Birding the Denali Highway

Trip Report - June 6 - 9, 1998

Report and photos by Tina MacDonald

Duncan (my long-suffering husband) and I left Anchorage early on June 4, 1998 - heading north to Denali. After hearing numerous complaints from birders regarding the lengthy trip into Denali National Park itself (with guides who were only interested in large mammals), the 4.5 hour trip each way did not seem worth our limited time,  when all the birds we were interested in could be found on the Denali Highway itself. This 130 mile stretch of good gravel road is one of the few east-west routes in Alaska, and joins Cantwell to Paxton, Alaska. It opens on May 1 of each year, and they stop snow-ploughing the route on October 1. But, in between those dates, birders looking for high tundra breeding birds can spend many enjoyable days! We kept a detailed mile-by-mile log of birds that we saw, over the next few days as we wandered up and down the Denali Highway.
Midnight at the Oasis
Midnight at Denali River
We started at the western end of the highway, intending to do a complete circut from Anchorage, returning via Glenallen. We made a brief side trip along the 18 mile highway into Denali National Park that is open to the public, spotting moose and some distant caribou, but not much in the way of birdlife. Then we spent the night at the Denali River Cabins at the western end of the Denali Highway, preparing ourselves for our first venture into the wilderness. 
Female Moose
Female Moose
It was our first night without any darkness, and the picture on the left was taken from our cabin porch just after midnight. Breakfast was at the "Loose Moose" cafe, attached to the cabin complex. A careful survey of the ground around the cabins made it clear where the name came from!

Start of Denali Highway
Starting along the Denali Highway

As we started out along the highway, and not caring too much for hiking, I was bemoaning the probability that we probably never would see a ptarmigan of any variety. "Cheer up," he said, "Sometimes even ptarmigan have to cross the road." After making a rude crack about chicken jokes, I settled back to some serious "roadside" birding (any bird you can spot by eye or with a scope without leaving the road) - I had heard too much about grizzlies to be willing to go more than a few feet from protection. Not more than a few miles further on, we were amazed to see a pair of Willow Ptarmigan - he was taking a roadside dust bath, while she was crossing the road. I now know the answer to the famous question "Why did the ptarmigan cross the road?" "Because she knew nobody could see her do it." We watched in amazement as, one stealthy step at a time, she inched across the road. It took her not less than 15 minutes to cross a 20 foot wide road, one verrrrry slow step at a time, followed by a freeze in place to confirm no one was watching. We idled the car forward, until we were not more than 10 feet from the two birds. I just wish that I had the confidence that those stupid ptarmigan had. 
Willow Ptarmigan
Female Willow Ptarmigan
Flat Tire
Duncan changing our tire
Duncan's prediliction for taking our rental car down ANY track, trail or side road going off the main highway often led to some excellent birding, but usually also to some sharp rocks. We forded small streams, backed up forever to find turning-around spots, and generally enjoyed ourselves. At least you couldn't get lost - there are no through roads going anywhere leading off the Denali. We finally paid the price, almost exactly half way along the highway, when we suffered a flat tire 60 miles from any kind of repair shop in either direction! After not having changed a tire for 20 years, and in a strange car at that, the actual changing of the tire was notable for the colourful language. In that memorable hour, only one truck passed us, and it turned out to be one of our hosts at Tangle Lakes Lodge. When he realized that his guests were the "flat tire folk", he was very apologetic for not stopping! 
After making it most of the rest of the way along the Denali Highway, holding our breaths that the "donut" tire would last out the distance, we made it to the Tangle Lakes Lodge, owned by Ron and Rick Holmstrom. Ron is the resident writer, who lives at the lodge in isolation all winter working on the great American novel, and Rick is the birding expert, who lives in civilization at Chugiak, Alaska. They immediately made us welcome, offering much advice and knowledge about the area. If you want to know where to find a specific bird, Rick can direct you to within a tenth of a mile! But we were somewhat disconcerted to find out that the Lodge proper had burnt down two weeks before we arrived. But plans were already afoot to rebuild, bigger and  better! 

A great place that caters to birders, the Lodge  was rustic to say the least. No electricity or running water in the cabins made it seem like elaborate camping! It never got dark, so we didn't miss the lights, and there were showers and toilets across the parking area. And, since the heating was a wood stove, they didn't even care if I smoked in the cabin! But, where were the gourmet meals we had been looking forward to? Rick told us some hilarious stories about his trials and tribulations in finding - and keeping - gourmet chefs to come in to the Lodge to cook during the four month "season". For supper, we were sent another two miles down the highway to the Tangle River Inn.

Duncan checking out the lake - this is birding from the cabin at it's best!

Tangle Lakes cabins plus the graded remnants of the Lodge

A view of the lake, populated by Red-necked Loons, from the front porch of the cabin
The friendly folk at the Tangle River Inn commiserated with us on our unfortunate flat tire, and went looking for Victor to fix the tire. By the time we had finished eating, the tire had been repaired, was back on the car, and the trunk re-packed. Our dinner bill read "two roast beef dinner specials, one tire, two cups coffee". That had to be a first! There was a collection of mounted birds and wildlife over the fire place in the restaurant, and when I inquired what kind of ptarmigan they were, the waitress solemnly stated that "the brown one is a summer ptarmigan and the white one is a winter ptarmigan". When I asked whether they were Willow, Rock, or White-tailed, she just looked a little puzzled and repeated her original answer. But, on the bright side, this place keeps a selection of binoculars on the window ledge overlooking the lake in case something good flies by and you've left your binoculars in the car. And, they cater to swallows (mostly cliff and northern rough-winged), which are there swooping and diving in every direction.
Tangle River Inn Sign
Swallow Condos at Tangle River

Birding from the cabin was great - warblers in the bushes (Wilson's and Yellow - too soon for Arctic) and a get-up alert at 3:00 a.m. from the Willow Ptarmigan who had taken over the roof peak of the adjoining cabin. The morning cries of the Loons were eirie, and one couldn't help commiserating with the Robin that was a little too far north and had been calling for a mate for weeks, with little success. Given the state of the food supply on the Denali Highway, after some morning birding, we made a detour the next day out to Paxton where we stocked up on groceries and picnic stuff at the general store. Then we decided to keep going to check out the Alaska Pipeline, before returning to Tangle Lakes Lodge for the evening. There's nothing better than deciding to go birding at 8:00 p.m. at night knowing that you'll get tired before the light even starts to fade. And, with no night, there are no night birds to go hunting for...

Evening birding at the Esker at mile 47 (from Paxton)

The next day, we headed out again onto the Denali Highway for one last look before heading back to Anchorage and the Kenai peninsula. Coming slowly around a corner, we startled an adult bald eagle. We came to an abrupt stop, watching it soar out over the tundra. Then, Duncan quietly said, "look over here...  ". Just below the top of the cut-bank was an immature eagle, just starting to get the trademark white head and tail. We watched for a while, and then I got out of the car to take a photo - the bird didn't think much of this and flew off. We continued driving, and then stopped to scope out a lake a few hundred feet down the road. To our surprise, the young eagle followed us, and watched us with some curiosity. This time he let me get within about 8 feet, before taking off. Talk about tourist-watching - even eagles do it!

On the cut-bank

Now what are you doing?

That's a little too close!
As we were leaving the Denali Highway for the last time, at mile 17.2 from Paxton, we finally managed to spot two of our target birds, a long-tailed jaeger circling above, and a nesting Smith's Longspur (thank God for our new 60x Kowa scope!). We were sorry to leave the Denali Highway area, but we had miles to go and birds to see... Next stop, the Kenai Peninsula!

Mile-by-Mile Birding Log

All mileages are calculated from Paxton at the east end of the highway (to match the signposts). Subtract from 130 to determine mileages from Cantwell, if that is the end you start at. Life Birds (for us) are underlined. Note that cliff swallows nest under nearly every bridge along the highway. Also look for caribou, moose, grizzlies, and beaver. There are so many lakes, we would recommend only stopping at those where there are obvious waterfowl. But, even the "empty" lakes we checked proved to have at least one pair of something lurking around the edges. This list highlights the areas where we actually stopped and recorded our sightings - we didn't record the many repetitions of the same birds we might see half a mile later where we didn't stop. The Tangle Lakes Lodge has put on line a complete Checklist of Birds on the Denali Highway. Check also the Birding portion of their website.
Mileage Post Our Bird List Other Birds Known to Be in the General Area
Mile 17.2 Small ponds on north side of road - Long-tailed Jaeger, Smith's Longspur, Semi-Palmated Plover, Lesser Scaup, Barrow's Goldeneye, Green-winged Teal, American Widgeon, Lesser Yellow-legs  
Mile 20  Tangle River Inn - Cliff Swallows, Northern Rough-winged Swallows, Lesser Scaup, Common Loon Other waterfowl
Mile 22 Tangle Lakes Lodge - Red-Necked Loons, Wilson's Warbler, Yellow Warbler, American Robin, Black Scoter, Trumpeter Swans, Cliff Swallows, Willow Ptarmigan Arctic Warbler (after mid-June), Gyrfalcon, American Golden Plover, Lapland Longspur
Mile 38 Willow Ptarmigan Rock Ptarmigan
Mile 49 Road on esker between 4 lakes - Tundra Swan (on nest), Chipping Sparrow, Lesser Scaup, Northern Shoveller, Cliff Swallows, Bald Eagle, Red-necked Phalarope, Oldsquaw, Green-winged Teal, Mallard, Lesser Yellowlegs, Arctic Terns, Common Loon, Red-breasted Merganser, Bald Eagle Other waterfowl
Mile 49.7 Turnout overlooking 50 Mile Lake - Gyrfalcons (one being harried by Herring Gulls chased across the highway where he met up with his mate and fed on a small mammal for some time), Red-necked Phalarope, Arctic Tern, Lesser Scaup, Northern Pintail, Oldsquaw, Savannah Sparrow, Cliff Swallows, White-crowned Sparrow, Trumpeter Swans (9), American Widgeon  Loons
Mile 78.8 Turnoff to Valdez Mine Road - about 1/2 mile down this road is a blueberry patch - White-crowned Sparrow, Grey Jay, Dark-eyed Junco  
Mile 82 Gracious House (only source of gas on the highway) - Gray Jays, Trumpeter Swan, Red-throated Loon, Gadwall, Lesser Scaup Arctic Warblers breed from Gracious House all the way to Paxton in roadside willows
Mile 88 Tundra with brushy willow/small spruce trees American Tree Sparrows, Northern Shrike
Mile 91 Lake beside road - Gadwall, Lesser Scaup  
Mile 97 Barrow's Goldeye, Mallard, Green-winged Teal Other waterfowl
Mile 103 Lake beside road - Bonaparte's Gull, Oldsquaw, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveller  
Mile 104.6 Brushkana Campground - Mew Gull, Townsend's Warbler  
Mile 113-116 Scattered areas of Spruce Forest (and other suitable habitat along the highway) - Grey Jays, Wilson Warbler Bohemian Waxwings, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Blackpoll Warbler, Rusty Blackbird, Northern Hawk-Owl
Mile 120-122 Marshy areas along both sides of road - Red-necked Phalarope, Red-necked Grebe, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, Barrow's Goldeneye, Arctic Tern, Green-winged Teal, Trumpeter Swans Other waterfowl, Common Snipe, Semi-palmated Plover, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Least Sandpiper
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