Susitna Writer’s Voice-A Summer Day in Hatcher Pass, by Robin Song

Photos by Robin Song


Before I get into my story, I want to share a quick update on the two nests I observed last summer. The eagle nest in Wasilla, which raised a rare three offspring to fledge, did not use that same nest this year. When I went to observe it, I arrived in time to watch a confrontation between the male eagle and and a magpie.

The insistent magpie flew at the eagle, which was perched on the cottonwood branch above the nest. After about ten minutes, the magpie finally flew off, and five minutes after that, the eagle also left. I theorized that the magpies may have driven off the eagle pair when they started to nest in the spring, and the eagles could have chosen another place to nest. The magpies obviously have a nest in the area and weren’t going to tolerate the eagles in their territory. It remains to be seen where the eagles will choose to nest next year-in their old nest, driving off the magpies, or in their new locale.

The osprey pair, which bravely stayed with their offspring through the ordeal of the Sockeye fire, returned in the spring to find their nest removed from the A T & T tower. (The nest was removed in February.) Plastic owls were installed atop the tower, and this was successful in prohibiting the ospreys from rebuilding. (I observed a raven sitting by one of the owls- they weren’t fooled!)

I found the new nest site two miles north east, built atop a tower used by the Rail Road. There’s a lake to the east of the site, and I often sat in the car and waited until dad osprey arrived with a fish-sometimes quite a large one. He would give it to mom, who would tear it into small pieces and feed it to the young. Twice I observed dad waiting until more than half the fish had been fed to the young, then he took off with the rest, flying to a nearby tree to feed. It’s a good site-far from the racket of the Raceway at the former site, and closed off from any vehicular traffic by a gate across the railroad tracks.

On July seventh I met Maureen Chambrone on Hatcher Pass road to go birding. She would be flying to Bethel later in the day, and wanted to spend some time in Hatcher before she left for the Interior. I hadn’t been to Hatcher since the spring, and was looking forward to going to Summit Lake, which was unattainable then, due to snow.

I found Maureen pulled off beside the road in the valley below the climb to the summit, binoculars in hand. She was hoping to find Golden Crowned Sparrows-one of her favorite birds. To her delight, there were several to be found, males singing lustily, from the flat lands on up. We birded along the road, sometimes pulling off and hiking in separate areas, returning later to compare notes. We found the following species: Golden Crowned Sparrows, American Pipits, White Throated Sparrows, Black Poll Warblers, Savannah Sparrows, Magpies, Ravens, Lincoln’s Sparrows, Tree Sparrows, and Wilson’s Warblers.

I had seen a red fox curled up beside the road when I started up the long grade on the paved road early in the day, and a yearling cow moose had burst out of the brush and galloped up the road ahead of my car, veering off the road to the north, while I was driving alongside the creek. I looked for a predator pursuing her, but couldn’t see one. We heard and saw ground squirrels while we were birding, and heard-but didn’t see- marmots, while hiking around Summit Lake.

Maureen also brought along a wildflower book, and we spent time examining the plethora of flowers in bloom at the summit. Saxifrage are amongst my favorites, and I was pleased to find yellow and white varieties. Later in the day, while observing one of my favorite birds-Wilson’s Warblers- I came upon a large dark-blue flower down in the flat lands, but have yet to identify it.

After Maureen headed back, I spent several more hours birding. I had brought along my two dogs and my pet banty hen, Jessa. Whenever I got out to go birding, I let them out. I found that the wild birds were very curious about Jessa and would often fly near us to look at her. She would scratch and peck amongst the ground plants, searching for insects, oblivious to the scrutiny by the birds around her. Their curiosity about her gave me a small window of photographic opportunity before they flew off, curiosity satisfied.

After Maureen left I headed back down to the valley, hoping to observe more than the few Wilson’s I had seen just below the climb to the summit. Back down near the creek I saw a bird flash amongst the brush and pulled into a parking area. I let dogs and hen out and headed toward a line of spruce to the north. I was pleased to find several pairs of Wilson’s amongst the spruce, busy hunting insects. The tiny bright-yellow birds were easy to pick out against the dark-green of the spruce. Then I noticed two pairs working in brush to my right, at about shoulder-height. I slowly made my way over, and picked a spot to stand and observe. The dogs sprawled in the lichens, and Jessa set about scratching for insects. In awhile, a pair of Wilson’s spotted Jessa. The male stayed in one area of bushes, but the female came closer to me, working her way over to Jessa. I had always wanted to get good photos of Wilson’s and this pair was giving me ample opportunities. Even though the sun often disappeared behind the huge rain clouds moving through the area, I was still able to get several good photos. Wilson’s are rather shy birds, almost constantly moving, searching for insects. It took awhile for this pair to get used to my presence and come out of the brush to perch on bare branches and relax enough to preen. I think because the dogs were stretched out napping, and Jessa was busy doing bird behaviors, this helped the warblers trust me to some degree.

It wasn’t very long before a large cloud bank moved in and obliterated the sun once and for all, so I took my cue and headed back to the car with my animal friends. Driving back out, the clouds opened up and dumped rain. I had spent ten wonderful hours in Hatcher.

Though it’s not as big and grand as Denali Park, Hatcher Pass has its own special ecosystem, and if you want to spend a few hours exploring birds, wildflowers and mountains, I highly recommend a trip there.

Susitna Writer’s Voice

A Day In Hatcher Pass

Robin Song




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