birds, bird studies, and bird conservation in denali ... · pdf filehis field studies in the...

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    Mt. McKinley National Park was created in1917, mainly because of its rich wildlife resources.With the passage of the Alaska National InterestLands Conservation Act (commonly referred to asANILCA) in 1980, nearly 4 million acres were add-ed to the original park, and the new complex ofpark and preserve lands was designated as DenaliNational Park and Preserve. Denali is well knownfor its diversity of wildlife and scenery. Thirty-ninespecies of mammals, 165 species of birds, 10species of fish, and one amphibian have beenrecorded in Denali. Of the bird species, 149 occurregularly and 119 are recorded as breeders (nest-ing in the park and preserve).

    Naturalist Charles Sheldon and scientistsJoseph Dixon, George Wright, Olaus Murie, andAdolph Murie, who worked in Denali from 1906through the early 1930s, were the first scientists tostudy and understand the ecological significanceof birds in Denali. These early studies were fol-lowed by more in-depth and long-term studies byAdolph Murie extending from the late 1930s untilabout 1970. The valuable contributions of thesescientists are published in several books. Thetravels and field observations of Charles Sheldonwere published in 1930 in The Wilderness of Dena-li. In 1938, Joseph Dixon published the findings ofhis field studies in the notable book Birds andMammals of Mount McKinley National Park,Alaska. Adolph Murie made significant contribu-tions to understanding many northern specieswith his landmark books The Wolves of MountMcKinley published in 1944, The Mammals ofMount McKinley published in 1962, The Birds ofMount McKinley, Alaska published in 1963, andThe Grizzlies of Mount McKinley published in1985. In The Birds of Mount McKinley, Alaska,Murie states

    In McKinley Park the visitor has the rare opportu-nity to enjoy northern landscapes, a variety of lichensand flowers, and grizzlies, caribou, Dall sheep, per-haps a wolf or a wolverine, and a number of birds in

    their northern breeding grounds. Of special interestamong the birds are three species of ptarmigan, eachwith a specialized voice and an inclination to use it.There are shorebirds, two of which, the surfbird andthe wandering tattler, are of special interest becausemost of the nesting data on them have been gatheredin the park. The arctic warbler and the wheatear, visi-tors from Asia, are relatively common. The goldeneagle, unmolested and free, may frequently be seensoaring in the blue sky over its mountain home. Maythis magnificent bird and other migrants, survive themany new hazards in the south and continue return-ing each spring in the future, to contribute beautyand spirit to this northern wilderness.

    The foresight of Adolph Murie is evident inthis passage from his book. Murie and others real-ized that Denali is not isolated from the environ-mental hazards created by humans and that its mi-gratory birds face an increasing number of threatson their migratory journeys and winteringgrounds. Murie, along with other naturalists andscientists including Charles Sheldon, Joseph Dix-on, and George Wright, all realized the importanceof preserving the ecosystems and wildlife of De-nali in the rapidly changing world.

    Denalis bird life is made up of migratory birdsfrom all over the globe and a hardy group of birdsthat remain in the area year-round. The abundanceof birds in Denali ebbs and flows across the sea-sons, increasing significantly as migrants return toDenali in spring and decreasing when they departin autumn. Summer birding in Denali rewards visi-tors with opportunities to view many species inthis spectacular northern environment. Birding inwinter is slim by numbers but great in rewards, asobservations of pine grosbeaks, mixed flocks ofptarmigan, or perhaps a northern goshawk or gyr-falcon await the hardy winter birder.

    Visitors are drawn to Denali to search for manynorthern species of birds. The beauty and theunique lifestyles of these northern breeders rousethe curiosity of many naturalists, scientists, andvisitors. While we revere the beauty of Denalis

    Birds, Bird Studies, and Bird Conservationin Denali National Park and Preserve

    This article was preparedby Carol L. McIntyre,

    Wildlife Biologist,Denali National Park

    and Preserve.

    This document has been archived.

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    birds, we must also acknowledge the threats totheir existence. Denalis migratory birds face a mul-titude of hazards during their migratory journeysand on their wintering areas. Even in the seem-ingly pristine environments of Denali, year-roundresidents face changes in habitat, climate, and thepresence of chemical contaminants. Broad-scalethreats such as chemical pollutants that remain inour environment (known as persistent organicpollutants) and global climatic changes may havelong-lasting and far-reaching effects on Denalisbirds. On a local scale, increases in human activi-ties may alter the habitats and habits of differentspecies as more humans visit Denali.

    The goal of this article is to introduce you tothe birds of Denali, describe some of our historicand recent bird studies, and discuss some of theconservation issues facing Denalis birds. Bylearning more about Denalis birds and how theyconnect Denali to the world, we can better under-stand the role that Denali and its bird life play inglobal ecosystems. By understanding these eco-logical connections, perhaps we can more clearlysee our role in preserving global ecosystems forbirdsand for ourselves.

    The BirdsThirty-five species of water birds (loons,

    grebes, swans, and ducks) occur in Denali, and 23

    species are recorded as nesting in Denali. Threespecies of loonsred-throated, Pacific, and com-monand two species of grebeshorned andred-neckednest in Denali. Geese are most oftenseen during migration and are not common breed-ers, except for white-fronted geese, includingTules white-fronted geese, which nest in Denali.Over 400 pairs of trumpeter swans nest in the pro-ductive wetlands in the northwestern portion ofDenali and along Denalis southern borders. Tun-dra swans do not nest in Denali but are commonlyseen during spring and autumn migration. Twenty-three species of ducks, including 15 nestingspecies, occur in Denali. Nesting species includeAmerican wigeon, mallard, northern shoveler,northern pintail, green-winged teal, greater andlesser scaup, harlequin, surf scoter, white-wingedscoter, black scoter, long-tailed duck, bufflehead,Barrows goldeneye, and red-breasted merganser.Ducks seen during migration include gadwall,Eurasian wigeon, blue-winged teal, canvasback,redhead, ring-necked, common goldeneye, andcommon merganser. All of the water birds thatoccur in Denali are migratory. Some species, suchas the long-tailed duck and surf scoter, spend theirwinters at sea. Other species, such as the white-fronted goose, may winter as far south as centralMexico.

    Predatory birds (or raptors), including harriers,hawks, eagles, falcons, and owls, are well repre-sented in Denali. Species nesting in Denali includeosprey (rare), northern harrier, bald eagle, sharp-shinned hawk, northern goshawk, red-tailed hawk,golden eagle, gyrfalcon, peregrine falcon, merlin,American kestrel, great-horned owl, northern hawkowl, great gray owl (rare), short-eared owl, andboreal owl. Migrants and occasional visitorsinclude rough-legged hawk and snowy owl. Mostof the diurnal raptorsthe harriers, hawks, eagles,and falconsare migratory. Exceptions to thisinclude gyrfalcons and northern goshawks. Gyr-falcons are the largest falcon in the world, andthey nest only in Arctic regions. Adult gyrfalconsusually remain on or near their nesting groundsthroughout the year unless they cant find food.Juvenile gyrfalcons are more likely to move awayfrom the nesting grounds during the winter insearch of food. Northern goshawks are usuallyyear-round residents but will leave this area whenfood is scarce. Most of Denalis owls are year-round residents, with the exception of short-earedowls. These beautiful owls are migratory, but wehavent identified their wintering areas. Northernhawk owls and great gray owls are nomadic, and

    Opportunities to see thestrikingly handsome

    northern hawk owl luremany birdwatchers to


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    they move long distances in search of food.The wintering range of Denalis migratory rap-

    tors and owl spans a large area from central Alber-ta to South America. Within a species, individualsin a population may also be spread over a largegeographic area in winter. For instance, goldeneagles from Denali winter from central Alberta tonorth-central Mexico and merlins from Denali maywinter from the southwestern United States(including southern California) to central SouthAmerica.

    Ruffed and spruce grouse and all three speciesof North American ptarmigan (willow, rock, andwhite-tailed) are year-round residents in Denali.Grouse are found in the forested regions of Denali.The smallest and least abundant white-tailed ptar-migan is usually found at higher elevations. Thelarger and more abundant rock ptarmigan is a biteasier to find and occurs in alpine tundra. Themost common and largest of the three species,the willow ptarmigan, occurs in shrubby areas,usually at or below tree line. All three species flocktogether in winter.

    One of the greatest birdwatching experiencesin Denali is the spring and autumn migrations ofsandhill cranes. In late August the snowlines andtemperatures creep down, the tundra turns crim-son and gold, and large flocks of sandhill craneswhirl overhead on their way south. From lateAugust through mid-September, the loud, resonat-ing garroo-garroo-garroo of the adults and thehigher-pitched shrill calls of the juveniles are com-mon sounds near Wonder Lake. The return ofsandhill cranes in May is a sure sign of spring.

    Many visitors are surprised to learn that Denaliis home to nesting shorebirds. At least 21 speciesof shorebirds nes

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