaska to enjoy the scenery and the wildlife, not knowing that they were in the middle of a heat wave and there wasn't much to see. A record 77 degrees while we were there seemed hot considering it should have been in the low 60's. We rented a vehicle and drove from Anchorage to Seward and toured the Kenai Peninsula, then back through Anchorage to Denali, from there south along the Parks and Glen Highway to Glenallen and south along Richardson Highway to Valdez and a ferry back to Whittier and back up to Anchorage. We stayed in B & B's some of which were great and others which were not. Gas is fairly expensive but not crushing except in places like Denali, it was cheaptest in Anchorage. We took the ABA Birders guide to Alaska, Nat. Geo. U.S. bird guide, a great guide by the way, and Seabirds: an identification guide, for the many days at sea or along a shore line. This turned into the quest for American Dipper which was one of my target birds and it turned out to be elusive even though we stopped at some prime spots for them. Overall the birding was pretty poor with some stops in prime boreal forest absolutly silent and low numbers when birds were seen. Mammal numbers were disapointing especially in Denali but overall scenery was stunning and the mountains were majestic.

Day 1. Anchorage: we woke early to full sunlight at 5a.m which weird, Black-capped Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Northwestern Crow and Common Raven, Steller's Jay, Black-billed Magpie all called from the garden at the B & B. From here we were collected and taken to get the rental car and we were off. I headed north the the Tony Knowles trail and stopped at a small lake on the east side to view a plethora of ducks, mostly Mallard and Gadwall with a rather small looking Canada goose which after a few looks and judging size by the female mallard right next to it apeared to be a Cackling Goose and with out the white collar was the minuta subspecies.

We drove over to the large lake to view Glaucous-winged Gulls and Red-necked Grebe ,which were common on most of the lakes in Alaska. We hit the Tony Knowles trail which lead out to the ocean front where more gulls and Short-billed Dowitcher probed the mud flats. In the pines along the trail a small group of Common Redpoll and a lone Bald Eagle peered out over the ocean.

We took the Seward Highway out of Anchorage stopping by Potter Marsh which was chocked with grasses but several Greater Yellowlegs circled us and a few ducks paddled around in some open spots but basically very quiet.

The ABA book said to stop at Indian Creek and look for Dippers, the first place we might encounter them, but there were none to be found under the bridge or along the banks. Plenty of salmon though. From here we headed south to the town of Seward where our B & B overlooked Resurection bay.

Day 2. After a good nights sleep I woke early in fairly cool weather and went onto the beach to scan the water and was greeted by several Marbled Murrelets and two Kitlittz's Murrelets along with some Common Murres. Some chirring from a spruce along the beach revealed a female Wilsons Warbler and several Lincoln's Sparrows. After breakfast we headed to the port and caught our 15 passenger boat out to the Chiswell Islands and along the Holgate arm to look for calving glaciers. The Chiswells were filled with birds but along the way we also got good looks at Alcids. Horned and Tufted Puffin, Black-legged Kittiwake, Glaucous-winged Gull, Common Murre, Pelagic Cormorant, Red-faced Cormorant, Murrelets, Black Oystercatcher, Pigeon Guillemot, Bald Eagle and 2 Rhinocerous Aucklet's were all seen out on the ocean along with Humpback Wales, sea otters, Dahl's porpoise and a Mountain Goat along the cliffs near the glaciers.

Day 3. With our land legs back under us we drove north to Tern Lake and found a pair of Common Loon nice to see in breeding plumage and a parking lot filled with magpies. We took the gravel/dirt road down along Skilak Lake and found Spruce Grouse ,a lone male, along the road and got quite close with the car and had some nice looks at the cryptic coloration. Down at the lake we found several Pacific and Red-throated Loons and in the parking lot four Grey Jays. At the top of the dirt road we pulled in to survey a lake and found a pair of Trumpeter Swans in the distance along the edge of the lake.

At the end of the dirt road we got back onto the highway and drove along further west. As we crossed over a bridge two Grizzly bear cubs in the river brought us to a halt and after viewing them from a safe distance across the river we headed back to the car and were met with a mixed flock of Boreal and Black-capped Chickadee. At the end of the peninsula we turned south along the coast and pulled in at Anchor Point and scanned the ocean for Sooty and Short-tailed Shearwater plus many more gulls. That evening we took the ferry across from Homer Spit to Halibut Cove seeing murrelets, gulls, Guillemots, Bald Eagles and what appeared to be a Long-billed Murrelet, the bird was in winter plumage and passed right by the boat just resting on the waves. The back of the neck was all black with no hint of white in between and the black on the face came to just below the eye. There are records of Brachyramphus perdix in these waters but not at all common. I had a great look at the bird and beleive it was a Long-billed. Out at Halibut Cove we enjoyed dinner and some whale watching from the cliffs above the village and saw Northwestern Crow, Belted Kingfisher, Bald Eagle and some mallards before heading back across the cook inlet with another close view of a Humpback as is sidled past the boat.

Day 4. It was cold and windy this morning down on Homer Spit but I did manage to see some White-winged and Surf Scoter out past the breakers though I didn't stay long as it was rather biting in the wind.

We headed north to Ninilchik to see the church and while overlooking the ocean I glimpsed several rafts of ducks so afterwards headed down to take a look. Both scoters were there with a Red-throated Loon and several gulls with 3 female Harlequin Ducks out scanning inland waters for food. Again heading north we stopped by Tern Lake and found nothing. Spending the night in Girdwood we headed north again the next day.

Day 5. Our first stop was at Indian Creek at mile 103 on the Seward Highway but alas no dippers. It was begining to rain so the birding didn't look promising. By the time we were heading north along the parks highway it had stopped but when we scanned big lake we found nothing. That evening we pulled in Talkeetna we nary a bird in sight.

Day 6. I woke early and went to look for Ptarmigans that our host said would be at the end of the lane but there was none to be found. Plenty of Chickadees and a lone Sharp-shinned Hawk which buzzed me at one point, to be seen. As I walked back up to our lodge a distant flyer cought my attention as I got bins to it I could tell it was a Merlin shooting across the horizon. Back at our B & B we had great looks at Mt. McKinley and a pair of Alder Flycatchers feeding thier young before we left. We were told to check XY lake for birds and Trapper Creek for Golden eye so we stopped at both. At XY Lake we had our best views of Red-throated Loon an adult and young were close by on the placid green water and over at Trapper creek we took a short hike down to the water where we got common redpoll and spruce grouse but no goldeneye at the creek.

In Talkeetna I scanned the river in two spots looking for Dipper but found none, the quest continued.

After lunch we drove north to Healy past Denali N.P. with several stops on the way first to get to the Susitna river which was blocked by constuction, so no Dipper again, plus several lakes which were devoid of life. I also stopped and checked at Byers Creek Bridge where Dippers had nested but only the nest was there, no Dippers.

We arrived in Healy at our B & B and unloaded our stuff and drove back to Denali to get our bus tickets for the next day, only buses can take you deep into the park after mile 15 you have to turn around. We did drive the first 15 miles and saw nothing but scenery and trees but at the turn around I found severl Willow Ptarmigan along the creek in the willows.

Day 7. I woke early again this morning and headed out to see what I could find. Several Fox Sparrows were calling in the dawn cool but not much else.

We took the bus into the park and saw some fantastic scenery and beautiful country side along the way. As we rose into the higher eleveations I saw my first Golden Eagle cruising the sheer faces of some of the cliffs. At Polychrome pass we stopped to get a break and I found several American Tree, Lincolns and Savanna Sparrow in the short tundra brush.

Back on the bus we passed several rock abutments and a falcon flew past the bus. Seen from the underside Susan first thought it was a Peregrine and she pointed it out as it raced past the bus up the hill. We waited and moments later it cruised past dropping below the level of the bus where we could see it's larger size and mottled grey back which said it was a Gyrfalcon. It came to roost on one of the the high stone outcrops and we got a good look at it from the road. As we sat back down and the driver waited a few seconds for all to get situated Susan again pointed to the side of the road. A Northern Shrike was perched low in the shrub and I got a brief glimpse of it before it dropped down the slope. Those were the birding highlights and on the way back we got a nice look at a Grizzly and a Caribou as it trotted up the road.

Day 8. Today was spent on other activities so I didn't do any birding except I did stop at Byers creek on the way to Sheep Mountain to check for Dippers, which again was a bust. Even Susan was getting frustrated.

Day 9. Did some birdwatching from our cabin this morning as it overlooked a glacier and steep cliffs behind. Several small flocks of Bohemian Waxwing kept me occupied and while I was watching them through the scope I heard a Varied Thrush which I saw fly into a distant spruce. I managed to get the scope on in and had a descent look at it before it flew off.

We drove from here to Glenallen scoping Spruce along the way and were finally rewarded with Northern Hawk-Owl which perched close and gave us some great scope views. We also stopped at several lakes and found Trumpeter swans and several ducks but not Arctic Warblers in the willows, it was just on the cusp of being late in the season for them but there was hope.

We stopped by the Worthington Glacier and found Yellow-crowned, Fox, Lincolns, and White-crowned Sparrow, along with Pine Siskin, Common Redpoll and Magpie in the parking lot.

On the drive into Valdez the guide said to stop at the salmon spawning view point to look for Dippers but there were none here. I also went behind the little ranger station and scanned the river there which looked perfect but still nothing.

Day 10. I got up early and loaded up the car and took a quick run up to the salmon spawning area for another look but still no Dipper.

We cought the ferry from Valdez to Whitter and spent 6 hours out on the ocean where I found plenty of gulls and alcids and a lone Pomarine Jeager with its classic two spoons tail as it passed close to the boat but with low clouds and cold winds not much was out.

In Whittier we timed the tunnel opening time right and got through quickly and on the road to Anchorage. We stopped again at Indian Creek but still no Dippers. My last hope was in Anchorage at two spots. The ABA directions had us turning all over, one way streets don't help, but we came out near the Elmendorf fish hatchery and I scanned the river with still no Dippers. I had one more shot about a mile down the road. The directions are in the ABA guide and led us to the right spot. I got out and scanned the creek and saw nothing. Not giving up I walked the banks past some willows and scanned the rocks protruding over the creek. Then there it was on some moss an American Dipper preening itself. My third Dipper, only two more to go, this was my target bird for the trip and this was the last place we could have seen it. We had to get dinner and catch a flight after turning in the rental car. Finally sucess.

Overall Alaska was beautiful country but I think the timing was off. Still some great birds and some new lifers. I think farther north in spring would be better or out in the Aleutians is better but that is a strictly birding trip and we were wanting to see more than that. The ABA guide is good for giving you ideas on where to find the birds but with all things like that don't expect them to be sitting there when you get there. Good luck and good birding.