Birding Seward, Alaska

We started Wednesday morning by heading towards Lowell Point, a small establishment a few miles south of Seward. The road between Seward and the point ran right along the shore, giving us wonderful views of the mountains on the other side of the bay.

As we approached Lowell Point, we stopped to walk along the road. A small group of Harlequin Ducks swam just off the shore, and a family of Common Ravens sat and squawked from the rocks above us.

The most abundant birds here were the “Sooty” Fox Sparrows singing from the low shrubs on either side of the road. This subspecies occurs along the Pacific Coast of North America and looks quite different from the “Red” Fox Sparrows I am used to seeing migrate through Pennsylvania.

The woods around Lowell Point were mostly filled with the usual suspects, especially Hermit Thrushes and Townsend’s Warblers. We did find one gorgeous “Pacific” Steller’s Jay. This species, although common in areas where I had birded before, had somehow eluded me. These coastal individuals differ from the inland subspecies (like the ones I missed in the Rockies) in that they lack white markings on the face.

As we headed back towards Seward along the same road on which we had arrived, we noticed a number of birds out on the water. Several more Harlequin Ducks had arrived and were now floating near two playful Sea Otters! A single Pigeon Guillemot swam up to the ducks, but soon took off and flew farther out into the bay. Another alcid, this one a Marbled Murrelet, swam close to shore. Although the bird was close, its frequent dives made photography extremely tricky!

On the shore itself, I spotted two fairly large shorebirds running over the rocks. I immediately recognized them as Wandering Tattlers, yet another lifer for this tiny stretch of road!

one of two tattlers along the shore

We then worked our way from Seward north just a few miles to Exit Glacier, situated within the Kenai Fjords National Park. This glacier, formerly known as Resurrection Glacier, was renamed after it served as an exit for the first party to traverse the Harding Icefield. Along the path to the base of the ice, we were serenaded by Yellow, Yellow-rumped, Wilson’s, and Orange-crowned Warblers. A few thrushes—Hermit and Swainson’s—sang from the brush as well.

The glacier was spectacular. I had never seen one up-close before, so the size and color were incredibly fascinating and awe-inspiring. Murky, silty water flowed heavily in the glacial river as gallons and gallons of the ice melted. It’s still hard for me to understand how a massive chunk of ice like this can carve away the land on which it is situated leaving behind water and gravel. Wow.

From the base of the hill near the bottom of Exit Glacier, my dad, brother, and I decided to hike the Harding Icefield Trail that meandered up the mountain and above the glacier. The icefield itself is a massive (700 square miles) block of permanent ice from which many of the glaciers within the park originate. The trail was very steep as we hiked through small trees, then shrubs, and eventually made it to open tundra above the treeline. It was here that a park volunteer pointed out a distant mountain goat, and we spotted a couple of Hoary Marmots running across the trail.

Trees may not have been able to grow at this altitude, but many wildflower species covered the landscape.

We slowly worked our way up, and after several miles of hiking, we made it to a flatter area that provided a stunning view of Exit Glacier from above.

One the most beautiful aspects of the glacier was the series of deep crevices in the closest portion of the ice. Deeper and deeper, the blue got darker until color gave way to shadows.

The trail from this spot on was almost entirely on snow pack. Fortunately, many people had walked this portion of the trail before we did, so it was easy to figure out where to go.

We soon began hearing odd noises from the slope above us, but we were unable to see anything more than twenty feet away. From the other direction, some small birds flew across the trail and landed on a patch of vegetation that was attempting to revive itself after a winter under the snow.

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches! As we continued hiking, we saw several small groups (no more than five) of these alpine finches along the trail. None of them seemed particularly concerned with our presence as shown by the photo above, which was taken with a lens that I typically use for scenery, not birds! These individuals are “Hepburn’s” Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches, a subspecies that has an entirely gray face rather than just a gray crown.

Not much farther along the path, we started hearing the strange noises again. They got closer and closer until it seemed as if they were right above us; yet, we could see nothing. Then, I spotted a silhouette in the fog. The bird flew up fairly high above our heads while calling, then dove towards the ground and sat on a barely-visible outcrop. It was a ptarmigan! We could hardly see the bird through the fog, but what we did see and the calls we heard identified it as a White-tailed Ptarmigan, another awesome alpine bird!

We soon left the birds behind and entered into an area of rock, snow, and ice. The fog grew even thicker; at times it was impossible to see each other even though we were quite close. We tried to follow small orange flags placed in the snow pack, but the fog was so thick that the next flag was not always visible. Nevertheless, we trudged on despite a diminishing number of footprints in the snow.

the excellent view from the Harding Icefield Trail (yes, I’m being sarcastic)

After a long climb, we reached a flat area of snow and fog. We were walking on a spur of the icefield that seemed to be home to nothing at all, except Chlamydomonas nivalis, a fascinating “green” alga that can be found living on snow and ice. The common name for this organism is “watermelon snow,” as the cells contain a red pigment that seems to stain the snow blood-red.

After about four miles of hiking, I spotted the faint image of a structure twenty feet ahead of us. We had reached the emergency shelter at last!

Every inch of the interior walls, rafters, and ceiling was covered with the names of people who had made the same trek to the icefield. Here is just one wall:

After a short rest at the shelter, we began the hike back down. The fog was not as heavy during the return, giving us a view of the slopes we would have slid down had we slipped on the way up! We eventually made it back near where Exit Glacier was visible.

By this point, the sun was low enough in the sky that it shone beneath the fog and illuminated the glacier.

We continued to work our way through the snow and rock and eventually through the willow scrub. It was here that we witnessed our last treat of the day: a Golden-crowned Sparrow sitting a few feet from the trail. Again, I did not have my telephoto lens on the camera, but even the short lens was able to capture this bird that gave no notice of our presence.

The Harding Icefield Trail is one of the most incredible hikes I’ve ever done; the scenery, birds, and challenge were phenomenal. I hope that I have the chance to return to this spot someday—perhaps when it’s not so foggy!