Eagle Summit Report: May 30, 2015


As long time readers of this blog know, one of WC’s favorite places in Road Alaska is Eagle Summit, at Mile 107 on the Steese Highway, northeast of Fairbanks. One or two times a year, WC heads up that way and lugs his camera along the first few miles of the Pinnell Mountain Trail.

Eagle Summit Pinnell Mountain Trailhead Wayside

Eagle Summit Pinnell Mountain Trailhead Wayside

Birding and bird photography is all about habitats. The first few miles of the Pinnell Mountain Trail get you into alpine wetland, scree and dry tundra, each of which supports different species of birds.

The star of the show is the Northern Wheatear, a migrant from sub-Saharan Africa. Yes, really. Eagle Summit is in the place nearest Fairbanks to fairly regularly find Northern Wheatear.

Northern Wheatear, Eagle Summit, May 2015

Northern Wheatear, Eagle Summit, May 2015

Wheatears prefer the rocks scree slopes. WC cautions that this species is easily disturbed and will abandon its nests. Don’t disturb them; they’ve come a long ways, have a brief period of time to do their business and then head back.

In contrast, the much more common Lapland Longspur prefers the swampy, grassy areas along the trail.

Lapland Longspur, Eagle Summit, May 2015

Lapland Longspur, Eagle Summit, May 2015

Longspurs get their name from the extended length of their back toe. You can see it in this photo, twice the length of the front two toes.

The final alpine species WC saw this walk was the American Golden Plover. This male was busily leading WC away from his nest.

American Golden-Plover, Eagle Summit, Alaska

American Golden-Plover, Eagle Summit, Alaska

American Golden Plovers favor the dry tundra areas, what WC was taught to call Dryas mat.

Below Eagle Summit, the valley between Eagle and Twelve Mile Summits, the Birch Creek area has been placer mined for a hundred years. The holding ponds serve as migration traps for some surprising birds, a slight compensation for the profound alteration of the habitat from decades of dredging. WC found this surprise.

White-winged Scoter Drake, Birch Creek Valley, May 2015

White-winged Scoter Drake, Birch Creek Valley, May 2015

Scoters are sea ducks that move inland to breed. The white “comma” around the eye is a very reliable field mark.

Why They Are "White-Winged"

Why They Are “White-Winged”

This is a big, heavy duck, 3.7 pounds, and the takeoff is pretty impressive. Always a treat to find an unexpected bird.

If you do decide to visit Eagle Summit and walk part of the Pinnell Mountain Trail, be aware that the weather there is highly changeable, and when it goes bad it can really go bad. Saturday the temperature drops from 62° to 41° and from sunny to dense fog in less than an hour. Always carry rain gear and be prepared for strong winds and limited visibility.

It’s worth the effort.

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