Outer Banks: June 2012

Pink and orange streaks spread from the sky to color the glassy still open waters of the marsh that are broken only by a snake swimming, head held high, from one bank slowly across to the reeds on the other side. Five wild horses- one chestnut, two blacks, and two palominos- smooth flanks and flaxen manes glowing in the evening light, graze peacefully, heads deep in the reeds. A frog breaks the silence, and suddenly an exuberant chorus is filling the evening with the music of the marsh, accented by the nearby singing of a Common Yellowthroat from atop his wax myrtle tree. The Yellowthroat, and another across the open water, continue proclaiming their territories in song, but the frog chorus waxes and wanes repeatedly during the time we spend on the boardwalk.

Swimming snake

In the morning, a little ways inland from the marsh, I see the bright yellow-orange colors and domed shell of an Eastern box turtle in the muddy undergrowth- the second I’ve seen while here this week. A female, I think, since the eyes are brown, not red. I love these slow moving denizens of the land, so vulnerable to habitat destruction, cars, and collectors that is a somewhat rare treat to see them these days. 

Box Turtle in the sand near our house here
Such a pretty pattern!

Walking further, Stephen and I are surrounded by loblolly pines and widely spreading, shade-casting live oaks, replete with birds– Robins, Carolina Chickadees, a Red-eyed Vireo, numerous Pine Warblers singing their musical trill, and a red-bellied Woodpecker moving up a pine trunk. A young Boat-tailed Grackle in a treetop begs his parents for food and a Great Egret passes overhead, croaking deeply as he flies.

We step out of the woods to the marsh edge to see rusty red dragonflies zipping over the reeds, devouring mosquitoes. We love dragonflies! Looking across the sound, we see Monkey Island, an isolated island that hosts breeding Egrets and other birds– a rookery. 

All those white spots are Great Egrets- hundreds of them!

Alaska: June 11

Last full day in Alaska (for now). It was misty and drizzly this morning– perfect for me, since my face is rather sunburned and I’d prefer to stay out of the sun today. We hiked down to Horseshoe Lake- a short, easy hike– this morning and again this evening. The whole time we’ve been in Alaska I’ve been hoping to see one of the other chickadee species than the Black-capped Chickadees we have at home. This morning at Horseshoe Lake we saw a pair of Boreal Chickadees and I was hoping to see them again this evening. They were hiding when we went back, but the reflections on the lake were worth the trip back. I had also been trying to find a Swainson’s Thrush since our first morning here at Denali, and we saw one posing beautifully for us right at the trailhead of the Horseshoe Lake trail.

This time in Alaska has been a dream come true, and I suspect that after we’re home, it will be hard to imagine that it was more than a dream. I have loved the cool temperatures, the rain and mist, the sunshine on the mountains, the snow- especially on the mountains, the friendliness of all the people, the spruce fragrance of the taiga forests, the gray color of the glacial streams, the variety of birds, the hiking, and so much more. Most of all, the time together with Stephen in these beautiful places has been wonderful; I am so thankful we have been able to do this!

Gray Jay

Swainson’s Thrush
Spotted Sandpiper
Beaver dam
Arctic Ground Squirrel
Misty rock formation
Taiga forest- like a fairy land

 New birds today: Swainson’s Thrush, Boreal Chickadee

Alaska: June 10

“Congratulations on being alive!”

That’s how a ranger greeted me when I stepped from the willow-filled river Savage River basin onto the road. Apparently there was a large grizzly moving rather quickly in our direction, as I sat by the river painting and Steve sat quietly nearby. “Quietly” was our mistake; we knew we needed to be making noise as we hiked, so that we wouldn’t come upon a bear and surprise it, but apparently we also needed to make noise when sitting still, so that a bear wouldn’t inadvertently come upon us and be surprised by our presence in his space. Thankfully we are here to tell the tale!

Savage River
A small glacier in the Savage River valley

Wolf Tracks along the high, narrow trail
Wolf track and my hand

Stephen on the steep slope
Trail on STEEP, HIGH slope

This V-shaped valley was carved by a river, hence the steep sides.

Tundra wildflowers beside trail


White-crowned Sparrow- they were ubiquitous
Willow Ptarmigan
Snowshoe Hare
Painting beside the Savage River in the U-shaped valley

This U-shaped valley was carved by a glacier, hence the broad, flat valley.

Stephen resting beside the Savage River
Grizzly bear track!
New bird today: Willow Ptarmigan

Alaska: June 9

I’ve been doing better with my fear of heights and can now climb pretty high on a ladder, hike on some fairly high, steep slopes, or go up on our roof. Today, though, my acrophobia was tested, and I think I nearly poked holes in the bus seat by clenching it with white knuckles, as we rode the shuttle bus (a school bus) through Polychrome Pass on our trip to Eielson Visitor Center and back on the Park Road. The road is narrow, gravel, and has shoulders that slope downward and outward, with no guard rails. Here is something I found online about Polychrome Pass at Denali National Park:

Once you cross the East Fork River at Mile 44 (there is great hiking out onto the flats from here), you begin your ascent of Polychrome Pass, one of the most spectacular and sphincter-clamping sections of the road. If you’re scared of heights or become frightened at the 1,000-foot drop-offs, just do what the driver does—close your eyes. From Over Polychrome Pass to Eielson

Stephen on the Alpine Ridge Trail

I love the misty mountains!
Dall sheep on a high pasture
Dall sheep on rocky ledges

Caribou are some of my favorites here
Toklat River Valley

New birds today: Rock Ptarmigan, Golden Eagle

Alaska: June 8

Click on the photos to see them better…

Arctic Ground Squirrel
Stephen on the trail
Gray Jay
Spruce Grouse
Just above the Mt. Healey Overlook
That white dot is me painting (from where Stephen hiked farther up)

Steep trail
Stephen at Mt. Healey Overlook- he actually hiked much farther and higher

View from Mt. Healey (where Stephen hiked while I painted lower down)
Caribou in the valley

New birds for my life list today: Bufflehead, Spruce Grouse

Alaska– June 6

I’m short on internet time (which has been wonderful!), so I’m mostly just going to post my journal pages and photos here. To read my musings on the journal pages, click on the photos of the pages to make them bigger.

Doesn’t this look like two heads? Be  careful how long you sit in a rain forest.
Pretty lichen
Cool Spanish Moss-like stuff
Harbor Seal

New birds today: American Pipt, Marbeled Murrelet, Harlequin Duck

Alaska: June 5

Today was incredible. We had scheduled a boat tour for today, hoping we’d have decent weather and worried that I would be seasick. We ended up with what several people said was the best day of the year– sunny all day, warm (relatively speaking), and very calm seas. The ranger on the boat who was guiding and narrating said they might get one such day a year, especially with all the wildlife we saw. I’m just going to post my sketchbook/journal pages describing the day. I painted a couple of these pages while on the boat and the others later.

(Click the pictures to see them large enough to read the writing)

Holgate Glacier
Mountain Goat nursing her kid
Bear Glacier

Stellar Sea Lions
Snow and ice covered island in Prince William Sound

New birds today: Glaucous-winged Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake, Common Murre, Pelagic Cormorant, Horned Puffin, Tufted Puffin

Alaska- June 4

Snowshoes would have been good today, as would poles, crampons, and probably some other equipment. We tried to hike up to the Harding Ice Fields, but only made it about a quarter of the way up, due to the steep slopes deeply blanketed with snow. At the point we decided to turn back, the trail was doing switchbacks on a mountainside meadow, which would have made the most exciting sledding hill I’ve ever sledded. We backed down, carefully jamming the toes of our shoes as deep into the snow as we could. There were holes where people had thrust poles into the snow; the brilliant blue of the snow down those holes was amazing to me.

We finally made it down past the snow and continued downward, waterfalls of snow melt cascading over the trail. Along the way we kept our eyes open for bears; the National Park Service signs at the trailhead warn of both black and grizzly bears. The warnings are most encouraging: If a grizzly bear attacks you, play dead. If it starts to eat you, fight back. 

On the hike down, during which we saw no bears, I heard a song a I thought I recognized from my Birding by Ear CD’s– a Wilson’s Warbler. I searched and he appeared– a beautiful male Wilsons’s Warbler– another first for my life list!

We then hiked out to Exit Glacier. See the tiny people at the base of the glacier? They aren’t really tiny; the glacier is immense! It was COLD near the glacier, with the glacial wind air conditioning the entire surroundings.

Exit Glacier with people at the base
Zooming in on a crevasse
Stephen and me; Exit Glacier behind us

We hiked in the Outwash Plain and I painted. While there, we learned from a friendly ranger who passed by that the gray water in the glacial streams in caused by the gray stones, called Graywacke (pronounced “graywacky”) rubbing together, producing “glacial flour,” a very fine dust that makes glacial outwash streams gray. Clear streams are from snow melt. I loved the outwash plain with its open views and gurgling streams.

After hiking we went to dinner in town and, while waiting for our food, I painted the view out the window. Stephen took this photo from outside of me painting with the mountains reflected in the window. I especially like that he is also in the reflection.

On our way back to our cabin we passed Harbor Seals swimming in the bay beside the road.

We walked to a pebbly beach before we went to bed and saw my first Violet-green Swallows. While I was studying them through my binoculars, a small flash of sunset pinkish, orange-red shot through my field of view– my first Rufous Hummingbird, a fitting color with which to close my day, since I won’t be awake for the sunset after 11:00 tonight.

New birds today: Rufous Hummingbird, Violet-green Swallow, Wilson’s Warbler, Northwestern Crow

Alaska– June 3

Snowshoes would have been nice today. We hiked the Byron Glacier Trail today, which, according to our hike book, is a moderate hike with generally good conditions. Is four to five feet of snow on the trail “good conditions” in Alaska?

There were a two sections of the trail with no snow– sections about five yards long. The remainder of the trail was deep in snow, which thankfully was fairly firmly packed, so that we only sank in a few inches most of the time. I managed to stay more or less on the surface, but Steve sank through to his hip once. Despite the snow, however, it was a wonderful hike. The blue of the glacier was so BLUE (the photo doesn’t do it justice). The mountains on either side were stunning, and all the more so with a juvenile eagle soaring over them and finally landing somewhere on a mountainside.

Byron Glacier

I was fascinated by the creek flowing from the glacier, with its distinctly gray water. When I sat on a rock in the middle of a snowfield to paint, from time to time I heard a loud gurgling sound moving toward me. I think it was water working its way along deep under the snow, then rushing around the base of my rock.

Me painting Byron Glacier

After hiking to Byron Glacier and also stopping for a walk at the Moose Flats Day Use Area (where I identified my first Orange-crowned Warbler), we drove to Hope and hiked along the Gull Rock Trail in the lush green of ferns and trees for a while. There we saw our first Varied Thrushes– a male and female. What gorgeous birds! We kept hearing Varied Thrushes throughout that hike.

Stephen on the Gull Rock Trail

At one point in our drive south from Anchorage I saw a Loon and pulled off to look more closely. While there we also saw a pair of American Wigeons and then a beautiful pair of Barrow’s Goldeneyes– another first for me.

American Wigeon (male)
Barrow’s Goldeneye (male)

Now, after driving along a road sandwiched between the side of a mountain on one side and Resurrection Bay on the other we are settled for the night in a tiny cabin on Lowell’s Point, our heads filled with images of birds, mountains, and snow covered peaks.

New birds for my life list today: Barrow’s Goldeye, Mew Gull, Orange-crowned Warbler, Varied Thrush, Red-necked Grebe