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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Alaska: Majesty of the North

2018 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Our 2018 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 192 species on this year’s tour (including the Pribilof and Barrow extensions). The sheer scope of the wildlands in Alaska is astounding, with many ecosystems still functioning in a close to pristine state. It’s hard to pick out favorites as each leg of the trip held its own prizes. In the surprisingly rain-free and warm Pribilofs Islands we reveled in our views of cliff nesting seabirds, where despite the reduction in numbers due to the effects of warmer water temperatures we still enjoyed excellent views of all the expected cliff nesting seabirds. We also lucked into several rarities including a very cooperative Terek Sandpiper, a drake Tufted Duck, and a handsome rufous-morph Oriental Cuckoo. Around the open tundra and seemingly endless rolling mountains of Nome we found breeding Aleutian Terns, Bar-tailed Godwits, Bluethroat, Arctic Warbler, nesting Gyrfalcons, American and Pacific Golden Plovers, numbers of Willow and Rock Ptarmigan and a nesting pair of White Wagtails. Around the towering peaks of Denali we encountered vocal Golden-crowned Sparrows and Wilson’s Warblers calling from the shrubby willows, soaring Golden Eagles attending a cliff-side aerie and views of the mountain top poking out from the mosaic of constantly changing clouds. The remote and wild Denali Highway revealed its hoped-for Smith’s Longspurs in their stunning summer plumage, nesting pairs of Trumpeter Swans, and yodeling Common Loons all in a vast and humbling wild landscape. A bit north of Anchorage we stopped in at a recently burned patch of forest and enjoyed point-blank views of nesting Black-backed and American Three-toed Woodpeckers foraging in the lower trunks of burnt spruces and feeding their insistent young. In the stunning fjords that fringe the Kenai Peninsula we found Ancient, Marbled and Kittlitz’s Murrelets (among 9 species of alcids for the day), and in the adjacent Sitka Spruce forests a suite of birds more commonly thought of as belonging to the Pacific Northwest, like Red Crossbill, Pine Grosbeak, Northwestern Crow, Rufous Hummingbird and Chestnut-backed Chickadee. We wrapped up in Barrow, with all four species of Eider at close range and in perfect plumage, a surprise Gray-tailed Tattler, a flock of dainty Sabine’s Gulls dancing over some tundra pools and with what was generally regarded as the bird of the trip; a pair of courting Ross’s Gulls! The mammals bear mentioning too, with an impressive 24 species during the trip. Iconic wilderness species like Grizzly Bear, Moose, and Caribou, pelagic mammals like Sea Otter and Fin and Humpback Whales, and charismatic mini-fauna like Arctic Ground Squirrel, Northern Collared Lemming and Porcupine provided an excellent complement to the birds. Alaska simply is one state that any naturalist should try to visit at least once in their lifetime; its scope, and indeed its majesty are unrivalled.

IN DETAIL

PRIBILOFS EXTENSION: coming soon

MAIN TOUR: Our first segment of the tour took place in Nome, a long famous birding location and historically interesting town situated along the southern coast of the Seward Peninsula. This gold-rush era boomtown retains a very frontier-like feel, with local gold panners dredging along the shoreline, and a seemingly endless number of saloon options. A new discovery channel program exploring the vagaries and vicissitudes of gold dredging 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 liberally decorated with an array of wildflowers in mid-June. Since we had scheduled roughly three full days of birding day around Nome we were able to venture down one road each day.

We landed in the late morning, and after lunch and checking into our hotel we set out to explore a few of the better sites near the city. Small ponds along the coastal road held pairs of approachable Red-throated Loons, paddling Red-necked Phalaropes and several Arctic Terns. 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 drove out to the sandy point to look through the large flock of loafing terns along the crest of the beach. Most were Arctic Terns, but we located several Aleutian Terns flying and perched at fairly close range. 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. Here too we spotted our first dapper Pacific Golden-Plovers, dazzling in their jet-black bellies and flashy golden-spangled backs.

We then set out on the scenic Teller Road. This less-travelled (by birders at any rate) road eventually reaches the small subsistence town of Teller, but we only went about half-way out this year. Our main destination was the road down to Woolley Lagoon, but we first stopped at the Penny River Bridge, where a nice patch of short willows and alders generally support a nice selection of breeding songbirds. Here we found our first Yellow and Wilson’s Warblers, American Tree, Fox, and White-crowned Sparrows and a real surprise in the form of a small group of Bohemian Waxwings. Waxwings are quite irregular around the Seward Peninsula, and are hard to predict at any given spot in the itinerary from year-to-year. A bit further down the road a stop along the rushing banks of the Sinuk River proved quite productive too, with a female Moose and two very young calves that were trying to clamber up a snowy ridge, some very close Red-necked Phalarope and Arctic Tern and two quite cooperative Wandering Tattler that were foraging just below the bridge offering superlative views of this often somewhat elusive wader.

A short detour along a short gravel side road that winds up to a rocky and open dry tundra ridge where we found a few American Golden-Plover, a pair of handsome Red Knots in their full breeding finery and single Horned Lark and Snow Buntings among the lichen covered and wildflower rich tundra. Perhaps our best finds along the ridge road though were the two male Rock Ptarmigan that we picked out along the road. One of the birds had already moulted out most of its snow-white winter plumage and was now clad in a mix of gray/brown feathers with patches of white; a close facsimile of the rocks and winter plant colours that fill the surrounding tundra. We generally take a walk along the ridge to look for breeding Rock Sandpipers but high winds and colder temperatures quickly drove us back into the van. As we descended the ridge we were surprised to see two furtive Artic Warblers dashing between tiny clumps of prostrate willows, doubtless just arriving from their winter home in southeast Asia (and perhaps wondering if they had completed their journey a few days too early this year). On the road down to Woolley Lagoon we stopped to admire several dapper Pacific Golden-Plovers and a pair of beautiful Black-bellied Plover which paraded around for us for several minutes, fairly glowing in their immaculately white and Black plumage. It’s hard to believe that this is the same bird that shows up along the shores to the south in dull grays and browns, and I think people may now have a greater appreciation for a bird that they see so regularly in the winter. Some Long-tailed Jaegars were happily hunting over the road, occasionally perching along the road or up on the road markers and allowing us quite close views. We turned the van back towards Nome, stopping to admire a herd of Musk Ox that were walking through a willow thicket right next to the road. Although not native to the Seward Peninsula these shaggy but magnificent animals seem right at home here, with a robust population around Nome. We arrived back to the hotel a bit after midnight, tired but happy and ready to see what more Nome had in store for us over the following two and a half days.

For our first full day in Nome we elected to investigate the Council Road, which stretches east along the coastline of Norton Sound and then down the narrow isthmus that frames the 20-mile long Safety Lagoon before cutting inland over some alpine passes and terminating in the small town of Council, about 73 miles from Nome. Safety Sound plays hosts to large numbers of waterbirds and shorebirds throughout much of the year, and always holds enough diversity to occupy visiting birders for days. At one of the many small coastal ponds just outside of Nome we watched a pair of Red-throated Loons swimming and occasionally diving. 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.” As the road out to Safety Sound passes by the Nome River mouth we elected to stop again at the bridge to scan the lagoon. This proved fruitful, as it often does, as we found an elegant Sabine’s Gull sitting in the mixed flock of Mew Gulls and Black-legged Kittiwakes. Sabine’s are merely migrants here, but over the course of the day we found an amazing 17 individuals scattered along the coast. Also in the lagoon was a handsome male Bar-tailed Godwit and a single Black Turnstone. We then stopped at a nearby coastal road where a shallow lagoon strewn with driftwood had been hosting a female Lesser Sandplover. Sadly, the bird had departed a day before our arrival, but we took consolation with our excellent close range studies of Pacific Golden-Plover, Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers and a nice selection of bushbirds including red Fox Sparrow and Yellow Warbler.

Once out on the actual lagoon we stopped frequently to check out flocks of birds on the lagoon shores or just offshore in Norton Sound. Flocks of American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Red-breasted Mergansers, Common Eider and Greater Scaup dotted the shoreline. We worked our way out to the Safety Sound Bridge, stopping wherever aggregations of birds had formed and obtaining excellent studies of Mew, Glaucous, Glaucous-winged Gulls and Black-legged Kittiwakes. Just over the bridge we decided to walk out to the beach to look through an assemblage of waders, which turned out to be a very good idea. A good number of Surfbird were still along the shore, likely due to the snowy grip of winter that was still covering their preferred high elevation breeding habitat. Also here was a beautiful flock of fourteen Sabine’s Gulls feeding in the surf, several pretty Ruddy Turnstone, a flyby Yellow-billed Loon and a large resting flock of Arctic Terns. Over the course of the day all the more expected shorebirds allowed us close approach, and we spent some time picking apart the ID features of Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers and Dunlin in their full breeding dress. Likely our most exciting find of the morning though was the pair of drake Spectacled Eiders that were lingering near the east end of the sound. This amazingly attractive bird, with its odd green nape feathers, silky fold over their bills, and white goggles are one of the main targets of any birding tour to northern Alaska. Spectacled Eiders are generally rare to absent around the Seward Peninsula by June, occurring much more commonly up on the North Slope around the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.

We took our picnic lunch at the famous train to nowhere, a rusty old train that was originally an elevated people mover in New York City before being sold to ply the tundra between Nome and Council. Further out the Council Road, once the road veered inland and began to traverse rolling hills covered in dense willow brush at their base, but quickly opening up into alpine tundra at their tops, we stopped at a large bridge over a rushing stream. Here we located an active Gyrfalcon nest, and, staying back far enough to not disturb the hulking dark gray female who was on the nest protecting her young fuzzy white chicks watched her as she stared intently back at us. Here too we found a herd of Muskox foraging along a creek against a snowy background of high mountain peaks, a singing Northern Waterthrush calling vigorously from a creekside willow and an active trio of Spotted Sandpipers that were chasing each other from rock to rock in the river. As the afternoon waned on (though not the sunlight) we drove back to Nome and our hotel, with stops to admire some perched Eastern Yellow Wagtails near the tiny town of Solomon. We arrived in time for an earlyish dinner in preparation for our early start to the Kougarok Road the next morning.

On our second full day in Nome 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. We set off early, pausing to admire a quietly sitting male Willow Ptarmigan along the road and a large herd of Muskox atop a stony ridge. The day proved quite productive for Ptarmigan, with at least nine Willows and a pair of Rocks along the road. This was a happy byproduct of the delayed spring this year. With substantial snow still coating the mountains, and ice gripping most of the lakes the Ptarmigan were still largely down in the valley bottoms where the vegetation was beginning to green up. The road was actually closed to all traffic just a week and a half prior to our arrival and was still quite rutted with the occasional mudslide or snowbank to dodge around. Salmon Lake was still virtually completely frozen over, but thankfully the entrance road to the picnic ground was open (in contrast to just a few days before when it was blocked by an icy snowbank). We stopped in to use the facilities and while queuing had some time to admire several singing Golden-crowned Sparrows, a few crisp and white Hoary Redpoll and an American Robin that was enterprisingly using the restroom foyer as a shelter for its nest. We then continued on out towards Coffee Dome with a brief stop to look at a perched up male Rusty Blackbird along the road.

A little over 70 miles from Nome, on the top of a rounded dome-shaped hill there are a few pairs of the very range-restricted and globally rare Bristle-thighed Curlews. We arrived in the mid-morning and the group that was planning on completing the walk up to the top set off into overcast skies. The well-beaten trail was wet, with running water springing from the ground and flowing over the steeper patches between the willow thickets and tussock grasses. Once we reached the drier and rockier tundra that caps the hill we spotted several pairs of immaculately plumaged American Golden-Plovers, a species that prefers the drier and more upland tundra in the interior of the Seward Peninsula (in contrast to their close Pacific relatives that are often found in the moist coastal plain). Here too were a couple of Whimbrel and several Long-tailed Jaegers. We spent about two hours walking around the top of the hill, seeing the aforementioned birds and a quite cooperative male Rock Ptarmigan in the process. Very conspicuous in their absence though was any sign of our main quarry, the enigmatic Bristle-thighed Curlew. The first WINGS tour that visited the area for the year (only 5 days prior to our visit) reported only a single non-displaying bird, and many groups subsequent to that visit missed them completely. This year we actually moved the Nome section of the tour four days earlier specifically because the Curlews seem to be getting increasingly difficult in mid-June, but it was, alas, to no avail. A check on eBird for the week after our visit proved that others were equally unsuccessful. It is my fervent hope that despite the late arrival of spring the birds were not delayed in their breeding cycle and were quietly on nests during our visit. The rich floral life, scenery, good weather and a general lack of mosquitoes proved some consolation. Further consolation was obtained once we descended the hill and arrived back at the vans.

Once back at the road we were startled to hear the unmistakable song of a nearby skylarking Bluethroat. This jewel-like bird is a vocal and obvious member of the local avifauna for the first few weeks after it arrives from its wintering grounds in Asia. Once they start nesting though (which happens in mid-June) they are virtually silent and rather than boisterously launching themselves into the air and then fluttering down on outstretched wings spend much of their time lurking quietly in the dense thickets of willows that line drainages in the tundra. Often when we would arrive in mid-June the species would prove very hard to see, so by moving the dates a bit we were able to dramatically improve our experience with this exquisite old-world passerine. The bird repeatedly perched atop willows, showing its gleaming throat (one that would make most hummingbirds jealous) before launching into a towering song flight. Happy with our views we drove a bit further down the road for a picnic lunch (where we found another Bluethroat as well as some cooperative Wilson’s Warblers and American Tree Sparrows). We then turned around and slowly made our way back towards Nome. A stop at a spectacular alpine lake revealed a couple of pairs of Black Scoters, our only Greater White-fronted Geese of the trip, some Tundra Swans and nesting Red-necked Grebes sitting on their grassy bowers. Fairly close to Nome we stopped along the road in a likely looking willow thicket where some other birders were trying to spot a singing Arctic Warbler. With a bit of patience, we were able to coax the bird to the roadside willows where it perched up and lingered long enough for the paparazzi to exhaust themselves. It was a perfect end to a truly enjoyable day out in the field, and we finished the drive back to Nome to dry out and then toast our successes (and admittedly slightly lament our failure with the Curlew) over dinner on the shores of Norton Sound.

The flight back to Anchorage was scheduled for mid-day this year, giving us enough time to venture back out of town in search of a few more species. We split the group, with one van heading far out the Teller Road to look for a recently reported White Wagtail out past Woolley Lagoon. The other group headed for Safety Sound on the Council Road in a quest for Arctic Loon. The Wagtail group met with resounding success, with excellent views of a pair of White Wagtails tending a nest near the road. This sighting marked only the second time in 16 years that we have recorded the species around Nome; making the trip out more than worth it! They also witnessed an amazing encounter with a Golden Eagle that shot past the car at an extremely close range carrying a Snowshoe Hare, only to land on a nearby hill. A second Eagle flew in from a cliffside nest to grab the offering and then carried it back to the waiting chicks. Two male Rock Ptarmigan displaying to one another on a roadside snowbank while a Northern Wheatear perched on a rock across the road was just icing on the cake. The group that covered Safety Sound located a male Eurasian Wigeon in with a large flock of American Wigeon, a single Rock Sandpiper along the shore near the Safety Sound Bridge, another cooperative migrant Arctic Warbler and a flyby Tufted Puffin. Alcid numbers were actually quite good for Nome, with several dozen Murre and at least four pairs of Horned Puffins including a pair that was busily mating on the water just offshore. We had front row seats for the show, which seemingly lasted quite a while for a pair of birds. Some fish bait balls a bit offshore were attracting a lot of Kittiwakes and more than a few Parasitic Jaegars plying their trade. We were unsuccessful in turning any of the nearly twenty Pacific Loons into our hoped-for Arctic but our views of nesting Red-throated and Pacific were indeed superlative. It would seem that the locally breeding pair of Arctics were taking their time taking up their normal summer quarters in the eastern side of the lagoon. All too soon it was time to head back to Nome in order to catch our mid-day flight to Anchorage, followed by some time off for laundry and rest in preparation for the next leg of the tour.

We commenced the mainland section of the tour with some morning birding around the city of Anchorage. As the tides seemed to be in our favor we began with a visit to of the best overall birding sites in the city: Westchester Lagoon. Around the freshwater lagoons near the mouth of Chester creek we found a nice mix of waterfowl, including excellent close comparison studies of Greater and Lesser Scaup, dozens of Mallards and Canada Geese with fuzzy chicks in tow, and small numbers of American Wigeon and Gadwall. On a small island in the lake we watched as Mew Gulls and Arctic Terns brought food in to their puffball-sized nestlings, while several pairs of Red-necked Grebes tended to their tiny striped young just a few feet offshore. The huge tidal flows along the Anchorage waterfront (one of the largest tides in the world, at over 40 feet) reveal impressive expanses of glacial silt at low tide, making birds generally too far away for satisfactory views. At high tide however, there can often be large numbers of waders and gulls loafing along the narrow ledge of coastline close to the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. We managed to time our visit on a peak high tide, and when we walked out along the paved bike and pedestrian trail (many US cities could learn a lot about active living and alternative transportation infrastructure with a visit to the surprisingly progressive Anchorage) to the coast, we were surprised to see no exposed mudflats at all. Some reddish Sandhill Cranes were picking along the grassy marsh near the newly minted Audubon Society viewing platform. Flocks of Mew, Bonaparte’s and Cook’s Inlet Gulls (a common mixture of Glaucous-winged and Herring Gulls that dominate the large gull flocks around Anchorage) were paddling around near the shore. Tucked into the wet grasses were well over a hundred Canada Geese, and with a bit of searching we picked out a tiny and dark chested Cackling Goose (likely of the minima subspecies) as well. We lingered at the platform for a bit and were thrilled when a Hudsonian Godwit flew in and landed along the shoreline Hudsonians are simply stunning birds in breeding plumage, and with a bit of patience we were able to see the bird lift its wings, flashing a jet-black underwing and striking white rump. On the walk back towards the vans we noticed some calling Alder Flycatchers (in an alder grove no less) and we teased up a busy pair of Black-capped Chickadees and a pair of Downy Woodpeckers. Ever-present Black-billed Magpies were strutting around the edge of the trail, perhaps hoping that some of our snacks might fall out of our pockets. Baby birds were everywhere we looked, with the most interesting clutch belonging to a pair of Short-billed Dowitchers. The adults had four tiny fuzzy chicks following them as they foraged in the marsh literally at our feet. The babies were adorable, with long bills, burgundy and gold plumage and ridiculously oversized feet.

We then drove a bit to the north, stopping at the newly minted William Hernandez Sport Fish Hatchery. Behind their buildings runs Ship Creek, which here is shallow and gravel lined. American Dippers often nest just below some old weirs across the creek, but this year the rapidly melting snowpack caused the normally somewhat sedate creek to be a raging torrent. A pair of Solitary Sandpipers flew over us as we walked back to the vans, and we enjoyed very close views of another pair of Black-capped Chickadees and a nice study of an old Dipper nest (a beautiful dome constructed with moss). As by then it was late morning we started the long but beautiful drive up to our base for the night near the east end of the Denali Highway. We took the Glenn Highway north; a stunning road that follows the path carved by the retreating Matanuska Glacier. We drove by remnant hanging glacial valleys, over rushing rivers, past crystalline alpine lakes and dark green spruce forests that stretched to the horizon and through a series of vast and seemingly endless vistas. The weather started turning on us during the drive up towards the summit of Eureka Pass, with higher winds and light rain. The timing seemed perfect as we pulled in to a small roadside café for lunch, with a herd of bright white Dall Sheep perched high above us on a cliff face overlooking the road.

After lunch, we spent some time scanning the tops of a seemingly inexhaustible number of spruce trees around the pass, looking in vain for a reported pair of Northern Hawk-Owls that had apparently been frequenting the area this year. Our persistence did reveal our first Gray Jays (soon to be known again as Canada Jay), a perched Northern Shrike, and, on a postcard perfect alpine lake, a couple of Surf Scoters. As we continued north we paused at another lake where we spotted a male Ring-necked Duck and a few Rusty Blackbirds. The weather continued to deteriorate and we arrived at our rustic but comfortable lodge to whipping winds and a fairly steady rain (which made unloading the vans and checking in a bit of a more dramatic affair than we had anticipated). A buffet turkey dinner greeted our arrival as well, and soon after we turned in for the night, ready to see what the wild and remote Denali Highway had in store for us the next day.

This year we reconfigured our Denali section to give us more time on the Denali Highway, especially around the higher and more tundra-like far Eastern end (where our lodge for the night was perfectly situated). This reconfiguration was done mainly in the hopes that we would be able to look for Smith’s Longspur. Our lodge was conveniently located less than a mile from a historically productive site for the birds, so after breakfast we set off for a walk across the spongy tundra to get out to a flat stretch of land adjacent to a small lake. Most Smith’s breed on the relatively flat lands of the North Slope, and occur in small clusters where their preferred microhabitat of bunchgrass, very short willows and cottongrass swales dominates. It took a bit longer than we anticipated to walk out to the site as the previous days rains had left the tundra quite moist, but after about forty minutes we were in place. At least three male Longspurs were foraging in the short grasses and occasionally perching up in the willows for a short song bout. Doubtless there was a female or two around as well. This species is virtually unique as it is a polygynandroussongbird. 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! We were able to see several males at quite close range, a treat that we have not had for nearly a decade of WINGS tours to Alaska, as the population on the west side of the Denali Highway (where we had previously been restricted to looking) has been missing for many years. Also on the walk we were able to watch several pairs of nesting Long-tailed Jaegars, a couple of Whimbrel on their breeding grounds, and several Trumpeter Swans flying overhead. Elated with our tundra experience we stopped back in at the lodge for a restroom break and some time to look at the many breeding Tree and Cliff Swallows that were nesting all around the lodge buildings.

For the rest of the day we explored the length of 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. The east end of the highway is littered with a series of medium to small sized gravel-lined ponds. We started the drive off in light rain, scanning through the lakes as we passed and noting a wide array of birds. Two female Barrow’s Goldeneye were perhaps the most interesting finds, but adult Bonaparte’s Gulls, spinning flocks of Red-necked Phalaropes, breeding Long-tailed Ducks and several close pairs of Trumpeter Swans formed an excellent supporting cast. In the thickets we heard a chorus of birdsong, and with some patience located Savannah, White-crowned, and Red Fox Sparrows. Warblers too were in evidence, with Wilson’s and Blackpoll being very common, and a few Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped calling as well. A large dirt embankment near the road was playing host to an impressive number of Bank Swallows that were busily flying in an out of their nesting holes. Nearby at a river crossing hordes of Cliff Swallows were gathering mud from a roadside puddle, with frantically fluttering wings which made them resemble an oversized flock of butterflies at a puddle party. We ate a picnic lunch on the road, accompanied by an oddly annoying bout of light rain that seemed to coincide with our lunchtime nearly perfectly. A yodeling Common Loon provided an excellent aural accompaniment though! After lunch we continued west, stopping to admire a singing Arctic Warbler near the Clearwater bridge, and a very cooperative American Dipper along the rushing banks of another rocky stream. It’s hard not to love these busy balls of slate gray, with their flashing nictating membranes and perky nature, and we spent about 10 minutes watching the bird as it foraged along (and sometimes in) the rushing water below the road. We arrived at our hotel that lies a little south of the Denali National Park entrance in the early evening. Our well-appointed and comfortable cabins tucked into the spruces are far removed from the throngs of tourists that cram into the resort-style hotels clustered around the park entrance, and this year were graced with a small family group of Gray Jays that were regularly spotted around the parking lot. An added bonus of the lodge was that the managers had recently decided to update their restaurant menu to feature a wide variety of locally sourced and excellent Alaskan dishes.

The next day we spent in Denali National Park, taking the park bus in as far as the Eielson Visitor Center. It was, as usual, relaxing, with a constant backdrop of simply stunning montane and tundra scenery. For most of the day we found that the main Alaska Range was shrouded in a constantly shifting palette of wispy clouds, with the peaks of Denali appearing and disappearing and towering over the valley. The mountain is high enough (at over 20000ft) that it generally creates its own weather and is visible only on rare occasions. Although the high peaks were often occluded the rest of the valley was often under bright blue skies and full sun, making it quite an enjoyable day in the field. The avian highlight of the day was undeniably the nesting pair of Northern Hawk Owls that we found along the road on the way back out of the park. After looking at spruce tree tops for multiple days the sight of a real owl was especially welcome. These large and long-tailed owls are stunning birds, and we were able to watch the male bouncing on a somewhat sheltered branch that was being buffeted in the wind for quite some time (long enough to show the bird to over a half-dozen busfulls of tourists that came along after we exited our bus to walk along the road). Only a bit later did we realize that there was an active nest a few trees over from the male, with a quietly tucked in female sitting on it. The numbers of Hawk-Owls present in a given area fluctuate wildly from year to year, making them quite difficult to predict and a definite bonus when seen so well. Some other avian highlights included multiple Willow Ptarmigan along the road, and a pair of Golden Eagle attending a nest set high over the road on a multicolored cliff face.

The real treats of the National Park though are its diverse mammals, and the spectacular scenery in the foothills of Mount Denali. From the small and seemingly ubiquitous Arctic Ground Squirrels scampering around the rockier sections of tundra to the larger herbivores like Caribou, Dall Sheep and Moose there seemed to be something to look at along almost every few miles of road. We saw 9 Grizzly Bears during the day including two family groups of cubs and their mothers. On two separate occasions the bears were actually on the road in front of the bus or just alongside the road only a dozen feet or so away from the bus windows! The weather began to turn on us midday, so rather than take a walk out in the tundra near the visitors center we opted to return to the shuttle bus after lunch and take a walk along the park road back fairly close to the entrance. This walk revealed the aforementioned Northern Hawk-Owls as well as our first Slate-coloured Dark-eyed Juncos (like most of the widespread North American birds the individuals in most of Alaska belong to the “eastern” boreal subspecies) and a furtive pair of Boreal Chickadees that dashed around in the dense spruces managing to avoid the prying eyes of most of our participants. We returned to our hotel in time for a break before dinner, and over our meals I heard quite a bit of chatter around how wonderful the park, and the day had been.

For our final morning around Denali National Park we took a short walk around the lodge grounds where we enjoyed excellent views of a recently fledged Gray Jay; a plumage that is more black than grey. The flutelike song of Swainson’s Thrushes and haunting tones of Varied Thrushes rang out from the woods but the birds remained stubbornly out of view. The same could certainly not be said for the family group of Boreal Chickadees that we found near the office, with several birds showing extremely well for us as they foraged around the edge of the carpark. After our walk we started the drive back to Anchorage with our first stop back along the western end of the Denali Highway. We went as far as the lake near milepost 121, where we stopped to admire Surf and White-winged Scoters, Greater and Lesser Scaup and a vocal pair of Red-necked Grebes. At another smaller pond we coaxed vocal Lincoln’s Sparrows, Gray-cheeked Thrush and Ruby-crowned Kinglets into view and heard at least two Olive-sided Flycatchers that were frustratingly too far away to spot on the far side of the lake. The road was every bit as pretty as on our previous visit, although the distant foothills around Denali seemed to be completely encased in dark and foreboding clouds (making us thankful that we picked our days correctly!) and we had light intermittent rain.

Further south and after a quick lunch we stopped at the relatively recent burn north of the town of Willow. The major wildfire that swept through the Willow region of Alaska a few years ago was a tragedy for the locals as it blocked the highway for days and destroyed a substantial amount of property. A small silver lining however 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. We drove along a series of tiny back roads that lead into the burned area and set up along a short residential road in the middle of the burn. Jake had been in the area a few days prior to the tour scouting and his efforts paid off handsomely. We parked near his chosen spot and within minutes had spotted a Black-backed Woodpecker crossing the road in front of the vans. It took a little while to track its destination down, but soon enough we had located an active nest cavity just off the road and were able to see the male and female woodpeckers bringing in food to their hungry chick. Black-backed Woodpeckers are quite scarce in Alaska, and end to occupy recently burned forests for only a few years before moving on to another site; perhaps hundreds of miles away. Perched and vocal Swainson’s Thrush and Western Wood-Pewees were excellent finds here too. After having our fill of the Black-backed we set off to another section of the same burn and within seconds of exiting the vans heard the telltale begging calls of an American Three-toed Woodpecker chick emanating from a nearby birch tree. The nest hole was again close to the road, and we were soon watching both adult birds coming in to feed their quite old chick. The adults then dropped down to nearby trees and foraged quite close to the ground, giving us an extended and excellent show. Being able to see these two handsome and often very tricky woodpeckers so well, and so easily was an amazing treat. It was with buoyant spirits that we finished the drive back to Anchorage for a night’s rest.

Our last leg of the main tour takes in the Kenai Peninsula, shores of Cook Inlet, Resurrection Bay and the glacial fjords and the small but charismatically Northwestern town of Seward. We started the morning off with a visit to Potter’s Marsh, a large coastal marsh that lies just south of Anchorage. Here we made a couple of stops along the highway pullouts, watching breeding Arctic Terns and Mew Gulls feeding chicks and filling the air with their strident cries. The grassy verges of the marsh held a cooperative pair of Rusty Blackbirds (which seemed oddly widespread this year) and a singing Lincoln’s Sparrow. A distant Caspian Tern flew in off the shoreline and circled over the marshes for just enough time that a couple of people were able to spot it. This is quite a rare species in Alaska, but one that seems to be spreading north and becoming more commonplace (though this was only our third sighting in 15 years of tours). Along the boardwalk we spotted

Tree Swallows visiting the provided nest boxes and many species of waterfowl towing lines of fuzzy chicks behind them, as well as some quite showy Lesser Yellowlegs and a few Ring-necked Ducks out in the marsh.

We then visited the dense spruce forests of Hillside Park; a large park with groomed walking and biking trails that abuts the massive Chugach State Park. We spent about an hour and a half slowly walking one of the loop trails, which passes through tightly packed spruce trees with mosses and short alders in the understory. Although we were hardly inundated with birds during the walk we did enjoy an excellent showing of thrushes. Varied Thrushes were common here, and we were able to track two individuals down by following their resonant buzzy callnotes as they sat atop spruces. We also found many busy American Robins hopping along the path, our first Hermit Thrush singing its haunting song from a trailside tree and a couple of singing and perched Swainson’s Thrushes. Here too we enjoyed lengthy views of a pair of Boreal Chickadees and several Golden-crowned Kinglets in an active mixed flock that kept us entertained for some time. Eventually we pulled ourselves away and ate lunch at a local café in Anchorage before setting off on the roughly two-hour drive south to Seward that follows the shoreline of Turnagain Arm before passing over the scenic Kenai Peninsula. We arrived in Seward in the mid-afternoon, finding ourselves in yet another majestic and unique landscape. The town is nestled at the head of a beautiful narrow fjord and is flanked by steep-sided mountains that reach into the alpine zone near their peaks in the mid-afternoon. Seward recalls a very Pacific Northwest feel, with tall Sitka Spruce forests down to the stony beaches covered in kelp and driftwood. We made our first stop at a local birder’s house just out of town. New birds came rapidly at the feeders, with a male Rufous Hummingbird, at least 6 dazzling Pine Grosbeaks, a small flock of Red Crossbills, both Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, a Red-breasted Nuthatch, and throngs of Pine Siskins each being admired in turn. It was a short but very effective introduction to the more widespread birds of this temperate coastal forest! As it was starting to get a bit late in the day we elected to check in to the hotel and have dinner downtown, stopping to admire a perched Bald Eagle atop a city streetlight post and a small family group of Common Mergansers with a half-dozen polka-dotted chicks in tow. After dinner, we headed back to our hotel and tucked ourselves in for a good night sleep in preparation for the following days boat trip.

On the boat the next day we enjoyed our day out on the water as we explored Northwestern Glacier, Resurrection Bay and the Chiswell Islands. The two days prior to our visit were marked by a very strong storm, with up to 70mph wind gusts, high swells and a significant amount of rain. In fact, the various creeks and lakes all over the Kenai were markedly swollen during our drive down to the coast, and Resurrection Bay itself was gray and full of silt washed down from the mountains. Fortunately for us the swells had abated and the morning dawned clear, with stunning patches of light fog draped around the base of the coastal mountains creating a postcard-perfect vista.

The seas were fairly calm all day, with only 4 foot swells out in the open waters around the Chiswell Islands, and even flatter water near the coast made for excellent alcid viewing conditions. Our first marine animal sighting was of a large Sea Otter relaxing in the still waters of the sound. As is often the case for otters near Seward the animal allowed the boat a close approach. A stately adult Bald Eagle was perched along the harbour breakwall and we picked out a few Double-crested Cormorants sitting on the adjacent pilings. As we slowly motored out of Resurrection Bay we began to see our first of Common Murres and Horned and Tufted Puffins loafing on the water. Once out in the more open Pacific these species became more common, and we spotted our first pair of tiny Marbled Murrelets. The boat then diverted for a short jaunt out near Fox Island where a small group of Humpback Whales were foraging. We spent an enjoyable twenty minutes or so watching as the whales surfaced, fluked, and rolled around on the ocean surface. While watching the humpbacks feed we spotted a taller and falcate fin that marked the presence of a half-grown Fin Whale in the area as well. Fins are quite a bit rarer in the waters around the Kenai, and although we saw the whale surface twice it soon dived deep and given the fact that they can hold their breaths for an amazingly long hour we elected to continue on out towards the mouth of the northwestern fjord. Enroute 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. Here too were a few Rhinoceros Auklets, a much larger “auklet” that is more closely related to the Puffins than to the smaller auklets. We also spotted our first little groups of Ancient Murrelets, a furtive alcid that typically is seen in flight as they scatter in flocks of 2-8 birds from the boats approach. We found about 30 Ancients over the course of the cruise, with several pairs remaining close enough for us to see on the water before they took flight. As we exited the pass we paused at a small grassy-topped island in the straight we stopped to look at a pair of Black Oystercatchers that were boldly standing on a stack of coastal rocks. These portly and charismatic shorebirds, with their incredibly bright red bills, breed in fairly remote locations around the Gulf of Alaska, preferring predator-free islets with rocky shores and tidepools.

Coming into the fjord by boat is a magical experience, as the straight gets progressively narrower and the fjord walls seem to close in around you. Several small glaciers dotted the walls as we neared the huge Northwestern glacier at the tip of the fjord. This active glacier was calving into the water at a good rate, choking the head of the fjord with an area of floating ice. Harbour Seals and their fuzzy white pups dotted the larger blocks of ice, eliciting a few aahs from the crowd. We stayed at the head of the Fjord for about a half hour, witnessing several large chunks of ice falling into the sea. The cold water around the ice floes combines with the tide to create a fast-moving current that brings nutrients up from the fjord’s bottom. It is in this current that one can find the enigmatic and endangered Kittlitz’s Murrelets. We had a brief and distant view of a flying Kittlitz’s on the way into the fjord, but it was not until we began the return journey that we found a closer bird that elected to remain on the surface, allowing the boat to come exceptionally close before it too burst away in a flurry of wings. The bird’s white cheeks, small dark cap, and hint of a golden wash to the flanks (both birds were oddly still nearly in full winter plumage) helped us to separate it from the more common Marbled Murrelets. The Alcid family is thought to have evolved in the Bering Sea, and with 9 species of Alcids on the day (and an additional 2 in the Pribilofs) we saw just over half of the world’s species on the tour this year!

We took a longer route out to the Chiswell Islands this year, perhaps due to the generally calm conditions. This allowed us to pull up to a coastal waterfall for some tourist photos, to watch a distant herd of Mountain Goats with several small kids in tow that were somehow standing on the seemingly sheer cliffs above us. Once around the near islands of the Chiswell group we began to see larger numbers of Horned and Tufted Puffins and Common Murres on the water and overhead. With the shockingly low numbers of alcids around much of the Bering Sea (and especially at the Pribilofs) it was with some relief that we tallied puffins in the hundreds rather than the ones. Murre numbers were markedly low here too though, and our count for the day was a mere 10% of the previous years total. 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 saw a very large number of puffins that were so full of fish that they could not take off as we approached; paddling furiously on the water surface like a middle aged overweight man trying to learn how to surf. Our trip out to the outer islands and their large murre and kittiwake colonies was interrupted by the arrival of a small pod of Orca which kept us busy for nearly an hour as we stayed close to the surfacing male with his huge dorsal fin as well as a female and calf that were nearby. The onboard naturalist identified the group as one of the resident pods that frequent the waters near Seward, but as the animals can range over hundreds of miles of coast they aren’t truly local residents. We encounter Orca very infrequently on the boat trip, so our hour with these magnificent cetaceans was an experience to treasure. As we started the return journey towards Seward we paused to admire a rookery of Steller’s Sea Lions which included a couple of truly huge males (which can weigh 2300 lbs). The numbers of this playful but imposing pinniped have begun to recover throughout Alaska in the last few years and sightings are quite frequent even around the Seward docks. We pulled into port with our heads spinning from the memory-filled day, and then enjoyed a meal at Ray’s on the Waterfront, where the fresh Copper River Salmon and sweeping views of the Seward Harbour and the mountains that surround Resurrection Bay were heralded as excellent.

On the last day of the main tour we explored the coastal forests and shoreline near Seward. A pleasant walk among the towering (compared to most of our birding locations in Alaska) spruce and hemlock trees allowed us to add species such as somewhat furtive Chestnut-backed Chickadee, active and vocal Townsend’s Warblers, inquisitive Steller’s Jays, and cryptic Brown Creepers. Of particular note was a very vocal and responsive Pacific Wren, a species that we usually only see out on the outer islands on the cliffs. Along the shore of the Bay we watched flocks of Harlequin Duck bobbing in the waters along the beach while a host of fishermen plied the shoreline with rod and reel hoping to pull in some of the running salmon and several seine netters worked the waters just offshore. The fishing activity was attracting a nice array of scavengers, and we were able to walk within feet of sated Glaucous-winged Gulls and several huge Eagles (which are much bigger from a few feet away than one might suspect) that were lounging on the driftwood piles around the carpark. As we drove back around the head of the bay toward Seward we had a surprisingly productive stop at a small wetland along the road. Here we found a family group of Trumpeter Swans with two half-grown fuzzy cygnets, several perched Wilson’s Snipes that were standing atop dead spruce trees out in the marsh, a flycatching Yellow-rumped Warbler and several sitting Violet-green and Tree Swallows.

After lunch in a local café many in the group elected to visit the famous Alaska Sea Life Center, a public aquarium that features excellent exhibits of the marine and littoral life of Alaska, including a lot of interesting birds such as live Spectacled, 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 center is actively breeding both the rare Eiders and hopes to produce kittiwake chicks as well. 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. We spent about an hour and a half exploring the exhibits which included live seals and Sea Lions and a nice selection of local invertebrate and fish fauna as well as the excellent seabird show. After the aquarium folks walked around downtown and checked out the array of eclectic stores and murals that line the commercial district. We also made a return visit to the feeders that many of the group saw two days previously. As on our first visit the birds came thick and fast, with Red Crossbills, many Pine Grosbeak, flashy male Rufous Hummingbirds and perky Red-breasted Nuthatches each being admired in turn. Our last stop enroute to Anchorage was at an active salmon co-op. At a well forested stream we found dozens of plump sockeye salmon running up against a 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 would take a portion of the fish out from the dam here and send them off to various nearby restaurants, but let another portion of the fish cross through to breed in Bear Lake, just a mile or so further up the river. The fish were attracting quite a bit of attention, with lots of people attempting to photograph flying fish over the turbulent whitewater. The show was also attended by an American Dipper that was peacefully sitting on an overhanging branch just upstream from the commotion, offering an additional target for our telephoto lenses. We pulled into our base in Anchorage in time for a final dinner, and bade farewell to those not opting for the Barrow extension, which would start early the next morning.

BARROW EXTENSION: The next morning, we readied for an early departure for the Barrow extension. The plane touched down in Prudhoe Bay before heading to the coastal town of Barrow, which, at 71 degrees and 17 minutes’ N sits at the northern tip of the United States. The point falls just a bit short of the tip of the Boothia Peninsula in Canada’s high arctic, which is the highest latitude point in North America.

In contrast to last year we found that the coast and entire Point Barrow was still firmly locked into winter mode, with shore-fast ice, and no open water or leads as far as one could see offshore. Spring was being stubborn in general this far north, as most of the lakes were still entirely or mostly frozen solid and the tundra was a mosaic of brown and snowy, with some large snowbanks along the roads and fences (some topping the van in height). The birds were not able to start their nesting season when they arrived, and although we witnessed a substantial amount of courtship behavior and found several newly started nests it would seem that many local breeders would likely not breed this year due to the persistent snow and lack of available food. With the general lack of sea ice in the adjacent seas for much of winter one might be surprised to see such conditions, but apparently climate modelling predicts that with a warmer and largely ice-free ocean there is an increase in the amount of available moisture in the air. This leads to heavier snowfall along the coasts; and a somewhat paradoxical situation. 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’ a sprawling and surprisingly large place, with a substantial number of quite large buildings and a well-developed (if not 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 seemingly filled with poorly maintained houses with detritus filled yards the insides of the buildings are warm and homey, and the locals are quite proud of their town, and their heritage.

We arrived early this year, which allowed us to drop off our bags, eat lunch and then unpack our birding gear before spending the afternoon cruising south of town across permafrost-laden tundra along Freshwater Lake Rd. that stretches south from town. Small ponds were scattered among the still substantial snowbanks along the roadside and were attracting an array of shorebirds. We obtained excellent views and close views of Pectoral, Western, Semipalmated Sandpiper, and both Red and Red–necked Phalarope all in their breeding finery. At the end of the road we were treated to a wonderful exhibition of displaying Pectoral Sandpipers, whose oddly grouse-like rituals and cackling and whooping calls seem decidedly un-waderish. 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!” I think though it was perhaps the almost tame and incredibly colourful Red Phalaropes that dazzled the most, as they spun contentedly just feet from our cameras. Also at the end of the road we found a larger open pond that was deep enough to host several pairs of King and Spectacled Eiders and lots of Long-tailed Ducks that were busily courting to one another. Arctic Terns provided lengthy studies as they hovered over the road margins, and both Parasitic and Long-tailed Jaegers plied the tundra around us. In the afternoon we headed back into town to check on a reported Gray-tailed Tattler that had been found the day before near the city’s newly constructed hospital. We arrived at the intersection (more or less in what passes for suburbia in Barrow) and found a likely looking patch of open marshy tundra. There was no sign of the tattler, but as we spread out and started covering more of the area a sharp-eyed participant soon detected the bird sitting quietly between two houses. 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.

Just before dinner we revisited the same road in an effort to locate the previously reported pair of Ross’s Gulls that we had not been able to detect in the afternoon due to the atmospheric distortions over the snowpack. Although the standard location to find these delicately pink and ring-necked high arctic gulls is indeed Barrow it is highly unusual to have any around the region in June. Typically, they appear in the late fall during migration as they head northwest around the point bound for their wintering grounds in the Canadian eastern Arctic. The vast majority of the worlds Ross’s Gulls breed in Russia, and to date no successful breeding attempt has been documented in North America. To our great glee we were successful in finding the pair (and a second male that was being vigorously chased away). Initially we stopped in the area and scanned to no avail, but as if by magic, the male simply appeared out of the tundra and circled us several times before flying back off to join his mate (a second-year female that retained some of the black wingbar from the previous year). We watched the three birds for quite some time and certainly wish them well in their courtship! Several pairs of elegant Sabine’s Gulls were also foraging over a marshy tundra a few hundred meters from the end of the road, hovering over the water like somewhat stocky terns, and showing their incredibly bright black and white wings, ashy-grey heads and yellow-tipped bills to perfect effect. Elated with our first day in Barrow we headed back into town for dinner, and then despite the nearly midday-like sunshine called it a night.

With only 13 miles of accessible roads around Barrow (and especially with the road out to the point being still blocked by snow) it doesn’t take too long to see most of the close tundra. However, the birds in Barrow seem to permit a closer approach than those on any other part of the tour (with the exception of the seabird cliffs on the Pribilofs), and it is here that one can really fill camera memory cards quickly, and really cover ground quite slowly. We stopped in at one house along the coast where we found fully stocked bird feeders set amongst pallet brush piles and whale baleen palm tree statues. Occasionally at this house we find out of range seed eating birds attracted to the food, but this year the seeds were hosting several Hoary Redpolls, many Snow Buntings, and a few Lapland Longspurs. We did find a few out of range birds around town though, with a Varied Thrush perched on a roadside pole, a male American Kestrel hunting along the roadside behind the old natural gas facility, and several Barn and Cliff Swallows hawking insects over the tundra.

Over the course of the morning we revisited various spots around town and along the coastal road. Near the hunting camps north of town we found a confiding pair of Baird’s Sandpipers that obligingly performed their whirring display flights for us before landing virtually at our feet. A nicely patterned Sanderling was a bit of a surprise at one of the ponds near the base of Cake-eater Rd. The presence of several Ruddy Turnstones also seemed incongruous, perhaps signifying that the snowy conditions were resulting in an early southbound migration (as this species does not typically occur around Barrow in June). Several handsome Snowy Owls were perched up on tussocks out around town, or even on fencelines close to the road. We watched one pure-white male for some time, as it swiveled its head around through a seemingly impossible range of angles, and stared at us with its piercing yellow eyes. Numbers of these impressive predators fluctuate in accordance to the vole and lemming numbers, but even on poor lemming years there will be a few Snowy Owls around Barrow. This year was a good year for lemmings, and over the course of our visit we saw several fleeing Tundra Voles and at least two Northern Collared Lemmings. One of the lemmings was adeptly caught by a participant with extensive small mammal experience and we were able to inspect its remarkably cute features at close range before we released it back to the safety of the tundra. The local town council has recently elected to change the official name of the town from Barrow back to Utqia?vik, an Inupiat word that actually translates to “the place where Snowy Owls hunt”. Back down Freshwater Lake Road we re-found the previous days Ross’s and Sabine’s Gulls and were able to again watch both species engage in courtship flights.

As the weather was remarkably comfortable, with sunny skies and little wind we opted to take a picnic lunch out in the field (the first time I have ever done so in my half-dozen or so visits to Barrow). This allowed us to spend the majority of the afternoon exploring the Cakeeater-Gas Well Rd complex that winds about 8 miles out of town to the east. Most of the road had been closed due to flooding for much of the previous week, but our good luck held and on this day we were able to drive all the way back to the end of the road. Breeding shorebirds, Lapland Longspurs and waterfowl were much in evidence at every turn. Listening to the display calls and watching the breeding behavior of shorebirds (all at their most colorful) is a memorable experience, as during migration and winter these birds seem to do little but feed, preen, and sleep. Almost every puddle in the tundra held a few Red or Red-necked Phalaropes, busily courting or feeding. Equally common were the impressively dynamic Pectoral Sandpipers, males replete with their pendulous chest sacs dangling down as they performed song flights and uttered a hollow quavering series of hoots. Semipalmated Sandpipers, American Golden-Plovers and Dunlin were in evidence too, singing or courting from the slightly drier rises in the tundra. A few species of waterfowl make it up to Barrow to breed as well, and we found many Greater White-fronted Geese, Tundra Swans, Northern Pintail and Long-tailed Ducks also dotting the tundra ponds. It’s hard to overstate the beauty and sheer plumage audacity of male eiders in full breeding dress. King Eiders, with their prismatic-hued heads and perky black scapular sails were particularly forthcoming; staying quite close to the road at times. Not to be outdone though were the several (actually surprisingly numerous) male Spectacled Eiders that were in the same pools. The amazingly attractive males, with their odd green nape feathers, silky casque over their bills, orange bills and white goggles are one of the main targets for birders in Barrow, and to see several males at such close range was a real highlight. Steller’s Eiders too were putting on an excellent showing, with the dark and almost teal-like females being followed closely by the mainly white drakes with their zebra-striped wings, mossy green napes and odd black beauty marks on their flanks. The Jaeger show here was truly remarkable, with all three species seen repeatedly and at close range throughout the day. These elegant (if menacing) aerial predators are most closely related to shorebirds rather than gulls and terns, which they more closely resemble. For most North American birders jaegers are frustrating birds that are seen far offshore and often in subadult plumage. In the high Arctic though one can experience adult birds at close range available for lengthy study from the comfort of land. Out at the very end of the road we spotted a quite pale Short-eared Owl that was initially placidly sitting about 100m off the road. We stopped to watch it and were astonished as the bird started fluffing up to nearly twice life size, repeatedly stomping down the grasses around where it was sitting with drooped wings and an impressive intensity. None of our assembled party had ever witnessed such behavior before, and the general consensus was that the bird might have been flattening out an area for a nest site. Also here we spotted a pair of distant Caribou grazing on the slowly greening tundra vegetation and a fleet of foot Arctic Fox carrying prey back to its burrow.

As the afternoon waned we stopped down the side road to the huge Barrow town dump. Here were hundreds of Glaucous Gulls (in virtually any plumage state that one would care to see them in). We spent some time sifting through the flock of white-winged gulls but came up empty handed in a quest for a congeneric interloper. The experience was a bit surreal to some, who had spent countless hours looking through groups of black-winged gulls for just one Glaucous. While watching the gulls (and several more King and Spectacled Eiders) a shorebird landed on the edge of the road in front of us. Unfortunately, it lingered only long enough for the words Buff-breasted Sandpiper to be uttered and a few folks to spot it before it took off and flew quite some distance down the road. We sped after it to no avail. These subtly coloured shorebirds are irregular breeders around Barrow, becoming more common around Prudhoe Bay and the Yukon. The bird represented the first on a WINGS tour in over a decade – if only it had lingered a few minutes longer! Subsequent reports from the resident shorebird researchers came in of a nesting pair about a half-kilometer off the road system from where this bird was spotted. We drove back into town remarking on the beauty of the landscape. Although much of the horizon lacks any vertical vegetation or even vertical relief, and is composed solely of a matrix of ice, water, snow, gravel and grassy tundra the landscape of Barrow is ever-changing, and truly beautiful.

We awoke on our final full day of the tour to find somewhat colder temperatures and patches of dense fog. Even the locals seemed to be reluctant to rise, and we found most of the roads deserted. As our flight out this year was in the late morning we did not have too much time for birding, but we used it well by revisiting the northern terminus of the coast road. While scoping several Snowy Owls and looking at the tamely grazing flocks of Black Brant and Greater White-fronted Geese we were treated to the sight of three alternate plumaged Yellow-billed Loons that flew right overhead and then out over the frozen expanse of ice that capped the Beaufort Sea. We generally see one or two of these beautiful and often furtive Loons along the coast here, but with the extensive ice cover there were few places for them to land. A large female Peregrine Falcon tore by us as well, oddly our only sighting of the species for the entire trip. The flight came in a bit early and all too soon we were caught up in the interminable medley of packing, checking in and standing in various queues. The flight back to Anchorage stopped in at the northern city of Fairbanks, and for those with window seats allowed for excellent viewing of both the wild Brooks Range and the massive Mount Denali, which is truly impressive from a vantage of 30000 feet.

We finished the tour back at our now very familiar home base in Anchorage, with an impressive 182 species for the trip, plus a further 10 for those that took in the Pribilof Islands and an impressive 25 species of mammals. I hope that this year’s participants enjoyed the array of birds, wildlife, scenery and experiences as much as I did, and I continue to view this tour as one of the best introductions to the beauty and richness of the far north reaches of our continent.

-Gavin Bieber

Created: 15 July 2018