Yes Lions, and no I'm not crazy! I'll explain more later.
This morning we got up bright and early to finish packing and board our Motorcoach headed for Seward. The trip in total is about 7 hours long, ugh! We gave ourselves some extra time to grab some super expensive 'buffet' breakfast from the Courtyard Cafe at our hotel before we had to get on the bus.
Of course, on the way back to the room after breakfast I went into 'birding' mode after hearing something I didn't recognize. Jenny didn't even complain when I grabbed the camera and ran out of the room. The first to show itself wasn't anything we don't have back home, but I was amazed at how close it let me get. Dark-eyed Juncos at home are notoriously spooky, at least in my experience, but this guy was just concerned about singing away.
The next was something different. I saw them yesterday and wrote them off as Tree Swallows, but a closer look reveals that they are something different.
Doesn't the name 'Violet-green Swallow' make perfect sense?
After my quick photo op in the morning we got everything together and made our way to the front of the hotel for our bus ride. The bus was pulling up just as we got to the front of the hotel and after tagging our bags we were on our way. We had two other stops to pick up some more folks headed towards Anchorage/Seward.
Our bus driver gave us some quick notes and told us to keep an eye out for Moose and Caribou as they're frequently seen on and alongside the road. Well, it didn't take long for the first shout of 'moose on the road' to come out from the front of the bus. Sure enough, a moose standing right in the middle of the road with not a care in the world. Kind of scary when you consider when full grown they can stand over 7' tall and weigh up to 1500lbs. Surely something you don't want to hit when doing 60+ on the highway. In fact, the state clears about 50' on each side of the road so that moose can be seen easier in the winter along the sides of the road. You would think that a 7' tall animal would stand out like a sore thumb on the side of the road, but a few steps into the brush and they completely disappear.
Shortly after the first moose sighting our first chance at seeing Mt. McKinley was upon us. We got lucky yesterday in that we were able to see the entirety of the mountain---and got super lucky again today. He told us that we would have a chance to stop later in the morning at a pull-off for some more photo ops.
Mt. McKinley is so hit and miss visibility wise due to the fact that it's so big it actually creates it's own localized weather, so there was no guarantee that it would still be visible later on in the day.
Well, the weather held and as we pulled into the south side viewing platform we had more spectacular looks.
We only had 15 minutes at this stop due to the slow-pokes at the other lodges taking forever to get on the bus, so Jenny and I ran up the trail to get the overlook view showing Mt. McKinley and the Nenana river below.
On the way back down I got distracted by this Black-billed Magpie (same family as crows, ravens and jays). We had seen several during our time at Denali but I was never able to get a decent picture.
While I was focused on the Magpie, Jenny found a Gray Jay in the trees about 20 feet away. I pulled myself away from the Magpie to get some better shots of the Gray Jay since my only pictures from Denali were from waaaay far away. This guy might have been more curious about me than I was of him...
Our drive continued after that to the Talkeetna Lodge before heading to off to Anchorage. We had more good looks at the Alaskan Mountain Chain along the way along with numerous glacial rivers. They're all extremely silty and are the weirdest green/blue color.
At this point I would be lying if I didn't admit to falling asleep for over an hour (and apparently snoring on the bus), so no pictures until we got into the Anchorage area. Our driver pointed out some interesting things along the way, such as this fence that bordered the Alaskan Army base. What in the heck is the gate in the fence you ask?... It's a moose gate. It's a turn-style type gate that allows the moose to cross the highway and enter the area by the base.
After getting into Anchorage and getting dropped off for roughly an hour and a half by the Museum we attempted to grab some lunch inside at the Cafe. Unfortunately, we were told that because the bus just dropped everyone off they wouldn't be able to feed everyone in time. One would think that since this happens daily, they'd actually plan for it instead of acting shocked that they're suddenly packed full with people, but what do I know. So instead we opted for a hole in the wall place that was suggested by one of the very friendly but unhelpful tour guide folks outside. When we got outside this place I was a little unsure, but given what was directly across the street I figured I was safe...
I was a little surprised that a helicopter wasn't launched after me for snapping a quick picture on our way back to board the bus...
The drive from Anchorage to Seward was a lot more scenic than the drive from Talkeetna to Anchorage. Interior Alaska (and specifically most of Denali Nat'l Park) is for the most part technically a desert with a very limited amount of rainfall. There's also a large amount of permafrost and since the growing seasons are so short everything grows at a very slooow pace. Coastal Alaska is actually considered a Temperate Rainforest getting over 300+ inches of rain, and with 20+ hours of daylight during the summer things grow at a substantial rate. Given all of that, there are a TON of moose all around and it didn't take long to spot a couple on our way towards Seward. There we also countless waterfalls along the sides of the roads due to the melting glaciers and snowfall.
Once we got down to the coast after Anchorage we started to see some interesting things like this nut job here...
We also saw a bunch of people scoop net fishing for 'hooligans'. Yes, hooligans. I kid you not...I don't make this stuff up. I'm not sure why they don't just call them smelt...
As we left the Anchorage coast and went up through the pass towards Seward we had some spectacular mountain views, many becoming foggy due to the rain melting the snow higher up.
Getting into Seward we ran across the Alaskan Railroad hauling a bunch of coal north. Aside from moving all of us tourists around, the railroad actually moves all of the coal from the mines in interior Alaska to Fairbanks and Anchorage.
Once we got into Seward and checked into our hotel I happened to look out the balcony and see this...
Figure out what it is? As I was attempting some more pictures birder Jenny pointed out a pair of 'ducks' on the rocks just at the waterline about 30 feet away from me. Harlequins winter on the east coast and one of the largest wintering populations occurs on the Rhode Island shoreline. These guys were much more cooperative when it came to pictures, and the male didn't actually move at all while I was shooting.
And finally....Lions! Not the Simba kind, but the Sea Lion kind! Stellar Sea Lions are classified as endangered in Alaska, and these guys have been cruising right around the hotel for hours now. With some better light tomorrow and Saturday I'll spend some more time down there and get some better shots.
Up for tomorrow...a 9 hour boat trip through the Fjords for Puffins, Alcids, sea lions, seals, sea otters, whales, orcas, and dolphins. Weather looks good so hopefully we'll get lucky again!
Oh yeah, did I mention the pod of Dall Porpoises that spent an hour in the harbor playing around just past the sea lions? :)