For the Birds Radio Program: Headed to Alaska
This is the year my husband Russ and I turn 50. He crossed the line back in February, but I’m putting it off until at least November. To mark his passage, I gave him tickets for a cruise through Alaska’s inside passage. So we’re heading northwest.
I’ve spent some time on the Oregon and Washington coasts, so I don’t anticipate seeing more than a handful of lifers on this trip, but I have at least an outside chance of seeing two of my most wanted species of all-the Willow Ptarmigan and the Horned Puffin. Neither is common in the area where we’ll be taking out cruise-both are more common farther north and west. I’ve yearned to see a Willow Ptarmigan, the state bird of Alaska, since I read White Fang when I was in fourth or fifth grade-it was ptarmigan chicks that gave White Fang his first successful hunt. But even more significantly for me, every single class I’ve ever taught has voted the Willow Ptarmigan the bird with the weirdest call in the universe. So this is a bird I have wanted to see for a long time.
There are three species of puffin in North America, and I’ve seen two of them. The only one found on the east coast is the Atlantic Puffin–the gorgeous little clown-faced puffin that nests on Machias Seal Island off the coast of Maine and farther north. Our Pacific coast has two puffins–the bizarre Tufted Puffin which can be found far enough south on the coast that I’ve seen a few in Washington, and the Horned Puffin, which is the Pacific counterpart to the Atlantic Puffin. In my mind the Atlantic Puffin is cuter because I prefer a blue to a yellow beak, but otherwise they’re pretty much identical. Puffins are so absolutely adorable that I really want to see get that last tick on my checklist.
In order to have my best chance of seeing these two birds and a few other lifers, I have to be prepared. Whenever I go to a new place, I look through the American Birding Association’s catalog to see what birding guides are available. The most current, affordable book I could find was Robert Armstrong’s Guide to the Birds of Alaska. For each species, I can find out how abundant that bird is, by season, for each area of this huge state. Willow Ptarmigans are common in the huge mass of Alaska, but uncommon in the southern, coastal areas, exactly where we’ll be. Horned Puffins are common in the western coastal part of the state, but rare in the south east where we’ll be. Knowing this tempers my optimism with at least a bit of realism, but seeing the color photos of these birds in the book whets my eagerness.
The great thing about traveling to new places is seeing what they have to offer. I see plenty of Bald Eagles and ravens right here, but everything I’ve read and heard tells me I’ll still be thrilled at the sheer numbers of both in Alaska. I should find plenty of Varied Thrushes, too–exotic relatives of robins that have an ethereal song—I have my fingers crossed tighter that I’ll hear them than that I’ll see them, since I’ve actually seen one in my own backyard, but they show up in Minnesota and Wisconsin during late fall and winter, not their singing season. People tell me there’s some pretty scenery in Alaska, too. I’ll probably notice and appreciate that, but when it comes right down to it, I’m far more drawn to flesh and blood than I am to rocks and ice. I’m thrilled to be going to a new place, to see new wonders. There sure are a lot of splendid places to explore on this little planet that we share.