Skip to navigation, or go to main content.

WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Alaska: Majesty of the North

2017 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Our 2017 trip across the magnificent state of Alaska just wrapped up in spectacular fashion.  More than most places in North America the birding often winds up playing second fiddle to a wide array of jaw-dropping scenery.  The birds are surprisingly diverse for such a northerly location and we tallied an impressive 188 species on this year’s tour (including the Pribilof and Barrow extensions).  The sheer scope of the wildlands in Alaska is astounding, with many ecosystems still functioning in a close to pristine state.  It’s hard to pick out favorites as each leg of the trip held its own prizes.  In the surprisingly rain-free and warm Pribilofs Islands we reveled in our views of cliff nesting seabirds, and lucked into several rarities including a very cooperative Marsh Sandpiper, drake Tufted Duck, alternate plumaged Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and a flock of dapper Hawfinch.  Around the towering peaks of Denali we encountered vocal Golden-crowned Sparrows and Wilson’s Warblers calling from the shrubby willows, soaring Golden Eagles attending a cliff-side aerie and views of the mountain top poking out from the mosaic of constantly changing clouds.  A bit north of Anchorage we stopped in at a recently burned patch of forest and enjoyed point-blank views of Black-backed and American Three-toed Woodpeckers foraging in the lower trunks of burnt spruces.  Around the open tundra and seemingly endless rolling mountains of Nome we found breeding Aleutian Terns, Bar-tailed Godwits, Bluethroat, Arctic Warbler, nesting Gyrfalcons, American and Pacific Golden Plovers, a flock of Red-necked Stint, and both Willow and Rock Ptarmigan. In the stunning fjords that fringe the Kenai Peninsula we found Ancient, Marbled and Kittlitz’s Murrelets (among 9 species of alcids for the day), and in the adjacent Sitka Spruce forests a suite of birds more commonly thought of as belonging to the Pacific Northwest, like Red Crossbill, Pine Grosbeak, Northwestern Crow, Rufous Hummingbird and Chestnut-backed Chickadee.  We wrapped up in Barrow, with all four species of Eider at close range and in perfect plumage, and a flock of dainty Sabine’s Gulls dancing over some tundra pools.  The mammals bear mentioning too, with an impressive 24 species during the trip.  Iconic wilderness species like Grizzly Bear, Moose, and Caribou, pelagic mammals like Sea Otter and Humpback Whales, and charismatic mini-fauna like Arctic Ground Squirrel, River Otter and Porcupine provided an excellent complement to the birds. Alaska simply is one state that any naturalist should try to visit at least once in their lifetime; its scope, and indeed its majesty are unrivalled.

PRIBILOFS EXTENSION: Birding in the Pribilof Islands combines a fantastic array of breeding birds in a remote setting with the chance to encounter stray birds from Asia. The windswept tundra, steep volcanic cliffs, sandy beaches, and grass-lined freshwater lakes make for a surprisingly dynamic mix of habitats for such a small and isolated island. This year’s pre-trip extension to the Pribilofs involved simply stunningly good weather, with mid-forties temperatures, perfectly calm or light winds and bright sunshine for nearly the entirety of our visit. Over the course of our several days on the island Rock Sandpipers, with their churring flight songs were near constant companions, outcompeted only by the ubiquitous Lapland Longspurs that seemed to be nearly everywhere in the island interior. The cliffs and grassy bluffs around the west and south shores of the island played host to an array of confiding and wonderful breeding seabirds. The recent and unprecedented warming trends across the southern Bering Sea are unfortunately beginning to have a noticeable impact on the islands fauna, with large die-offs and nesting failures of many of the seabirds over the past couple of seasons. Compared to the numbers of birds that typically are found on the cliffs by June this year’s crop of breeding birds seemed markedly sparse, with the fish-eating Murres and Puffins especially lower than average. Nevertheless all of the expected species were present and it is certainly hard to become tired of sitting and watching Thick-billed and Common Murres, Horned and Tufted Puffins, Crested, Least and Parakeet Auklets and Northern Fulmars all courting or preening on cliff ledges that are a scant 5 meters away at eye level. As if the alcids were not enough the cliffs of the Pribilofs serve as the primary breeding area for the diminutive and beautiful Red-legged Kittiwake. Our daily and close range studies of this species generally with Black-legged Kittiwakes in close proximity for comparison purposes was a highlight for many. Due to the general lack of storms in the central Bering we did not expect to locate many (any) vagrants this trip out, but to our happy surprise many of the birds that came in on the large system about a week and a half before our visit were still lingering. After landing and checking in to our basic but comfortable lodging we set out on a quest to locate a few species that were known to still be around the island. Just a mile away from the hotel our first stop produced the hoped for Marsh Sandpiper, still present after more than a week from its discovery. This individual was extremely cooperative, showing off its needle-like bill, white rump, lower back and tail, and very long legs to great effect. Only the fourth record for the Pribilofs (and one of about 15 records for the hemisphere) this was quite a welcoming committee for us! While we worked on views of this delicately plumaged Tringa we noticed a Snipe lurking in the denser grasses on the backside of the pond. By sending one person around to flush the bird we were able to enjoy excellent views of the bird in flight as it made two passes past the group of assembled birders. We were able to see the white patterned underwings and broad white trailing edge in the secondaries that cemented the identification as a Common Snipe rather than its more usual Wilson’s counterpart. With two excellent shorebird species under our belts we headed to the Trident Seafood Processing Plant for dinner. No sooner had we exited the vans though we noticed some perched passerines up on the rocky cliff above the plant. With large bills and a unstreaked pattern on their backs we knew that they were not any of the expected breeding passerines, and quickly training scopes on them we were delighted to discover that they were, in fact, Hawfinches! An exceedingly rare species in the Pribilofs these delicately coloured relatives of Evening Grosbeaks made a major invasion into the Bering Sea this year, showing up in unprecedented numbers in the Aleutians, Pribilofs and even as far north as Saint Lawrence Island. At one point in the spring Saint Paul was hosting an incredible 29 individuals! We were quite happy with the four birds that we saw perched up on the hillside, and even happier to see the birds multiple times over our three day stay. After dinner we had one more treat in store, with a male Tufted Duck loafing around Weather Bureau Lake in the company of several Greater Scaup and pairs of Long-tailed Ducks. Although regular in the Pribilofs, Tufted Ducks are not annual in spring, and generally depart the island before our visit in mid-June. Four excellent birds in our first evening on the island made for quite an auspicious start!

Our full day on the island was, if possible, even sunnier and calmer, though the late afternoon involved some building winds and light fog. On the short cliff just outside of the Trident building we spent a bit of time watching Parakeet Auklets, with their odd red shovel-like bill, white belly and bold white eyestripes as they chattered from the cliff face and made forays out into the flat calm seas. Here too were nesting Red-faced Cormorants, a truly dazzlingly coloured and large Cormorant that under sunlight glows in hues of blue, green and purple. They were conveniently nesting near a roosting rock that seemed to be a favored perch for a couple of immature Pelagic Cormorants, which provided an excellent comparison. A few Horned and Tufted Puffins were about as well, and out in the bay we noted little flocks of barking Crested Auklets that seemed more intent on gossiping about the day than setting up potential nest sites. At the larger cliffs along Reef Point we spent a bit more time, and some considerable memory on the camera cards as we photographed Crested Auklets up on the cliffs, very close Parakeet Auklets and a few cooperative alcids and kittiwakes that were flying by repeatedly at eye-level. We then headed out towards Southwest Point, stopping to admire a pair of drake Mallards floating in Antone Lake (this is a scarce species out in the Pribilofs). The cliffs at Ridge Wall were noticeably emptier than they should be in June, but we were able to observe mixed groups of Common and Thick-billed Murres at close range, noting the browner cast and dusky flanks of the Commons among the much more numerous Thick-billed. Here too were several pairs of much closer Horned and Tufted Puffins and our first nesting pairs of Northern Fulmar. The Fulmars occur in a bewildering array of colour patterns here, with some birds being almost pure white and others being completely dark brown. The flyby (and perched) views of both Kittiwakes were excellent as always, offering the visiting birder ample opportunity to study the many differences between the two species. We wrapped up the morning outing with a brief walk around the very scenic Southwest Point, where we admired the blooming Chuckchi Primroses that dot the rocky lava flow that forms the headland, and picked out two floating Pigeon Guillemots just a little offshore. After lunch we walked out onto the sands of the Salt Lagoon for more close views of perched Red-legged and Black-legged Kittiwakes and lots of views of the many hundred Rock Sandpipers that were busily foraging on the exposed sand flats. These Rock Sandpipers are paler and larger than the other three subspecies, and breed only on the central Bering Sea Islands of the Pribilofs and Saint Matthew and Hall islands to the north. Spending their winters on the giant tidal flats along the Cook Inlet these birds seem quite different to the more widespread mainland subspecies that winter far to the south. Among the throngs of tame Rock Sandpipers we also enjoyed very good views of at least three Red Phalaropes, watching them for some time as they ran about picking hapless invertebrates out of the rapidly drying mud. Gaudy and bold, these dynamic black, red, white and yellow birds bear little resemblance to the staid gray birds that fly south far offshore, tantalizing pelagic going birders as they flit out between distant cresting waves. Later in the afternoon we went out to Northeast Point, where we found lots of Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, Long-tailed Ducks and Red-necked Phalaropes paddling around the grassy margins of Webster Lake. Here too were four small Cackling Geese that lacked the bold white collars of the Aleutian Cackling Geese that we saw the previous day. Possibly these birds were minima Cacklers, but our views were distant and inconclusive. Out at Hutchinson Hill we found the tundra to be greening up nicely. We spent a bit of time at the hilltop where we talked about the island’s World War two history and the plight of the Northern Fur Seals, whose numbers have also plummeted due to changing environmental conditions and the competition with the very active Pollock fishery in the Bering. With no storms to bring in weak flying birds from the far away mainland we were not surprised that our check of the protected slopes of the hill failed to turn up any migrant passerines, but a quick check of the flat-calm seas at the Webster Seawatch was much more productive. By scanning from a grassy dune overlooking the beautiful black sand beach we picked out three second year Yellow-billed Loons, a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers, a first cycle Glaucous Gull and a nice surprise in the form of two Rhinoceros Auklets that flew past the point heading out towards nearby Walrus Island. Rhino’s, as they are often called by birders, are scarce in the Pribilofs, and extremely rare anywhere further north in the Bering, although their numbers seem to possibly be increasing a bit as the local waters warm.

Our evening trip out to the north coast turned up a calling Wandering Tattler that sadly flushed from us a bit too quickly for some before rapidly disappearing down the rocky beach and rounding a distant headland. The many gaudy Harlequin Ducks behaved much better for us as they bobbed around in the nearshore waters, and we enjoyed an after dinner walk along the scenic coastline accompanied by the ever present Arctic Foxes, displaying Rock Sandpipers and Lapland Longspurs and inquisitive Harbour Seals. Just as we returned to the hotel though a call came in from Cameron Cox who had just located an adult Sharp-tailed Sandpiper in nearby Pumphouse Lake. Many of the group elected to give chase, and we quickly headed over to the lake. Although Sharp-tailed adults are intermittently found in July as they head south from their breeding grounds, and juveniles occur in large numbers on the island from late August on this species is extremely rare in the spring, and this record was just the third for the Pribilofs, and first in the month of June. We walked around the marshy margins of Pumphouse, stopping to admire Semipalmated Plovers and Least Sandpipers lurking in the corners of the lake until we reached the backside where we were hoping to find the Sharp-tailed. An odd Rock Sandpiper that seemed small, short-legged and very dark sidetracked us for a bit, and was probably a bird from either the mainland or the Aleutians rather than the local breeding subspecies. As we were watching this Rock Sandpiper two other shorebirds took flight and flew over to the other side of the lake. One bird was calling, revealing itself to be the Pectoral Sandpiper that had been lingering around the lake for several days, but the second bird was silent. We were able to detect black chevrons down the flanks and a warm-toned cap that marked the second bird as a likely adult Sharp-tailed but were determined to find the birds again for a better view. Our local leader and Gavin elected to walk the long way around the marsh in an attempt to flush the two birds back to the waiting group. This was a largely successful strategy, as they kicked up an Eastern Yellow Wagtail (that only they saw, although with a trip to Nome where the species is a common breeder in our future I doubt too many minded) and also flushed the continuing Marsh Sandpiper for repeat views. The Sharp-tailed and Pectoral eventually popped out of the marsh and flew right past the waiting group as hoped, allowing everyone (I hope) to note the warm-toned cap, and dark chevron marks on the flanks. We trooped back to the bus and turned back to the hotel, a bit tired, but quite happy with the day.

For our final day we again communed with the cliff-nesting seabirds, taking in very close views, and lots of photographs of Crested and Parakeet Auklets and Horned and Tufted Puffins on the cliffs of Reef Point and Ridge Wall. A portion of the group elected to walk along the high bluffs road, which follows the western coastline up to a band of cliffs that reach 550 feet above sea level. The higher cliffs on this western shore support the largest concentrations of birds, and we were happy to see that here at least, were rafts of alcids in the ocean and a busy cloud of Northern Fulmar and Red and Black-legged Kittiwakes coming and going from the ledges. The floral show here was particularly good, with excellent specimens of Oysterleaf, Cinquefoil, Primrose, Louseworts and Violets. The other portion of the group elected for a return visit to Pumphouse Lake, which revealed the continuing Marsh Sandpiper and a new arrival in the form of a Wilson’s Snipe, but sadly no Sharp-tailed. As always, the Northern Fur Seals were massing along their breeding colony sites, and we enjoyed watching the huge males competing for the best stretches of coast, giving credence to the islands oft quoted moniker “the Galapagos of the North”. The afternoon brought sunny blue skies and over 50 degree temperatures, a very pleasant time for a brief trip out around the island after we checked in for the flight. All too soon we had to load up for the return flight, taking off again in dazzling full sun, and leaving behind a beautiful and remote speck of land that so few people in the world have been able to enjoy.

MAIN TOUR: We commenced the main Majesty tour with some morning birding around the city of Anchorage. As the tides seemed to be in our favor we began with a visit to of the best overall birding sites in the city: Westchester Lagoon. Around the freshwater lagoons near the mouth of Chester creek we found a nice mix of waterfowl, including excellent close comparison studies of Greater and Lesser Scaup, dozens of Mallards and Canada Geese with fuzzy chicks in tow, and small numbers of American Wigeon and Gadwall.  On a small island in the lake we watched as Mew Gulls and Arctic Terns brought food in to their puffball-sized nestlings, and in a distant spruce tree we found a nesting Bald Eagle, with a nest so large that the tree has begun to lean heavily under its weight.  In the grove of trees lining the creek we teased up a busy pair of Black-capped Chickadees that were gathering food for their nearby hungry nestlings, and noted the blue gloss on the wings of some of the seemingly ever present Black-billed Magpies that were plying the edge of the parking lot, perhaps hoping that some of our snacks might fall out of the trucks.  The huge tidal flows along the Anchorage waterfront (one of the largest tides in the world, at over 40 feet) reveal impressive expanses of glacial silt at low tide, making birds generally too far away for satisfactory views.  At high tide however, there can often be large numbers of waders and gulls loafing along the narrow ledge of coastline close to the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.  We managed to time our visit just right, on a receding tide near the high water mark.  We parked next to Westchester and stopped to watch pairs of Red-necked Grebes tending their small island nests, and to compare the finer points of Scaup identification.  We then walked out along the paved bike and pedestrian trail (many US cities could learn a lot about active living and alternative transportation infrastructure with a visit to the surprisingly progressive Anchorage) to the coast, to find a trio of Sandhill Cranes striding across the mudflats and a large Bald Eagle sitting along the shoreline with a somewhat resigned expression as it was continually dived upon by a parade of irate Mew Gulls.  With a bit of searching we were happy to find a flock of Hudsonian Godwits feeding along the rapidly dropping shoreline.   The Godwits are simply stunning birds in breeding plumage, and we waited for enough time to see a few of them lift their wings, flashing their black underwings and striking white rumps.  On the walk back towards the vans we noticed some calling Alder Flycatchers (in an alder grove no less) and spent some time marveling over the intricate plumage of a feeding Short-billed Dowitcher that was just a few feet off the path.  Then we drove a bit to the north, stopping at the newly minted William Hernandez Sport Fish Hatchery.  Behind their buildings runs Ship Creek, which here is shallow and gravel lined.  American Dippers often nest just below some old weirs across the creek, and this year was no exception.  One recently fledged bird was exploring the shoreline below the dam, trying to get around without becoming too wet.  It’s hard not to love these busy balls of slate gray, with their flashing nictating membranes and perky nature, and we spent about 10 minutes watching the bird as it foraged along (and sometimes in) the rushing water below the dam, and was repeatedly fed and taken around by an attendant parent. After having lunch and a stop for provisions in Wasilla we started the three-hour drive up to Denali National Park, surrounded by an ever increasingly gorgeous scenic backdrop.   Last year’s major wildfire around the tiny town of Willow was a tragedy for the locals, blocking the highway for days and destroying a lot of property.  However, one small silver lining was revealed a few month later, as local birders discovered that American Three-toed and (more importantly) Black-backed Woodpeckers had moved into the recently burnt forest.  We drove along a series of tiny back roads that lead into the burned area and set up along a short residential road in the middle of the burn.  Within a few minutes we located a family group of Black-capped Chickadees and perched Olive-sided Flycatcher and Western Wood-Pewee (a species that we often miss on the tour).  A not particularly warm welcome from a nearby resident caused us to shift locations to a nearby firebreak.  This proved most fortuitous though, as no sooner had we exited the car we detected a pair of Boreal Chickadees carrying food into a nest hole just a few feet off the road.  A short walk soon revealed a vocal Black-backed Woodpecker calling from the low burned trunks.  It took a bit of time to locate the bird, with its jet-black back facing away against a blackened spruce trunk.  Once we had it pinned down though the bird remained perched, calling occasionally and flicking its wings, giving us quite a show. This was only the second time in recent years that Black-backed Woodpecker was recorded on one of our Alaska tours!  For the rest of the afternoon we drove north through a truly impressive landscape of seemingly endless forests, stony rivers and snow-capped mountain ridges. We arrived at our hotel that lies a little south of the park entrance in the early evening. Our well-appointed and comfortable cabins tucked into the spruces are far removed from the throngs of tourists that cram into the resort-style hotels clustered around the park entrance, and this year were graced with an continuously present flock of White-winged Crossbills and a small family group of Gray Jays.

The next day we spent in Denali National Park, taking the park bus in as far as the Eielson Visitor Center.  It was, as usual, relaxing, with a constant backdrop of simply stunning montane and tundra scenery. For most of the day we found that the main Alaska Range was shrouded in a constantly shifting palette of wispy clouds, with the peaks of Denali appearing and disappearing and towering over the valley.  The mountain is high enough (at over 20000ft) that it generally creates its own weather and is visible only on rare occasions.  Although the high peaks were often occluded the rest of the valley was under bright blue skies and full sun, making it quite an enjoyable day in the field. The avian highlight of the day was likely the pair of Golden Eagle attending a nest set high over the road on a multicolored cliff face, multiple singing and teed up Golden-crowned Sparrows and our first Wilson’s and Orange-crowned Warblers and White-crowned and Fox Sparrows (all in full and glorious song in the early summers warmth).  The real treats of the National Park though are its diverse mammals, and the spectacular scenery in the foothills of Mount Denali.  From the small and seemingly ubiquitous Arctic Ground Squirrels scampering around the rockier sections of tundra to the larger herbivores like Caribou, Dall Sheep and Moose there seemed to be something to look at along almost every few miles of road.  We saw 7 Grizzly Bears during the day including a family group of two large cubs and a female that were paying very close attention to a large herd of caribou and another male that was seemingly stalking a young Moose calf.  We took advantage of the remarkably nice weather and walked along the main park road a few miles past the visitor’s center, out as far as a huge rocky cliff face overlooking the riverbed below.  Although we located the supposedly active nest site we were not able to detect any motion in the nest of the reported Gyrfalcons, but the walk out and back was rewarding for its tranquility (with some even taking a short tundra nap in the afternoon sun), numerous flowers and butterflies, and repeated views of the mountain.  We returned to our hotel in time for a break before dinner, and over our meals I heard quite a bit of chatter around how wonderful the park, and the day had been.

For our other full day near the park we elected to drive along the Denali Highway, a 135-mile long stretch of remote road that connects the Parks and Richardson Highways.  Very few people or structures exist along the road, which passes through a wide valley surrounded by the peaks of the Alaska Range.  Rivers and streams lined with willow and alder and isolated stands of Black Spruce and Larch provide excellent cover for an array of breeding passerines. At the beginning of the road we stopped to look at some of the common breeding passerines of the region.  Vocal Gray-cheeked Thrushes, Wilson’s, Orange-crowned and Blackpoll Warblers, and Fox and White-crowned Sparrows all put in their requisite appearances.  In a picturesque small lake surrounded by emergent spruce trees and dense stands of sedges we found our first territorial Northern Waterthrushes. One of the birds responded to our playback by coming right in to the road edge and perching on a row of large boulders practically at our feet!  Down in the wet sedges we also teased out a couple of response Lincoln’s Sparrows, a delicately plumaged bird clad in fine streaks and an array of peach, brown, gray and white tones.  We spent the rest of the day at a relaxed pace, enjoying roadside birding on one of the most scenic roads in the country.  In the thickets we heard a wonderful chorus of birdsong, and with some patience located Savannah, White-crowned, and Red Fox Sparrows.  Warblers too were in evidence, with Wilson’s and Blackpoll being very common, and a few Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped calling as well. The tundra along the road was uncharacteristically dry and dusty, and the scrubby fields of willow and heathers was oddly reminiscent of great basin deserts of creosote, complete with “sand dunes” that are actually the remains of glacial eskers.  Ponds were low this year, with relatively few waterfowl, but with careful scanning we located a few pairs of Barrow’s Goldeneye, a handsome group of White-winged Scoters with their characteristic Cleopatra-like eye makeup and multi-coloured bills, courting and very vocal Red-throated Loons and several Tundra Swans.  At one particularly productive pond we were thrilled to see a distant but readily identifiable Short-eared Owl flying it its distinctive bat-like style over the back of the marsh, doubtless on the lookout for some hapless vole or shrew lurking in the underbrush.  We ate a picnic lunch near the banks of the massive Susitna River, a wide and fast flowing river heavily laden with the glacial silt that pours out from the many large ice fields in the Alaska Range.  Pleasantly mosquito free all day, our lunch was punctuated by the distant but unmistakable song of an Olive-sided Flycatcher, and some feisty Lesser Yellowlegs that repeatedly perched in the top of nearby spruce trees (causing some of the participants to have a double-take).  Just as we pulled away we noticed a female Moose and calf slowly walking in a knee-deep marsh to the east of the road.  We were able to watch them for a few minutes as they ambled through the dense vegetation, marveling at the speed and grace that such large and outwardly ungainly animals have before turning the vans back towards our hotel near the park entrance.  In the late afternoon we finally encountered our first Trumpeter Swans (which normally outnumber their smaller Tundra cousins here but were strangely absent this year) at a nesting site in the valley below the road.  Although admittedly farther away than we would have liked our scope views were sufficient to see the V-shaped crown pattern, larger and less sloped bill and more connected eye and loral area that marked the pair as Trumpeters.  Despite much searching in areas that had recently been productive for Northern Hawk-Owls we were sadly unable to produce one in the morning or afternoon along the Denali Highway.  We finished the day’s birding on the banks of a river, watching a male Varied Thrush perched up in a roadside spruce and singing its short bursts of buzzy, somewhat electric clear tones while nearby a particularly attractive Spotted Sandpiper replete in its full spotted dress and sporting a carrot orange bill.  After a bit of time back at the lodge we headed to a restaurant in the resort area near the main park entrance, dubbed affectionately as “Glitter Gulch” by the locals.  Here we sampled an excellent cuisine, with the baked King Salmon and fresh local blueberry cobbler being particularly well enjoyed.

The next morning we elected to revisit the first 15 miles of the Denali Highway in a second (and similarly unsuccessful) bid for Hawk-Owl.  The numbers of this beautiful owl fluctuate from year to year, and although a few birding groups had reported a pair in the area the numbers in the central part of the state seemed to be relatively low in 2017.  The road was every bit as pretty as the day before though, although the distant foothills around Denali seemed to be completely encased in dark and foreboding clouds (making us thankful that we picked our days correctly!) Likely the highlight of the drive was the North American Porcupine that we spotted as it waddled across the road in the distance. We sped up to the bushes where it had disappeared and with some brief searching located it in a spruce tree about 100 feet off the road.  Initially he was still climbing the tree but eventually he was curled up near the trunk, staring down on us with inquisitive but wary eyes.  We were remarkably close, and able to see the animals impressively large claws, long quills and huge orange teeth.  Also here we watched a couple of irate Ruby-crowned Kinglets, flashing their red crowns in the morning sun, and listened to a mixed chorus of thrushes including Swainson’s, Gray-cheeked, Robin and a distant Varied calling from the slope above the road. In the mid-morning we started the drive back south towards Anchorage, making good time back to the Willow Burn area that we had visited on the outbound journey.  For this visit we elected to walk down a firebreak that passes through the charred forest, marveling at the amount of regrowth already evident in the understory as we walked.  Our plan worked magnificently, as just a few hundred meters down the trail we located our hoped-for American Three-toed Woodpecker.  Amazingly the bird flew right in to our group, foraging just feet away from us on the burnt trees, and sending a shower of bark flakes down on our heads.  What a way to see a life bird!  After lunch in Talkeetna we stopped in at a large lake enroute to Anchorage where we found a breeding plumaged Common Loon sitting on its large grassy nest, and several colourful dragonflies and butterflies including a handsome Canadian Tiger Swallowtail.  We arrived at our Anchorage hotel in the midafternoon, with some time set aside for laundry or organizing for our next day flight to Nome.

Our next segment of the tour took place in Nome, a long famous birding location and historically interesting town situated along the southern coast of the Seward Peninsula.  This gold-rush era boomtown retains a very frontier-like feel, with local gold panners dredging along the shoreline, and a seemingly endless number of saloon options.  A new discovery channel program exploring the vagaries and vicissitudes of gold dredging was filming just west of town last year, much to the interest of the locals.  Three unpaved roads stretch out into the tundra, offering about 250 miles of road to explore through stunning mountains, over rushing salmon-choked streams, along willow/alder clad drainages and up into alpine tundra which is liberally decorated with flowers by mid-June.   Since we had scheduled two-and-a-half birding days around Nome we were able to venture down one road each day.  We spent the first afternoon exploring the excellent birding spots around the city of Nome.  Small ponds along the coastal road held pairs of approachable Red-throated Loons, paddling Red-necked Phalaropes and Arctic Terns.  One particularly good pond near the airport kept us busy for a while as we watched a foraging Bar-tailed Godwit in the marsh, and Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers walking around the pond margins while Common Redpolls and Tree Swallows flew overhead.  We stopped along the coast near the airport as well, where we spotted some Aleutian Terns flying around a regular colony site.  These small and unique terns breed at only a handful of known locations around the margins of the eastern Bering Sea and then spend their winters somewhere in the South Pacific, thus making Nome perhaps the most accessible site in the world for the species.  Although most were distant several birds flew over the road, uttering their oddly House Sparrow-like call notes.  In the willow thickets along the road here we also teased out several American Tree Sparrows and many very vocal Yellow Warblers. We then took a bumpy back road just north of Nome to check on a reported Eastern Phoebe that had been repeatedly reported near one of the hulking old gold dredges that have been allowed to slowly rust away in their self-dug tundra pools.  An extremely rare species throughout Alaska, let alone way out in the Western Seward Peninsula.  Amazingly two birds were found a few miles away from this year’s location during the summer of 2016, and doubtless this year’s bird was a returning bird from that pair.  We heard the unmistakable song of the Phoebe as soon as we exited the vans and were soon watching it as it called from the superstructure of the huge dredge.  Last year’s pair was the previous western-most breeding record for the species, but this year’s bird was several miles further west, besting the record!  The road out to the dredge held another treat for us, with a very close herd of Muskox feeding in a grassy part of the tundra.  These shaggy and charismatic beasts are introduced on the Seward Peninsula, but seem right at home.  Just before dinner we visited the Nome River Mouth, a small delta with exposed sand flats and shoreline when the tide is low.  Unfortunately the tide was high, but we found the birding to be quite good regardless.  A large grassy island in the pond was supporting a healthy population of breeding Arctic and Aleutian Terns, which were courting and flying repeatedly over the road.  Listening to the oddly House Sparrow-like calls of the Aleutian Terns was quite a treat, and markedly different from the harsh and much more stereotypically ternish calls of the Arctics.  Here too we spotted our first dapper Pacific Golden-Plovers, dazzling in their jet-black bellies and flashy golden-spangled backs. 

After dinner at a local institution that specializes in an eclectic mix of Japanese, Korean, and Italian food many of us opted for a late-night outing on the scenic Teller Road.  This less-travelled (by birders at any rate) road eventually reaches the small subsistence town of Teller, but we only went about half-way out this year. Our main destination was the road down to Woolley Lagoon.  We stopped along a short gravel side road on the way out, which winds up to a rocky and open dry tundra ridge where we found a few American Golden-Plover, some generally uncooperative Red Knots, several Horned Larks and a few striking Snow Buntings among the lichen covered and wildflower rich tundra.  The sweeping 360-degree views of snow- capped mountains and the distant shores of Norton Sound and the absolute lack of any artificial noise was, I think, a highlight of the trip for many.  On the road down to Woolley Lagoon we stopped to admire several dapper Pacific Golden-Plovers and a pair of beautiful Black-bellied Plover which paraded around for us for several minutes, fairly glowing in their immaculately white and Black plumage.  It’s hard to believe that this is the same bird that shows up along the shores to the south in dull grays and browns, and I think people may now have a greater appreciation for a bird that they see so regularly in the winter. Some Long-tailed Jaegars were happily hunting over the road, occasionally perching along the road or up on the road markers and allowing us quite close views.  We turned the van back towards Nome, making a brief stop to look at a mixed flock of Bar-tailed Godwit and Whimbrel, and nearly 20 Long-tailed Jaegars that we spotted up on a hillside.  The presence of such a large flock of waders (nearly 50 birds) in mid-June did not provide us hope that the birds have had a very successful nesting year locally, as it may indicate a widespread early nest failure.  We arrived back to the hotel a bit after midnight, tired but happy and ready to see what more Nome had in store for us over the following two and a half days. 

For our first full day in Nome we elected to investigate the Council Road, which stretches east along the coastline of Norton Sound and then down the narrow isthmus that frames the 20 mile long Safety Lagoon before cutting inland over some alpine passes and terminating in the small town of Council, about 73 miles from Nome.  Safety Sound plays hosts to large numbers of waterbirds and shorebirds throughout much of the year, and always holds enough diversity to occupy visiting birders for days. Unfortunately our day out was complicated by a strong westerly wind that blew incessantly through most of the day, at times strong enough to make even holding binoculars stable difficult and whipping the seas up into a frothy mix of waves.  This, in combination with the bright sun made for quite difficult scanning out into the waters of Norton Sound, but even with these environmental obstacles we found the road quite productive.  We stopped briefly back at the Nome River Mouth, where the Arctic and Aleutian Terns put on a good show for us as they performed courtship flights over the road.  Once out on the actual lagoon we stopped to investigate the west end of Safety Lagoon.  Flocks of American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Red-breasted Mergansers, Common Eider and Greater Scaup dotted the shoreline.  We worked our way out to the Safety Sound Bridge, stopping wherever aggregations of birds had formed and obtaining excellent studies of Mew, Glaucous, Glaucous-winged Gulls and Black-legged Kittiwakes.  Just over the bridge a small mudflat we stopped to look through an assemblage of waders, which turned out to be a very good idea.  As we set up scopes in the lee of the vans, still buffeted by the wind, a quick scan revealed one, and then two, and eventually and amazingly eight full breeding plumaged Red-necked Stints within the flock! Red-necked Stint is a scarce bird along the western Alaska coast, though likely an irregular breeder in the Nome area.  But having eight individuals in sight at once, many of which were nearly day-glow orange in the throat and head was an entirely unexpected experience.  The more expected shorebirds allowed us close approach, and we spent some time picking apart the ID features of Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers and Dunlin and Pectoral Sandpiper in their full breeding dress. Also of interest here was a banded plover that showed all of the expected characteristics of a Common Ringed Plover, an old-world equivalent of our Semipalmated Plover that breeds in very small numbers around Gambell and elsewhere on the coast, but is not normally found in the Nome region.  Although we tried to entice the bird to vocalize (the most fail-safe identification criteria) our efforts were hampered by the wind.  Hopefully the series of images that we obtained will be sufficient to cement the identification! Near the far end of the lagoon we spotted a pair of distant loons, and by walking out to the shoreline were able to confirm that they were our hoped-for Arctic Loons. Very similar to the much more common Pacific Loon, these scarce breeders around Nome are always a high priority species for visiting birders.  We spent some time going over the less well-known fieldmarks, such as the blockier head, darker nape, often upturned bill, and bolder neck stripes that serve as ID features. We realized that with the pair of (unusual) Common Loons on Safety Lagoon and a flyby Yellow-billed Loon we had managed to see all 5 of the worlds Loon species in one day!

We took a picnic lunch at the famous train to nowhere, a rusty old train that was originally an elevated people mover in New York City before being sold to ply the tundra between Nome and Council.  After lunch, near the tiny hamlet of Solomon we located several small flocks of fairly cooperative Hoary Redpolls, that seemed to be very actively courting and continually chasing one another around the willow thickets.  Also here we managed fine scope views (after a little bit of chasing around) of a perched Eastern Yellow Wagtail, a fine-looking trans Beringian migrant that winters in Southeast Asia and breeds along a narrow band of the Bering Sea coastline in Alaska.  We then continued on along the road which veers inland and traversing a series of rolling hills covered in dense willow brush at their base, but quickly opening up into alpine tundra at their tops.  We stopped at a historic site for nesting Gyrfalcons, and although the pair was seemingly not active we very much enjoyed the less windy and sunny conditions here. By birding along a small rocky stream with its adjacent willow thickets we were happy to flush a Wandering Tattler from the creekbed, and to find our first cooperative Arctic Warbler sitting up in a taller willow and singing vigorously.  A handsome Northern Wheater was a nice find near here as well. These elegantly marked birds tend to breed in rocky windswept places, and after finishing their breeding cycle make an incredible migration back across Asia, the middle east and the Sahara desert to reach their wintering grounds in eastern Africa!   As the afternoon waned on (though not the sunlight) we drove back to Nome and our hotel, for an earlyish dinner in preparation for our early start to the Kougarok Road the next morning. 

On our second full day we took the Kougarok Road which heads inland from Nome, following the Nome River Valley inland and passing through a mixture of alpine passes, open tundra with large lakes, and huge craggy mountains.  This road has always felt the wildest of the three roads to me.  We set off early, pausing to admire a quietly sitting male Willow Ptarmigan along the road and a large bull moose that languidly crossed the road in front of us.  We made our first stop on the shores of the crystal clear Salmon Lake (acting as a perfect mirror to the snow-capped ridges around the horizon) where we ate a picnic breakfast, happy that the cold air and light wind was keeping the often rapacious mosquitoes at bay.  A little over 70 miles from Nome, on the top of a rounded dome-shaped hill there are a few pairs of the very range-restricted and globally rare Bristle-thighed Curlews.  We arrived in the mid-morning and the group that was planning on completing the walk up to the top set off into overcast skies.  The trail was unusually wet, with running water springing from the ground and flowing over the steeper patches between the willow thickets and tussock grasses.  Once we reached the drier and rockier tundra that caps the hill we spotted several pairs of immaculately plumaged American Golden-Plovers, a species that prefers the drier and more upland tundra in the interior of the Seward Peninsula (in contrast to their close Pacific relatives that are often found in the moist coastal plain).  Here too were many Whimbrel, still actively displaying with their rollicking trills and swooping nuptial flights.  One pair of Whimbrel already had chicks in tow, signifying a possibly early breeding season for the species.  Very conspicuous in its absence though was any sign of our main quarry for the walk, the somewhat enigmatic Bristle-thighed Curlew.  Although the first WINGS tour that visited the area for the year (only 10 days prior to our visit) reported that up to 4 pairs of very vocal Curlews were active on the hill we were completely unable to detect any sign of the bird continuing presence.  Other birding groups were similarly unsuccessful during the day, although one group that hiked up in the middle of the night reported a single bird calling and departing the hill at about 4am.  Perhaps the flock of godwits and whimbrel that we saw on the Teller Rd did indeed indicate a large-scale breeding failure and the Curlews had already failed and departed their breeding grounds for the year.  The rich floral life, scenery, stunning and approachable American Golden-Plovers and calling Long-tailed Jaegers provided some consolation though.  And further consolation was obtained when we tried another loop walk on the hill and located a male Rock Ptarmigan tucked into a section of taller grasses.  The bird had already moulted out most of its snow-white winter plumage and was now clad in a mix of gray/brown feathers with patches of white; a close facsimile of the rocks and winter plant colours that fill the surrounding tundra. As Ptarmigan numbers seemed to be down throughout the Nome area this year we felt lucky to find a male Rock, and given the bird’s proximity and our extended viewing time it was a highlight experience for the day for many of the participants.  Once back at the road we enjoyed a picnic lunch and then plotted our next move, a quest for our last remaining Nome specialty, the jewel-like but often frustratingly elusive Bluethroat.  Just a mile or so further down the road we stopped at a creek crossing with a large culvert and dense stand of willows. With some gentle coaxing we convinced a couple of Bluethroats to pop up into view.  This exquisite old-world passerine, with a gleaming throat that would make most hummingbirds jealous is always a highlight for the tour.  With the early spring and warm conditions the birds were not as vocal or responsive as usual, but with a bit of patience we had quick but views of two different males as they repeatedly flew around us and perched up in the willows below the road.  At one point one of the birds launched into a towering song flight and then landed on the edge of the road, where several of the participants obtained excellent views of the colorful throat.  Nearby we stopped to admire a couple of perched Rusty Blackbirds in a stand of alder trees and our first Black Scoters paddling around a spectacularly calm lake, which was reflecting snowcapped peaks in a postcard worthy fashion.

On the way back to Nome we stopped at a known active Gyrfalcon nest site that was tucked into a short band of cliffs above main road.  It didn’t take long for us to locate the nest, nestled in a high alcove on the cliff band and stuffed with three large white fluffy chicks.  Although the rain began to come down with greater enthusiasm and the temperatures seemed to drop the chicks were unattended by their parents.  Before we had to come to terms with the possibly contentious action of counting chicks as life birds though one adult, likely the female swooped by the cliff face and then perched atop a large rock in a boulder field well upslope, gazing out at the small valley ringed with rolling hills covered in rocky scree and alpine meadows.  In short, it was exactly the scene that one expects to see a Gyrfalcon. While watching this regal and obviously powerful falcon in the scope we were surprised to see first a Northern Wheatear and then a Say’s Phoebe drift by the falcon and then quickly alter course to avoid her.  It was a perfect end to a truly enjoyable day out in the field, and we finished the drive back to Nome to dry out and then toast our successes (and admittedly slightly lament our failure with the Curlew) over dinner at Milano’s.

The flight back to Anchorage was scheduled for mid-day this year, and with the late outing the previous day many participants elected to relax a bit before the flight.  For those hardy souls that wanted to squeeze in a few more hours of birding time we went back out to the Safety Sound Bridge, which proved to be an exceptionally good outing.   In stark contrast to our previous visit here where the winds were persistent and the sun drowned out all of the contrast on the water we found the conditions excellent.  Overcast skies and flat calm conditions allowed us to spot the rafts of waterfowl bobbing along the beach, and loafing in the lagoon.  Just a bit past Cape Nome we stopped to scope a raft of Black Scoters close to shore, an auspicious start to a really productive two hours.  The lagoon held impressive numbers of American Wigeon, and with some careful scanning through the flocks we picked out one solid looking Eurasian Wigeon, two hybrid American X Eurasian Wigeon, a female Redhead and a lone Bufflehead.  It was in the calm waters of Norton Sound though that we really found success.  We spotted a floating dark bird floating down the shoreline and after driving over to get a closer look were thrilled to determine that it was a Short-tailed Shearwater, a species that we occasionally see out on Saint Paul in June, but one that is quite unexpected around Nome until much later in the summer.  While watching the shearwater we noted some large flocks of White-winged Scoters in flight a little further out.  One bird in the flock was smaller, and white-backed, and we quickly realized that we had located an adult male Spectacled Eider!  Luckily the flock turned back after passing us and settled down in the water, allowing for a good study of this gaudy sea duck. This amazingly attractive bird, with its odd green nape feathers, silky fold over their bills, and white goggles are one of the main targets of any birding tour to northern Alaska, and are generally rare to absent around the Seward Peninsula by June, occurring much more commonly up on the North Slope around the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.  Also near this flock of Scoters we picked out a male Scoter with noticeably black flanks, a longer white eye-patch and impressive black casque, all good field marks for the Asian subspecies of White-winged Scoter that occurs somewhat regularly off Saint Lawrence Island but is not known to definitively occur in Nome.  We made it out as far as a bit past the Safety Sound bridge, where we enjoyed a second round of views of Red-necked Stints, but all too soon we headed back to Nome to catch our mid-day flight to Anchorage, followed by some time off for laundry and rest in preparation for the next leg of the tour.

Our last leg of the main tour takes in the Kenai Peninsula, shores of Cook Inlet, Resurrection Bay and the glacial fjords and the small but charismatically Northwestern town of Seward.  Due to our near complete success with the available birds in the Anchorage region we decided to have a bit of a relaxing morning, and when we awoke to overcast and rainy conditions our decision seemed doubly vindicated.  After breakfast we packed up and began the usually extremely scenic drive down Turnagain Arm and across the Kenai Peninsula to the fishing and tourist town of Seward, nestled at the head of Resurrection Bay.  The rains continued for much of the drive, although the constantly shifting fog that clung to the ridges above the fjord and the lack of contrast on the water that made it difficult to tell where the land ended and the glacially silted waters began made for an atmospheric drive.  We stopped in at Tern Lake on the Kenai Peninsula just as the rains abated, and spent an enjoyable twenty minutes scanning the large lake with its many grassy islets that serve as breeding sites for Mew Gulls and Arctic Terns.  A pair of distant Trumpeter Swans and a very handsome breeding plumaged Common Loon were particularly nice here, and the towering mountains, clad in conifers at their base and open scree and snow at their peaks made for an astounding backdrop.  We arrived in small fishing and tourist town of Seward, which is nestled at the head of a beautiful narrow fjord and flanked by steep-sided mountains that reach into the alpine zone near their peaks. The town embodies a very Pacific Northwest feel, with tall Sitka Spruce forests down to the stony beaches covered in kelp and driftwood.  Many in the group elected to visit the famous Alaska Sea Life Center, a public aquarium that features excellent exhibits of the marine and littoral life of Alaska, including a lot of interesting birds such as live Spectacled and King Eiders, Harlequin Ducks and Puffins.  One huge pen holds a towering artificial cliff complete with nesting Black-legged Kittiwakes, a scene that we would see for real the next day out in the Chiswell Islands.  After the aquarium folks walked around downtown and checked out the array of eclectic stores and murals that line the commercial district.  The rest of the group elected to bird the northern side of town and the Eastern shore of Resurrection Bay.  A quick stop at a local birder’s house just out of town was, as usual, extremely productive.  New birds came rapidly at the feeders, with several female and at least two dazzling male Rufous Hummingbirds, a flock of Pine Grosbeaks including several handsome males, Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, Red-breasted Nuthatches, several Red Crossbills, and throngs of Pine Siskins each being admired in turn.  We stayed for about a half hour, just long enough to marvel at the incredibly large, black and thin-billed Song Sparrows that occur here and which bear little resemblance to their southern cousins before heading further east down Nash Road.  At a small marsh along the road we found a family group of Trumpeter Swans feeding amazingly close to the roadway.  We watched the two fuzzy cygnets picking food out of the cattails for several minutes, taking a decent amount of photos of their attendant parents as well.   Here too we noted three Ring-necked Ducks in the back of the marsh, our only ones of the tour.  At the head of Resurrection Bay we stopped in briefly to find our first of many Sea Otters, impressive numbers of Bald Eagles and flocks of Glaucous-winged and Mew Gulls plying the shoreline. We drove down as far as we could on Nash Road and walked out onto a pebble-filled beach that overlooks the waters of Resurrection Bay.  A quick scan revealed a large flock of Black-legged Kittiwakes flying over a feeding Humpback Whale just a few hundred meters offshore.  The whale was making repeated lunge-dives, where it would quickly push out of the water with its mouth wide open and baleen lined throat fully extended; quite an exciting thing to see!  Also here were our first Marbled Murrelets, Pigeon Guillemots and a handsome flock of Surf Scoters.  We enjoyed dinner along the main wharf, with Bald Eagles soaring past the windows and then tucked in for a good night’s sleep in preparation for the following days boat trip.

On the boat the next day we enjoyed our day out on the water as we explored Northwestern Glacier, Resurrection Bay and the Chiswell Islands.  Although the day was cold as a whole and a bit rainy at times the overcast conditions and flat light made for very good visibility over the water, and really brought out the blue tones in the glacial ice. Not 10 minutes into our trip we stopped to admire the (likely) same Humpback Whale that a portion of the group had seen the day before from shore.  Once again the whale was lunge-feeding close to the surface and surrounded by hordes of expectant Black-legged Kittiwakes that were seeking out the scraps.  We stayed with the whale at quite close range for about 15 minutes, as it made repeated lunges along the surface, doubtless swallowing bucketfuls of small fish and plankton on each bite; it was a truly wonderful start to the morning!  The seas were extremely calm all day, with only 2-3 foot swells out in the open waters around the Chiswell Islands, and the flat water made for excellent alcid viewing conditions.  As we slowly motored out of Resurrection Bay we began to see flocks of Common Murre and Horned and Tufted Puffins loafing on the water.  Once out in the more open Pacific these species were joined by Pacific Loons, a surprisingly high number of Marbled Murrelets and our first Rhinoceros Auklets.  Some attractively marked Dall’s Porpoises took note of our passing by swimming in at speed, with their characteristic “rooster tail” wakes and briefly bow-riding under the boat.  By staring down from the bow it was possible to see their striking black and white pattern as they swam along with the boat for a minute or two before heading back out to the depths.  Enroute to the head of Northwestern Fjiord we stopped in a narrow channel between islands and picked out a flock of Parakeet Auklets on the water.  These small alcids are not common around Seward, and as they were close to the boat we were able to hear their distinctive parrot-like calls as they debated whether to fly or dive at our approach.   Here too were unusually large numbers of Rhinoceros Auklets, a much larger “auklet” that is more closely related to the Puffins than to the smaller auklets.  As we passed a small grassy-topped island in the straight we stopped to look at a Black Oystercatcher that was quietly tucked in behind some rocks, remaining stubbornly out of full view.  These portly and charismatic shorebirds, with their incredibly bright red bills, breed in fairly remote locations around the Gulf of Alaska, preferring predator-free islets with rocky shores and tidepools.  Luckily for us though, we did not have to make do with the marginal nature of our first views as we found a few more Oystercatchers sitting out on an exposed rock shelf later in the day.  Coming into the fjord by boat is a magical experience, as the straight gets progressively narrower and the fjord walls seem to close in around you.  Several small glaciers dotted the walls as we neared the huge Northwestern glacier at the tip of the fjord.  This active glacier was calving into the water at a good rate, choking the head of the fjord with an area of floating ice.  Harbour Seals and their fuzzy white pups dotted the larger blocks of ice, eliciting a few aahs from the crowd.  We stayed at the head of the Fjord for about a half hour, witnessing several large chunks of ice falling into the sea.  The cold water around the ice floes combines with the tide to create a fast moving current that brings nutrients up from the fjord’s bottom.  It is in this current that one can find the enigmatic and endangered Kittlitz’s Murrelets.  We had a brief and distant view of a Kittlitz’s on the way into the fjord, but it was not until we began the return journey that we found a pair of birds that elected to remain on the surface, allowing the boat to come exceptionally close.  The bird’s white cheeks, small dark cap, and hint of a golden wash to the flanks (both birds were oddly still nearly in full winter plumage) helped us to separate it from the more common Marbled Murrelets.   The Alcid family is thought to have evolved in the Bering Sea, and with 10 species of Alcids on the day (and an additional 2 in the Pribilofs) we saw just over half of the world’s species on the tour this year!  We took a longer route out to the Chiswell Islands this year, perhaps due to the generally calm conditions.  This allowed us to pull up to a coastal waterfall for some tourist photos, to watch a female Mountain Goat with an attendant and very small kid in tow that were feeding down at the base of a cliff, nearly at eye-level with the boat.  The Chiswell Islands are an important breeding site for thousands of seabirds, and our captain made a conscious effort to wind through the islands at a reasonable pace.  Here we found staggering numbers of Black-legged Kittiwake, Common Murre and Horned and Tufted Puffins loafing in rafts on the water or busily nesting on the cliffs. Any trip out into the Kenai Fjiords will feature marine mammals as well as birds.   This year we saw dozens of endangered Steller’s Sea Lions including several huge males at a known haul-out site.  Just when we thought we were ready to depart the islands the captain diverted to another island with several large caves opening up to the sea.  With some careful and expert captaincy he pulled us virtually into the mouth of the caves which allowed us to locate a couple of dazzling Red-faced Cormorants.  These large and very colorful cormorants are at the extreme eastern edge of their breeding range around Seward, and numbers seem to fluctuate from year to year.  As many birding groups had to this point reported missing them we considered ourselves lucky! Nearby we picked out a few black Thick-billed Murres perched among their much more numerous Common cousins, which offered an excellent opportunity to discuss the plumage and structural differences between these two similar alcids.  As we began the return journey towards Seward the captain received a message from one of the other boats and he responded by quickening his pace and offering only the most cryptic of clues to the passengers for the reason for his haste. Near the mouth of Resurrection Bay we came to a stop near another tourist boat and soon understood his motivation.  A mother and calf (and several other individuals) Orca were slowly cruising along a stretch of picturesque cliffs, repeatedly surfacing near the boats and generally giving us an excellent show.  These were likely transient orcas that arrive in the area in time to capture the annual run of Chinook Salmon that crowd the waters of the bay enroute to their spawning grounds in nearby rocky riverbeds.  It has been a couple of years since we have recorded Orca on the Kenai trip, so our half-hour with these magnificent cetaceans was an experience to treasure.  We pulled into the dock with heads spinning from the memory-filled day, and then enjoyed a meal at Ray’s on the Waterfront, where the fresh Copper River Salmon and sweeping views of the Seward Harbour and the mountains of Resurrection Bay were heralded as excellent.

On the last day of the main tour we explored the coastal forests and shore near Seward, adding species such as Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Townsend’s Warbler, Hermit Thrush, Fox Sparrow (of the quite dark and different Pacific Northwest Sooty subspecies), and Brown Creeper.  A curious Golden-crowned Kinglet almost showed off as well as our first one had on the way down to Seward, and we spent a bit of time working on the aural fieldmarks of the many species of thrushes that were in full song in the open understory of the tall spruce forest below the trail.  We also made a return visit to the feeders that many of the group saw two days previously. As on our first visit the birds came thick and fast, with Red Crossbills, many Pine Grosbeak, flashy male Rufous Hummingbirds and perky Red-breasted Nuthatches each being admired in turn.  Along the shore of the Bay we watched flocks of Harlequin Duck, while diminutive Marbled Murrelets and striking Pigeon Guillemots bobbed in the amazingly still water nearby. After lunch in a local café we started the drive back north to Anchorage, stopping to admire an approaching 3 ft bore tide that was barreling up Turnagain arm.  Some expectantly waiting paddleboarders were loafing in the water ready to surf the wave, and a few of them even managed to do so.  A little later we stopped in at Potter’s Marsh, just south of Anchorage, where we made our last stop.  Here were breeding Arctic Terns and Mew Gulls feeding chicks and filling the air with their strident cries, Tree Swallows visiting the provided nest boxes and many species of waterfowl towing lines of fuzzy chicks behind them.  All too soon we had to head to the hotel, for a final dinner for those not continuing on to the Barrow extension.

BARROW EXTENSION: The next morning we readied for an early departure for the Barrow extension.  The plane touched down in Prudhoe Bay before heading to the coastal town of Barrow, which, at 71 degrees and 17 minutes N sits at the northern tip of continental North America. In contrast to last year we found that the coast and entire Point Barrow was largely still choked with shore-fast ice, with just a scant amount of open water close to shore.  A large lead then stretched nearly to the horizon until, in the distance, we could see the large expanse of floating ice.  Barrow is a ramshackle town, with nearly 4500 residents.  It serves as the commercial hub of the entire North Slope, and is the largest Inupiat town in the country. Although seemingly filled with poorly maintained houses with detritus filled yards the insides of the buildings are warm and homey, and the locals are quite proud of their town, and their heritage.  We spent the afternoon cruising south of town across permafrost-laden tundra along Freshwater Lake Rd. that stretches south from town.  Small ponds along the roadside were being used by an array of shorebirds and we obtained excellent views and close photos of Pectoral, Western, Semipalmated Sandpiper, and both Red and Red–necked Phalarope.  Arctic Terns provided lengthy studies as they hovered over the road margins, and both Parasitic and Long-tailed Jaegers plied the tundra around us. At the end of the road we were treated to a wonderful exhibition of displaying Pectoral Sandpipers, whose oddly grouse-like rituals and cackling and whooping calls seem decidedly unwaderish.  The males sport almost black chests, with inflatable sacs underneath that cause their dark breasts to wobble like a pendulum as they fly back and forth across the tundra.  As one participant stated; “Now I understand why they are called Pectoral Sandpipers!”  Just before dinner we stopped at the shallow pond at the base of Cakeater Rd where we picked through the assembled peep and were happy to find a Red-necked Stint tucked in amongst the Semipalmateds and Westerns.  After dinner many elected to revisit the roads south of town, and our efforts were rewarded with a flock of seven elegant Sabine’s Gulls that were foraging over a marshy lake a few hundred meters from the end of the road.  We walked out over the tundra for a closer view and a chance at some photographs, passing Semipalmated Sandpipers, courting pairs of Red Phalaropes and displaying Pectoral Sandpipers on our way.  With calm winds and good lighting (even at the ripe hour of 10 pm) it was a magical walk, capped with point blank views of the striking Sabine’s Gulls as they hovered over the lake like somewhat stocky terns, showing their incredibly bright black and white wings, ashy-grey heads and yellow-tipped bills to perfect effect.

Our full day in Barrow dawned with some stronger than usual winds and the occasional spat of rainfall.  Birds in Barrow seem to permit a closer approach than those on any other part of the tour (with the exception of the seabird cliffs on the Pribilofs), and it is in Barrow that one can really fill camera memory cards quickly.  Spring seemed advanced this year, as many birds were seen with downy young.  At a house along the coast in town we found fully stocked feeders that were attracting hordes of Hoary Redpolls (and one bright red Common Redpoll for comparion), Snow Buntings, and Lapland Longspurs.  Near the hunting camps north of town we found Baird’s Sandpipers to be relatively common this year, with several pairs of birds in the ponds at the base of Cakeeater Rd, and a few scattered individuals elsewhere.  We spent the majority of the morning and early afternoon exploring the Cakeeater-Gas Well Rd complex that winds about 8 miles out of town to the east. Breeding shorebirds, Lapland Longspurs and waterfowl were much in evidence at every turn.  Listening to the display calls and watching the breeding behavior of shorebirds (all at their most colorful) is a memorable experience, as during migration and winter these birds seem to do little but feed, preen, and sleep. Almost every puddle in the tundra held a few Red or Red-necked Phalaropes, busily courting or feeding.  Equally common were the impressively dynamic Pectoral Sandpipers, males replete with their pendulous chest sacs dangling down as they performed song flights and uttered a hollow quavering series of hoots.  Semipalmated Sandpipers, American Golden-Plovers and Dunlin were in evidence too, singing or courting from the slightly drier rises in the tundra.  A few species of waterfowl make it up to Barrow to breed as well, and we found many Greater White-fronted Geese, Tundra Swans, Northern Pintail and Long-tailed Ducks also dotting the tundra ponds.  Near the base of the road we stopped to look though a small flock of loafing gulls, and among the many Glaucous Gulls we found a few likely hybrids, a third year Herring Gull and a first year Slaty-backed Gull.  Although these first year birds are often difficult to conclusively identify this individual exhibited the full suite of characters; the heavy brow, long bill, brown centered and pale-fringed tertials, dark tail, brownish primaries and pale windows in the wing.  Further down the road a couple of Peregrine Falcons livened up the road near the dump, but the real treat here was an incredibly white male Snowy Owl that we found perched on a grassy tussock a few hundred meters off the road edge. We watched this arctic ghost for some time, as it swiveled its head around through a seemingly impossible range of angles, and stared at us with its piercing yellow eyes.  Numbers of these impressive predators fluctuate in accordance to the vole and lemming numbers, but even on poor lemming years (like this year, the first year here where we failed to spot even a single Brown Lemming during our 3 days in the field) there will be a few Snowy Owls around Barrow.  The local town council has recently elected to change the official name of the town from Barrow back to Utqia?vik, an Inupiat word that actually translates to “the place where Snowy Owls hunt”.  In some marshier tundra out past the new town dump we were thrilled to find several drake eiders paddling around in several shallow ponds along the roadside.  It’s hard to overstate the beauty and sheer plumage audacity of male eiders in full breeding dress.  King Eiders, with their prismatic-hued heads and perky black scapular sails were particularily forthcoming; staying quite close to the road at times.  Not to be outdone though were the several (actually surprisingly numerous) male Spectacled Eiders that were in the same pools. The amazingly attractive males, with their odd green nape feathers, silky casque over their bills, orange bills and white goggles are one of the main targets for birders in Barrow, and to see several males at such close range was a real highlight.  In fact, at the final dinner a few nights later it was these Specatacled Eiders that were chosen as the “birds of the trip.”  Also here was a single drake Steller’s Eider that was, unfortunately, sound asleep and mostly buried in the grasses.  The Jaeger show here was truly remarkable, with more than thirty Long-tailed Jaegars in view at once, and both Parasitic and Pomarine passing by.  These elegant (if menacing) aerial predators are most closely related to shorebirds rather than gulls and terns, which they more closely resemble.  For most North American birders jaegers are frustrating birds that are seen far offshore and often in subadult plumage.  In the high Arctic though one can experience adult birds at close range available for lengthy study from the comfort of land.  An out of place Cliff Swallow was a nice find as it flew around over the dump, and as we made our way back towards Barrow our attentions were diverted by a vagrant Barn Swallow, making for a most unusual two swallow day in Barrow.  After dinner some in the group decided to continue birding for a short time, and up at the large open pond at the base of Point Barrow (one of the few fully open water bodies along the coast) we spotted a distant pair of Steller’s Eiders, completing our sweep of eiders for the day. We stopped on the way back to the hotel to admire an extremely close Pacific Loon that was swimming along the beach in a small lead of water, its crisp black and white plumage mirrored on the flat and mirror like water, against a backdrop of slightly greenish ice.  Although lacking in any vertical vegetation or even vertical relief, and comprised of a matrix of ice, water, gravel and grassy tundra the landscape of Barrow is ever-changing, and truly beautiful. 

We awoke on our final full day of the tour to find much colder temperatures and ice-fog (a new climate condition for several of this year’s participants).  Even the locals seemed to be reluctant to rise, and we found most of the roads deserted.  As our flight out this year was in the late morning we did not have too much time for birding, but we used it well with a return (and even better) visit to the breeding plumaged King and Spectacled Eiders near the dump.  This time we also scored with three pairs of Steller’s Eiders along the road. Male Steller’s are stunning with their mossy green patches in the lores and nape, apricot tinged chests, zebra-striped backs and even a black beauty mark oddly placed on the flank combine for a really beautiful bird. The fog lifted through the morning, and after a late brunch we set off for the airport and the flight back to a much warmer and greener Anchorage, a full 10 degrees to the south.   We finished the tour back at our now very familiar home base in Anchorage, with an impressive 178 species for the trip, plus a further 10 for those that took in the Pribilof Islands.  I hope that this year’s participants enjoyed the array of birds, wildlife, scenery and experiences as much as I did, and I continue to view this tour as one of the best introductions to the beauty and richness of the far north reaches of our continent.   

-Gavin Bieber

Created: 07 July 2017