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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!


Lancs and Lakes Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

Judging by what you've shown us so far we'll be booking a trip to Alaska in the near future - looks mighty fine from here.

You not over-awed yet?



Monika said...

Dave - Alaska should definitely be on your list! I've wanted to come back ever since we visited briefly when I was 12. It's fantastic, and nope, not over-awed yet!