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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Mountains, Glaciers, and Birds on the way to Valdez

Location: Valdez, Alaska
Population: 4036

Although we did have some rainstorms overnight, we woke up again to sunny skies and hit the road to head to Valdez. The first part of the drive was along the Tok Cutoff which brought us by several lakes and marshes. We stopped at one point to look at some ducks, and noticed some birds that were flycatching from the trees next to the marsh. A closer examination revealed them to be a flock of Bohemian waxwings (year bird 190, life bird 325)! I often see their cousins the cedar waxwings, but have long wanted to see these slightly more colorful birds. Very cool. While we were working to identify the waxwings a male rusty blackbird (year bird 191, life bird 326) also flew in!

Next up were some great views of several of the mountains in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. At over 20,000 square miles (over 13 million acres) it is more than six times the size of Yellowstone and is the largest National Park in the United States. It borders Glacier Bay National Park of the US and Kluane National Park and Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park of British Columbia, which together are recognized as a World Heritage Site and make of the largest internationally protected areas in the world. Within Wrangell-St. Elias are several of the tallest peaks and biggest glaciers on the continent, and since access to the park is limited we were thankful for the clear views of the mountain peaks from the highway that borders the park. This is Mount Drum, which measures in at 12,010 feet:

It's a good thing we didn't make quite as many stops in the morning because once we reached the Richardson Highway that heads south to Valdez we were again face-to-face with snow-capped mountains and glaciers which required frequent stops to photograph and take it all in. Here is a view looking straight down the highway:

It wasn't just about the mountains though, as we had some good wildlife sightings as well, including our closest moose encounter. This female was swimming around in a boggy area - quite an impressive sight!

We stopped to take a look at Worthington Glacier which is close enough to the road that you can walk nearly to the face of it. By this time we were near the top of Thompson Pass, and while it's just over 2700 feet there was still quite a bit of snow on the ground. We had to trudge through the snow-covered paths to get the best look at the glacier, but the woman at the visitor's center said that just about a ten days ago the snow was still towering over her head and the parking area and paths were impassable. These warmer temperatures are just now bringing summer to the region. Here is a photo looking up at the glacier that, due to its accessibility, is also a research site for scientists studying how glaciers move and the impact of climate change:

The lady at the visitor's center had also put out some fresh fish in a nearby snow field with hopes of keeping this eagle from predating on the mew gull nests nearby. I'm not sure if that's the right thing to do, but how different is it really from putting seeds out for passerines in your backyard? The eagle gave one impressive flyover - look how mottled it is! Not quite fully adult yet since the tail isn't white:

Several black-billed magpies were also taking advantage of the easy meal:

As we passed through Thompson Pass a little further on we found ourselves nearly surrounded by mountain peaks. A single photograph just wouldn't do it justice so I tried piecing together a panorama. It's not the best but it gives you the idea of about 180 degrees of the view. I'm not sure how to post it much bigger than this so you'll have to click on it to see a larger view. The only time I've seen a view even remotely like this was in the Alps in Switzerland 12 years ago!

As we descended from the Pass the snow faded quickly into waterfalls, rivers, and marshes fed by all the snow melt. We saw several more pairs of trumpeter swans, but this is the first pair thus far that we've seen that already has signets. A baby swan is the little ugly duckling of the storybook, but these guys were already pretty darn cute!

As we continued our descent towards sea level the tall cliffs of Keystone Canyon started to tower over us on either side. This trip has at many times been a living geology lesson as in a short stretch of highway we passed through the broad U-shaped valley characteristic of being carved by a glacier into the steep V-shaped valley cut through the mountains by a river. The numerous tumbling waterfalls continued to slowly shape and morph the canyon as we watched, and by looking up into the grooves cut into the valley walls you could see where water had been running for thousands of years. This is Horsetail Falls:

The weather has finally caught up to us! The beautiful clear skies stayed with us into Valdez, but this morning there is rain and low-lying clouds are now hiding most of the mountains that encircle this town.


Lancs and Lakes Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

Great pics yet again Monika, can't believe I 'lifed' Rusty Blackbird before you if only by a few days!
How many duff magpie pics you take to get that one - I got loads but none are any good - tricky little blighters!



eileeninmd said...

Wow, Monika! Your Alaska photos are wonderful. The scenery and wildlife is just awesome. I am reading all your previosu post too. Sounds like you had a great trip. Did you drive the whole way or were you on a ship?

Whidbey Woman said...

OMG. Your trip just keeps becoming more and more incredible! I so want to go there, do that, see ALL of that!

Monika said...

Dave - You beat me to more than just the rusty - many of your Florida birds would have been lifers for me! I got lucky on that magpie, but there are other species I see more often that continue to thwart me.

Eileen - We're still on the trip (for three more weeks!) and driving the whole way. We'll be ferrying back south.

Whidbey Woman - It is becoming more and more incredible! Every day I wonder - what's next?! I'm so lucky to be able to take this trip, and glad I can share the sights with all of you!