The subarctic is not the same as Africa’s Serengeti, but I can see why people expect a similar action-packed wildlife safari experience when I see marketing materials for Alaska.

Like eastern Africa, Alaska has several charismatic megafauna — large animals that most Americans can only see in zoos. At Denali National Park and Preserve, they call the most sought-after animals the Big Five: moose, caribou, Dall sheep, grizzly bears and wolves.

The fine print about Alaska wildlife is that many of these creatures are spread out over vast areas and at low densities. Caribou — the most commonly-sighted animal of the Big Five — have a population of about 3,000, in a park that’s about the size of New Hampshire.

Introducing the Little Five

I was thinking about the Big Five this spring. I’m reminded of my efforts to find these animals for visitors last summer who wanted to see Alaska wildlife. I wonder if my guests would have enjoyed their trip more if they hadn’t set their hopes on seeing bears and wolves. I’m glad they weren’t looking for lynx and wolverines, which are particularly elusive.

That’s why I’m introducing this Little Five wildlife viewing list. It’s a checklist of Interior Alaska critters that are both interesting, fairly common and easy to find in the Interior.

There are many to choose from, but I settled on this collection of mammals, birds and the state’s most notorious insect. Except where otherwise noted, the information about each animal comes from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s online species profiles.

Ground squirrel

An Arctic ground squirrel chirps at passing motorists while driving the Denali National Park Road  

Arctic ground squirrels

These prairie-dog-like animals of Canada, Alaska and Siberia are legendary for their hibernation skills. Researchers in Fairbanks have found they drop their body temperatures to below-freezing temperatures during the winter, then periodically shiver themselves warm while still hibernating. In the summer, they are easy to spot near their large burrow colonies.

Where to find them: Arctic ground squirrels tend to live at or around alpine areas, so look for them at elevations and latitudes near the treeline.

Mike Taras, a wildlife education and outreach specialist at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game office in Fairbanks, recommends the area around the entrance of Denali National Park and the Eagle and 12-Mile summits along the Steese Highway. Hikers may also see them on ridge hikes in the Fairbanks such as the Granite Tors loop.

People in alpine areas may also spot or hear the whistles of marmots, a significantly larger burrowing rodent also found in the Interior.

Sandhill crane

Eric Engman/News-Miner A sandhill crane takes flight at Creamer's Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge Wednesday morning, August 21, 2013.  

Sandhill cranes

They’re not year-round residents of Alaska, but these birds make a big splash when they arrive each spring. They have a striking, unmistakable appearance, with tall legs and bright red caps over their orange eyes. They’re among Alaska’s largest birds, with a wingspan as long as 7½ feet. The big birds breed here and migrate through the Interior. They winter in the southern United States and northern Mexico.

Where to find them: Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge in Fairbanks is the obvious spot, but they can be spotted in many open areas. The cranes usually arrive in April and leave in August. The Tanana Valley Sandhill Crane Festival, a celebration of the fall migration in Fairbanks, takes place Aug. 23-25 at Creamer’s Field this year.

Beaver

A beaver swims in the Chena River near the bike path behind the Carlson Center on Saturday, April 18, 2015. ERIN CORNELIUSSEN/NEWS-MINER

North American beavers

Even if you don’t see beavers, it’s hard to miss their handiwork. Beavers are busy construction workers that cut down trees with their teeth and build dams and lodges along waterways. North American beavers are the largest rodents in North America, with adults weighing about the same as a mid-size dog. Beavers are by no means unique to Alaska. They are found in most parts of Canada and the Lower 48 states except for the Southwest and Florida. But they’re pretty common and easy to spot in the Interior.

Where to find them: The Chena River and Noyes Slough in Fairbanks support beaver populations. In general, beavers can be found wherever trees are found in Alaska. They are spreading north as the treeline moves north with the warming climate.

Ptarmigan

A ptarmigan is seen perched in a tree while driving the Denali National Park Road

Ptarmigan

Ptarmigan are members of the grouse family. They’re medium-sized, meaty game birds that gather in big flocks and nest on barren hilltops. Two of the three ptarmigan species in Alaska live in the Interior: the rock ptarmigan and the willow ptarmigan. The willow ptarmigan lives in most parts of Alaska and is the state bird. Ptarmigan rely on camouflage for defense, changing plumage between a snowy white in winter and various shades of mottled brown in summer. They can be hard to see until they flush with an abrupt flapping of wings.

Where to find them: Like ground squirrels, ptarmigan are alpine animals, especially in the summer months. In the winter they come down to the hills surrounding Fairbanks. In the summer, flocks can often be seen north of Fairbanks along the Dalton Highway, and around 12-mile and Eagle summits on the Steese Highway. Willow ptarmigan generally live at lower elevations than rock ptarmigan.

Mosquito

 A mosquito lands on an ear while looking for an easy meal off of Farmers Loop Road May 14, 2018. Eric Engman/News-Miner

Mosquitoes

You don’t have to look for these flying pests. They find you in most parts of the Interior in the summer. Alaska is home to several dozen different species of mosquitoes, not all of which bite humans. The list includes the snow mosquito, which stays active in the winter and is the largest mosquito in North America. The good news for Alaskans is that while the mosquitoes here are a pest, they’re usually not associated with spreading disease like types of mosquitoes at lower latitudes, said Andrew Guinness, a Ph.D. student at the University of Notre Dame who surveyed mosquitoes in Denali National Park in 2015.

Where to find them: The main question people ask is how to avoid them. The best protection is clothing that covers the skin, insect repellent and seeking out high spots with strong breezes.By Sam Friedman

sfriedman@newsminer.com

The subarctic is not the same as Africa’s Serengeti, but I can see why people expect a similar action-packed wildlife safari experience when I see marketing materials for Alaska.

Like eastern Africa, Alaska has several charismatic megafauna — large animals that most Americans can only see in zoos. At Denali National Park and Preserve, they call the most sought-after animals the Big Five: moose, caribou, Dall sheep, grizzly bears and wolves.

The fine print about Alaska wildlife is that many of these creatures are spread out over vast areas and at low densities. Caribou — the most commonly-sighted animal of the Big Five — have a population of about 3,000, in a park that’s about the size of New Hampshire.

Introducing the Little Five

I was thinking about the Big Five this spring. I’m reminded of my efforts to find these animals for visitors last summer who wanted to see Alaska wildlife. I wonder if my guests would have enjoyed their trip more if they hadn’t set their hopes on seeing bears and wolves. I’m glad they weren’t looking for lynx and wolverines, which are particularly elusive.

That’s why I’m introducing this Little Five wildlife viewing list. It’s a checklist of Interior Alaska critters that are both interesting, fairly common and easy to find in the Interior.

There are many to choose from, but I settled on this collection of mammals, birds and the state’s most notorious insect. Except where otherwise noted, the information about each animal comes from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s online species profiles.

Arctic ground squirrels

These prairie-dog-like animals of Canada, Alaska and Siberia are legendary for their hibernation skills. Researchers in Fairbanks have found they drop their body temperatures to below-freezing temperatures during the winter, then periodically shiver themselves warm while still hibernating. In the summer, they are easy to spot near their large burrow colonies.

Where to find them: Arctic ground squirrels tend to live at or around alpine areas, so look for them at elevations and latitudes near the treeline.

Mike Taras, a wildlife education and outreach specialist at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game office in Fairbanks, recommends the area around the entrance of Denali National Park and the Eagle and 12-Mile summits along the Steese Highway. Hikers may also see them on ridge hikes in the Fairbanks such as the Granite Tors loop.

People in alpine areas may also spot or hear the whistles of marmots, a significantly larger burrowing rodent also found in the Interior.

Sandhill cranes

They’re not year-round residents of Alaska, but these birds make a big splash when they arrive each spring. They have a striking, unmistakable appearance, with tall legs and bright red caps over their orange eyes. They’re among Alaska’s largest birds, with a wingspan as long as 7½ feet. The big birds breed here and migrate through the Interior. They winter in the southern United States and northern Mexico.

Where to find them: Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge in Fairbanks is the obvious spot, but they can be spotted in many open areas. The cranes usually arrive in April and leave in August. The Tanana Valley Sandhill Crane Festival, a celebration of the fall migration in Fairbanks, takes place Aug. 23-25 at Creamer’s Field this year.

North American beavers

Even if you don’t see beavers, it’s hard to miss their handiwork. Beavers are busy construction workers that cut down trees with their teeth and build dams and lodges along waterways. North American beavers are the largest rodents in North America, with adults weighing about the same as a mid-size dog. Beavers are by no means unique to Alaska. They are found in most parts of Canada and the Lower 48 states except for the Southwest and Florida. But they’re pretty common and easy to spot in the Interior.

Where to find them: The Chena River and Noyes Slough in Fairbanks support beaver populations. In general, beavers can be found wherever trees are found in Alaska. They are spreading north as the treeline moves north with the warming climate.

Ptarmigan

Ptarmigan are members of the grouse family. They’re medium-sized, meaty game birds that gather in big flocks and nest on barren hilltops. Two of the three ptarmigan species in Alaska live in the Interior: the rock ptarmigan and the willow ptarmigan. The willow ptarmigan lives in most parts of Alaska and is the state bird. Ptarmigan rely on camouflage for defense, changing plumage between a snowy white in winter and various shades of mottled brown in summer. They can be hard to see until they flush with an abrupt flapping of wings.

Where to find them: Like ground squirrels, ptarmigan are alpine animals, especially in the summer months. In the winter they come down to the hills surrounding Fairbanks. In the summer, flocks can often be seen north of Fairbanks along the Dalton Highway, and around 12-mile and Eagle summits on the Steese Highway. Willow ptarmigan generally live at lower elevations than rock ptarmigan.

Mosquitoes

You don’t have to look for these flying pests. They find you in most parts of the Interior in the summer. Alaska is home to several dozen different species of mosquitoes, not all of which bite humans. The list includes the snow mosquito, which stays active in the winter and is the largest mosquito in North America. The good news for Alaskans is that while the mosquitoes here are a pest, they’re usually not associated with spreading disease like types of mosquitoes at lower latitudes, said Andrew Guinness, a Ph.D. student at the University of Notre Dame who surveyed mosquitoes in Denali National Park in 2015.

Where to find them: The main question people ask is how to avoid them. The best protection is clothing that covers the skin, insect repellent and seeking out high spots with strong breezes.