Denali in Winter

The Christmas Bird Count
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The day begins slowly, with coffee and conversation around the wood stove in Nan Eagleson and Bob Shelton's log-cabin home. Though we've all come here for the Denali National Park Christmas bird count, no one feels a rush to get outdoors. With winter solstice only four days away, the sun doesn't rise until after 10:30 a.m., giving us roughly four and a half hours of daylight. The thermometer reads -20 F as we leave the house, not exceptionally cold for this time of year. Snowfall has been light this year; less than three inches covers the ground. So instead of skiing, mushing, or snowshoeing, we walk. The sky is blue everywhere we look, but the sun hangs low and we'll remain in mountain shadows throughout the day.

Within a half hour on the trail my partner and I make our first and most notable sighting of the day: A northern hawk owl skirts the spruce tops before us, then disappears. This distinctive bird is a year-round Denali resident but hasn't been observed on previous count days, so this is a major coup. A few minutes later, we spot four gray jays branch-hopping in the spruce. But our promising start soon gives way to hours of birdless walking. By early afternoon we've identified only one other species: a black-capped chickadee. The temperature has dropped several degrees and the deepening cold seeps through my four layers of shirts and jackets. We maintain a steady pace to keep warm. We add one more bird to our list, a boreal chickadee, before calling it a day and returning to the cabin at 4 p.m. in darkening twilight. Other counters gradually drift in, several with food for a potluck dinner. The cabin soon fills with people, conversation, and appetizing aromas.

Although not a scientific census, the results of the Christmas bird count give a sense of how dormant the park can appear in the winter. The event is also a chance for human residents of this area to break winter's isolation. Busy with travelers and tourist operations in summer, the highway corridor outside Denali National Park's entrance grows quiet in winter. Like the birds, most people depart by early October. Only a few dozen people live here year-round, a community of cabin dwellers on the edge of wilderness.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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