Wildlife, Denali National Park and Preserve
Favorite thing: Learning to identify animal tracks is a highly useful resource for those who spend appreciable time in the backcountry (i.e. those who insist upon venturing beyond the park road or leaving the tour bus for hours at a time). Distinguishing between the prints of a fox, a bear, a moose and a caribou will help you to appreciate what animals frequent the area. Students of animal tracks might eventually learn how to identify how long the prints have stood, but generally, the presence of tracks help to sharpen the lookout for the agents who made them.
Fondest memory: Photo: It was a rainy day at the end of August and we found two bull moose foraging in this spruce/taiga forest. They were strengthing up for the fast approaching rutting season when they would be competing for mates. These moose were not seen from the park road. We hiked in through exactly what you see; dense underbrush. There are very few trails in this park. It is encouraged that you find your own path! You could be the first person ever in any particular spot. I wasn't properly outfitted at the time. I was wearing a light rainjacket, jeans, and non-waterproof boots. What a mistake! As you can see, this brush was at least hip high. Pushing through this wet undergrowth left me soaked to the bone. I have since bought myself a complete gortex outfit - jacket, pants and boots. You want to do this as well for any trip to Alaska. You will be much more comfortable and willing to hike in the rain where you may get an opportunity like this to see some wildlife! Rainy days are often better for wildlife viewing as the animals tend to rest and seek shade on sunny days. It may not feel that warm to you, but these animals are used to cold temperatures and if they are very active on a warm sunny day, they can overheat. It rains here a lot in summer and gortex will definately make you a happy camper and hiker! :-)
Fondest memory: It was amazing watching these animals! We didn't get very close (these pics were taken with a 300mm lense). Moose can be dangerous animals and will charge you. I did not want to mess with those antlers! This is the time of year when the moose and caribou lose the velvet on their antlers and they become hardened. This is to prepare them for the battle over females. After the rut and mating with the females, the antlers fall off, only to begin growing again the next spring. These bulls were the first and only bulls I had seen all summer. I had seen many cows and calves. It seems the bulls are more out of view until the rut approaches. Consider yourself lucky if you see one!
Ptarmigans are one of the few birds that remain here in winter. This one was already starting to change color to white to camoflauge itself against the coming snow.
Denali has recorded 159 species of birds. Most of these birds migrate long distances between their nesting grounds here in the park and their wintering areas. Wheateaters migrate to Africa, arctic terns to Antarctica and southern South America, and jaegers spend Alaskan winters at sea in the southern oceans. Ptarmigan, Lapland longspurs, and various shorebirds may be spotted on the open tundra. Short-eared owls and northern harriers can be seen soaring low in search of prey. Golden eagles soar at higher elevations. Hawk owls and goshawks are found in the spruce forest. Plovers, gryfalcons, mew gulls, and snow buntings are some of the other birds you may see here.
Taking a shuttle bus is one of your only options to get in to see the park, unless you go by bike or on your own two feet. This is to limit the disturbance of traffic on the wildlife. The level of traffic going through is limited to 1984 levels. You may have to wait 2-3 days before you can get on a bus.
A fantastic thing about the shuttle bus is that the driver gives narration about the area, it's geographic features, flora and fauna. When wildlife is spotted, the driver stops and everyone has the opportunity to take photos and watch the wildlife in its natural environment.
The park promotes getting out into nature and making your own path. You can ask the bus driver to stop anywhere on the road to let you out (except when wildlife is present) and you can hike off into the wilderness. Just pick a mountain top or a river drainage that appeals to you and go. This is an awesome opportunity to explore areas which may never have been explored before! When you are ready to return, get back to the road (anywhere) and flag down the next bus coming through to take you where you want to go. Unless they are full, they will pick you up. Just make sure you have your ticket with you!
Fondest memory: We saw this sow with her 2 cubs while on our shuttle bus heading to the Eielson Visitor Center. Eielson was our turn-around point. I and two others from my group decided to hike up a rather steep mountain and head back in the direction of the bears. We hiked up and enjoyed some spectacular views. There was no trail of course, so we just made our own way. At the top we watched several Dall sheep rams below us as they climbed in our direction. They kept a watchful eye on us. After an hour and a half or so, we spotted these 3 bears once again far below us. Eventually they made their way onto the road as we descended the mountain. At a certain point we stopped and just watched. We were keeping our distance. :-) There was nothing preventing these bears from changing direction and heading towards us...
Fondest memory: These arctic ground squirrels are found all over the park. They are very inqusitive and this often puts them in danger of becoming prey. We often saw them stand on their hind legs when we approached in the shuttle bus. They naturally do this to access if we are a threat. Wolves, fox, and grizzlies have become wise to this and wait in ambush for these little guys to show themselves when a bus comes through. They are a major food source for these predators.
Fondest memory: Another beautiful view of the Alaska Range. There had been a fresh snowfall overnight and it made this area look even more spectacular! You will most likely not see it, as it is a very tiny dot here in the photo, but there is a grizzly bear where the flat land meets the base of the mountain. We were following it for some distance but it continually went further away from the road.
Fondest memory: Here is one of many grizzly sightings I've had in the park. The photos were all taken from the bus. No one is allowed to disembark when any wildlife is present. We followed this sow and her cub for about 20 minutes. I got quite a few pics (all at 300mm). At the end it ran at top speed and chased down a ground squirrel. It was very exciting! Grizzly bears are omnivores, eating small plants, berries, ground squirrels, moose or caribou calves, and occasional carrion. They are seen throughout the park. Sows generally bear 2 cubs, sometimes one, and rarely 3. They are fiercely protective of their offspring.
Here she goes, with her cub trying its best to keep up. Each time that I traveled into the park with this shuttle bus, we had at least half a dozen grizzly sightings. It was almost guaranteed! Granted, most were at quite a distance, but there were times when we saw them very close to the roadside.
You never know what will happen in the wild. There have been some very interesting sightings in the past from these shuttle buses. I was reading through a book in a bookstore at the park entrance written by one of the shuttle drivers (I think). One day, a bus load of people witnessed a pack of wolves attack a grizzly with her 3 cubs. They attacked from all sides and the sow had no choice but to save the one cub she could. Reading this amazed me! I never would have considered this as a possibility. At the same time, a lone grizzly has been known to chase a pack of wolves away from a kill. This wild land is as unpredictable as it is beautiful.
Fondest memory: Caribou, like Dall sheep, travel in groups. Both sexes sport antlers, the only deer family members to do so. Caribou migrate great distances from their calving grounds south of the Alaska Range and northwest of Mt. McKinley to their winter range in the northern reaches of the park and preserve. The Denali herd has fluctuated greatly in number over the last 30 years. Today groups of 20 or more may be seen from the park road, unlike the thousands seen many years ago. It is not certain why this has occurred but it is not thought to be an influence by man. It's thought to be a natural occurence or cycle which in time will correct itself.
There are 37 mammal species recorded in the park.
Some of the smaller ones include: fox, weasel, wolverine, lynx, marten, snowshoe hare, hoary marmot, red squirrel, pika, porcupine, beaver, shrew, vole, and lemming.
We spotted this marmot climbing around on this rock slide as we were ascending Polychrome Pass on the shuttle bus. Marmots and pikas live comfortably in these rock slide areas, so keep an eye out for them if you see this type of environment.
Nowhere that I have been on the North American continent have I seen more impressive and diverse wildlife in such profusion as at Denali National Park. It is one of the few places anywhere that the average visitor can realistically expect to see Caribou, Moose, Dall Sheep and Grizzly Bear all in the same day. Many also report sighting one of the several packs of Wolves which prowl the vast Denai expanse, although I was not personally so fortunate.
Smaller animals also abound in this harsh sub-arctic environment: fox, weasel, wolverine, lynx, marten, snowshoe hare, hoary marmot, red squirrel, arctic ground squirrel, pika, porcupine, beaver shrew, vole, and lemming. A total of 37 different species have been recorded within the park and preserve.
Birdlife is also varied and interesting. Most of these birds migrate far from their winter feeding grounds in the south to mate and raise their young during the long summer days of Denali. Of the 159 species recorded a few one may see include: ptarmigan, golden eagle, spruce grouse, raven, magpie, gray jay, varied thrush and many more.
Fondest memory: Here's the same ptarmigan. I took this shot at the Savage River checkpoint at mile 14 on the park road. From here, the road becomes unpaved and is closed to private vehicles. If you're not continuing on from here with a shuttle bus, this is a good spot to watch for wildlife or venture out on a hike.
Favorite thing: These large animals stay in high latitude such as Alaska's interier and inside the Arctic circle, so Denali is the ideal place to spot them. The photo was taken at around mile 21 - 23, not too far after I passed Savege River bridge on Denali Park Rd. Luckily I was driving my own car and was able to spend sometime waiting for the shot.
Favorite thing: Ptarmigan is the state bird of Alaska. These cute little birds don't fly. They just walk around the bush like wild chicken. They seemed to have strong family value, because the pair I saw never wandered too far from one another. The one shown in photo is male, I think. It's a lot more colorful than its partner. The photo was taken at the bank of Savage River.
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