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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Alaska: Majesty of the North

2023 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Our 2023 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 186 species on this year’s tour (including the Barrow extension). 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. Around the open tundra and seemingly endless rolling mountains of Nome we found breeding Aleutian Terns, Bristle-thighed Curlew, mating Bar-tailed Godwits, Bluethroat, Arctic Warbler, American and Pacific Golden Plovers, and both Willow and Rock Ptarmigan. Anchorage gave us some very close views of nesting Arctic Terns and Short-billed Gulls, foraging Black-backed and American Three-toed Woodpeckers and displaying White-winged Crossbills in a recent burned area of forest just east of town and even (for those on the altered Pribilof itinerary) an amazingly cooperative male Spruce Grouse. Around Fairbanks we were fortunate to watch a pair of Northern Hawk Owls feeding their chicks, as well as a nesting Boreal Owl, some handsome Bohemian Waxwings and both Hammond’s and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers on territory. The remote and wild Denali Highway revealed its hoped-for Smith’s Longspurs in their stunning summer plumage, nesting Trumpeter and Tundra Swans, several Golden Eagles and nesting colonies of Bank and Cliff Swallows. Seward provided another complete change in atmosphere, with dark green forests, rocky beaches and towering coastal mountains with numerous ice fields and glaciers. In the fjords that fringe the Kenai Peninsula we had a wetter than normal boat trip that produced excellent views of Red-faced Cormorant, Parakeet Auklet and Kittlitz’s Murrelets (among 10 species of alcids for the day). The coastal forests held Pine Grosbeak, Rufous Hummingbird, Chestnut-backed Chickadee and Townsend’s Warblers. We wrapped up in Barrow, with up close and personal views of Steller’s, Spectacled and King Eidera in perfect plumage, a nesting pair of Red-necked Stints and a wealth of displaying shorebirds all dressed to impress.

The mammals were certainly worth mentioning too, with 23 species during the trip. Iconic wilderness species like Moose and Arctic Fox, pelagic mammals like Sea Otter, Humpback Whale and Orca, and charismatic mini-fauna like Arctic Ground Squirrel, Hoary Marmot and Tundra Vole provided an excellent complement to the birds. We also swept the bears, with a lone Grizzly foraging on an alpine slope along the Denali Highway, a Black Bear roving the edge of a parking lot in a state park a bit south of Anchorage and an absolutely incredible encounter with 6! Polar Bears at the point north of Barrow. 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.

Saint Paul Island Pre-tour Extension: Airline travel in western Alaska is always a bit of a tricky proposition, with long distances, variable and often inclement weather and small planes with irregular schedules. Over the decades that WINGS has offered Bering Sea Island trips as part of our Alaska itineraries we have had an excellent track record of getting out (and back) from places like Saint Paul Island and Gambell on schedule. Unfortunately for the 2023 trips a key component of the National Weather Service instrumentation out on the island failed about a week prior to our scheduled departure. Without that part operating incoming planes could not properly calibrate their altimeters, and with a low ceiling and somewhat short runway a working altimeter becomes crucial. We made several attempts at getting the group of pre-tour extension folk out, but the flights cancelled each time. Several birding groups were actually stuck out on the island, unable to return and as a result they missed out on most of the birding sites of their tour, so in some ways we were lucky to be stuck on the Anchorage side of the flight scheme.

Not wanting to spent these suddenly acquired three extra days around Anchorage twiddling our thumbs in the hotel we hired a van and filled out time exploring a bit around town. This proved rewarding, as we had a relaxed introduction to many of the more common birds of the region, such as breeding pairs of Common and Pacific Loons, Black-capped Chickadee, breeding Bald Eagles with young chicks, and lots of Short-billed Gull and Arctic Tern but we were able to seek out a few of the scarcer and harder to see species as well. In a small recent patch of burned Spruces on the east side of town we tracked down some confiding American Three-toed Woodpeckers, as well as perched and singing White-winged Crossbill, a couple of Boreal Chickadees and a family group of Canada Jays. Near the airport, acting on some recent gen from another bird group we were thrilled to spend a bit of time with a territorial male Spruce Grouse, which gave us an excellent show by flying in to a nearby branch and placidly sitting there for a half-hour while we navigated around him (keeping a wary eye on a nearby Moose with a young calf). Along the shoreline of Turnagain arm we picked out some handsome Bonaparte’s Gulls in their full breeding dress, and a distant Hudsonian Godwit probing for lunch in the rich glacial mud. Here too was a Sandhill Crane tending its bulky nest in a trailside marsh, some very cooperative Red-necked Grebes paddling around the calm waters of Westchester Lagoon and a good comparison of Greater and Lesser Scaup.

We also made two pilgrimages about an hour and a half north of town and into the higher mountains above Palmer, where we were able to drive up to the snowline at Independence Mine. On the drive up to the (current) end of the road we admired American Dipper, Belted Kingfisher, Common Merganser and exquisite Harlequin Ducks along the rocky creek, and were successful at scoping both Willow and Rock Ptarmigan on the mountainsides above the road and lots of singing Golden-crowned Sparrows around the carpark. Mammals were good here too, with nearly tame Arctic Ground-Squirrels checking us out for snacks and about a dozen chubby and undeniably cute Hoary Marmots squealing away from mounds near their den sites. I’m sure our pre-tour participants would have rather been on the Pribilofs, but I feel confident we used our time well, and we certainly tallied an excellent list of birds.

The Majesty of the North Main Tour: 


Our main Majesty tour started off with a midmorning flight to 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 recent discovery channel program exploring the vagaries and vicissitudes of gold dredging has resulted in a decided uptick in the number of small private gold dredging rafts offshore, adding to the frontier-like feel. Three unpaved roads snake their way 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 usually liberally decorated with an array of wildflowers in mid-June.  Since we had scheduled roughly three full days of birding day around Nome, we had enough time allotted to explore in all three directions. Once we had the vehicles in hand, we stopped in at a staked-out spot near the airport where a pair of White Wagtails had recently been found. It took a few minutes, but eventually we were treated to excellent views of one of the birds as it strode along the road edge and even perched up on the airport fencing. This scarce breeder in North America is generally found only around a few coastal Seward Peninsula towns such as Teller (80 miles to the NW) and Wales, and out on Saint Lawrence Island, and although possibly on the increase around the area is still quite a rare find in Nome. Here too were our first Glaucous Gulls and a couple of swiftly flying Harlequin Ducks zipping down the riverbank. After checking in and taking a quick lunch we headed out to explore some nearby spots along the coast. Small ponds along the road held pairs of approachable Greater Scaup, Pintail and Green-winged Teals, as well as the occasional rotating Red-necked Phalarope. At one of the ponds just outside of Nome we watched a pair of Red-throated Loon swimming and occasionally diving, with one bird tucked in beautifully on a nest facing the road and in good sunlight. As one participant remarked “I see Red-throated Loons every winter, but seeing them like this, in their subtle but stunning breeding plumage is like getting a life bird.” We stopped also to admire a long-standing Common Raven along the road. This nest was initially built inside the arm of a broken-down crane at about the midpoint. With each passing year the nest grows up the crane arm, and the now 4-5ft. deep nest is approaching the top of the arm, this year with four large chicks crammed inside. At the Nome River mouth we made our first official stop, spending nearly an hour scoping from the vantage point along the west bank of the lagoon. The recent epic snowmelt (only 10 days before our visit much of the tundra here was covered in feet of snow, and for our trip we found most of the landscape to be snow free and beginning to green up) was causing the river levels to be quite high, unfortunately removing much hope for exposed mudflats (and thus foraging waders) during the trip. Terns were about though, and although most were Arctic Terns, we located several Aleutian Terns flying over at close range and showing off their white foreheads and black bills to good effect. These small and unique terns are more closely related to the suite of tropical terns such as Bridled and Sooty than they are to Arctic Tern. The species breeds at only a handful of known locations around the margins of the eastern Bering Sea and spend their winters at sea somewhere in the South Pacific or Indian Oceans, thus making Nome perhaps the most accessible site in the world for the species. Our vantage point also allowed for excellent viewing of several more dapper Red-throated Loons, and an array of ducks including an almost fully summer plumaged Long-tailed Duck and a couple of passing Red-breasted Mergansers. As is often the case along the coast of the Seward Peninsula Long-tailed Jaegers were regular subjects of study. They are an incredibly elegant and still somewhat menacing bird; and seeing them perched, hunting and just gliding along with their pennant-like tail streamers is a quintessentially arctic experience.

A little further east, we spent much of the rest of the afternoon scanning around the Hastings River Delta. We didn’t find any sign of the recently reported Common Ringed Plover but enjoyed our time immensely, with our first views of a herd of foraging Muskox, calm and sunny weather and quite a few birds foraging at close range. Along the edge of the marsh, we were treated to excellent studies of Red-necked Phalarope, Western Sandpiper, Lapland Longspur, Savannah Sparrow and both Hoary and Common Redpolls. At one point the activity also attracted a hunting Merlin and we were thrilled/horrified to see it streak in and pick up an unsuspecting phalarope just a few feet in front of us! The speed and accuracy of the strike was impressive, and left us all thankful that falcons don’t come in an 8-foot wingspan edition.

Since the calm and warm conditions persisted after dinner, we decided to go out for a couple of hours more, first stopping in at a friends’ house to pick up our coolers that he was kindly storing for us (and to admire the nesting family of Northern Shrike just a few yards from his front door). We then headed out to Cape Nome, a rocky promontory that juts out a few hundred meters into Norton Sound, making it an excellent seawatch spot. We set up near the point, since after 7pm all the construction equipment associated with the adjacent rock quarry and road repair work wraps up for the day. We soon were watching our first passing Pelagic Cormorants and Black-legged Kittiwakes, close Harlequin Ducks, loafing Pacific Loons and even a single paddling Thick-billed Murre. Sea Ice was distant, but visible in all directions, and the sea was amazingly calm and glassy, making the horizon and floating ice merge into the similarly coloured sky. By scanning a bit further out we could see some distant flocks of ducks, with one large group of Common Eiders containing a couple of Spectacled Eiders as well. We quickly packed up and drove (nearly 2 miles!) east to get better views. From our new scoping spot we could readily see the smaller Spectacled, with their carrot orange bills, black chests and white eye patches among the much larger Commons. In all we found 5 of these stunning ducks, four males and one less exuberantly clad female and we spent some time watching them swim around, preen and occasionally snooze. The area was great for seaducks in general, with lots of Red-breasted Mergansers, a few Long-tailed Duck and all three North American scoters (Black, Surf, and White-winged), which we made sure to study in turn. The bright sun and incredible viewing conditions made lingering long into the night very tempting, but we pulled ourselves away and headed back to the hotel, scarcely believing that it was nearly eleven o’clock at night!

The typhoon that struck the region in September of 2022 ripped through not only the town but also the road along Safety Lagoon. During our visit (and much of the summer of 2023) a large team of construction engineers was busily repairing the damage by rerouting the road and depositing staggering amounts of gravel and rock to stabilize the area and new roadbeds. The near constant barrage of heavy equipment up and down the roads and controlled access stretches that limit stopping options have both had dramatic impacts on the birding experience over the first half of the lagoon. Nevertheless, this area is still well worth a visit, and we elected to spend a half-day exploring the coastline here, carefully choosing stretches of the road that were less heavily trafficked. Likely our most exciting find was a pair of Emperor Geese that were loafing on a sandspit in amongst a few hundred Black Brant. These pretty geese are annual in small numbers around the Nome area on passage. As is generally the case we encountered lots of Common Eider and both Common and Red-breasted Mergansers, as well as a nice array of more familiar puddle ducks floating around in the lagoons. The shoreline held displaying Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers, as well as the occasional Dunlin or Semipalmated Plover. Lapland Longspurs, Hoary Redpolls and Savannah Sparrows provided excellent views, and hunting Long-tailed Jaegers and Common Ravens plied the skies. At a couple of points along the lagoon we located small colonies of Aleutian Terns, that would occasionally fly over the road and out to sea. As we neared the eastern edge of the lagoon Tundra Swan numbers began to climb, and in a flock of Greater Scaup we picked out several Canvasback and a few Redhead.

We made a short stop at the famous train to nowhere, a rusty old train that was originally an elevated people mover in Chicago before being sold to ply the tundra between Nome and Council. A storm cut the small bridge out leaving the train stranded, and it soon sunk into the marshy tundra, never to move again. Nearby, at the tiny town of Solomon we were able to track down a couple of semi-cooperative Eastern Yellow Wagtails amid a huge pile of old driftwood at the base of a small bluff. This attractive old-world passerine breeds along the western parts of Alaska and adjacent Russia. Sadly, their populations seem to be declining, possibly due to the rapid increase in pesticide use in Southeast Asian rice paddies where the species spends much of the winter. Here too were some ebullient American Tree and Fox Sparrows and our first Yellow Warblers and Bank Swallows of the trip. On the way back into Nome we were thrilled to spot several pairs of Arctic Loons just off the beach. Very similar to the much more common Pacific Loon, these scarce breeders around Nome are always a hit. We spent some time going over the less well-known fieldmarks, such as the blockier head, darker nape, often upturned bill angle, and bold neck stripes that serve as ID features. The first pair of birds were rather distant, but the second group (of 3) birds that were showing better than we have seen in several years. As by now it was most decidedly lunchtime we pressed on back to Nome, taking a bit of time off after our meal with the goal of then spending the afternoon exploring the first half of the Teller Road.

This road winds along the coastal side of a low chain of mountains, crossing several major rivers on its way to the small native community of Teller, some 70 miles to the northwest of Nome. We found the road to be in generally poor shape, with the top of the road surface liberally sprinkled with pot holes and other signs of the late winter. Our first stop was at the bridge over the small but slightly flooded Penny River. Here a thick stand of creekside willows was hosting some cooperative Gray-cheeked Thrushes and Northern Waterthrushes. An American Dipper performed well, sitting along the rushing creek and allowing for extended scope views, and in a nearby patch of marsh we teased out a foraging American Golden-Plover and a single locally scarce Least Sandpiper. As we headed further out, we began to spot Willow Ptarmigan around on the tundra or on the edge of the road, with plenty of snow-white bodied and red-necked males strutting around as we bounced along the road. Jaegers were plentiful as well, with at least a dozen graceful Long-tailed and a couple of hulking Pomarines hunting over the open patches of tundra. Near the mile 34 side road we stopped to get a few pictures of a particularly well-placed Ptarmigan, and while stopped were treated to multiple flyover Eastern Yellow Wagtails and a distant pair of Bar-tailed Godwits along the shore of a snow-melt pond. As these were our first (and indeed our only) Godwits of the trip we walked down the road to get a better view. Shockingly the pair flew towards us, landing in the road just a few dozen feet away from the group! The male began foot stamping and bill clacking as it uttered a repetitive short whistle and followed the female as she walked around seemingly oblivious to his charms. Sure enough though, he won her over and we were soon treated to a full copulation! If you’re going to only see one pair of a species during a tour this was the way to do it! After the show was over, we drove up the rocky sideroad that leads onto a higher ridge with stony tundra. Here we were fortunate to spot Red Knot and Surfbird on their breeding habitat, and our first close view of a sitting Rock Ptarmigan that allowed our vehicles to get remarkably close to him without seemingly batting an eye.  After descending back to the main road, we struck out a bit further to look at the top of the Woolley Lagoon Road, which drops down to the coast and a small collection of hunting and fishing cabins owned by members of the King Island Native Corporation. The road parallels a rocky creek, and along the banks we finally had lengthy views of perched Eastern Yellow Wagtails, as well as breeding American and Pacific Golden-Plovers in relatively close proximity. A bit further down the road we also located a stunning Black-bellied Plover in its truly splendid summer plumage; a sharply dressed and bright sartorial affair that bears virtually no resemblance to the staid beige birds that most birders see on the wintering grounds. We were a little late for dinner, with a few quick stops for Muskox, an oddly canted bridge and a perched Rough-legged Hawk enroute, but our meal was a festive one with a lot of scenes and birds to celebrate.

On our second full day, we took the Kougarok Road which heads inland from Nome, initially following the Nome River before 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, and is generally the one that I think back on after trips. We traveled inland about 25 miles, with a couple of impromptu stops for foraging Moose and perched Willow Ptarmigan, before stopping along the banks of a rocky creek. Here we looked for any signs of activity from the local nesting Gyrfalcon and Golden Eagle. The sun angle was not good for the Gyr nest, but we did spot an adult Golden Eagle perched atop a rocky spire on the ridge. It looked majestic but distant as it sat on its lofty perch, but thankfully we found a second and much closer bird a bit later in the morning. While scanning for the falcons we spent a bit of time looking at some of the more common “bush” birds of the Seward Peninsula. In the roadside willow scrub we found teed up and singing Golden-crowned, American Tree and Red Fox Sparrows, Wilson’s Warblers and Gray-cheeked Thrushes. We also heard an Arctic Warbler, and were soon able to track it down as it too sat up and sang from atop a short willow. This old-world warbler breeds in a narrow latitude band across Alaska and into the Yukon, returning to its wintering haunts in Southeast Asia in August and early September. Spring arrival for the species around Nome is generally the beginning of the second week in June, but this year only a few birds were being detected during our tour dates; making our lengthy views of this cooperative bird doubly appreciated.

Our usual comfort stop at the Salmon Lake picnic ground was unfortunately still blocked by snow, so we pressed on a bit further, stopping for a couple of cooperative Rock Ptarmigan and a herd of muskox enroute to our chosen backup location. There is certainly something prehistoric about these shaggy behemoths, and against a sweeping tundra backdrop with scattered clumps of wildflowers and snow-capped peaks one could be forgiven for thinking that we were on a set for a Jane Auel inspired movie. Thankfully no Dire Wolves or Cave Bears were about, and after stopping to collect some clumps of cast-off wool (among the most desired and expensive wools in the world) we took a short midmorning break and then continued to our main destination for the day; the gradually sloping hill at milepost 72 dubbed Coffee Dome where we hoped to find Bristle-thighed Curlews. Near the base of the hill, we heard a quietly calling Bluethroat that was lurking in some dense willow shrubs downslope from the road. We soon found the bird perched up on a taller bare willow, occasionally launching into the sky and fluttering down with fanned out wings and tail. It’s a simply exquisite bird, with a throat that would make even the brightest hummingbird jealous, and always a highlight for a visiting birder to Nome. The males display for just a couple of weeks, throwing caution to the wind and being quite obvious. Once that short display period is over though they revert to their more normal retiring skulky selves, staying in the dense willow tangles and refusing to pop up to show off their good looks to appreciative crowds. After admiring the Bluethroat, which rather annoyingly shot off further downslope before really giving us a full show we parked in the prescribed spot on the hill, close to the trail that has been worn into the tundra by the incessant feet of intrepid Curlew-seeking birders. As we were getting organized and geared up for the walk up the hill we heard a displaying Bristle-thighed calling from somewhere on the opposite slope. We scanned a bit to no avail, but soon after starting the walk up the fairly mucky trail a curlew shot overhead coming from the other ridge and landing somewhere atop Coffee Dome. Encouraged by the activity we finished the climb up the hill and then set off exploring the shorter and somewhat drier meadow that occurs near the hilltop. We heard the occasional calling Curlew, but all the birds we tracked down on the ground were Whimbrel (which also breed on the hill). Wildflowers were beginning to poke through the dry grass, with lots of bright pink/purple Louseworts and azaleas and an array of small white and yellow mustards. Here too we enjoyed excellent views of breeding American Golden-Plovers, Western Sandpipers and Lapland Longspurs. Our main quarry eluded us for a while, but once we switched directions on the hill and turned our attentions to the northern side of the slope, we soon found a pair foraging on the hillside. Bristle-thighed Curlew is attractive wader, with a more spangly gold back, salmon-toned flanks, cinnamon tail and a bright apricot-buff coloured rump. It’s an extremely long-distance migrant undertaking an extraordinary cross-Pacific migration from their South Pacific Island winter homes to remote grassy hills in the Seward Peninsula and Y-K Delta. It is not an easy species to perform population level studies on due to the remote nature of both its breeding and wintering grounds, but recent attempts have estimated that the species numbers fewer than ten thousand individuals. Leaving the birds in peace we headed back down the hill, quite jubilant with our lengthy and close-range views and suitably awed by the sweeping 360-degree wilderness views from the ridge. We then pressed on a bit further to a sheltered valley for a picnic lunch, with a much more cooperative Bluethroat popping up for us as we polished off the final crumbs of cookies and sandwiches. On the way back into town we stopped for a short walk on a stony tundra ridge, admiring an excellent showing of small flowers, and feeling, for a short time at least, like we were the only folk around in the universe. A lengthy but relaxed stop back at the Gyrfalcon nest site was extremely productive. Perching atop some of the craggy rocks near the base of the mountain we scoped a male Northern Wheatear and pair of Say’s Phoebes (whose nest we located in a nearby cliff crevice). The Wheatear is a bit of a Seward Peninsula specialty in the United States. It’s an elegantly marked species clad in silver-grey, white and black that breeds in rocky windswept places, and after finishing their breeding cycle make an incredible migration back across Asia, the middle east and over the Sahara Desert to reach their wintering grounds in eastern Sub-Saharan Africa!  As soon as we arrived, we could tell that the female Gyrfalcon was on the nest, with visible wingtips protruding above the front ledge of the cave. We waited for quite some time, occasionally seeing a bit more of the bird as she shuffled around or peered over the ledge at us. The vigil was punctuated with a few new species; with a flyby Rough-legged Hawk and hunting Northern Harrier being perhaps the highlights. Just as we thought we would have to leave without a full view of the bird the male swept in and perched on a nearby rock face. Unlike the steel-gray female this bird was a very pale glaucous, and we took quite some time drinking in the view of such a magnificent bird of prey sitting against a fieldguide worthy backdrop. This was perhaps our best day in Nome, and the group was in a festive mood (festive enough to switch from our planned restaurant to the one remaining site that also serves beer and wine) as we returned to the hotel.

As our flight back to Anchorage was scheduled for mid-day this year, we had enough time to venture back out of town in search of a few more species on our final day. We had breakfast at our hotel and then decided that, given our potential targets, we should drive out to Cape Nome and the beginning of Safety Sound to look for a recently reported Gray-tailed Tattler or perhaps flocks of loafing scoters. We had planned on heading straight out to the Tattler site at Hastings Creek, but as we passed the Nome River Mouth it was apparent that the tide/snow melt cycle had changed, with significant open mud around the island and a lot of feeding waders. Most were Westerns and Semipalmateds, but we located a single Long-billed Dowitcher, some foraging Pacific Golden-Plovers and a flyby group of ten Whimbrel. The Aleutian Terns were showing extremely well in the morning light, with several pairs perching on driftwood and performing courtship dances. Once we had scanned through the masses of birds sufficiently enough to feel that there were no lurking surprises we continued on to Hastings Creek where we located the Gray-tailed Tattler with relative ease. We were able to watch it for some time, at a close enough range that the silvery-grey upperparts, brown tinged wings, broad white supercilium and lightly barred underparts with nearly unbarred flanks (all field marks that aid in the separation of this species from the very similar Wandering Tattler) were all nicely evident. Although the species is annual in western Alaska in spring sightings are generally confined to the much further south and out on various Bering Sea and Aleutian outposts rather than the mainland. Out on nearby Safety Sound we teased out a drake Eurasian Wigeon amongst a small group of Americans and some distant Common Goldeneyes tucked into a big flock of Scaup. All too soon we had to head back to Nome, with a stop at the cape to check for close Scoters and an impromptu stop to watch a lovely buffy-orange Red Fox that was lounging close to the road. After we checked into the flight we still had a little bit of time on hand, and since the second Majesty tour was due to come in on the same plane that we were departing on we still had access to the vans. We decided to make a quick stop near the coast across from the airfield, where we enjoyed close up views of singing Wilson’s and Yellow Warblers, some more views of the local pair of White Wagtails, a sitting Wilson’s Snipe and a huge, abandoned gold dredge that seemed perfect as a setting for some new Arctic-based horror or thriller movie. We arrived back in Anchorage in the mid-afternoon where we spent the rest of the day enjoying some time off for laundry and rest in preparation for the next leg of the tour.


We commenced the interior leg of the trip with some morning birding around the city of Anchorage. Although the tides did not seem favorable, we decided to begin with a visit to one of the best 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, Mallards, Canada Geese (here ostensibly of the smallish parvipes subspecies), and small numbers of American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler and Gadwall. Of particular note was the mixed flock of Scaup that were hanging around the eastern edge of the lake, as within the throngs we picked out a single Canvasback and two drake Redhead. A breeding pair of Trumpeter Swans was in the area this year as well, marking the first time that we had detected this impressively large swan at this site. The lake also held many breeding pairs of Red-necked Grebes, which were a particular delight as they glowed copper and rust in the morning sun. On the small island in the lake pairs of Short-billed Gulls and Arctic Terns brought food in to their puffball-sized begging nestlings that were tucked into patches of taller grasses. As we expected, due to the tides, not many waders were in evidence, but along the shores of Cook Inlet we did find several Bonaparte’s Gulls, a pair of Semipalmated Plover and a distant Bald Eagle. We then made a quick stop in at the mouth of Ship Creek, where we found a few hopeful fishermen casting their lines into the rushing water in a quest for King Salmon. A flock of large gulls, or BUGS as they are often termed (Big Ugly Gulls) was resting along the shore and among the two dozen or so hybrids (the dominant large gull around Anchorage is Glaucous-winged x Herring; the so-called Cook Inlet Gull) we found a couple of decent looking Herring and Glaucous-winged.

Leaving the Anchorage area behind we made the roughly hour-long drive up to Wasilla where we geared up with provisions for our three days around Denali. After having lunch, we started the three-hour drive up to Denali National Park, surrounded by an ever increasingly gorgeous scenic backdrop.  Back in 2015 a significant wildfire struck the forests around the tiny town of Willow. It 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 months later, as local birders discovered that American Three-toed and (more importantly) Black-backed Woodpeckers had moved into the recently burnt forest. Since then both species have remained in the area, and our principal birding goal for the day was to find both species along a series of tiny residential back roads that lead into the burned forest. We parked near a small pond and were soon distracted from our woodpecker quest by the presence of a yelling Greater Yellowlegs that was perched atop a nearby tree. The grassy verge of the pond also held three Lesser Yellowlegs and a solitary Solitary Sandpiper. At one point all three species were visible in the scope at once, giving us a most unusual three Tringa view. A few emergent trees around the margins of the lake were giving cover to a steady trickle of forest birds coming into drink. Here we enjoyed good views of Yellow-rumped Warbler, Swainson’s Thrush and Dark-eyed Junco as well as several White-crowned Sparrows and our first Western Wood Pewee. Eventually we turned our attentions back towards woodpeckers and were soon ogling a pair of quite excited Hairy Woodpeckers, with the male screaming down at us from his roadside perch with an almost awesome intensity. Another birding group arrived on the scene, and we soon heard a response from a Black-backed Woodpecker not too far off the road. Happily, the bird swept in and perched right in front of our group, occasionally switching trees but generally staying in good light and showing off to great effect. It’s a noticeably larger bird than a Hairy, with a glossy black mantle and head, capped with a flare of yellow. After a few minutes the bird shot back off through the trees, so we headed a bit further into the burn to check on an area where we had found a nesting pair of American Three-toed Woodpeckers the previous year. Our plan worked magnificently, as just a few meters from the old nest we located our target species at a new nesting cavity! We spent a bit of time here, getting to see both the male and female bringing food to the nest site, but after the male disappeared over the treeline the mosquitos won out and we pointed the vans northwards, bound for our hotel near the entrance of Denali National Park. As we expected given the overcast conditions Mount Denali was stubbornly hidden in the clouds at the viewpoints along the highway, but the scenery was still spectacular as we wound our way up to the craggy Alaska Range and our hotel, which sits on the rushing banks of the Nenana River.  We made the most of the clearing skies by enjoying dinner at a restaurant perched high up above the river, with breathtaking views of the surrounding Alaska ranges and the entrance to the National Park; although judging by the appreciative crowd the huckleberry ice cream may have been even better.

The next day is generally reserved as an all-day sightseeing trip into Denali National Park using the concession buses to access the Eielson Visitor center that sits about 66 miles in from the park entrance. During the summer of 2021, however, a large landslide along Polychrome Pass wiped out the road. This had always been a concern, as the road had been dug into what was essentially a scree slope about 1000 feet above the valley floor. The views were superlative, but the very narrow roadbed and incredibly steep slopes made for tense driving conditions at the best of times. The park has started to rebuild in a new location, but under their construction plan it is likely that it will be at least 2026 before vehicles can again access the pass, visitor’s center and the higher elevations that make the area so famous for sightseeing and mammal watching. Given that condition we decided to spend the day to the north around Fairbanks (as we had during the 2022 tour). It’s roughly a two-hour drive to Alaska’s second city, dubbed the golden heart of Alaska by the somewhat poetically inclined bureau of commerce. Over the course of our drive, we followed the path of the meandering Nenana River as it cut north through the Alaska Range and entered the high rolling hills with extensive deciduous forest and wide marshy plains that characterize the interior of the state. About half-way into the drive, we stopped in to view the large black-and-white metal tripod that is used by the town of Nenana for the Nenana Ice Classic; a popular event in which the registrants place a guess (to the minute) as to when the ice on the Tenana will break up. Tickets are $3.00 a guess, and the winners can pocket sizable prize money (roughly $220,000 last year, although the majority of the funds go to local charities). In 2022 we made contact with a friendly Fairbanks-based birder who was hosting a nesting pair of Boreal Owls in his yard. In 2023 he again had birds, but indicated that the chicks were now so large that they might fledge at any day, and that the adult birds were not normally in the nest box (likely because the adult could no longer fit with five fluffy chicks stuffed into it). He mentioned though that there was another box in a nearby park that he had recently seen an adult. We decided to try there first, and although it took a bit of time to figure out which of the many boxes scattered along the trail was the box in question it took no time at all to entice the bird up to the entrance hole. Doubtless intrigued simply by the sounds of our feet on the gravel path and voices the adult lingered for many minutes; staring down at us with its inquisitive but vaguely menacing piercing yellow eyes.  Boreal Owl is probably the least encountered of all of the owl species in the ABA area, as its small size and largely remote breeding areas keep it generally away from prying human eyes. I suspect many participants would have counted the day a success with just this lengthy view of Boreal Owl, but the Fairbanks area had several more surprises in store for us.

Leaving the owl still peering out of its box, we headed a bit further north, down the rather remote and little-traveled Steese Highway. A few years ago, a visiting birder with a flat tire pulled over to change it out and, in the process, found a territorial Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, a species that was barely known from the state and whose closest known population was several hundred miles to the east in the Yukon Territory of Canada. Subsequent visits proved that several birds were present, and this small population has persisted ever since the original sighting. We pulled over in the prescribed spot and within just a few minutes were looking at a pair of quite cooperative Hammond’s Flycatchers that were bouncing around in the trees just in front of our parked vans. It took a few minutes more, and some walking back up the edge of the highway but we soon found a nicely yellow tone Empidonax with dark wings, strong white wingbars and a pale lower mandible; success! We then enjoyed lunch at a local café and then headed a bit out to the Northwest of the city to spend a bit of time birding around the Peat Ponds Wildlife Area. This small marsh not too far from the main University of Alaska campus has several small ponds, ringed by sedgebeds and short spruces. Here we tallied our first Ring-necked Ducks and Bufflehead, a stunning full-breeding plumaged Horned Grebe, some cooperative Lincoln’s Sparrows and a couple of Rusty Blackbirds. This is a declining species, a rather unusual condition for a blackbird, and much study is currently ongoing in an attempt to pinpoint the reasons behind their decline. We then moved on to perhaps the most famous birding spot around Fairbanks; the Creamer’s Field Waterfowl Preserve. The area is best visited during spring and fall migration, but during the summer still holds impressive numbers of foraging Sandhill Cranes and an array of geese and ducks in the fields that line the entrance road. Again acting on a tip from our Fairbanks-based friend we headed over to the visitor’s center/gift shop and enquired about any recent sightings of Northern Hawk-Owl. The staff biologist, a talented artist and frequent guest on national NPR smiled broadly and said that they had an active nest, easily visible from the main trail system! We followed his excellent directions and were soon in place, scanning the flooded birch forest for our quarry. A sharp call alerted us to the presence of one of the adults, who swooped in from the back of the bog and sat on a prominent perch for nearly 15 minutes! Our lengthy scope views of this elegant owl, with its long, banded tail and striped head would generally be about as good as one could hope for, but this year we were in for a really special experience. A distant call alerted the adult that we were watching and soon it took off, presumably to pick up dinner from its partner who had just been hunting. The adult then returned, this time carrying a vole and heading for the nest, where we were soon treated to a solid ten minutes of her feeding the three large chicks chunks of vole, and occasionally protectively mantling over the nest as they ate! As if that weren’t enough, we were also thrilled to spot two elegant Bohemian Waxwings that were perching atop some nearby birches, fairly glowing in the late afternoon light. We celebrated an exceptional day with dinner at a Fairbanks Thai restaurant and then headed back to our base near Denali for the night.

We began the following day with a bit of light birding around the lodge grounds, where we enjoyed repeated views of Dark-eyed Juncos and Violet-green Swallows, a single Canada Jay and a very cooperative Boreal Chickadee. We then set off to the south, with the goal of spending the rest of the day exploring 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. Lincoln’s Sparrows, a delicately plumaged bird clad in fine streaks and an array of peach, brown, gray and white tones, performed amazingly well, with a pair perching in a dead spruce at eye level and chipping back at us for a minute or two. American Tree, White-crowned and Savannah Sparrow, and Wilson’s and Blackpoll Warblers proved common through much of the drive, and we were happy to find our first Ruby-crowned Kinglet (complete with bright ruby crown) bouncing around in some roadside trees. As we headed further eastwards the road began to climb, and soon we were picking up territorial Arctic Warblers and singing Gray-cheeked, Swainson’s and Hermit Thrushes. The pond and lake levels seemed low this year, with relatively few waterfowl, but with careful scanning we located a pair of Barrow’s Goldeneye, all three species of Scoters, a few pairs of Bufflehead and Ring-necked Ducks and a nice array of the more numerous puddle ducks. Over the course of the day, we also found nesting Trumpeter and Tundra Swans, several handsome Red-throated Loons and some flocks of Red-necked Phalaropes that seemed to still be on migration rather than locally foraging. We took a picnic lunch near the Denali – Mat-Su Burrough border, perched atop a glacial esker with small ponds on either side of the road. Here we scoped some displaying Lesser Yellowlegs and Wilson’s Snipe, found a hunting male Northern Harrier and ogled a freshly hatched brood of Northern Pintails, all while being surrounded by views that would make postcard publishers weep.

In the early afternoon we crossed the swollen Susitna River, and soonafter the road began to climb out of the comparatively verdant river valley. Tall mountains with impressive crags and scree slopes began to lurk closer to the road, and some judicious searching on the slopes above us revealed (at last) our hoped-for Grizzly Bear! We were able to watch the bear at length in the scopes as it lumbered (a bit laboriously due to what appeared to be a stiff or damaged hindleg) around on the slopes well above the road and grazed on fresh patches of grasses. He was a handsome bear, despite his infirmity, pale blond with darker legs and a bit of a mask around his eyes. With the inability to access the higher roads inside the national park in recent years our sightings of this most iconic of mammals have definitely been sparse, so we counted ourselves fortunate to have such a lengthy encounter this year. At another craggy ridge we spotted a perched Golden Eagle that seemed to be surveying the valley with the authority of a monarch holding court, and found a Hoary Marmot that was uncharacteristically down along the roadside. We pulled into our lodge near the Maclaren River in the early evening (such as it is in this part of the world during the summer), finding the rooms comfortable and after admiring the nesting Cliff Swallows that were busily adorning most of the buildings with their 2023 edition nests enjoyed a hearty meal with the colourful locals.

Our lodge out on the east end of the Denali is remarkably comfortable, which is especially noteworthy given just how remote the location is. We awoke well refreshed, happy to see blue skies and calm conditions. The lakes out behind the lodge held a stately Trumpeter Swan that seemed to spend most of its time in reverse-snorkel pose, coming up for air only occasionally. As is often the case around foraging swans there was a flurry of dabbling duck activity, as opportunistic ducks can feed on the scraps that the swan pulls up from the depths as it feeds. After a very robust breakfast, with pancakes likely large enough to proudly mount on the wall next to your favorite fox or beaver pelt (frequent decorations in this part of the world) we set off a bit to the east to look for our principal target species for the day. Back in 2018, we reconfigured our Denali section to give us more time on the higher and more tundra-like Eastern end of the Denali Highway. This was done mainly in the hopes that we would be able to look for Smith’s Longspur at a reliable location near the far east side of the road. It’s about a twenty-minute drive back east from our lodge, over the highpoint of the road at Mclaren Pass, which was still virtually covered with snow and locked in a very wintry condition and then down to the much greener tundra around Tangle Lakes. The pass held our attention for a while, as when we stopped to take some obligatory tourist photos we also happened to locate an American Pipit that showed off extremely well on the low slopes above the road. It’s not a rare species in the state, but access to its preferred higher elevation breeding sites is generally hard to come by on tour, and it is certainly a species that we have missed in the past. By mid-morning we arrived at our desired launching spot for the hike out to an Arctic Cotton-filled meadow where we hoped to locate Smith’s Longspurs. During the walk we were accompanied by singing American Tree, Savannah and White-crowned Sparrows, a passing Bald Eagle, singing Red-throated Loons and a small flock of foraging Common Redpoll. After a little more than a mile we found ourselves overlooking a (to us) unremarkable meadow adjacent to a small lake. Most Smith’s breed on the relatively flat tundra of the North Slope, occurring in small clusters where their preferred microhabitat of bunchgrass, very short willows and cottongrass swales dominates.  Within a few minutes of arriving in the area we heard the telltale dry rattle of a nearby Smith’s Longspur. Actually spotting the bird as it clambered around in the short grasses was a bit of a challenge, but soon we had one of the males at close range ducking in and out of view in the dense grass and willow tussocks. Smith’s are stunning birds in breeding plumage, with sandalwood-coloured underparts and a wonderfully bold black and white striped head. At least two male Longspurs were foraging in the short grasses and occasionally perching up for a short song bout. This species is a polygynandrous songbird, a remarkably breeding strategy that is very rare in birds. Polgynandry is a mating system in which both males and females have multiple mating partners during a breeding season. The males do not hold territories but rather follow females around in the tundra. Birds may mate up to 350 times over the course of the nesting season, with all the active nests representing young from multiple male partners. Male birds assist the female that they are most attached to but will also help at other nests nearby. It’s quite a free-wheeling free love kind of arrangement out in the high arctic tundra! We took a more direct route back, stopping a few times to admire some of the blooming tundra flora, mating Fritillary butterflies and a distant pair of Barrow’s Goldeneye. Once we collected at the vans we drove a bit further to the east for a picnic lunch at a roadside site complete with a (mostly) intact picnic table and several well-stocked and well-received bathrooms. After lunch we spent the rest of the day driving south back down to Anchorage, a long but very scenic drive that takes in sweeping views of seemingly endless spruce forest (here largely devoid of any obvious beetle infestations) before dropping into the Matanuska Valley which winds down to the Cook Inlet and Anchorage. We stopped to admire the Matanuska Glacier, and also paused to admire the antics of several Dall’s Sheep that were seemingly suction-cupped to the cliff faces above the road. We wondered what these sure-footed mammals would have thought of our ambulatory prowess if they had been watching our more floundering attempts at crossing the comparatively easy open tundra early that day. Our arrival back at the Coast Hotel in Anchorage had the feeling of a homecoming of sorts, and we greeted the by-now familiar staff like old friends.

Seward and the Kenai

We awoke the next morning in our by now quite familiar home base in Anchorage. After breakfast we packed up and spent most of the morning birding around town, seeking out a couple of target species that part of the group (or all the group) had yet to see. We began by revisiting the recent burn site on the east side of town, this time finding the mosquitoes a little bit rarer, and the birds a little more common. The walk in from the road here was only a few hundred meters, and once we reached the burned area, we barely had to walk around at all to connect with our hoped for White-winged Crossbills, with several singing males perching up on the tops of trees and even performing short fluttering bouts of song flight overhead. Among the White-winged Crossbills we also found a single female Red Crossbill (a locally scarce bird in Anchorage) which showed briefly but well atop another dead spruce. Around the edge of the clearing, we enjoyed excellent views of Red-breasted Nuthatches clambering around on the trunks, a Boreal Chickadee bouncing around in a small cluster of dead spruces and a family of inquisitive Canada Jays that chuckled away at us as we passed. Here too we located an absurdly cooperative male Black-backed Woodpecker that was foraging on downed branches on the ground. At one point the bird hopped to within just a few feet of our group, with some people even taking iPhone video of him as he hammered away on the branches! Leaving the burn behind we drove a short distance south to visit the boardwalk at Potter’s Marsh. We found much the same birdlife as our visit before the main tour started, with Lincoln’s Sparrows, Orange-crowned Warblers and nesting Bald Eagles still lingering in the same places as the prior week. Some notable new sightings though made the visit more than worthwhile, with our first Downy Woodpecker of the trip, a pair of Hairy Woodpecker actually hammering on the sides of the wooden boardwalk, a perched Belted Kingfisher, a passing Merlin that got all of the local Tree Swallows quite agitated as it swept along the boardwalk and some adorable goslings that were rummaging around in a patch of flowering dandelions.

We decided to then head back up to get provisions for a picnic lunch, which we subsequently consumed at the Bird Point picnic tables. Roughly halfway along the north shore of Turnagain Arm this small promontory offers incredible views of Cook Inlet and the adjacent snowy peaks of the Kenai Mountains. The area was not only good for scenery though, as we picked out several Mountain Goats foraging on the rocky slopes high above the road, and most of the group was treated to quick views of a large Black Bear that came up onto the sidewalk along one edge of the car park before turning and disappearing into the woods when people started noticing its presence! After lunch continued on the roughly two-hour drive south to Seward that follows the northern shoreline of Turnagain Arm before reaching the town of Portage and beginning to pass over the scenic Kenai Peninsula. Despite the passage of nearly five decades, substantial evidence of the massive earthquake (magnitude 9.2) that struck just off the peninsula in 1964 was still quite apparent along the drive. Groves of dead spruce and hemlocks that were killed when seawater crested over the coastal forests still stand in the marshes along the road created when the alluvial plain around the end of Turnagain arm dropped 2.5m through subsidence during the quake. As we began to climb up onto the Kenai we were surrounded by steep rocky snow-topped cliffs, with increasingly tall and dense forests of Sitka Spruce and Western Hemlock, and beautifully still lilly-clad lakes in the valley bottoms. A short walk amongst the trees near the Johnston Trailhead revealed our first visible Hermit Thrushes and some eloquent singing from the local Ruby-crowned Kinglets, as well as a host of Alaskans out enjoying what was turning out to be perhaps the nicest day so far of the summer.

We also stopped briefly at Tern Lake, finding two pairs of Trumpeter Swans, lots of hunting Arctic Terns, a Common Loon perched on a grassy nest, and some incredibly close range and instructive side-by-side views of Greater and Lesser Scaup. Our last stop of the day was to a local birder’s house just a little to the north of Seward. Long a fixture for visiting birders, Ava keeps her feeders fully stocked throughout the year. We spent about a half hour here, watching as a parade of birds came in and out of her front yard feeders. A pair of handsome Pine Grosbeaks were likely the show stoppers, with the bright pink male showing particularly well as it gorged on black oil sunflower seeds on the deck railing. Here too we found both Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, which conveniently sat on adjacent feeders so that we could work through some of the pertinent field identification criteria. A male Rufous Hummingbird repeatedly came into the feeders, glowing like a little orange flame as it zipped through the yard. Here too was our first Pine Siskin, Chestnut-backed Chickadee and Sooty Fox Sparrow (which looked remarkably different to the red birds that we had seen so often to the north). The Chickadee was our third Parid species for the tour and were particularly well-received. With its bright rufous-brown flanks and backs, brownish crowns and a perky and cheerful demeanor they are, arguably, the most charismatic of the new world tits. Overhead we watched Violet-green Swallows hawking insects along the road edge, and had the occasional passing Bald Eagle (at one point four adults were in view at once). Eventually the flood of new species waned, and we pressed on to our hotel for the evening, eager to see what our boat trip out from Seward would bring us the following day.

The next day dawned bright sunny and calm, nearly perfect conditions for our day out on the water around Northwestern Glacier, Resurrection Bay and the Chiswell Islands. The seas remained nearly flat all day, with less than a meter of swell out in the open waters, and even flatter water near the coast, a welcome relief for those who had been concerned about mal de mar. As we motored out of Resurrection Bay, surrounded by yet more rubbish Alaska scenery in all directions we began to see our first little groups of Common Murres and Horned Puffins loafing on the water, and several pair of diminutive Marbled Murrelets flying away from our approach. After a brief stop at Fox Island where we picked up a few passengers who had booked an overnight excursion there, we headed out into more open water, passing the giant Bear glacier where we were given a brief lesson about the differences between lateral, medial and terminal moraines. The boat then diverted a short way off Fox Island to spend some time with our first Humpback Whale. We spent an enjoyable ten minutes or so watching as the whale surfaced, fluked, and rolled around just a hundred meters or so off the bow. This is the most common species of whale around the Kenai in summer, with hundreds of whales using the area to fatten up for the lean months in the tropics where they bear their young. Apparently, most of the local whales here spend their winters off the coast of Maui, making the trip in a little short of a month each way. Eventually the whale showed its tail, marking its time around the surface over, and we started to head westwards towards No Name Island. The cetacean show wasn’t quite over though, as just a bit further out than the Humpback we also enjoyed a fast-moving pod of Dall’s Porpoises that briefly came in to check out the boat. These are compact little black and white rockets, capable of astonishing speed and agility as they chase down their preferred schools of fish. This species often bow rides, staying with the boat for several minutes at a time, but this group was intently hunting fish and soon moved away from us at an impressive clip. The flat seas aided in our quest for alcids sitting in the water, and near the western edge of our open water crossing we picked up first one or two and then a dozen Ancient Murrelets. Several of the groups remained on the water for long enough to get decent views, and we had others that flew across the bow close enough that we could discern their white underparts, flared white supercilia and black throat outlined by a white half-collar. Often this is the species of alcid that we see most poorly on the boat, as Ancients seem particularly wary of approaching craft; diving while still out at distance and then winging away after surfacing. Soon after admiring the Murrelets we began to navigate through a network of small islands just off the tip of Cape Aialik where we stopped in a narrow channel between two steep-sided 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.  This archipelago proved very good for puffins, with dozens of Tufted and Horned Puffins (as well as lots of Common Murre) loafing in the water around the bases of the cliffs. Colonies of Black-legged Kittiwake and Glaucous-winged Gulls lined some of the islands, and on the rocky headlands we spotted small groups of bellowing Steller’s Sea Lions enjoying the warm morning sun.

We then turned through Dora Passage and began to enter Northwestern Fjord where we were met almost immediately by a pair of surprisingly cooperative Sea Otters. These undeniably charismatic mammals are always a huge hit with tourists, and this pair performed well, lounging on their backs and keeping a close eye on us as we slowly drifted past. Populations of these magnificent mustelids have rebounded in the last hundred years after heavy persecution for the fur trade. Sea Otters have the densest hair of any mammal, with an incredible 750,000 hairs per square inch. The hair traps small bubbles of air between the strands, keeping the animals buoyant and warm in the chilly water, and our two otters looked perfectly at home in waters that we would certainly succumb to in minutes.  

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. As we headed further up the fjord the captain repeatedly marked locations where the glacier once stood, with the 1956 location (roughly 3 miles seaward from the current terminus) being particularly noteworthy. This glacier, like so many other around the world, is in a state of rapid decline. The head of the fjord has only been exposed for a few decades, as the glacier has retreated some 8 miles over the last 50 years. The pace of this decline is staggering to comprehend; most of our time spent around the fjord was sitting under hundreds of feet of ice only a scant 200 years ago.  The sunny conditions made for excellent viewing of the blue ice on this tidewater glacier, and with calm winds the captain was able to navigate quite close to the top of the fjord. Northwestern was quite active during our visit, with several large flows of ice and snow falling off the face of the glacier, tumbling down in a roaring white plume before crashing into the waters of the fjord. Harbour Seals and their fuzzy white pups dotted the larger blocks of ice floating out in the bay, eliciting a few aahs from the crowd.

Eventually though, we pulled away and started the slow navigation back through the mats of recently fallen ice. Once out in the clear water we headed over to the other side of striation rock to check around the base of Ogive Glacier for murrelets. 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 within this current that Kittlitz’s Murrelets tend to spend much of their time. The captain took us over to a very sheltered bay close to the glacier, and we were soon successful at finding a single Kittlitz’s that rather uncharacteristically lingered on the water for extended views. At one point the captain managed to keep the bird right off the bow, and several of our camera-ready participants managed truly spectacular photos. To cap the sighting off we also saw the bird in flight, clearly showing off its’ distinctive white tail as it winged away from the bow. In more than a dozen boat trips that I have taken into Northwestern Fjord this was definitely the best view that I have had of this scarce and declining species. Just before leaving the fjord we pulled into a bay filled with strongly running waterfalls for some tourist photos, and to watch a couple of Mountain Goats that were somehow navigating around on the seemingly sheer cliffs above us. The skill with which the captain navigated the large boat right underneath the waterfalls (and to within feet of the towering cliffs) was quite remarkable.

We left the sheltered water of Northwestern Fjord and headed out across a short stretch of open water towards the Chiswell Islands. Perhaps due to the calm water the captain ventured a bit further out than usual, swinging by a lone rocky outcrop in an (unsuccessful) bid to locate a nesting Northern Fulmar. We then moved back in towards the main Chiswells, and soon began to see larger numbers of Horned and Tufted Puffins and Common Murres on the water and zipping overhead. With the relatively low numbers of alcids around much of the North Pacific it was with some relief that we tallied birds here in the hundreds rather than the in the ones. Murre and Kittiwake numbers were markedly low here though. The rapid decline of many seabird rookeries around the Bering Sea and much of the north Pacific has been attributed to several factors, with a rise in sea temperature and shifting sea currents being perhaps the major factors. Biologists in the region are hopeful that the near complete collapse of some Murre colonies is a blip, and that better years are to come. It can be hard to be optimistic about the state of the worlds ecosystems sometimes, but we did saw lots of puffins that were so full of fish that they could not take off as we approached; paddling furiously on the water surface like middle-aged overweight men trying to learn how to surf.  At one of the islands we stopped in to visit a haul out and rookery site for Steller’s Sea Lions, finding several dozen of these huge pinnipeds up on the rocks including one particularly huge male and quite a few young pups. The numbers of this playful but imposing animals have begun to recover throughout Alaska in the last few years and sightings are quite frequent even around the Seward docks. As we had hoped the Chiswell Islands also produced a fine showing from the local seabirds, with cliff-nesting Common Murres up on ledges and small rafts on the water, a few Thick-billed Murres tucked in to their normal spot on Beehive Island (this is a fairly scarce breeding species around Seward, as the larger colonies tend to be out in the colder and deeper waters of the Aleutians and Bering Sea), and quite a few Horned and Tufted Puffins around the boat or in the air overhead. With the Thick-billed Murres well seen and tallied, we completed the sweep of regularly occurring Alcid species in the Seward region, an impressive 10 species! The Alcid family is thought to have evolved in the Bering Sea, and the nutrient rich waters of Alaska support the bulk of the family’s extant diversity. We also found another Humpback Whale, and this one put on an amazing show, tail slapping repeatedly as it lolled around on the surface and occasionally raised a flipper or two as if to wave hello. Before we started the return journey we made a small stop in near another of the Chiswells to have another opportunity to spot and photograph the two species of puffins. Not only were we successful at that quest but we also managed excellent views of some almost eye-level Common Murres nestled into a long crevice in the cliffs, but also quite a few nesting pairs of Pelagic Cormorants, and one active Red-faced Cormorant nest with both parents in attendance. 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 most birding groups had to this point reported missing them we considered ourselves lucky!

As we neared the head of Resurrection Bay the captain received a call from another boat about a small pod of Orca nearby. We diverted and were soon quite close to a group of several animals, including a young calf. The captain identified the whales as one of the resident pods that frequent the waters near Seward, but since Orca pods range over hundreds of miles of coastline they aren’t truly local residents. We encounter Orca only infrequently on the boat trip, so our half-hour with these magnificent cetaceans was an experience to treasure, and a great cap to our trip out on the water. We pulled into the dock with our heads spinning from the exceptionally good and memory-filled day, and most folk opted to relax a bit before our rather late dinner reservation at Ray’s on the Waterfront, where the fresh seafood and sweeping views of the Seward Harbour and the mountains of Resurrection Bay were heralded as excellent. A few hardy souls though took a short walk around a small forested city park, where we enjoyed our first and (as it turned out) only view of Pacific Wren in the forest understory adjacent to a picturesque small stream.

The last day of the main tour dawned even sunnier and warmer than our day on the boat, with temperatures soaring into the high 60’s. Locals were out enjoying the weather, with several people mentioning to us that it was by far the nicest day of the year to date. We spent the morning exploring the coastal forests and shoreline near Seward. Around Lowell Point we parked and took a pleasant walk amongst the towering Sitka Spruce and Western Hemlock forests that line the trail out to Caines Head. The short but dense understory of moss, ferns and devil’s club was lush and green, and many of the large trees were laden with huge mossy limbs, making for quite a verdant and vertically challenging (compared to most of our birding locations in Alaska) environment. Around the carpark we located our first Townsend’s Warblers, glowing an almost neon yellow and black against the deep green tones of the forest. Along the short trail we tracked down Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a Varied Thrush that finally slipped up and lingered in view for several minutes (albeit atop a very tall tree) and several inquisitive Orange-crowned Warblers. Here too we located a very cooperative pair of Chestnut-backed Chickadees that were foraging in some low bushes back around the carpark. With their bright rufous-brown flanks and backs, brownish crowns and a perky and cheerful demeanor they are, arguably, the most charismatic of the new world tits.

Leaving the forest behind, we were thrilled to spot a couple of close Marbled Murrelets paddling along the beach at the south end of the point. Although generally wary these birds seemed used to people, with sea kayakers launching all around them and lots of beachgoers walking the strand. While spending a bit of time photographing and studying these surprisingly small alcids at close range (and from dry land) we also noted flocks of Black Scoter and Harlequin Duck, and a single Black Oystercatcher flying along the shoreline. A quick trip back to the park that we had visited the previous evening failed to reproduce the Pacific Wren, but we enjoyed the location, and managed to drum up some responsive Golden-crowned Kinglets that posed for a bit of a photoshoot, and marveled at the audio backdrop of the local trio of thrushes (Hermit, Robin and Varied) that were all in excellent voice.

We enjoyed a slightly early lunch at a little café (to beat any potential rush from the visiting giant cruiseship) in downtown Seward and then had some time off to explore the town. Many in the group elected to visit the nearby 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, Steller’s and King Eiders, Harlequin Ducks and Puffins. One huge pen holds a towering artificial cliff complete with nesting Red-legged Kittiwakes that were busily constructing nests with provided moss. The aviary includes a two-story aquarium as well, and the views of birds diving down nearly 30 feet underwater trailing a line of silver bubbles in their wakes were exceptional. The center is actively breeding both the rare Eiders and hopes to produce kittiwake chicks as well for release into the wild. Those of us who opted to continue birding in the early afternoon spent a pleasant two hours or so exploring some of the well-forested back roads near the access road to Exit Glacier. Here we connected with a more cooperative Varied Thrush, enjoyed close encounters with Red-breasted Nuthatches and Townsend’s Warblers and enjoyed the sight of a kettle of at least five Bald Eagles circling against the snow-capped coastal mountains. At a nearby trail we tracked down a calling Olive-sided Flycatcher and spent a bit of time watching a female Rufous Hummingbird hunting insects over the creek.

Once we were reunited, we started the leisurely journey back north towards Anchorage. A planned short visit to a small fish weir on Bear Creek, just a tad north of the Seward suburbs lengthened a bit due to the show on offer. Here a local non-profit fishing co-op has a managed salmon run on the small forested creek, and we found hundreds (maybe thousands) of plump sockeye salmon running up against the weir. The fish were gathering in the clear waters just downstream of the dam and often could be seen jumping up onto the first platform of the weir structure. The local co-op workers were actively processing the fish, removing most of the male fish but allowing the females (and a select number of males) pass on upstream to spawn in nearby Bear Lake. We watched as fish after fish was taken up by net and assessed, bound either for the huge iced-filled buckets and eventual dinner table or the sluice box that led down to the quiet waters above the weir. The salmon choked creek was also attended by a very active family of American Dippers that included three recently fledged young and two very busy adults that were continually bringing in prey items to feed their seemingly insatiable youngsters.

We continued north, stopping around the Summit Lakes where we found a displaying Wilson’s Snipe, a foraging Common Goldeneye and a stunning Common Loon sedately cruising by on the glass-calm water. Although by now, the afternoon was well and truly slipping away we decided to pull in to the Granite Creek Campground for a quick check for Spruce Grouse. Although we were ultimately unsuccessful in this main quest (in our experience the best way to actually see one of these often very tame forest chickens is to pointedly not look for them) we did find some clean restrooms, a photogenic Red Squirrel that ruined its own photoshoot by trying to stuff an entire Kleenex in its mouth at once and some managed eye-level views of a fledgling Varied Thrush. As we dropped off of the Kenai Peninsula my phone reconnected with the world, announcing with a string of incoming texts that something was going on in Alaska’s bird world. Aaron Bowman, a local birding guide in Anchorage had spotted a Bean Goose in with some Canada Geese on the coastline just south of town. We high-tailed it over to the site, the Campbell River Esturary which was unfamiliar to me only to find that the bird had been flushed by a passing Eagle soon after the original sighting and was no longer around. We scanned the flats for a bit, admiring a bright orangey Sandhill Crane colt that was striding between its doting parents and a passing Osprey but eventually decided to head back to the vans. As we did so though news came through that the bird had been relocated about a mile down the shoreline. Part of the group was eager to chase it, despite the by now late hour, so we divided up; with some heading to the hotel and dinner, and others continuing on our literal wild goose chase. It took about 15 minutes to reposition, but when we arrived many other Anchorage birders were already on the scene, as was, thankfully, the goose. Initially snoozing in the grass, the bird soon woke up and started grazing with its new Canada Goose companions. Identification of the Bean Geese complex is complex to say the least, with many a bird showing supposedly intermediate or conflicting characters between Tundra and Taiga Beans. As this was the first record of either species (a dubious split according to many) in the Anchorage (or indeed mainland Alaska) area the specific identification was a topic of intense discussion. The bird appeared larger (but not markedly so) than the attendant Canadas, with a prominent grin patch and seemingly deep based and blunt bill; all marks that favor Tundra Bean Goose, which is the more common of the two “species” in North America. While we were watching the bird the second WINGS Majesty tour pulled up (road weary from the long drive down from the Denali Highway, but thrilled to have made it in time for the goose), and both groups celebrated over a late dinner.

Barrow Extension

Our flight to Barrow wasn’t until the mid-afternoon this year, so we had a leisurely breakfast and then got out about town for a little bit of birding. We started by revisiting the Campbell River Estuary and were quasi-successful at catching the rest of the group up with yesterdays’ Bean Goose. Unfortunately, the bird was much further away this time, and although it did poke its head up a few times from the dense grassy meadow that it was hanging around in the views were pretty marginal. We had much better luck though with our first (surprisingly) Short-billed Dowitcher that we found in a small marshy section of Westchester Lagoon. This bird showed very well, even occasionally getting up and singing as it sailed around the marsh. The fuzzy and somewhat ungainly Short-billed Gull chicks were a hit too as they tottered around on some floating logs. We took lunch at the airport, and then, after a bit of delay due to the need to change one of the tires on our plane took off for the nearly two-hour flight up to the far north, and a far different world than the lush and mountainous Anchorage. Utqaigvik (Barrow) sits at 71 degrees and 17 minutes N at the northern tip of the United States. The point just north of town falls just a bit short of the tip of the Boothia Peninsula in Canada’s high arctic, which is the highest latitude point in mainland North America. We had heard through the guiding grapevine that much of the North Slope was still locked in winter conditions, with persisting and extensive snow and ice. A warm-up had recently occurred, resulting in a melting of most of the snow and a shift from a white color palette to a brown one but Ice was still dominating along the shorelines, with very little open water to be seen.

The ramshackle town of Barrow houses roughly 4000 residents. The town serves as the commercial hub of the entire North Slope and is the largest Inupiat town in the country.  It’s a sprawling and surprisingly large place, with a substantial number of large multi-story buildings and a well-developed (if not always well maintained) urban road network. As many of the residents have some means due to the flush of income from the oil industry there are lots of vehicles, boats, ATV’s and Ski-Doos lying about the town. When they break down, they are typically just laid to rest in the yards, as the removal of such heavy equipment is expensive. With the houses all up on stilts to prevent the melting of the underlying permafrost, puddles of water tend to form under and around the houses, making for a most unusual suburban look. Although a lot of the houses look like they could fall apart at any moment, and the yards tend to be filled with broken down ATV’s, snowmobiles and trucks the insides of the buildings are warm and homey, and the locals are quite proud of their town, and their heritage.

We checked into our hotel, picked up the hire cars and then, after a surprisingly delicious dinner at the local Japanese restaurant (with some very gracious and grateful hosts that were currently struggling with the lack of internet coverage rendering them a cash only business) we the ground running, eager to see what the high arctic had in store for us. With only a few hours after dinner at our disposal and a forecast the next day that was calling for higher than comfortable winds with occasional snowfall we elected to track down a couple of high-target species that we knew were in the area. Chief among these was the breeding pair of Red-necked Stints that were on territory just a little north of town. Enroute to the area we stopped to soak in our first wave of birds, with breeding Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers, Red-necked and Red Phalaropes all showing extremely well. Cheerful Snow Buntings were seemingly everywhere, and we were happy to spot a displaying pair of Baird’s Sandpipers (a locally scarce breeding species) that spent quite some time foraging just a few meters away, often in the company of several smaller Semipalmated Sandpipers which provided an excellent opportunity to tease apart their pertinent identification features. Once at the site it didn’t take long to find one of the stints, which popped up after a display bout and perched on an overhead wire for long enough for the group to all get through the scopes. This old-world shorebird has been flirting with colonizing the east coast of the Bering/Chukchi Seas; with over summering birds now regularly recorded by birders and biologists around the Seward Peninsula and scattered spots around the Northwest slope. This pair though represents one of the first actually documented breeding attempts; and after admiring the birds attenuated shape, orange throat and face offsetting the otherwise white underparts we left them in peace. We then explored a bit further, spending a bit of time admiring the breeding waterfowl, which included Black Brant, Greater White-fronted Geese, Long-tailed Ducks and a cooperative and suitably dazzling male King Eider that was paddling around in a small section of open water in one of the town lakes. Our final new bird of the night was perhaps the highlight of the day for many participants; a magnificent pure white male Snowy Owl that was perched on a wooden structure on the edge of town. Numbers of these impressive predators fluctuate in accordance with the local vole and lemming populations, but even on poor lemming years there will be a few Snowy Owls around Barrow and thankfully for us, in 2023 there were plenty of owls on offer.

The next day was an excellent test of our individual clothing options; with temperatures hovering just above freezing and a steady west wind (coming right off the sizeable icefield out in the Chukchi Sea) conditions were challenging. We persevered though, and as the day wore on the wind dropped which made for much more pleasant birding. We started the day by exploring a bit south of town along the Freshwater Lake Road, which stretches about a mile and a half south of town and offers a nice access point to more natural open tundra. Small ponds were scattered along the roadside and were attracting an array of shorebirds. Here we obtained excellent and close views of Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Long-billed Dowitcher, American Golden-Plover and both Red and Red–necked Phalarope in all in their breeding finery. This year we found that the last half of the road was not in good shape, with some water over the road and one large washout, but we were able to access the many small ponds along the roadside by walking slowly down the road. Likely the star shorebird species though (as always) was the 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!” Jaegers put on a memorable show here, with all three species present, and Pomarine and Parasitics vocalizing and interacting with each other. Jaeger populations also fluctuate with the local abundance of voles and lemmings, and this year seemed an excellent one for Pomarine and Parasitic Jaegers in particular. These elegant (if menacing) aerial predators are most closely related to shorebirds than to 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 confusing subadult plumages. In the high Arctic though one can experience adult birds with full tails at close range, and on just our first evening we found all three species present. We even located a Varied Thrush that was bouncing along the base of a tall snowbank, looking decidedly out of place in the tundra. This often-shy forest thrush is surprisingly regular in Barrow, and this particular individual was the 4th that we have recorded over the last 10 trips! Without a doubt though, the highlight of the walk was furnished by a pair of Steller’s Eiders that we found paddling around in a small pool along the road. Often these birds can be wary, but this pair seemed fully intent on denuding the pond of its complement of aquatic vegetation. 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 female is less boldly patterned, resembling a stocky and very dark teal, but is lovely in her own right.

For much of the rest of the day we birded to the east of town, along the Cakeeater and Gaswell Road complex. This road is the longest one around Barrow, winding about 8 miles out of town, although at the time of our visit the second half of the road was not open to vehicles due to flooding. 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, Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers, American Golden-Plovers and Dunlin all singing or courting from the slightly drier rises in the tundra. Larger open lakes held breeding pairs of Pacific Loons and loafing squadrons of Long-tailed Ducks and in marshier pools we found our first handsome Spectacled Eiders. The amazingly attractive male, with their odd green nape feathers, silky casque over their bills, orange bills and white goggles are one of the main targets of a trip to Barrow, and our views this year of several males were excellent. King Eiders, with their prismatic-hued heads and protruding black scapular sails were particularly forthcoming; staying quite close to the road at times and another pair of Steller’s showed well. We spent some time searching for a recently reported Ruff (a particularly nice bird in full black breeding regalia) but despite knowing exactly the areas that it had been frequenting we didn’t connect. Another birding group in town the same time as us also tried repeatedly without luck, although some independent birders shared their photos proving their success. We supposed that the bird was only infrequently coming close to the roads, and one of the USFWS biologists mentioned that they had seen it about a half-mile down a small tundra creek earlier in the day. Our quest wasn’t in vain though, for in that area we were able to watch a fuzzy mostly white Arctic Fox hunting out in the tundra, spotted two more Snowy Owls and enjoyed multiple views of exquisitely plumaged Red Phalaropes spinning around in the roadside puddles.

Once back in town we stopped in at a local house with birdfeeders in a bare yard right on the shore of the Chukchi Sea. The owners have erected a unique series of brushpiles, using bones, cable spools and wooden pallets, as well as some creative metal and whale baleen palm trees to provide a bit of cover for the local birds. As usual the feeders were hosting lots of Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs and a few Hoary Redpolls, but we were happy to spot an out of range White-crowned Sparrow enjoying the proffered seed as well. We chatted with the owner a bit, noting some extensive damage to her street. This led to a rather sobering discussion about climate change, as the historically permafrost laden coastline is thawing, with significant erosion exacerbated by more intense fall storms. Apparently, the entire road sloughed off into the ocean last fall, and the city has been trucking in fill to try to stem the tide. An ominous crack recently appeared in the ground that runs right through her birdfeeding area and parking lot, just a few yards from her actual house. A company specializing in stabilizing such conditions (by injecting some sort of hardening material horizontally into the banks) was scheduled to pay the city a visit later in the summer; and we wished her all the best in her battle against the sea.

During our time in Barrow there was a substantial ice sheet out over the ocean, with shore fast ice stretching almost to the pole to the north, and well over 100 miles to the Southwest. The ice was all single generation (ie. Created over the past winter) and destined to fully melt away during the rest of the summer and fall, but for incoming birds the late season was causing delays in their arrival or breeding cycles. Although all of the expected species were present the overall numbers seemed low, echoing what we had found around Nome earlier in the tour. The persistent ice though boded very well for our chances at actually seeing Polar Bears. The people of Utqiagvik continue their long-held tradition of subsistence whaling, taking up to 25 Bowhead Whales during their hunting season in the late fall. Over the past winter the whaling crews had killed 14 whales; more than enough to keep those in town who wished well provisioned with meat for the year. Unused whale parts are hauled off to the tip of Point Barrow, to ensure that they do not attract bears closer to town. During much of the winter the local bears partake of that bounty, generally retreating with the ice once it begins to break up. Since the point was still firmly locked in ice this year we heard reports of good numbers of bears frequenting the area and decided to arrange special transportation the roughly 5 miles north (and off road) to the tip. We found a local who has been actively advertising such trips, using a custom made 6-door Ford Excursion that he ordered in Texas last year and then drove up from Galveston (using the winter ice roads along the North Slope) in preparation for the spring tourist season. The last 4 miles of the point involve driving completely off road and in soft gravelly sand, not the type of terrain for novice drivers or normal cars (especially in bear country), so we were glad to be in our guide Vernon’s capable hands and truly Alaskan sized truck. Almost as soon as we left the end of the old (and currently unreachable due to coastal erosion) point road we spotted a female bear with a well-grown cub out on the ice. We watched entranced by the scene as they paced away in the fog; two cream coloured bears in a sea of ice and fog. A bit further north we spotted multiple bears around the pile of whale meat, at times with up to 4 individuals including a large male in view. Two of the bears veered away as we approached, with one padding off over the sea ice and disappearing. The second eventually wandered back, and spent a bit of time sparring with a smaller bear that was digging in the sand a bit further down the beach. The fourth bear (a ridiculous thing to have to qualify) was the star of the show. Initially he seemed a bit taken aback with our arrival near the food cache, but after we parked he wandered back to feed. Our views were simply incredible, with nearly ten minutes of live viewing conditions that would have rivalled the best David Attenborough has to offer. Eventually the bear walked down from the cache, slowly descending the black sand hill that we were parked beside. He came right towards us, stopping just 10m or so from the truck to give us a once over before drifting away towards the sea ice. Seeing such a magnificent animal from such close range was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and one that will long live in our memories. Those in the latter group (we had to split into two parties due to the size of the group, but thankfully both trips produced similar views) were treated to one more sight, as on the stroke of the summer solstice the sun came out from the clouds, bathing the point in an otherworldly light and illuminating the mother and cub that we had first spotted on the way out as they nuzzled noses and then walked off into a glowing fogbank. To a person over the last dinner this experience with the bears ranked as the top moment of the trip, and I am so happy that we were able to include it in the tour.

The last day at Barrow allowed us to spend a bit more time really enjoying watching arctic birds in their summer element. We checked again for the Ruff and a few spots for Sabine’s Gulls, a species which we regularly encounter in Nome and Barrow but one that was oddly absent this year. A pair of courting King Eiders put on an amazing show for us in a small pool near the town dump, and we spent quite some time simply walking along the Freshwater Lake and Nunuvak roads south of town, admiring loafing Ringed Seals out on the ice, watching interacting Jaegers and tracking down closer views (and photographs) of Long-billed Dowitchers, Dunlin and American Golden-Plovers. All too soon we had to head into town for lunch and begin packing up and checking in for our mid-afternoon flight. Barrow did produce one last surprise for us though, as, just before we headed to the airport, we stopped along the recently constructed rocky causeway at the middle Salt Lagoon and spotted a snoozing Black Guillemot tucked in along the rip-rap line. Although this species breeds around Barrow in small numbers it had been four years since we had last seen them during our tour. Generally, this species breeds in boulder crevices or burrows, but with nothing but a fine gravelly beaches and permafrost laden tundra nearby the local small population makes do by making a shallow scrape underneath boards or other detritus along the high-water line of the beach. This enterprising bird may well have been prospecting for burrow sites in the culvert wall. It was our 11th species of Alcid, and 186th species of bird for the 2023 Majesty Tour.

We finished the tour back at our now very familiar home base along the shoreline of Lake Hood, with a fine dinner and one of our favorite servers in attendance. 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 possible to the beauty and richness of the far north reaches of our continent. -           

-          Gavin Bieber

Created: 06 July 2023