Birds of Denali - Avian Habitats
Denali contains a rich diversity of avian habitats. From Talkeetna northwest across the Alaska Range to Lake Minchumina, a mosaic of habitats exists ranging from low wet meadows to alpine fields. Birds inhabit most of these areas including the seemingly lifeless high altitude snowfields and glacial moraines where snow buntings and gray-crowned rosy finches thrive. The most commonly visited areas of Denali include the mountainous regions of the Alaska Range. This is a landscape shaped by glaciers and erosion. In this area, most of Denali lies above tree line and hiking is relatively easy in vast open landscapes. Visitors that are more adventurous may venture into the northwestern portion of Denali, the Minchumina Basin, a land rich with wetlands and multitudes of waterfowl. Hundreds of trumpeter swans nest in the Minchumina Basin each year. Denali is a vibrant landscape that is constantly changing. By the end of the next century, visitors to Denali may encounter a place much different from that explored by Charles Sheldon in the early 1900's. It is unclear how global climate change will affect birds and their surroundings in Denali. It is clear, however, that Denali's habitats are dynamic and that shifts in the abundance and distribution of vegetative communities will likewise affect the abundance and distribution of birds across this great northern ecosystem. The following images are representative of the major bird habitats found in Denali National Park and Preserve.
Denali's wetlands host a variety of waterfowl and shorebirds such as geese, swans, ducks, cranes, sandpipers, and gulls.
Lakes and Ponds
Loons, grebes, waterfowl, and shorebirds are found throughout Denali's lake and pond habitats.
Semipalmated plovers roam the vast riverbar habitats spread across Denali National Park and Preserve.
Shrub communities are widespread in Denali and range from dwarf to tall varieties. Shrub habitats in alpine areas predominately consist of small species such as dwarf birch.
Tall shrub communities occur along rivers, drainages, and near treeline. Predominately made up of willows and alders, these areas are usually great for birding. A variety of species including arctic warblers, gray-cheeked thrushes, and several types of sparrows can be found in tall shrub habitats.
The major forest types of interior Alaska (needleleaf, deciduous, and mixed) are found in Denali. Black-capped and boreal chickadees, ruby-crowned kinglets, Swainson's thrushes, yellow-rumped warblers, pine grosbeaks, and dark-eyed juncos are common forest species.
The majority of Denali's forests are made up of smaller black and white spruce. Stands of these small conifers are found across the landscape. Don't let the size of these trees fool you. A 10 meter high tree may be well over 200 years old.
The forests of Denali encompass a few hardy species well adapted to life in the north. Towering white spruce and cottonwood are found along streams and rivers on the south side of the Alaska Range while narrow strips of smaller spruce (right) line many of the rivers at lower elevations on the north side of the range.
Deciduous forests are not common in Denali. Where they do exist, poplar, aspen, and birch are the dominate species. Birds in these areas include woodpeckers, thrushes, and warblers.
Views from Denali's alpine habitat are stunning. Travel on open alpine landscapes is relatively easy and the insects are at a minimum. The greatest challenge facing the average birder may be resisting the urge to take a hillside nap in the sun. Fortunately, the sun will still be there afterwards!
Alpine habitat offers some of the most colorful birding in Denali. Here you'll find American golden plovers, northern wheatear, Lapland longspurs, and long-tailed jaegers all breeding amongst a myriad of alpine wildflowers.
On the margin between soil and stone, species such as surfbirds and gray-crowned rosy finches return each year to nest and raise their young.
Rock Outcrops & Talus Slopes
Rock outcrops, cliffs, and talus slopes make up much of Denali's environment. While extreme by most standards, this habitat hosts a variety of bird species. Across a landscape dotted with wildflowers and endless fields of stone, Say's phoebes, golden eagles, gyrfalcons, and rock ptarmigan abound.
Walking on talus (rock debris) slopes can be challenging, but the rewards are great. Beautiful scenery, an escape from the mosquitos, and the chance to see bird species rarely found at lower altitudes are just a few reasons to visit this spectacular habitat.
Did You Know?
Warmer average temperatures over several decades have resulted in expansion of woody vegetation. If this warming trend continues, it will change Alaska's ecosystems and drastically alter the physical appearance of Denali's landscape, as treeline marches higher up the mountains.