X Marks the Spot: Day Twelve on the Alaska Road Trip

Back on the road, our first stop was the tiny post office of Moose Pass, an itty-bitty town, where I mailed off my paperwork (printed nearly a week earlier in Fairbanks, a hazard of being in rural Alaska) and bought postcard stamps.

Better late than never (sorry Olivia!)

We backtracked past Anchorage and paused at the world’s-slowest-diner, Kava’s Pancake House, for second breakfast. My meal included three massive reindeer sausages; I saved one in a piece of buttered toast for dinner.

A great birding spot, Reflection Lake, materialized within the boundaries of Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge. We saw a black-capped chickadee gleaning spiders from twigs, reinforcing our earlier sighting of boreal chickadees.

This black-capped chickadee had less rufous on its sides and more white on its cheeks than did the boreal chickadees of earlier in the week.

Mama ring-necked duck with a big clutch of teenagers.

In the lake, a red-necked grebe and his baby caught fish.

Necky and Stripey.

Goofy and Hatty.

A hermit thrush hopped in the open ahead on the path! (Birders: are we interpreting those rusty tail feathers and spotty chest correctly? Swainson's and gray-cheeked thrushes live here too.)

Hermit thrush exhibit A.

Hermit thrush exhibit B.

Best of all, we finally found our icterid lifer, the rusty blackbird!

A male rusty blackbird is a striking bandit-masked critter!

“That’s our bird-of-the-day!” we cheered, but little did we know what was coming next…

As we climbed the pass between Anchorage and Tok, we ascended back into our beloved boreal forest biome. I thought we had left the stunted black spruce behind, but now, as we retreated into the interior, we were back among them!

“Let’s keep scanning the treetops for northern hawk-owls,” Jane suggested, an activity we had given up days prior. Futile though I expected it to be, I began to scan the trees. A minute later – there was an owl!

Jane pulled a U-turn and photographed the quizzical little owl like crazy. His long, off-center tail and stripes give him a little-kid-in-pajamas look. What a guy.

Long tail, stripey chest, don't care.

Alone atop his very own spruce.

It was a boomer day for raptors. Shortly after the hawk-owl, a real hawk emerged!

Hey, hawks like spruce trees, too!

We think he's a juvenile red-tailed hawk from the stripes on his wings and tail. Thoughts?

We stopped at roadside ponds for waterfowl, meeting several other travelers along the way.

Non-breeding-plumage buffleheads in a roadside pond.

Canvasbacks and an interloping wigeon.

This lone trumpeter swan was one of the few we saw without a mate.

“Excuse me, are you a birder?” asked a woman at a rest stop. “I could tell because of your binocular harness. X marks the spot!” (She was referring to the criss-crossed straps on Jane’s back.)

We checked into the Golden Bear Motel in Tok, and then moseyed out to the lobby for tea and hot water. Two, then three, crusty local dudes told us lore of the 85-degrees-below Tok winters.

“Scientists say if you are running in the nude at that temperature, you’ll die as quickly as if you were runnin’ through fire!” one of them told us. Most of the winter isn’t that bad, they assured us. The air is so still, ten inches of powder can pile up on each telephone wire, and the sun is often shining on the crunchy white snow.

“Sure, it’s dark,” one man conceded.

“Yeah, you watch the sun come up, and hover for a couple hours, and go back down,” another added.

“But the twilight lasts forever!” said the first. “Not like Hawaii. I was there once and when the sun set, BAM, it was night. I was like, what the hell? Where’s the twilight? Nah, Tok’s not so bad.”

We all nodded and sipped our tea.

Tok, Alaska - it ain't so bad.

End of day summary:
  • Day of road trip: 12 
  • Start: Seward, Alaska, United States 
  • Miles traveled: 442 
  • Hours driven: 8.5 
  • Favorite bird sighting: northern hawk-owl 
  • End: Tok, Alaska, United States