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Monday, May 31, 2010

The Haines Highway

Location: Haines Junction, Yukon
Population: 589

Today we headed north on the Haines Highway, which takes you from Haines, Alaska to Haines Junction, Yukon. Don’t you think they could have come up with some more original names? The first part of the drive was along the Chilkat River, the wide, shallow river that hosts the thousands of bald eagles in the fall. Today, we didn’t see a single eagle in the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, but a walk along the riverside did turn up a red-breasted sapsucker, a pair of trumpeter swans, and loads of singing Wilson’s warblers. I also heard a faint hooting – maybe one of the grouse that are supposed to be common in these parts? Too far away to tell.

In one of the parking pullouts we scanned the mountaintops and located several mountain goats. Through the scope we could tell that we were looking at what they call a nursery band – mama goats, their kids, and adolescent goats. Some moms seemed to have two little ones with them! Nearby were several two-tailed swallowtails (Papilio multicaudata), and one decided to hang out on the dandelions giving me a chance to take some nice photos of it:

Onwards and upwards, into the mountains!

I hope you're not getting tired of the scenery, because I'm sure not. Check out what the view looked like from the highway in the Chilkat Pass:

While we were pulled over to take the above photo, we heard several interesting calls. One was the trilling call of a Wilson's snipe - what are they doing way up in the mountains? I had no idea this is where they hung out, but this is the second mountain pass where we've heard them. The other call was the hooting from before, but this time much louder and closer. A little hunting and we located the source - sooty grouse (year bird 188, NA life bird 323)! There were at least four or five of them in the area, and we saw two of them. It's a good thing we heard them, though, because that's the only way you can really tell them apart from the dusky grouse, which does tend to hang out a little further inland.

Just a few miles further down the highway and a white bird caught our eye. It looked much stockier than the gulls and terns also hanging out at the mountain lakes. Sure enough, it was one of the other species that I had hoped to see for the first time on this trip: a willow ptarmigan (189, 324)! There were many of them in the area, some of them even close enough to the road for a photo-op:

These chicken-like birds are pretty cool looking, with striking coloration and feathers all the way down to their feet. Their vocalizations are awesome, too, and we got to hear them! They sound very cartoonish and almost human. You have to hear this.

By the way, Dave, you sure you don't want to count your Florida species to make this year bird race tighter down the stretch? I knew I'd see some new species like ptarmigans up this far north, but I hadn't counted on picking so many of the "maybe" species from my original projected list as well! I think 200 species could be within reach on this trip, and we'll only be halfway through the year. Your US birds might push you over that mark already though, eh?

One of our other stops before reaching Haines Junction was to hike a rock glacier trail, which lead up and onto a giant rock pile that was formed when a glacier was pushing rubble before it. Up on top of the rocks someone had built an Inukshuk. We've passed several locations where people have started collections of piles and balanced rocks, including several other Inukshuks, but this one was my favorite thus far. It has style, and a great backdrop:

I just wanted to mention all the Canadian hotels we've stayed in are awesome in the fact that they have recycling bins in the rooms as well as trash cans. None of the US hotels are doing this yet! Plus the Canadian grocery stores charge you if you want a plastic bag. I like it.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Valley of the Eagles

Location: Haines, Alaska
Population: 2,271

Last night we decided that we are seeing northwestern crows (183) here in Alaska. Northwestern crows are considered by some ornithologists to be a sub-species of the American crow, the very first bird on my 2010 bird year list. I have to say I tend to agree, but officially they are considered separate species. Northwestern crows are supposedly the only crows on San Juan Island as well, but it's incredibly hard to tell. Here, however, they sound very different, and the northwestern crow is the only crow that's range map covers Alaska, so there you go.

This morning we saw some sea birds off the Skagway waterfront including a big flock of surf and white-winged scoters, marbled murrelets (184), pigeon guillemots, harlequin ducks, Arctic terns, and some scaup....way more active than yesterday!

Today the main order of business was taking the ferry from Skagway to Haines. We didn't think it would take very long, but it ended up being a ridiculously long process. I know a lot of people complain about the Washington State Ferry system that takes us to and from the San Juan Islands and I know it is far from perfect, but I have to say it is much better than what we dealt with today on the Alaska Marine Highway System!

It took nearly three hours to load less than 50 vehicles onto the high-speed ferry Fairweather. Maybe today was somewhat unusual, but the vast majority of the cars were RVs and trailers. Since this was a side-loading catamaran ferry there were two ninety degree turns required to board, and they had most of the RVs back on. Many of the drivers weren't the best at maneuvering their over-sized vehicles, and some required special additional ramps to avoid scraping bottom. It was, overall, amazingly inefficient. There were two RVs so big that they had to be pulled to the side and took extra time loading forward at the end. One man traveling by motorcycle commented that if you really need that much stuff, maybe you should just stay home. Hmm...something to ponder. This picture shows one of the longer trailers backing on, with two of the smaller RVs waiting in line. (To answer a question from a previous blog post - we're driving a car on our trip.)

Once we got underway, the journey was a fairly quick one as the ferry cruises at an amazing 32 knots. I spotted a couple harbor porpoise along the way - my first cetaceans of the trip with more to hopefully follow in the near future. Unloading was a little quicker since most vehicles got to go off forwards, and we still had the second half of the afternoon to explore around Haines. We took the time to drive the road up along Lutak Inlet, which was gorgeous. I'm soon going to run out of adjectives to describe the phenomenal scenery here in the north, but for now I'll just describe it as breath-taking. Jagged, snow-capped mountains, tumbling waterfalls full of snow melt, and greenish-blue rivers and fjords bordered by pine forests and fields of wildflowers. Wow.

The birding continued to be good along the shoreline here in Haines, as well. We saw several spotted sandpipers, another wandering tattler, and a single whimbrel (185). Over the course of the day we also confirmed that Haines lives up to its nickname of The Valley of the Eagles, as we saw eight or so. I want to come back here in the fall sometime when thousands congregate along the rivers to feed on the salmon runs, a spectacle that led to the creation of the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve about 20 miels from Haines. Here's a photo of the whimbrel:

At the end of the inlet the water narrows into the Chilkoot River, known for being a great place to watch grizzly bears feed on salmon later in the summer. No bears today, but the meadows had some fantastic wildflower blooms. So picturesque with the mountains in the background!

The most showy of the flowers were these Arctic lupine (Lupinus arcticus). They look similar to the lupine we see on San Juan Island, but how exotic they sound with the word "Arctic" in front of them!

In this same patch of wildflowers I saw an unfamiliar sparrow occasionally popping up above the grass. I was just about to give up on getting a good look when one landed right in front of me and confirmed my suspicions - it was a Lincoln's sparrow (year bird 186, NA life bird 322)! A little further along we got out of the car along the river and dodged the mosquitoes long enough to spot an American dipper (187), capping a great birding day with four more year birds added to the list.

It was time then to make our way back to town for dinner, and we had a great look at the town of Haines with the harbor in front and mountains towering behind. Several people told me before I left that Haines was their favorite town in Alaska, and I can definitely see why. Especially after the tourist town of Skagway it feels very homey, and the landscape is unbeatable. I think I'll have to find my way back here one day to spend some more time exploring, probably in the fall to see the the bald eagles and bears come for the salmon. So stay tuned, Haines....I'll be back!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Trains and Flowers in Skagway

Location: Skagway, Alaska
Population: 892

Today we had a full day in Skagway and we took the vintage White Pass and Yukon Railroad tour up into the mountains. We passed multiple waterfalls and gorges on our 20 mile, 2865 foot climb to the White Pass summit. This train route was built during the Klondike Gold Rush to connect the seaport of Skagway to the interior at Whitehorse, and the tour retraces part of this historic route.

The tour, like everything else in Skagway during the mid-day hours, in the summer season was swamped with tourists from the pair of cruise ships docked in the harbor. The cruise ships provide the lifeblood for the local economy here, and the main street through town is dedicated to souvenir shops and, interestingly enough, diamond and jewelry stores for daytime visitors. While I know a lot of very nice people who travel by cruise and met some nice folks from the ships today onboard the train, I have to say that after experiencing the cruise ship rush in Skagway I'm grateful we don't have that type of tourism to deal with in Friday Harbor!

After disembarking the train we drove over to Dyea, which was the beginning of the historic Chilkoot Trail that led from the coast to the Yukon goldfields during the Klondike Gold Rush. It's also a nice estuary habitat in the Taiya Inlet that we read was a good spot for birding. Aside from the three squabbling wandering tattlers (year bird 182), the birding was rather underwhelming, but there were some neat wildflowers around.

For me, going to a new region and trying to identify wildflowers is kind of like immersing yourself in a new language that you are barely familiar with. I learned about vascular plant families in a college course and started identifying local flowers in earnest last spring, but here everything is all different. I may recognize a plant as being in the violet family, but the species is entirely new to me. In some cases, I have no idea where to start! Luckily, I picked up a nice field guide for the region that has been helping me learn some new plants. This one that I discovered today is the Alaska violet (Viola langsdorfii):

This one I knew I had seen in field guides before but I had never found it in the field. It's the dwarf dogwood or bunchberry (Cornus canadensis). The greenish-white flowers are very distinct, which is nice when you're trying to identify a new wildlfower.

Tomorrow, we're off on the ferry to Haines, known for being a little bit off the path usually taken by the cruise ships. I've heard great things about the town, so in addition to getting out on the water for the first time this trip I'm looking forward to seeing the sights in this town!

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Stunning Klondike Highway

Location: Skagway, Alaska
Population: 892

Today we actually headed south along the Klondike Highway which connects Whitehorse of the Yukon to Skagway, Alaska. It's a good thing we didn't have as many miles to cover today, because we had to stop a lot to take in the breath-taking scenery. The road traverses the southern lakes region of the Yukon, so you're looking at a winding series of lakes surrounded by the boreal forest with snow-capped mountain peaks surrounding it all.

The wildlife was comparatively sparse today, though we did see a cinnamon phase black bear. We also saw our first Arctic ground squirrel of the trip, as well as our first mountain goats far away up on the rocky slopes. Not many birds to speak of, though as you'll see the landscapes more than made up for that.

Our first stop was Emerald Lake, which reflects all kinds of amazing greens and blues due to the presence of marl, or a calcium carbonate clay-like substance on the bottom of the lake that forms when limestone dissolves and reacts with the calcium in the water. The scene was completed by the eerie calling of a pair of common loons that nests on the lake, a sound that echoed off the hills and evoked a true feeling of wilderness. Listen to the wail call here if you're not familiar with it.

Our next stop was the supposed smallest desert in the world, measuring in at about one square mile: the Carcross desert. It wasn't a true desert, since we aren't in dry climate here, but it was very strange to see sand dunes in the middle of the forests and mountains. The sand was mostly deposited by the silt that dropped out of melting glaciers when the region was a lake formed by an ice dam during the end of the last ice age. The desert is in a small rainshadow, which has allowed a unique micro-climate to form here. There are several unique plant and insect species that live in this little desert-like area:

One of the best stops of the day was at Windy Arm, a branch of Tagish Lake that was not living up to its namesake today. The water was glassy calm, making for some amazing reflections in the water:

We then climbed up into the mountains where there was snow alongside the road and some of the lakes were still mostly frozen. This was especially amazing considering we were experiencing the warmest temperatures of the trip and record highs for the region in the upper 70s! I would never expected such warm weather up here at this time of year, but here we are wearing shorts and driving with the windows down through the Yukon.

Then, after seven days of traveling, we made it to Alaska! I'm amazed at all we've seen in Canada before arriving here: 87 bird species and 13 mammal species, including 16 black bears! Now, what will Alaska bring?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Into the Yukon

Location: Marsh Lake, Yukon
Population: 367

Yesterday, as we left Muncho Lake, were were still in the middle of what is considered by many to be the most beautiful part of the Alaska highway. We had several stops planned for early in the day, and one of our hopes was to see stone sheep - an animal I had never even heard of until this trip! It turns out they are a dark morph of the Dall's sheep that one of our field guides lists as living only in the most inaccessible regions of the northern mountains. It's hard to believe that's where we are!

We didn't have to wait long. We spotted a small band of sheep on a mineral lick where they are known to hang out, and also saw two close up alongside the highway, where they come to lick the salt off the rocks. The first picture shows an impressive adult male, and the second picture shows a female with a cockeyed horn licking the gravel:

Next up was Liard Hot Springs near the BC/Yukon border. The existence of these hot springs has made for an interesting ecosystem in the region as many plants and flowers that wouldn't normally grow here are found near this warmer region. It advertised itself as being the home for several boreal bird species as well, but in addition the ubiquitous Myrtle warbler and a few Canada geese, the only other species I saw was a rose-breasted grosbeak (178). We're a little bit early for the peak of the wildflowers, but there were several different species in bloom. I picked up a field guide for flowers of Alaska and northwestern Canada so after I've identified some of the species I'll share some photos here. In the meantime, I got to experience my first-ever dip in a hot spring! The water was much warmer than I expected - it felt like a hot tub! Very neat.

We had a lot of miles left to cover. Yesterday was actually one of our driving days where we had to cover the greatest distance. But there was too much to stop and see! We were lucky enough to see three different small groups of wood bison, a threatened subspecies of the American bison that originally lived all throughout the boreal forests. I was familiar with both the Dall's sheep and American bison before this trip, but I had no idea stone sheep and wood bison existed. I'm learning so much! The wood bison, like their plains counterparts, were heavily hunted, and at one point were thought to potentially be extinct. Currently, there are about 3000 of them living in northwestern Canada.

The picture below of a grazing wood bison shows another feature of the Alaska highway: the fact that it is mowed for 50+ feet on either side for most of its length. I'm not sure what the rationale is for this, but it does allow drivers to see animals before they might dart into the road. It also creates grazing habitats that several animals like to take advantage of, including the black bear. I know, I didn't think of the black bear as primarily a grazer either, but it turns out up to 95% of their diet is made up of vegetation. One of the managers at the inn we're staying at now explained that there are more black bears along the road now in the spring because they are eating all the dandelions. A traveler wouldn't see nearly as many bears during the summer months.

Many of the animals don't seem to have much of a fear of humans, either. (That doesn't mean this human doesn't have a healthy respect for these wild animals - I always remain in the car!) That allows for some pretty amazing photo opportunities with a zoom lens, like this close-up of a grazing bison:

The Yukon! Hard to imagine being in such an exotic, far-away sounding place. But yesterday we officially crossed into this northwestern Canadian province:

Soon after crossing the border you come to the town of Watson Lake, which is known for its sign post forest. It was started in 1942 by a homesick military worker helping to construct the Alaska highway who put up a sign with an arrow indicating the mileage to his hometown. It has now grown into a famous landmark with more than 65,000 signs of all types, such as city limit signs, license plates, and homemade signs including the dates and names of the visitors. It's pretty impressive.

The kilometers and hours continued to roll past until we neared our destination near Marsh Lake. A few miles before our turn off there was one more stop, for a porcupine! Every new species we see becomes my new favorite, so for now it's the porcupine. This guy had a very lumbering, comical walk and was very cooperative to sit up for this photo before waddling into the woods. I want to learn more about how a porcupine makes its living.

Today was a much needed day spent in the same place with no great traveling involved. That allowed for some catching up on sleep, some bird-watching, and a trip to Whitehorse. The highlight of visiting the province's capital city (which is home to two-thirds of the Yukon's residents at 21,000!) was a visit to the Yukon Brewing Company. I couldn't believe how busy it was there, with a steady stream of locals coming in to get their growlers filled up direct from the taps. The staff seemed to know almost every person by name, too. Funny!

The birds were surprisingly sparse, and I still haven't had any luck turning up a boreal chickadee, but I did add several species to the year list. The best find was our first arctic tern (179), a species I have only seen once before, back in 1996 on my first short trip to Alaska. I also saw a couple of shorebirds: the lesser yellowlegs (180) and a single least sandpiper (181). We also saw three gull species, the most of any day thus far: herring gull, Bonaparte's gull, and mew gull. Driving back from Whitehorse we got a quick glimpse of what was probably a gyrfalcon, which would be a life bird for me, but unfortunately the look was just too brief to be sure of the ID.

Tomorrow, we return to the US and reach Alaska as our destination is Skagway...

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Northern BC Rockies

No internet yesterday, so for now, here's an update I wrote from yesterday, Tuesday the 25th....

Location: Muncho Lake, British Columbia
Population: 20

Have I mentioned that British Columbia is huge? I know I said so yesterday but it really is hard to believe that we often transit through British Columbia on our whale watching trips out of Friday Harbor and that after four long days of travel we are still in this amazing province. I see on the map where we are, but it is hard to grasp being at 59 degrees latitude, with much further north to go! It does the soul a lot of good to see so much untouched land, and to think that we’re seeing the most developed of it on the only main highway for hundreds of miles around. Over the years we all see and hear a lot about the world’s environmental issues, and I don’t want to belittle them because I worry about them a lot, but today was a perfect example of how there is a lot of raw wilderness left, and that all has not been lost.

They call this region the Serengeti of the North and with good reason. Black bears. Mule deer. Elk. Moose. Woodland caribou. Caribou!! And this isn’t even Alaska yet. I am just awestruck at the sheer beauty of this place. I'll let the pictures do most of the talking, since they capture it for me better than words as this point.

For the first part of the day the highway look like this:

Along this stretch of highway we spotted another moose, and this time she stayed long enough for me to take a photo:

Soon we started our climb into the Rocky Mountains, and for a while it seemed like there was wildlife around every corner. Elk - like this mom and her youngster:

We saw five black bears. This was my favorite photo from today:

We saw a couple of woodland caribou. I really didn't expect to see caribou until Alaska if at all, and I didn't know there were two types of caribou (the other type is the barren ground caribou). Here is a young male who was licking the rocks for salt alongside the road:

Whenever there weren't animals that demanded my attention, the scenery was breath-taking. Here is one example of the still mostly frozen Summit Lake, with snow-capped peaks in the background:

Today we covered part of the most remote stretch of the Alaska Highway. There are miles and miles of nothing but road, and when you come to a "town" it's nothing more than a hotel and a gas station, if it is open at all. Our stop-over for the night was the Northern Rockies Lodge on Muncho Lake.

Before leaving Fort St. John this morning, we saw a lake with Bonaparte's gulls and black terns (year bird 176) circling overhead. When we arrived at Muncho Lake, this gray jay (177) met us at our cabin:

Muncho Lake is a beautiful aqua color due to suspended copper oxide left as rock dust by receding glaciers. If you don't want to drive all the way to the lake, you can catch a float plane in from Vancouver, as many fly-fishers do for a weekend getaway. Here was an early evening float plane taking off in front of the beautiful mountains that encircle the lake:

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Beginning of The Alaska Highway

Location: Fort St. John, British Columbia
Population: 17,402

By looking at a map, once can recognize that British Columbia is a big province. By flying over it, you may see that much of it is uninhabited and remains raw wilderness. But you don't really get these things until you're driving through the countryside and humans feel like the minority - colonized here and there but dwarfed by the mountains and forests surrounding them. You don't really comprehend how big "big" is until you keep driving and driving and all you see are millions of trees stretching in every direction, mile after mile.

This morning, less than five miles outside of Prince George (and after visiting the hockey rink since I don't think I'll be coming back to see a game played here anytime soon) we saw our first moose of the trip. It was a brief glimpse of a female alongside the road who quickly disappeared into the woods, but it whet the appetite for more sightings and we were hopeful based on all the watch for moose signs we passed. She was the only one we saw today, but I'm sure we'll see more.

One of our first stops today was at a nature park where the mosquitos were too numerous and the trails were too muddy for us to feel much like hiking, but I did spot this butterfly. I've seen these commas (Polygonia spp.) in the field guide and was looking forward to the day I got to see one, since I'm intrigued by the feathered edges of their wings! Beautiful insects:

It didn't take long for us to find another black bear, either. We stopped to watch an adult bear up on the hillside, and before long one cub emerged from the nearby trees. Then came a second cub, and a third! The cubs looked very small - I wonder how old they are? Probably 2-3 months old already, but still so tiny! They were certainly full of energy, running back and forth across the clearing, and were full of energy as they kept wrestling each other down the slope. Very cute:

Our lunch stop was at Bijoux Falls where I got a close enough look at this squirrel to identify it as a red squirrel, a species I haven't seen before:

We also got close looks at a flock of Steller's jays. These are one of my favorite northwest birds, and though we see them often near my parents house in Portland I haven't ever photographed them before. The ones we see in Oregon don't usually have that white eyebrow, which was cool to see:

In general we saw fewer birds today - by far less variety and less abundance. The one highlight was when we pulled over on a wide shoulder to switch drivers and heard an unfamiliar call. It took a bit to locate the bird, get good looks, and agree on the identification, but it ended up being my first life bird of the trip - a singing male Tennesee warbler (year bird #175, North American life bird #321)! Does anyone else find it odd that I had to go to British Columbia to see a Tennessee warbler?

The terrain again changed a lot today from flat farmlands to rolling hills blanketed in aspen trees to rocky mountains covered in spruce forests. Here's a picture of some of the highest mountains we saw today, still capped in snow, with Highway 97 winding its way between them:

It's pretty amazing to me that we've been driving all this way and didn't even reach the Alaska Highway proper until today! But we passed the Mile 0 marker in Dawson Creek and covered about 50 miles or so until reaching our destination city Fort St. John. Along the way we got to detour onto a small portion of the original Alaskan Highway, which was amazingly built in just over eight months in 1942. It took thousands of people to complete the road, which was intended as a supply route for use during World War II. In the years since the highway has been rebuilt, and while it follows closely to the original route it is a bit shorter since they straightened it out considerable. At the old portion we drove today, we got to see the only original bridge that is still in use - the Kiskatinaw wooden bridge at Milepost 20:

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Fantastic Birding Along Highway 97

Location: Prince George, British Columbia
Population: 70,971

These first days are supposed to be filled with lots of driving, but so far they are ending up filled with lots of wildlife viewing as well. We're making a lot of short stops at viewpoints or points of interest, and today took two short hikes as well. With all the varying habitats we've traveled through, from semi-arid high plateau to farmland to pine forest, nearly every stop puts us in a different habitat which means there are different birds about. Today turned up an astounding 60+ species! A bucket load of them ended up being species for the year list as well, many of them birds I had down as potential but not guaranteed finds for the year, so it was an exciting day.

The day started out with a bang as from the breakfast table this morning we spotted a Lewis' woodpecker. I've only seen this species once before - I sought it out in January as a new life bird - so this was a spectacular find! Then, while loading the car, a western tanager (165) flew down out of the trees right into the grass in the parking lot - yet another good omen of things to come.

I hoping to maybe turn up some boreal chickadees on this trip as they would be a life bird for me, so when we stopped to look at an impressive geological formation showing various lava flows my years perked up when I heard an odd-sounded chickadee. It wasn't a boreal, but was a mountain chickadee (166)! Nearby I also saw mountain bluebirds and chipping sparrows.

Next we stopped at a series of lakes near 70 Mile House and 100 Mile House (towns named for their distance along the original gold rush trail which started in Lillooet). We saw a pair of barrow's goldeneyes, several spotted sandpipers (167), both red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds (pictured below), and the normal array of ducks. In addition to the usuals like wigeon, shovelers, gadwall, and mallards there were also a couple of redhead (168) and blue-winged teal (169).

At one point we had to loop back to check out what looked like a sandpiper standing on top of a telephone pole - never seen anything like that before! It turned out to be a Wilson's snipe. It seemed like kind of an unusual perch for a bird that's usually camouflaged among the grasses, but there was another one a little further along doing the same thing. Maybe it was a male, who is described as calling from a perch during the breeding season?

William's Lake turned out to be a birding hot spot. As soon as we reached the lake we spotted some American white pelicans (170) and a leucistic red-tailed hawk - the first of it's kind I've ever seen. Several species of swallows were flying over the lake, and our picnic stop at Scout Island turned up some singing yellow warblers and an abundance of Wilson's warblers (171):

After lunch we hiked some of the boardwalk trails through the marsh at Scout Island were we saw a common loon on its nest, a couple of red-necked grebes, and a pair of evening grosbeaks (172). I also heard a couple of soras (173) calling - a great find as I knew the spring was my only chance to pick up this otherwise silent and always elusive bird! The other impressive sight were all of the Canada goose goslings. There were families with young of different ages all over the marsh. The most ridiculous spot was this little area on the bank where it looked like, as one person described it, "an anthill of goslings". There were only 2-4 sets of parents in the area, but these dozens of goslings from multiple families were all mixed together into one big flock:

A hike near Quesnel turned up both warbling and Hutton's vireos, and the last bird species added today was a long-billed curlew (174) just a few miles out of town from our stopping place for the night. As amazing as the birding was today - a whopping ten year birds were added, leaving me just one species shy of my original goal of 175 - it wasn't all about the birds.

The coolest insect sighting of the day was definitely not the mosquitos (which weren't that bad yet but are only going to get worse), but rather this butterfly which I was later able to identify as a common alpine (Erebia epipsodea):

There were also two mammal highlights today. The first was a colony of about 15 yellow-bellied marmots near Clinton. These animals are also known as the rock chuck or the whistle pig:

And, I could hardly believe it, just day two of the trip but I already had my first bear sighting! We spotted this black bear thinking about crossing the highway, but it thought better of it and headed back to the hills, stopping only to take a bite out of the nearby shrubbery and take one look back behind it before disappearing into the trees:

Our stopping place for the night is in Prince George, home of the Western Hockey League's Prince George Cougars. I'm a fan of the Portland Winterhawks, which are also in the same league, and I have seen them play in 13 of the league's 22 cities. Needless to say, Prince George is not one of those 13, and after arriving here myself I cannot believe they travel this far by bus from Portland to play hockey! Not only that, but they're not doing it in the spring like I am, but in the dead of winter....quite a trek! Now I fully understand why teams play two games back-to-back while they're here, so they don't have to travel here as often.

One of the Hawks' announcers once said that Prince George isn't the end of the Earth, but you can see it from here. Well, I hope not! Tomorrow we press on a few hundred miles further to the north and will see the official beginning of the Alaska Highway.