June 24 – Denali Success

My goal today was Smith’s Longspur. I was desperately in need of sleep, however, so I didn’t get on the road in Glennallen until about 6:30 am. Just about 2 hours later, I arrived at the mile 13 hill on the Denali Highway, a traditional site for these birds but that in recent years has been a bit sparse. Having no better ideas of where to look I chose that route. I had climbed part way up the same trail yesterday, not realizing how much farther was needed. After nearly another 2 hours of slow walking up the gentle flowered slope I reached the top where all sites on the hill were below me or at my level.

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On the way up I had a fly-by plain buffy bird making little dry rattle calls that I thought was probably my goal bird, but I needed better views. At the top and periodically as I walked down I heard little “zweep” calls down below me somewhere but could not see any birds. Soon after I decided to slowly work my way down I was briefly distracted from my quest by a mother ptarmigan (probably Willow) and her batch of about 6 chicks. They sneaked away rapidly even though there was little cover for them and I continued down a bit more.

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At a site that was more out of the wind than at the top, I sat down on a rock and waited and listened. After about 15 minutes a small brown bird flew past just below my seat heading east. In another 5 minutes or so, it flew back, again low to the grass, rapidly. I could see that it had white outer tail feathers, some white on the wings, and some white patterning on the face. The back and forth flights were repeated another 15 minutes later. Periodically I also heard the dry rattle sound from somewhere, and saw one of these birds fly off up the hill twice. I stayed in the area for nearly 2 more hours but did not get any better views.

I have no idea of all of this action was one bird or more than one bird, but I have concluded that it/they was a SMITH’S LONGSPUR by the location, the sounds, the appearance, the behavior. At no time did I hear any singing of the longspurs, and I learned later from someone more familiar with the birds than I am that it is likely that the birds were now nesting, and possibly what I was seeing was birds flying back and forth to feed young.

As added support for this conclusion that I was seeing and hearing Smith’s Longspurs, as I was about 2/3 of the way down the incline, I heard a different sound just below me and saw two Lapland Longspurs on the ground. I had been concerned that maybe that was what I had seen up higher, but now I could rule them out. None of the sounds made by the high-elevation birds was like those of Horned Larks either, another possibility that concerned me.

So, another year-bird. Probably I won’t find any more until the Anchorage Audubon ferry trip from Homer to Dutch Harbor next week. But I’ll keep birding, every day if at all possible, as I’ve done every day this year so far.

As I drove the Denali Highway back to mile 0, I heard many Arctic Warblers, Fox, Savannah and White-crowned Sparrows, and Common Redpolls, as well as a few Gray-cheeked Thrushes.

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277 birds so far (see lynnbarber.com for the daily lists and the complete information on birds seen to date this year)

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