A Bluethroat eyes us from a willow thicket north of Nome. Photo: Gavin Bieber
Alaska is a spectacular state with stunning snow-covered peaks rising out of flower-laden tundra and vast glaciers flowing into forest-lined fjords, and June is a wonderful month to search for the state’s special birds. We’ll begin in Denali National Park where the breathtaking immensity of Mt. McKinley and the Alaska Range will provide a splendid backdrop as we watch for Grizzly Bear and Smith’s Longspur. We’ll continue on to Nome where rolling tundra, rich in ptarmigans, jaegers, and shorebirds, merges with rugged mountains and rushing streams, home to singing Bluethroats and nesting Gyrfalcons, and the Bering Sea coast with the likes of Arctic Loon and Aleutian Tern. We’ll conclude on the Kenai Peninsula and Resurrection Bay with more magnificent scenery and impressive displays of marine birds and mammals.
Our main tour is bookended by optional extensions to the great seabird colonies of the Pribilof Islands, where thousands of alcids join the very local Red-legged Kittiwake and the odd stray species from Asia and to the very different tundra of Barrow, where all four Eiders, throngs of shorebirds and in most years Snowy Owls nest.
Day 1: The Pribilofs Pre-tour begins at 6:00 pm in Anchorage.
Days 2-3: We depart for the Pribilofs and the village of St. Paul on the morning of Day 2. Here we’ll have ample time to discover the richness of a Bering Sea seabird colony. The auk family is thought to have evolved in this region, and looking at the thousands of Common and Thick-billed Murres, Horned and Tufted Puffins, and Parakeet, Crested, and Least Auklets, one has little trouble believing the theory. Add in Northern Fulmar, Red-faced Cormorant, and the near-endemic and very cute Red-legged Kittiwake, and the sum is an extraordinary display. Often these nesting seabirds are on ledges just a few yards away, offering superb opportunities for photography.
Our visit to St. Paul will concentrate on nesting species, but in early to mid-June we can also hope for late migrants and perhaps a rarity or two. Our previous tours to St. Paul at this season have recorded White-tailed Eagle, Common Pochard, Red-necked Stint, Common Snipe, Wood Sandpiper, Eyebrowed Thrush, Olive-backed Pipit, Siberian Rubythroat, Brambling, and Hawfinch. In addition to the birds, Saint Paul Island hosts he world’s largest colony of Northern Fur Seals, which are easily viewed from blinds. Nights in St. Paul.
Day 4: After a final morning at St. Paul, we’ll return to Anchorage in the late afternoon, where the Pribilofs Pre-tour concludes.
Day 4: Our main tour begins at 9:00 pm in Anchorage. Night in Anchorage.
Day 5: We’ll begin this morning with a visit to Anchorage’s Westchester Lagoon, where we’ll see nesting Red-necked Grebes and, with luck, a variety of summering shorebirds, typically including Hudsonian Godwit and Short-billed Dowitcher. Later we’ll drive the 250 miles north to Denali National Park, a spectacular trip that often provides the best views of Mt. McKinley. Once north of Talkeetna, we’ll enter vast areas of black spruce and willow, where we’ll keep a keen eye out for Spruce Grouse along the road and Bohemian Waxwings or Northern Hawk-Owl perched in the treetops. We’ll arrive at Denali National Park around dinnertime. Night near Denali.
Days 6-7: Denali National Park is closed to most automobile traffic, so we’ll be using the shuttle buses that run about every 30 minutes to points within the park; the complete round trip takes about eight hours. Our main objectives here are scenery and large mammals such as Grizzly Bear, Dall Sheep, and Moose. We’ll also watch for Willow and Rock Ptarmigans, Gyrfalcon, and Golden Eagle. We probably won’t see the mountain from the park: Mount McKinley is so colossal that it creates its own weather, usually bad, and clouds typically obscure all but the lowest slopes. Our best views may come as we drive up from Anchorage or on our flights to and from Nome.
On one of these two days we’ll leave Denali early to bird the splendid Denali Highway, a well-graded dirt road that runs east through near wilderness for 130 miles. Here we’ll look for Trumpeter Swan, Upland Sandpiper, Northern Hawk Owl, Arctic Warbler, and, with some luck, Smith’s Longspur. The scenery is superlative, and the wild lands seemingly endless as the road passes from boreal forest to tundra against the backdrop of the snowy Alaska Range. Nights near Denali National Park.
Day 8: After a final morning in the Denali area, we’ll drive back to Anchorage. We’ll pick a route that will maximize our chances at the species we have missed over the last few days. Perhaps we’ll visit freshwater wetlands where we can look for Barrow’s Goldeneye, or maybe some back roads seeking out boreal species such as Boreal Chickadee or American Three-toed Woodpecker. If we haven’t already seen Northern Hawk Owl, this will be our best chance. We’ll arrive in Anchorage in time for dinner. Night in Anchorage.
Days 9-11: We’ll fly on the morning of Day 9 to the Bering Sea town of Nome. If a birder had to choose just one town in Alaska to visit, it should be Nome. This region has most of what makes Alaska Alaska. At Safety Lagoon, where Red-throated and Pacific Loons breed and Parasitic Jaegers harass nesting Aleutian Terns, migration will still be in progress. We’ll hope to see many waterbirds, perhaps including Emperor Goose or a rarity such as Red-necked Stint. Both of the main roads out of Nome, to Teller and to Taylor, pass through tundra rich in breeding shorebirds, including American and Pacific Golden-Plovers and Bar-tailed Godwit, and in the surrounding hills and along willow-lined rivers we may find nesting Gyrfalcon or Golden Eagle. Willow and Rock Ptarmigans, Bluethroat, Northern Wheatear, Arctic Warbler, and Eastern Yellow Wagtail all occur here as breeders, and we’ll search especially for Bristle-thighed Curlew, a few pairs of which nest accessibly in the wild mountainous landscapes north of Nome; occasionally we’ve seen the curlews in the same field of view as Muskox. Nights in Nome.
Day 12: After a final morning in the Nome area, we’ll take a mid-afternoon flight back to Anchorage. Night in Anchorage.
Day 13: This morning will provide some “down time” for those who wish, while others may prefer birdwatching around Anchorage, where we should see Boreal Chickadee, White-winged Crossbill, and possibly American Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpeckers. Afterwards we’ll drive to Seward through the superb mountain scenery of the Kenai Peninsula. We’ll spend the late afternoon around Seward, where the forest of huge Sitka spruce holds many species that just reach southern Alaska, including Rufous Hummingbird, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Varied Thrush, Townsend’s Warbler, and Pine Grosbeak. The Fox Sparrow we’ll see here along the coast is likely a different species, the Sooty Fox-Sparrow. A lovely feature of our time here will be a dinner of fresh seafood at a restaurant right on a Seward wharf. Night in Seward.
Day 14: We’ll spend the day on Resurrection Bay and Blying Sound south of Seward. If the weather is clear, the scenery is awe-inspiring, and we’ll see at least one spectacular glacier. We’ll visit several large seabird colonies, where we should find Tufted and Horned Puffins, Thick-billed and Common Murres, and thousands of Black-legged Kittiwakes. Rhinoceros Auklet and Ancient Murrelet are both possible, and near one of the glaciers we’ll search through hundreds of Marbled Murrelets for the globally rare Kittlitz’s. In the deep waters at the farthest extent of our boat trip, we could see Short-tailed or Sooty Shearwaters. Marine mammals are also numerous, and we can expect Steller’s Sea Lion, Sea Otter, Humpback Whale, and possibly the magnificent Orca. Night in Seward.
Day 15: After a final morning in Seward driving along the edge of Resurrection Bay to look for Harlequin Duck and Wandering Tattler, we’ll return to Anchorage. We’ll make a quick stop at Potter’s Marsh to check for any interesting waterfowl, and final views of nesting Mew Gulls and Arctic Terns. If we have time, we’ll return to Westchester Lagoon in search of migrating shorebirds. Night in Anchorage.
Day 16: The main tour concludes this morning in Anchorage.
Day 16: Those of us continuing on the extension will fly this morning to Barrow. Night in Barrow.
Day 17: Barrow, the most northerly city in Alaska, has a large native population, an excellent hotel and restaurant, and best of all, access to wonderful high-latitude tundra rich in breeding birds. We’ll have the better part of two days to explore this remarkable environment in search of the breeding birds that have made Barrow famous. We’ll search for Steller’s and Spectacled Eiders (among the more numerous King and Common) and Red Phalarope on the numerous lakes and ponds along the roads and Pectoral and Buff-breasted Sandpipers in the tussock tundra. Yellow-billed Loon is also usually present in small numbers, and if it’s a lemming year, Snowy Owls and Pomarine Jaegers are an obvious part of the local bird community; it’s not unusual to see 20 or 30 of each in a single day. The tundra around Barrow is a remarkably rich environment, with nesting shorebirds seemingly every few hundred yards, and often offers a wealth of opportunities for close-range photography.
There are sometimes rarer species around, including shorebirds such as Ruff and White-rumped or Stilt Sandpiper, or even a vagrant such as Red-necked Stint, and the town of Barrow attracts vagrant landbirds from both the North American and Siberian sides. There is even an outside chance of a Polar Bear. Nights at Barrow.
Day 18: After another full day’s birding at Barrow, we’ll catch an early evening flight back to Anchorage. Night in Anchorage.
Day 19: The Barrow Extension ends this morning in Anchorage.
Updated: 02 February 2012
- 2013 Main Tour Price : $5,350
- Single Occupancy Supplement : $1,050
- Pribilofs Pre-Tour : $2,740
- Pribilofs Single Occupancy Supplement : $140
- Barrow Extension : $1,850
- Barrow Single Occupancy Supplement : $330
* Tour invoices paid by check carry a modest discount. Details here.
Please note that the Extension prices indicated above are valid only in conjunction with the Main Tour. Please contact the WINGS office for prices without the Main Tour.
The Barrow extension price does not include airfare as air travel to Barrow is most economically booked as part of your ticket to and from Anchorage.
This tour is limited to nine participants with one leader.