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Outdoors/Adventure

In a far from normal autumn on the Denali Highway, a Steller’s sea eagle makes a rare appearance

It has been a far from normal hunting season on the Denali Highway. September weather is usually pretty decent but the rainy summer has parlayed into a rainier fall. There has been frost, but nothing of consequence. There are hunters in abundance and plenty of berry pickers.

The berry pickers are having a bonanza season. There are great blueberries on the southwest exposures and scattered spots with decent berries on some northwest-facing hillsides. Nothing unusual about that, except that the blueberries are still firm and easy to pick, with even a few green berries on the bushes.

The cranberry crop appears to be fair, though they have not had the hard frost they require to be ready to use. Tangle Lakes and the Maclaren are the better locations for blueberries, while those seeking cranberries will have better success further west.

Grayling are still biting at Tangle Lakes, Clearwater Creek and the Brushkana. Lake trout are moving into shallower water as their spawning season approaches. Anglers with patience should have good luck with color patterns that mimic spawning males.

Caribou are beginning to move closer to the Denali Highway. Small groups that summered in the Clearwater Mountains are moving down as the snow line lowers. Daytime highs along Tangle Lakes and in the Maclaren/Clearwater area have been in the low-40s, and those temperatures along with the cold rains have started the caribou that were on the slopes of the Alphabet Hills moving also.

Hunters are spotting caribou closer to the highway, though few are yet being taken within reasonable walking distance.

Moose are a different story. They are scarce. Most hunters say they haven’t even seen a cow. A couple of guys from somewhere else recently shot a small bull four miles from the road just before dark. They were wet from walking through the brush all day with inadequate gear. Instead of taking care of the moose, marking it and heading for camp, they partially quartered it before realizing they should have spent the last of the daylight moving.

Sometime around midnight they stumbled toward the road, reaching their camp about 3 a.m. The joys of hunting moose in Alaska will not be apparent to these guys until a couple of seasons dull the memories. Right now, they still have that four-mile pack to look forward to.

The real highlight of the season has been the sighting of a Steller’s sea eagle near Maclaren River Lodge. Josh Parks made note of the rare occurrence late last month with a great photo of the eagle sitting in one of the few spruces in the area. He shared it on Facebook, and over the next couple of days the bird was seen and photographed at milepost 65 and on the upper Maclaren River.

The bird hasn’t been seen since moose season began, though I suspect it may still be in the area feeding on caribou carcasses.

The Steller’s sea eagle is a Russian bird common on the Kamchatka Pennisula and along parts of the Russia coast. Alaska sightings are usually limited to Pribilof Island and Kodiak Island. Juneau had a recorded sighting in 2012, and Buldir Island, far out on the Aleutians, had a sighting in 2015.

The fact those limited sightings were taken note indicates how rare these birds are in North America. Indeed, there are an estimated 6,000 sea eagles worldwide.

Steller’s sea eagles have the largest average weight of any living eagle and can have a wingspan greater than eight feet. They are aggressive hunters, subsisting primarily on fish and small mammals.

The Maclaren bird was near a caribou carcass, probably making a convenient meal from a hunter’s leftovers. What it was doing so far from its normal haunts is mystery. Not only is it far, far inland, it had to cross some fairly high mountains to get to the Denali. Though Steller’s sea eagles will sometimes winter in the mountains, those mountains are typically near the coast.

If you’re a serious birder, it could be worth the trip to the Denali to see if this rare bird can be sighted, possibly between miles 65 and 78 mile along the highway where there may be caribou carcasses.

Another likely spot could be the Gulkana River just north of Paxson. Bald eagles congregate there in the fall to feed on spawning sockeye salmon, and in one of the last sightings of the Steller’s sea eagle it was in the company of five bald eagles on the Maclaren River.

And if you don’t see the eagle, you can always pick berries.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.

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