Welcome back, everyone! Today I will be telling you all about some birding I did a little bit outside of Long Island… ok, pretty far outside Long Island! I know this blog is primarily about the joy of exploring and birding the wonderful parks of this special island, but sometimes we all need a vacation. In the next few entries, I will be posting I will be telling you all about the three trips I took last summer. Today’s entry, perhaps the most exciting of which for me to fill you in on, was my family trip to ALASKA!
Well over a year ago my mother in law had come to us and pitched the idea of going on an Alaskan cruise with all of my husband’s family. Immediately we said no, not because we wouldn’t have loved to do so but financially it seemed impossible especially with my growing medical concerns at the time. However, after giving it a few weeks of serious discussion and thought we reconsidered. After all, when would we get another chance to have the entire family together for such an amazing trip?
So, in late June my husband and I, along with his mother, step-father, 3 brothers, sister-in-law, grandfather and grandfather’s girlfriend were all off for Canada to spend the night before boarding our Princess Alaskan Cruise! Now, of course, this is a family trip and the point is to spend time with each other having fun, making memories and being social… but anyone who knows me knows that there is no way I am going to Alaska and not getting some serious birding in! I skillfully combed through the list of offered excursions for the trip, selecting those that would give me the best chances of viewing some flying Alaskan wildlife.
Our first port was Ketchikan Alaska and mom, Steven, his step-dad and I were scheduled to take a Lighthouse, Totems, and Eagles boat tour. Onboard one of the groups two vessels, the Totem Princess or the Lighthouse Endeavor, visitors can capture pictures of Totem Bight State Park, Vallenar Rocks Wildlife Viewing Area, and the historic Guard Island Lighthouse. I could not wait for this excursion, I mean, eagles are right there in the title. They did not disappoint! The crew was absolutely amazing, pointing out Bald Eagles every step of the way along with several Seals and Guillemots. Along with being incredibly knowledgeable about the wildlife and the scenery we were being privileged to, the crew was just about as nice as they come; even going so far as to bring hot chocolate out to those of us insisting on staying on the outside of the boat’s cabin (me) to get clearer pictures.
Second Port day was set to be Juneau and Steven and I had decided on TWO excursions for the day. The first we would again be doing along with mom and we were all so excited, who wouldn’t be? We were off to independently explore Mendenhall Glacier!
Steven and I have always been more of the DIY type of people and the idea of an excursion without the large group of people following a tour guide around sounded great to us. Plus, by eliminating everything but a bus to take us to and fro the price point was just right. I feel like I am going to say this a lot but, this is one of the excursions I was most looking forward to. It was my chance to hike in Alaska, see a real glacier, be up close to a waterfall and probably get some great birding in at the same time.
Had I been feeling better we probably would have chosen one of the more strenuous hiking trails but the one we took was perfect for all of us at the time. It was enough of a walk that it got us all hot and exhausted while not risking anyone over-doing it. Songbirds called out all along the trail and most of the time I found myself disoriented wanting to look in every direction at once. This was hands-down one of the most picturesque places I have ever been in my whole life, with the crashing waterfall coming into view over one shoulder and songbird covered pines along the other.
Later that night Steven and I had chosen an excursion separate from the rest of the family. Honestly, I can’t say that I blame the others for choosing differently than us. They were all headed out on an evening whale watching quest with dinner while we were about to board a large yellow school bus into the woods for an Alaskan Salmon Bake. All I can say is, titles can be deceiving. I was honestly looking forward to this outing the least of all those we had planned. I do not eat fish, but the menu included a chicken option for those like me so I was fine with that, but I simply wasn’t expecting much. Wow, was I wrong! This turned out to be Steven and my favorite excursion of the entire trip.
After a short, narrated bus ride we arrived at Salmon Creek, where we would be enjoying our salmon bake. Live folk music played while we dined at seat yourself picnic tables out in the open air. Hot, buffet-style dinner was set up in the center of the dining area for us to self serve, with the intoxicating smell of wood fire grills permeating the air around us. I will be honest when I say that the food was fine but the experience was what I would come back for. The entire dining space was just a small clearing in a section of gorgeous woods beside a babbling stream. Small campfires burned randomly around us with piles of marshmallows for roasting and after only a short while we, and everything around us, were drenched in the scent of fire and pine.
After dinner, we were welcomed to stroll through the woods to explore the beautiful grounds. A server, seeing my camera, kindly recommended that we take the short walk along Salmon Creek, a salmon spawning stream, to a breathtaking waterfall and the remains of the historic Wagner Mine. The waterfall was exquisite, leaving us feeling as though we had stepped into a fairy story. Excitement spread within me as I snapped away photos of an unexpected lifebird, an American Dipper, bobbing about the rushing falls. One of the best parts of this experience, buses depart regularly to the pier so we were encouraged to stay as long as we liked.
The third day of excursions and how could it possibly get any better? Well, again we had sprung for two excursions and, even after all the birds and wildlife I had managed to see thus far, today was the day that we had booked an excursion solely devoted to viewing wildlife. Steven and I were solo from the family again this morning, we were in Skagway and we were off to our Alaska Nature and Wildlife Expedition. Now, right off the bat, we knew we had made a good decision because there is one major attraction in Skagway, the sled dogs! and nearly everyone on the ship was heading out on one of the many excursions to see the dogs. After all, if your goal is to see wildlife the smaller, and quieter, the group you are in- the better your chances!
We walked out to the meeting area for our group and, honestly, the good luck vibes began to wain for a moment when my eyes set upon our tour bus. A small blue mini-schoolbus that appeared to have seen many years before today, but I had been surprised before on this trip by first impressions and I assure you that we were about to be again! Our tour began following the route of returning salmon along the scenic Chilkoot River. Nestled between rugged glaciers and snowcapped mountains, our tour guides instructed us to be on the watch for brown bears, bald eagles, mountain goats, river otters, and salmon. From the moment we departed from the parking lot I don’t think my camera ever lowered from my eye as we passed families of Common Mergansers swimming along the stream, Bald Eagles perching on tree limbs beside the roadway, Mountain goats far up on mountainsides and then, something I truly was not expecting. Our tour guides voice came over the speaker, “there is a bear along the right side of the road beside the stream. We are going to pull over so you all can see.” About this time I am nearly bursting out of my skin with excitement trying to crane my neck to get the best photo through the small bus window when the doors open and we hear, “feel free to get out and take pictures.” Now, two things instantly went through my head, #1 these people are crazy. They just told us there is a wild bear next to us and then invited us out of the bus to see it. #2 WE DEFINITELY PICKED THE RIGHT TOUR! I cautiously stepped forward, inch by inch trying to photograph this once in a lifetime moment. If I saw nothing else from this point on, that was fine, I was satisfied! Looking around I soon noticed that our tour guide, Steven and I were nearly the only people outside, the others preferring the safety of the bus. This opened the window of conversation which unveiled that our tour guide was also an avid birder, now I had an ally.
Our next stop was a fish weir, where technicians count migrating salmon as they return. Then we made our way to Chilkoot Lake, where we set up powerful spotting scopes for close-up views of mountain goats in alpine meadows and nesting eagles. An invigorating nature walk beneath the canopy of magnificent trees and through an ancient muskeg was a fascinating chance to get in some more Alaskan hiking and experience a temperate rainforest.
Later that day we were again flying solo for our final excursion of the cruise and we were headed To The Klondike Summit. The majority of the family were booked to enjoy the White Pass Scenic Railway, however, the pricing difference between the two experiences was quite dramatic and so we felt comfortable with our choice. After all, our tour description said it followed along a lot of the same areas and sights as one another.
Once again, we lucked out! We boarded a large bus to find that only two other people had booked the tour, so that meant we were free to make stops to take photos and move around the bus for better views, basically do as we liked. I could not have hoped for a better experience. The best photos of our entire vacation came from this tour. Our tour guide was a walking encyclopedia, never stopping talking the entire time making for an absolutely amazing trip. He knew all the best places to stop for photos and made sure to stop for all of them, even going so far as to take our cameras and get photos of us for us!
The bus traveled through historic Skagway and along the Klondike Highway up to the West White Pass Summit in the St. Elias Range. This is the highest coastal range in the world, beginning on mainland Alaska extending into Canada. Driving along the Klondike Highway, we were privileged to one of North America’s most scenic mountain roads, paralleling the historic White Pass railroad into the interior. Our guide was sure to point out all the many sights along the way, including Dead Horse Trail, the old Brackett Wagon Road, Pitchfork Falls, and Moore Bridge.
Our final “port” was actually the piece de resistance in my eyes. We were headed into Glacier Bay National Park and I was up well before sunrise to stake out the perfect spot and be sure not to miss a single sight!
Wrapped in blankets I shivered watching the sunrise along the railing of the ship, pointing out the hundreds of Otters and Seals we would see throughout the day. Before long, the event I had been waiting the entire trip for flew by our view; Puffins! My favorite bird bar-none and the sight I had been dreaming of ever since I heard the words Alaska Vacation. From 4:30 am until the early afternoon I stood determined with my camera in hand, photographing the abundance of wildlife and jawdropping scenery, truly the cherry on top of a perfect vacation.
Now before I finish up with what I’m sure you are all waiting for; after all this is a birding blog first and foremost and I’m sure you would like to see which birds I managed to spot. Let me just take a few moments to say that this was the first cruise I have ever been on and I had the time of my life! This was an experience I will never ever forget and I am so grateful that I was able to enjoy it with some of the people I love most in the world. The ship was fabulous with entertainment for all tastes and ages. The crew was amazing making us all feel comfortable and special the entire time and I cannot wait for the opportunity to sail with them again! For anyone thinking of taking this trip, stop thinking about it and just do it. You will not regret it!
And now, what we have all been waiting for: 7-day cruise, 3 land ports, here is every bird I managed to find:
#2 American Dipper (Lifebird #1)
#4 Arctic Tern (Lifebird #2)
#5 Bald Eagle
#6 Barn Swallow
#7 Barrow’s Goldeneye (Lifebird #3)
#9 Black-legged Kittiwake (Lifebird #4)
#10 Bonaparte’s Gull (Lifebird #5)
#11 Canada Goose
#12 Common Merganser
#13 Common Murre (Lifebird #6)
#14 Common Raven (Lifebird #7)
#15 Dark-eyed Junco
#18 Glaucous-winged Gull (Lifebird #8)
#19 Great Blue Heron
#20 Horned Puffin (Lifebird #9)
#21 House Sparrow
#22 Marbled Murrelet (Lifebird #10)
#23 Mew Gull (Lifebird #11)
#24 Pacific Loon (Lifebird #12)
#25 Pigeon Guillemot (Lifebird #13)
#26 Pine Siskin (Lifebird #14)
#27 Red-throated Loon (Lifebird #15)
#28 Rock Pigeon
#30 Song Sparrow
#32 Surf Scoter (Lifebird #16)
#33 Swainson’s Thrush (Lifebird #17)
#34 Tufted Puffin (Lifebird #18)
There you have it. A seven-day cruise, 36 different species of birds, 18 of which were lifebirds for me. How could I possibly ask for better? Until next time my friends, stay healthy and Happy Birding!