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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Alaska: Majesty of the North

2019 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Our 2019 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 189 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 up close and personal views of cliff nesting seabirds, where despite the reduction in numbers due to the effects of locally warmer water temperatures all the expected cliff nesting seabirds were still on display. We also lucked into several rarities including a pair of Red-necked Stints, a somewhat furtive Wood Sandpipier, a handsome Black-headed Gull and an amazingly cooperative female Eyebrowed Thrush . Around the open tundra and seemingly endless rolling mountains of Nome we found breeding Aleutian Terns, Bristle-thighed Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwits, Bluethroat, Arctic Warbler, nesting Gyrfalcons, American and Pacific Golden Plovers, and both Willow and Rock Ptarmigan. 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, another Gyrfalcon on a nest 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 nesting pair of dainty Sabine’s Gulls dancing over some tundra pools, and a surprise Little Stint.

The mammals bear mentioning too, with an impressive 29 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, Cinereous Shrew and Hoary Marmot 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 FULL

PRIBILOFS PRE-EXTENSION

Birding in the Pribilof Islands combines a fantastic array of breeding birds in a remote setting with the chance to encounter stray birds from Asia. The windswept tundra, steep volcanic cliffs, sandy beaches, and grass-lined freshwater lakes make for a surprisingly dynamic mix of habitats for such a small and isolated island. This year’s pre-trip extension to the Pribilofs involved simply stunningly good weather, with mid-forties temperatures, light winds and, for our full day, bright sunshine. Over the course of our several days on the island Rock Sandpipers, with their churring flight songs were near constant companions, outcompeted only by the ubiquitous Lapland Longspurs that seemed to be nearly everywhere in the island interior. The cliffs and grassy bluffs around the west and south shores of the island played host to an array of confiding and wonderful breeding seabirds. The recent and unprecedented warming trends across the southern Bering Sea are unfortunately beginning to have a noticeable impact on the islands fauna, with large die-offs and nesting failures of many of the seabirds over the past couple of seasons. Compared to the numbers of birds that typically are found on the cliffs by June this year’s crop of breeding birds seemed markedly sparse, with the fish-eating Murres and Puffins especially lower than average. Nevertheless, all of the expected species were present and it is certainly hard to become tired of sitting and watching Thick-billed and Common Murres, Horned and Tufted Puffins, Crested, Least and Parakeet Auklets and Northern Fulmars all courting or preening on cliff ledges that are a scant 5 meters away at eye level. As if the alcids were not enough, the cliffs of the Pribilofs serve as the primary breeding area for the diminutive and beautiful Red-legged Kittiwake. Our daily and close-range studies of this species generally with Black-legged Kittiwakes in close proximity for comparison purposes was a highlight for many. Due to the general lack of storms in the central Bering we did not expect to locate many (any) vagrants this trip out, but to our happy surprise many of the birds that came in on the large system about a week and a half before our visit were still lingering.

Our flight out this year was on a charter plane due to some last-minute flight alterations from Ravn Air; the new airline servicing the Pribilofs. The smaller plane that we were shifted to had a lower weight limit than the normal passenger aircraft, which resulted in us having to pack remarkably lightly for the flight. The service was excellent though, and during our refueling stop in Bethel we were allowed to wander a bit around the airport, finding dozens of Cliff Swallows frantically gathering mud at a small puddle in the parking lot, and our first Yellow Warblers, Tree Swallows and White-crowned Sparrows of the trip. We landed in Saint Paul in the late afternoon, with time enough to check into the rooms at the hotel and then head in to town for dinner. As we neared town we paused at the Salt Lagoon, where the low tide had revealed expansive mudflats that were being heavily used by lots of local Rock Sandpipers, loafing Kittiwakes and foraging Arctic Foxes. These Rock Sandpipers are paler and larger than the other three subspecies, and breed only on the central Bering Sea Islands of the Pribilofs and Saint Matthew and Hall islands to the north. Spending their winters on the giant tidal flats along the Cook Inlet these birds seem quite different to the more widespread mainland subspecies that winter far to the south. We made a quick stop to look at these common species and were happy to pick out an adult Black-headed Gull sitting and flying around with the flock of kittiwakes. Despite checking the lagoon many times over the next two days this was to be our only sighting of this attractive old-world gull; and a nice pre-dinner treat to be sure.

After dinner, we coordinated with the other birding group that had arrived that day in a joint search for the lingering Eyebrowed Thrush that was frequenting the lower quarry cut in Polovina Hill. By parking well short of the base of the hill and slowly working our way up towards the sheltered bowl where the bird had been seen repeatedly over the last few days we were able to get nearly 30 birders on the bird without really disturbing it at all. The thrush, a female, sat out in the open on the lower slopes of the quarry for quite some time, showing well and seemingly unconcerned by the throngs of happy humans that were staring at it through dozens of telescopes. Leaving the thrush behind we then turned our attentions to the marshes of Tonki Wetlands, a small marsh attractively sandwiched between two tall rows of grassy sand dunes just inland from a rocky point. The larger lake just inland from the wetlands held a flock of bathing Kittiwakes, and we spent some time looking at Black and Red-legged Kittwakes as they flew in overhead, sat on the water and bathed (often kicking their feet up in the air with a flash of cherry-red). Seeing the Red-legs this way forces visiting birders to concentrate on the more subtle fieldmarks that set this Bering Sea specialty apart from its widespread Black-legged cousin. And with a bit of practice most participants were happily calling out their ID’s based on the smoky grey underwings, darker and more uniform mantles or calls rather than relying on those oh-so-obvious feet. The lake also hosted a few pairs of handsome Long-tailed Ducks in their summer finery, and several Greater Scaup (a species that seems to be establishing a presence on the island). A short drive later back through the dunes brought us to the beginning of the Tonki Wetlands, a series of small ponds fringed with mares tail and spongy tundra covered with pockets of bright pink louseworts, yellow cinquefoil and purple lupines. Here we quickly located a largely uncooperative Wood Sandpiper, seeing it only in flight as it rocketed out of the foot-high mares tail in the marsh and flew over the dune. Although brief, the bird was close, and we could clearly see the white rump and upper tail, and brownish back as it flew away. Also in the marsh, were a continuing pair of Blue-winged Teal (the first confirmed Bering Sea record of this generally uncommon in Alaska duck), a male Eurasian Wigeon, several migrant Bank Swallows, and several Red-necked Phalarope. Four excellent birds in our first evening on the island made for quite an auspicious start!

Our full day on the island was sunny and virtually calm. After breakfast, we watched a few Parakeet Auklets, with their odd red shovel-like bills, white bellies and bold white face plumes as they chattered from the cliff face outside of the Trident building and made forays out into the flat calm seas. Here too we located a singing Song Sparrow (a vagrant to the island that likely arrived aboard a fishing vessel). We then spent the morning exploring the southwest side of the island, stopping first at the northern end of the salt lagoon where we picked out a small group of Bufflehead, several Long-tailed Duck and Northern Pintail and a single female King Eider. As we neared Zapadnie Beach we started to see huge beachmaster male Northern Fur Seals dotting the rocky coastline, and we stopped along the sandy stretch of Zapadnie Beach to admire the several animals that were lolling about near the road, casting the occasional stare over at our parked vans. Typically, female seals do not arrive on the island until much later in June, and by the time of our visit the territorial males had already largely settled their boundaries, leaving them not much to do until the females arrive besides the occasional squabble with their neighbors.

Our first birding stop was along the short languid creek that drains the brackish Antone Lake. Dubbed Antone Slough by the local birding guides the saltmarsh and muddy margins of the creek are unique on the island, and often support a nice array of migrant and breeding shorebirds and waterfowl. This year the lake water levels were low, with lots of floating aquatic vegetation that was proving quite popular with the local waterfowl. A pair of Aleutian Cackling Geese were grazing on the short grasses along the slough, and out on the lake we picked out a single Snow Goose and a mixed flock of American and Eurasian Wigeon. We walked down the trail along the slough, finding a cooperative Wandering Tattler, a nesting pair of Semipalmated Plovers (with four eggs already in their nest) and a smattering of Green-winged Teal and Pintail. Near the end of the slough we were thrilled to spot two Red-necked Stints foraging on the mudflats. One bird allowed close approach, which allowed us to fully appreciate its bright orange face and throat. This is an annual species in the Pribilofs, although most spring records are of birds seen in May. After missing this species in Gambell and in Nome on the previous trip this sighting was especially sweet for those participants who were taking the Pribilofs section as a post-tour option. Out at the end of the road we stopped at Southwest Point, a scenic volcanic shelf that sits at the base of the high bluffs (which reach over 500 feet above sea level and support the majority of the islands breeding seabirds). Here we spent a bit of time scanning the sea, where we picked out an array of flying alcids, flocks of Harlequin Ducks, passing Black and Red-legged Kittiwakes carrying muddy balls of grass to their nesting sites, and a few (very) distant Short-tailed Shearwaters. A walk here along the cliffs allowed us to study an array of wildflowers, some perky Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches, hauled out Harbour Seals and some perched Red-faced and Pelagic Cormorants. In contrast to most species of cormorants the Red-faced are undeniably beautiful in their breeding plumage, with crimson faces, yellow bills and a body plumage that glows in hues of blue, green and purple under sunlight.

We finished the morning’s outing with a wonderful visit to the cliffs at Ridge Wall (known as tourist point to the locals). The short cliffs here were noticeably emptier than they should be in June, but we were able to observe mixed groups of Common and Thick-billed Murres at close range and nearly eye-level, noting the browner cast and dusky flanks of the Commons among the much more numerous Thick-billed. Here too were pairs of Horned and Tufted Puffins, Parakeet and Least Auklets. The cast of breeding alcids was completed when we spotted a single Crested Auklet standing on a shallow ledge with its ridiculously long floppy crest dangling over its face like some disaffected fashion model. Once common in the Pribs this species has become scarce in the last decade, likely due to changes in the local water temperatures and corresponding shifts of food availability. The cliff ledges also supported several pairs of Northern Fulmar, which occur in a bewildering array of colour patterns here, with some birds being almost pure white and others being completely dark brown. The flyby (and perched) views of both Kittiwakes were excellent as always, offering the visiting birder ample opportunity to study the many differences between the two species.

After lunch, we elected to make a short trip to Reef Point, a narrow peninsula that juts out to the south of town. A quick stop at the local store allowed folks to pick up some souvenirs or snacks, or perhaps just a perusal of the shelves, where familiar items take on new dimensions when visitors start noting the pricetags. Once at the end of the road at Reef we visited another small cliff laden with murres, auklets and puffins, obtaining some excellent photos as the birds sat among the golden lichen-covered rocks. Scanning out to the south we were happy to find a dozen or so hulking Steller’s Sea Lions hauled out on the appropriately named Sea Lion Rock (the smallest of the five Pribilof Islands). Although the male Fur Seals seem large close up (and indeed can weigh upwards of 600lbs) Steller’s males can top 2000 pounds and are truly impressive animals. Later in the afternoon we went out to Northeast Point, where we found lots of Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, Long-tailed Ducks and Red-necked Phalaropes paddling around the grassy margins of Webster Lake. While standing around the small cabin on the lakeshore we were surprised to spot a wayward Golden-crowned Sparrow perched on a tall wild celery stalk. Like most north American passerines this species is much less common in the spring than in the fall, when strong eastern winds often blow in small flocks of birds from the Alaskan coast. The Saint Paul Island guides have special dispensation to pass through the gates that block public access to the point during the seal season. This allows visiting birders to access Hutchinson Hill, an isolated small volcanic mound right at the tip of the island that has attracted an impressive list of birds over the years. We walked up the short trail to the hilltop where we talked about the island’s World War two history and the plight of the Northern Fur Seals, whose numbers have also plummeted due to changing environmental conditions and competition with the very active Pollock fishery in the Bering. With no storms to bring in weak flying birds from the far away mainland we were not surprised that our check of the protected slopes of the hill failed to turn up any migrant passerines, but the view of the surrounding ocean was lovely and some foraging groups of kittiwakes in the distance were attracting a few (again distant) Short-tailed Shearwaters.

Our evening outing started with checking a couple of small marshes for shorebirds. By positioning the group near the midpoint of the ponds and sending a few people on a trek around the water’s edge we were able to obtain good views of a few Pectoral Sandpipers, lots of Red-necked Phalarope and Green-winged Teal (of both the North American and Eurasian subspecies) and a few startled Pintail and Long-tailed Ducks. We didn’t locate any Common Snipe, which had until a few days before our arrival been lurking in the dense vegetation fringing the open water. Around the second marsh we also took the time to look at the remains of one of the old Barrabaras; half-sunken Aleut houses constructed with whale ribs, driftwood and animal skins that served the Unagan people well for hundreds of years before the Russians and Americans introduced them to western style wooden houses. With bright sunny skies still prevailing in the evening we decided to spend some time looking for the long-staying White-tailed Eagle that sometimes takes to the air and soars on fair weather days. It can be a very frustrating bird, stymying many a visiting birder and going days or even weeks between sightings. The local guides are convinced that the bird periodically heads out to Otter Island to feed, and when on Saint Paul it tends to frequent the rockier high country of the western half of the island, which has very limited road access. Working in conjunction with the other group of birders we headed down a rough road that snakes out towards the islands remote northwest side passing many of the low volcanic peaks that dot the western side of the island before reaching the coast near the point at Tsammana. It was a bumpy but very pretty drive, with lush maritime tundra greening up as far as we could see, the herd of reindeer spotted up on one of the lower mountain slopes, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Lapland Longspurs and Rock Sandpipers (one pair with already hatched ping-pong ball sized chicks). The other group spotted an unknown Eagle (this year there was also an immature Bald Eagle on the island, complicating the identification of the White-tailed at distance) soaring way off above Crater Hill, but it vanished over a ridge a bit before we arrived on scene and was not relocated. Still, the drive out was a definite adventure, and we saw parts of the island that many locals have never visited.

For our final day on Saint Paul, we began with a session with the cliff-nesting seabirds, taking in very close views, and lots of photographs of Crested and Parakeet Auklets and Horned and Tufted Puffins on the cliffs of Reef Point and Ridge Wall. The seas were virtually flat, providing perfect conditions for scanning for some of the rarer alcids that occur sporadically around the island. At Ridge Wall, we picked out a pair of Rhinoceros Auklets in with the loafing puffins and murres on the water. Rhino’s, as they are often called by birders, are scarce in the Pribilofs, and extremely rare anywhere further north in the Bering, although their numbers seem to possibly be increasing a bit as the local waters warm, and the USFWS biologists suspect that a few pairs may be nesting somewhere amongst the thousands of other birds on the cliffs. Reef Point also proved productive, with a very cooperative and close Crested Auklet posing nicely and two pairs of Ancient Murrelets (a rare breeder as well in the Pribilofs) out on the ocean. We walked down to the seal blind, watching the beachmaster Fur Seals squabble a bit over some particularly valuable ocean side property, and finding a female Red-breasted Merganser and a winter-plumaged Tufted Puffin (lacking the bright orange bill, white face and tufts of the summer) out on Gorbatch Bay. The local Pacific Wrens were plentiful around Reef Point, and with the calm conditions we could hear the males singing out their mellifluous songs from the cliff edge below. It took a bit of tracking down but we eventually found one cooperative bird sitting on a large tussock grass clump, head thrown back in song. These tiny birds are resident in the Pribilofs, spending the cold and dark winters foraging in the intertidal zone, and breeding mostly in crevices in the cliff faces. Larger and paler than mainland Pacific Wrens and possessing a forcep-like long bill and broad eyeline they look quite different than “normal” Pacific Wrens and seem to be slowly evolving into a unique sort of coastal Canyon Wren.

After lunch and checking in for our flight we had a good portion of the afternoon available, so we elected to revisit the Tonki Wetlands for a repeat sighting of the Wood Sandpiper and some general birding. We were quite successful on all fronts, with longer flight views (and some vocalizations) of the Wood Sandpiper as it came up from the marsh and slowly flew down the water’s edge. Along with the customary flock of bathing gulls in Weather Bureau Lake we found a couple of female Bufflehead, some close Long-tailed Ducks and a single Tundra Swan. The day turned warm and sunny, and with the calm winds and the sounds of incoming waves on the beach and distant bellows from Fur Seals it was an idyllic scene. Out on the rocky point we enjoyed point blank views of dozens of Red-legged Kittiwakes sitting around in the rocky surf, with their bright legs and feet looking to intensely red to be wholly natural. Rock Sandpipers and a couple of Ruddy Turnstones worked the drying rack of kelp on the beach, and out on the water we spotted a distant Pacific Loon and a half-dozen Harbour Seals. As the afternoon began to wane we walked back to the vans accompanied by skylarking Lapland Longspurs and then drove back to the airport. All too soon we had to load up for the return flight, taking off again in dazzling full sun, and leaving behind a beautiful and remote speck of land that so few people in the world have been able to enjoy.

MAIN TOUR

It’s a rare trip to Alaska when weather fully cooperates for weeks on end. For this year’s tour, we experienced a complication with our outbound flight to Nome on the first morning of the trip. We boarded the plane on schedule in the mid- morning, and made the roughly hour-long flight out to Nome without incident. After descending towards the town though a fogbank formed just over the central part of town and airport, with the inland areas and surrounding tundra still in full sun. We made two attempts at landing, almost touching down but then quickly climbing back up before the pilots announced that they would be unable to land and that we would be heading back to Anchorage. Alaska Airlines then cancelled that flight, rebooking most passengers on the evening flight. We however, as a group of 16, were rebooked for early the following morning, meaning that we would have the afternoon in Anchorage. We made the best of our time, quickly finding hotel rooms (not always an easy task in this busy tourist town in summer) and securing some hire vans for the day. After lunch at our usual hotel we checked in to our rooms in various midtown hotels and then set out for a late afternoon birding trip to Potters Marsh.

This long but narrow freshwater marsh sits just inland from the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet, providing a ready-made nesting area for a multitude of Mew Gulls, Arctic Terns and waterfowl. Earlier in the spring local birders were astonished to see a male Falcated Duck in the marsh, and to our happy surprise the bird seems to have settled into the area for the summer, interacting quite a bit with the local Gadwall and American Wigeon and providing a lot of excitement for visiting birders. The duck is locally famous now, as even the clerks at the rental car counters asked us if we were bound for Potter’s Marsh to see the rare duck. Although the bird was easy to spot in the early summer, long days of sun have greatly increased the height of the marsh vegetation, and large sections of the marsh are no longer easily seen from the pullouts along the coastal highway. There were a lot of birds for us to occupy our time with while we waited for the Falcated Duck to put in an appearance, with fuzzy Canada Goose goslings, nesting Red-necked Grebes, a constant flow of Mew Gulls and Arctic Terns bringing fish in to feed their hidden nestlings tucked into the grassbeds and a pair of loafing Trumpeter Swans. Bald Eagles were soaring along the distant ridge along with a couple of Red-tailed Hawks that were being mobbed mercilessly by the local Mew Gulls. We even found a couple of perched Short-billed Dowitchers, a few passing Violet-green Swallows and a very cooperative Sandhill Crane, tarnished a bright copper-red by the tannins in the marsh. About an hour into our vigil a flock of flying American Wigeon attracted our attentions and we quickly realized that the trailing bird was the drake Falcated Duck. Even at distance and in flight the bird was easy to pick out, flashing white/silver in the sun, with a dark head, black collar and large pale patches in the wing. Unfortunately for us it dropped back into the back of the marsh and out of view, even from the top of our tall vans where Jake climbed up to scope from a better vantage point. We waited a bit longer, but then decided that a change of scenery (and reduction in the traffic noise) would be appreciated. Although the tide was still fairly low we decided to make a stop in at the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail at Westchester Lagoon, a quite famous local birding area just south of downtown along the coast of Cook Inlet. The small lagoon was full of breeding Arctic Terns, Mew Gulls and Red-necked Grebes, as well as a nice array of waterfowl including some instructive views of Lesser and Greater Scaup side-by-side. Since the weather was balmy and school was out for summer it seemed as if all of Anchorage was using the paved walking/biking trail or playgrounds around the lagoon, but the birds hardly seemed to notice. We walked out to the shores of Cook Inlet, to find the tide was largely out, exposing big banks of mudflats out hundreds of meters to the shoreline. The tides around Anchorage are among the largest in the world, often topping 30ft! We scanned the exposed flats and were able to locate one foraging Hudsonian Godwit out on the edge of the visible mud. 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. They breed in isolated and generally very remote pockets around the Arctic, wintering along the southern coasts of Chile and Argentina. The marshy habitat along the banks of the mudflat held dozens of small “Anchorage” Canada Geese, supposedly parvipes or Lesser Canadas, although their exact subspecies designation is a source of much confusion. Tree and Bank Swallows were hawking insects over the grass, and out over the water we noted flocks of Greater Scaup and Red-breasted Merganser passing by. On the walk back towards the vans we heard a singing Orange-crowned Warbler, and with just a bit of effort were able to pin it down to a short trailside alder tree. It’s a rare warbler that lingers in place for minutes, but this individual allowed for extended and close-range views as it sang and preened in the afternoon sun. At times it was even possible to make out the diffuse patch of orange feathers on its crown! Some garrulous Gadwall were loudly uttering their odd squishy quack notes from under the boardwalk, and along the paved trail were several dashing Black-billed Magpies that were strutting around, perhaps hoping that some of our snacks might fall out of our pockets. All in all, it was an exceedingly pleasant walk, with a few excellent birds and it provided a bit of insight as to some of the cultural and social attractions that this rapidly growing northern city has to offer. We headed back to our various midtown hotels in preparation for an early flight out (this time with an actual landing involved) to Nome the next day.

Happily for us the next day was fog-free along the Seward peninsula coast, and our early morning flight landed at 7:30 as scheduled. Nome is 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 liberally decorated with an array of wildflowers in mid-June. Although we had a truncated visit this year we were still able to cover all three roads, albeit spending only the briefest of time on the Teller Road on our final morning.

After landing and getting ourselves and our luggage to the hotel we had a bit of time for gearing up for birding. During that brief period however another birding group in the area contacted us with the news that they had just found a Grey Wagtail at the Nome River Mouth; about 2 miles down the beach road from the hotel. We scrambled to finish shopping for snacks and pulling out our various scopes and bins and then zipped down the road to the bridge. We arrived to find that the bird had last been seen flying out over the tundra towards some distant patches of willows, not a particularly promising report. Walking over towards the willows we played a bit of Grey Wagtail song and were shocked to see the bird rocketing towards us from the direction that it was last seen. It flew around us a bit, perching in various scrubby willows and then eventually dropped down to the river edge giving us an excellent show as it walked along the gravel. It’s an elegant and colorful bird, with a broad white wingstripe visible in flight, bright yellow underparts with a white throat and upper breast, steel grey back and long tail. Most of the relatively few records of the species for the continent come from the Aleutians and Pribilofs, with only two prior records at the nearby hotspot of Gambell, making this mainland record especially precious. It was quite a way to start off our Nome birding, and likely if we had not had the flight complications on the previous day we would have been well out on the Council Rd when the bird was found.

The Nome River mouth was productive for more than the Wagtail, as we arrived on a lowish tide, when small mudflats dotted the lagoons. This year we were surprised by the large numbers of Aleutian Terns nesting on the sand spit and grassy fields near the bridge. We estimated at least 200 birds (along with another 150 or so Arctic Terns) in the area, and were able to watch many of them perched in the scope. 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. Flocks of Mew and Glaucous Gulls and Black-legged Kittiwake were feeding on some small fish that was schooling in the channels of the river, and we picked out a few Vega Herring and Glaucous-winged Gulls in the mix. Shorebirds were numerous too around the lagoon, with lots of Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers, a few Semipalmated Plovers, a single female Bar-tailed Godwit and a dapper Pacific Golden-Plover, dazzling in its jet-black bellies and flashy golden-spangled back. As it was by this time late morning we decided to make a short visit to the town cemetery where some short spruce trees and thick willow/alder thickets often attract a nice array of passerines. This proved a productive choice, as we enjoyed our first views of Wilson’s, Yellow and Blackpoll Warblers, American Tree and Red Fox Sparrows, Hoary Redpolls and Gray-cheeked Thrushes all perching up and singing around the margins of the cemetery grounds.

After an early lunch, we set out for the rest of the day on 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.” 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 Black Brant, American Wigeon, with the odd drake Eurasian cousin, Northern Pintail, Red-breasted Mergansers, Common Eider (here of the bright orange billed pacific subspecies) 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. Despite some diligent searching we were not able to re-find the long-staying Common Sandpiper that had (up until the day before) been reliably hanging out along the rocks under the main Safety Sound bridge. As the bird wasn’t seen for the rest of the time we were in Nome it may well have pushed on. 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 in their full breeding dress. A couple of handsome Surfbirds were found picking apart the rotting kelp along the beach, and over the course of the day we detected a couple of Black Turnstones, another Bar-tailed Godwit and several Dunlin. Waterfowl were abundant too, with hundreds of Tundra Swans foraging in the shallower waters of the east end of the lagoon, and a couple of rafts of White-winged and Black Scoters out on the ocean. It was perhaps the loons though that stole the show, with several more Red-throated, lots of beautiful Pacifics, a couple of Common Loons and (finally) a single Arctic Loon all admired as we traversed the coastal road. Arctic Loons are very similar to the much more common Pacific Loon, and as merely scarce breeders around Nome are always a high priority species for visiting birders. The bird was sitting out on the ocean for quite some time, with its telltale white flank patches flashing in the later afternoon sun. We spent some time going over the less well-known fieldmarks, such as the blockier head, darker nape, often upturned bill, and bolder neck stripes that serve as ID features. After a stop in at the famous train to nowhere, a rusty old train slowly sinking and rusting into the marshes that was originally an elevated people mover in New York City before being sold to ply the tundra between Nome and Council we reached the terminus of our journey along Council Road at the tiny settlement of Solomon. Here we soon connected with several cooperative Eastern Yellow Wagtails along the road. This species (our second wagtail species for the day) has become noticeably scarcer around Nome, likely connected to an overall decline across much of their range possibly due to the actions of Asian bird trappers. As we were watching the wagtails we were started to see a white-bellied Barn Swallow fly past our parked vans. Any Barn Swallow is notable on the Seward Peninsula (and indeed across much of the state), but this sighting was only the 2nd in our last 17 years of mainland Alaska tours! We arrived back in town in time for a slightly early dinner in preparation for our start out the Kougarok Road the next morning, heads spinning from the wealth of new bird species, and very much glad to be birding in Nome.

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. 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. 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, but just a few miles on we came to a screeching halt when a sharp-eyed participant noticed two Grizzly Bears walking across a snow patch on a nearby hill. Although bears are reasonably common around the Nome road system sightings usually consist of a distant bear running away from the road as a car approaches, perhaps pausing to cast a nervous glace back once or twice before vanishing over a ridge. Our bears though were seemingly oblivious to our presence, and we were able to watch them for 15 minutes as they wrestled each other on the snow, occasionally sliding downslope only to gambol back up to the top. We guessed that these bears were siblings, and likely 3 years old. One was quite skinny, so perhaps just recently awake from its winter slumber. We felt quite lucky to share such a lengthy and intimate moment with the undoubted apex predator of the peninsula. Leaving the bears behind we again set our attentions to the avian delights of the road, when we spotted a pair of Northern Wheatears dancing along a short ridge just off the road. These elegantly marked birds tend to breed in rocky windswept places, and after finishing their breeding cycle make an incredible migration back across Asia, the middle east and the Sahara Desert to reach their wintering grounds in Africa!

In the mid-morning we reached our destination, a little over 70 miles from Nome, where, 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 part of the group that was planning on completing the walk up to the top set off into sunny and blue skies. As we neared the top of the well-worn trail that now winds up through the thicker tussock grass portion of the walk), a Curlew took flight and gave its ringing wolf-whistle cries as it flew over the crest of the hill. We followed the bird out to the north, soon seeing two Curlews in flight as they passed overhead and drifted even further away to the west. We decided not to press the pair any further, and to content ourselves with the quite close and excellent flight views during which their apricot coloured rumps and upper tails and salmon tinged flanks were clearly visible. The top of the hill was lovely, if a bit mosquitoey, with a stunning array of wildflowers in bloom, singing Savannah Sparrows and Lapland Longspurs and several pairs of cooperative Whimbrel and American Golden-Plovers on territory.

Once back down to the road we took a picnic lunch at a nearby creek, in the company of Fox, White-crowned and American Tree Sparrows and Yellow, Orange-crowned and Wilson’s Warblers. For the rest of the day we slowly worked back down the road towards Nome, stopping wherever things seemed active. Small lakes held breeding Pacific and Red-throated Loons, pairs of Cackling and Greater White-fronted Geese, a few shorebirds including a group of locally scarce Least Sandpipers and lots of spinning Red-necked Phalaropes and assorted ducks. Willow thickets were heaving with passerines all anxious to start raising young, and we stopped to admire a few Golden-crowned Sparrows, Blackpoll Warblers and Arctic Warblers as we heard them along the road. Rushing rocky streambeds held Harlequin Ducks and Red-breasted Mergansers along the shore, and on one occasion we spotted a cooperative pair of Wandering Tattlers sitting on a small island in the river. Our mammal luck continued, when a large female Moose wandered onto the road and seemed intent on slowly encroaching on our parked vans, getting just close enough that we began to head for the doors before it walked off the road and almost instantly vanished into the willows. Our main goal for the afternoon’s birding was to locate a displaying Bluethroat. With the warm temperatures and early spring, we checked a lot of territories to no avail in the back stretches of the road where males had seemingly finished their short display period, but when we neared the higher elevations around Salmon Lake we heard the unmistakable chatter of a male just a bit off the roadside. We soon found the bird perched up but mostly silhouetted, but by moving around a bit to the side our scopes soon were trained on the electric blue and red throat of the male as it flashed in the afternoon sun. It’s a simply exquisite bird, with a throat that would make even the brightest hummingbird jealous, and is always a highlight for a visiting birder to Nome. Just a bit before arriving back in Nome we stopped at an active Golden Eagle aerie, which was unfortunately not hosting the adult birds due to the presence of a family of hikers (and their dog) who had chosen to summit the peak directly above the nest site. We had much better luck with a nearby Gyrfalcon nest, where in about twenty minutes of watching we saw the two fuzzy white chicks being fed by their hulking slate-grey mother, and saw the slightly paler male bird gliding just overhead. We toasted our amazingly successful day over dinner at Milanos.

A few participants were not willing to give up on our run of luck, and after dinner we made a quick stop back at the Nome River mouth. We parked out on the beach, giving us better light on the exposed mudflats of the lagoon, and set about looking through the masses of birds. Among the expected species we were happy to find three Bar-tailed Godwits (including two very handsome males), a female Red Phalarope and a young Iceland Gull. Salmon were apparently running in the creek, as local fisherman were out in force, and flocks of feeding kittiwakes and gulls were collecting at the beach head. After spending a bit of time communing with the dozens of Aleutian Terns that were perched along the beach we looked through the gulls massing along the coast and were happy to notice a Short-tailed Shearwater foraging along with them. It was close enough that we could really enjoy the pertinent fieldmarks; a vastly better view than the distant flying birds out on Saint Paul Island. We certainly made the most of our only full day in Nome this year, as over the course of the day we cleaned up on Nome specialties and enjoyed an amazing array of mammals to boot!

We were scheduled to depart Nome on the midday flight, which left us with about half of the following morning to explore the first stretch of 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 a third of the way out this year. Our destination was to a short gravel side road that winds up to a rocky and open dry tundra ridge just a few miles shy of Woolly Lagoon. It’s an interesting habitat, with piles of lichen covered shale, pockets of crowberry and wildflowers and bare gravel. A herd of muskox including several cute babies were lounging on a bank of snow near the peak, offering excellent views as they followed our progress down the dirt road. Several pairs of American Pipits were walking along in the tundra, and when we walked out a bit to get a closer view we were happy to also find a pair of sharp looking Red Knots foraging over the dry slope. With spangled silvery backs and bright orange underparts these birds look much more attractive than when most birders see them in the winter months. Several American Golden-Plovers were scattered around on the slope as well, with one bird even kicking up in a wheeling display flight. As we started down the back side of the slope we paused to admire a pair of Snow Buntings, here in their dapper white and black summer garb as they sat up on a roadside rock. Perhaps our best find along the ridge road though was the pair of 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. After spotting over a dozen Willow Ptarmigans along the road on the way out these Rocks immediately struck us as smaller billed and statured than their more common cousins.

All too soon it was time to head back to Nome in order to catch our mid-day flight to Anchorage. As we neared town we stopped at a small willow-lined creek where we successfully located a pair of Rusty Blackbirds and marveled at a Wilson’s Snipe that was balancing nicely on an overhead wire. Then it was time to gather up our belongings, pick up a takeaway lunch and head to the airport. We arrived back at our base in Anchorage in the mid-afternoon, with some time off for laundry or relaxation before dinner. A large part of the group elected to take a short excursion back to Potter’s Marsh after dinner. This proved to be quite pleasant, with excellent views of Red-necked Grebes with babies, a foraging Muskrat and a wealth of birds in the marsh, but sadly, no Falcated Duck.

We commenced the interior portion of the tour the following morning with a drive a bit to the north, where we stopped at the newly minted William Hernandez Sport Fish Hatchery. Behind their building runs Ship Creek, which here is shallow and gravel lined for much of the year. During our visit, the rapidly melting snowpack in the nearby Chugach Mountains had swollen the river to impressive proportions. We walked down to the dam that blocks incoming salmon from passing up beyond the hatchery, and were soon watching a pair of American Dippers coming in and out of their domed mossy nest. One bird then landed on the edge of one of the dam walls and promptly dozed off, affording us incredibly close range and lengthy views. Also along the creek we spotted our first Dark-eyed Juncos and coaxed a calling Western Wood-Pewee into view in a stand of tall alders. Leaving the urban sprawl of Anchorage quickly behind we continued north and soon turned off the main highway, taking the long but beautiful drive up to our base for the night near the east end of the Denali Highway. Our route traced the path carved by the retreating Matanuska Glacier, and our views included remnant hanging glacial valleys, rushing glacial silt-laden rivers, crystalline alpine lakes and dark green spruce forests that stretched to the horizon. A few stops along the road proved quite productive, with two separate encounters with soaring Northern Goshawks (a species that we very seldom see on the tour), a few dark Red-tailed Hawks, our first White-winged Crossbills and several Canada Jays. At one stop we found a trio of Mountain Goats clambering around on a remarkably sheer cliff above the river, and were treated to some tourists screaming as they rafted by us in the foaming river. Most of the lakes that we passed held a few waterfowl, and at one postcard-perfect alpine lake we were treated to very close views of a pair of Surf Scoters as they paddled around in the calm and crystal-clear water. After a picnic 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. As we neared the Denali Highway the clouds closed in and the winds began to pick up a bit. The rain held off though, and we arrived at our rustic lodge for the night with high hopes for the following day along the wild and remote Denali Highway. Dinner was a bit of a riotous affair, as the newly hired waitress was friendly, quite funny and just the right amount of brusque.

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 less than a mile our lodge. After breakfast, we set off for a walk across the spongy tundra to get out to a flat and generally (to us) unremarkable 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 we were distracted by singing American Tree Sparrows, nesting Tundra Swans and Whimbrel and the occasional passing Bald Eagle, but after about forty minutes we were in place. 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 in the scope. Smith’s are stunning birds in breeding plumage, with coppery-buff underparts and a wonderfully bold black and white striped head pattern. At least two male Longspurs were foraging in the short grasses and occasionally perching up in the willows for a short song bout. 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! As we walked back towards the cars we witnessed a passing Common Raven regretting its decision to pass over the airspace of the nesting Whimbrels, with up to five birds dive-bombing the raven repeatedly while uttering their ringing flight callnotes. 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. Nesting Tundra Swans atop their impressively large nests, a few Red-throated and Common Loons, pairs of Long-tailed Ducks and little groups of Red-necked Phalaropes all put in appearances. In the thickets, we heard a wonderful chorus of birdsong, and with some patience located Savannah, White-crowned, American Tree and Red Fox Sparrows. Warblers too were in evidence, with Wilson’s and Blackpoll being very common, and a few Yellow and Orange-crowned calling as well. Of particular note were our excellent views of a cooperative Arctic Warbler, likely recently arrived from its wintering ground in Southeast Asia. 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. At several ponds we found nesting Lesser Yellowlegs, which were often in flight display or perched up on the tops of the trees (a novel set of behaviours from many of our participants’ perspectives).

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 semi-tame and very fluffy blonde Red Fox scampered around the picnic area as well, doubtless annoyed by the cleanliness of our tables and lack of scraps, but still happy enough to pose for some pictures. As we continued west on the road the valley became more wooded, with a corresponding shift in the prevalent bird species. Trumpeter Swans became more numerous, and in the spruces we picked up our first Swainson’s and Varied Thrushes, Ruby-crowned Kinglets and a few more Canada Jays. At one particularly productive spot we tracked down a feeding group of White-winged Crossbills including a couple of rosy-pink males with bold white wingbars. We arrived at our hotel that lies a little south of the Denali National Park entrance in the late afternoon, after a bit of a delay to watch a huge female moose foraging in a roadside lake. Our well-appointed and comfortable rooms tucked into the spruces are far removed from the throngs of tourists that cram into the resort-style hotels clustered around the park entrance, but still close enough to the park headquarters that the early morning bus is within easy reach.

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. As is generally the case birds did not occupy the bulk of our time, but some of this year’s highlight avian finds included the pair of Willow Ptarmigan with s clutch of tiny golf-ball sized fuzzy chicks that were feeding along the edge of the road. A sitting female Gyrfalcon on the cliffs of Polychrome Pass proved popular with the entire busload of tourists, many of whom stepped up to our proffered scopes for a closer view. And I suspect few participants will soon forget the pair of young Golden Eagles perched on a slope just out of the bus windows, with their golden highlights glinting in the bright sunlight.

The real specialties of the National Park though are found in its diverse mammals, and in the spectacular scenery around 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 8 Grizzly Bears during the day including two family groups of cubs and their mothers. At the Eielson Visitor Center (66 miles into the park) we left our bus and took an hour-long stroll around on one of the nearby tundra trails, where we took in a nice array of alpine wildflowers and butterflies and were witness to an interesting bit of live action theater between a foraging sow Grizzly and two hikers. We spotted the bear first, about a mile away and across the valley from us. She was snuffling around on the lower slopes of the mountains, slowly walking downslope towards a dilapidated log cabin. We spotted the hikers a little later, roughly a half mile away from the bear but walking quickly towards her. The hikers got quite close (at least from our distant perspective) before they noticed the bear. They immediately sat down and we could see as we watched from our distant perch the two of them had a somewhat vigorous discussion before standing up and walking backwards uphill for an impressively long time. Unbeknownst to them though there were two more bears on the other side of the ridge… This scene affirmed the determination of many of the participants to not go on long walks in bear country. We did have an animal run-in of our own though back at the visitor’s center, when a stout Hoary Marmot started wandering around the buildings, coming to within a few feet of several of our group. Admittedly much smaller and less toothy than a Grizzly, these robust rodents are still a bit intimidating at close range but we all survived unscathed, save perhaps for the diminishing space on our camera cards.

We boarded a bus back to the park entrance, stopping a few times along the way to admire Caribou close to the road and a family of Grizzlies that were playing on a distant snow patch. In the late afternoon we engaged in a bit of tourist shopping at the park’s various gift stores and then returned to our hotel in time for a break before dinner at a locally famous, and truly excellent restaurant. Over our meals I heard quite a bit of chatter around how wonderful the park, and the day had been (and how wonderful the food was).

After breakfast at the local food truck, whimsically titled the Mariachi Moose we set out a bit to the south for a bit of birding back along the western end of the Denali Highway. 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 or hanging shrouds of thick fog (making us thankful that we picked our days correctly!) and we had light intermittent rain. We started off with a stop at a small spruce-lined lake near the beginning of the road where we tracked down a singing Olive-sided Flycatcher perched atop a spruce snag across the lake. While watching the flycatcher we also enjoyed close views of a somewhat furtive Lincoln’s Sparrow on the slope below the road, and a passing flock of nearly two dozen White-winged Crossbills. As we headed further east we stopped to admire singing Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked Thrushes and a perched Northern Shrike. Our main target for the morning was Northern Hawk-Owl. The numbers of this beautiful owl fluctuate from year to year, and given the paucity of sightings around region in the summer of 2019 we were not very optimistic about our chances. We tried a few spots where we had seen the species in past years to no avail. Amazingly though at our last spot along the road the local passerines responded vigorously and quickly to our Hawk-Owl playback. We took this as a good sign and about a minute later were thrilled to see a Hawk-Owl swoop in and land on a roadside spruce. It stayed for several minutes, attracting the attentions of a pair of Varied Thrushes and several Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Yellow-rumped Warblers, and then flew across the road with its characteristic accipiter like direct flight. Our lengthy scope views of this elegant owl, with its long, banded tail and piercing yellow eyes will linger in the memories of this year’s participants for a long time. The rain started to become a bit more insistent and after some jubilant high-fives we bade farewell to the Denali region and started the drive south towards Anchorage.

While we were waiting in line to order lunch a family behind us in the queue asked if we were birders and if we were planning on visiting the sockeye burn. It turned out that they actually lived along the road and had become quite used to seeing vanloads of people frantically staring into the burned forest around her neighborhood. She wished us well, and a short while after finishing our meal 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 started along one of the main neighborhood roads where recent reports of Black-backed Woodpeckers seemed promising. Despite spending some time in the area, we didn’t hear any of our target species from the road, although there were several Western Wood-Pewees, our first Black-capped Chickadees and Hairy Woodpeckers and a nice selection of the more common forest birds. We decided to move a bit further south in the neighborhood to a spot that last year held a nest site for American Three-toed Woodpeckers. Before we had even parked an adult Three-toed was spotted from the car and as soon as we were out of the vans we could hear the telltale insistent begging calls of nearly fledged woodpeckers emanating from a nearby tree. We stood around for a little while watching the adults bringing food to the nest, feeding the local mosquito crop, and watching a pair of Tree Swallows feeding young in an adjacent tree. Happy with our views we split up and canvased more of the burned forest in search of Black-backeds. It took a little while, but eventually (and on the road that we started our quest) we found a male Black-backed perched fairly low in the woods. It lingered for long enough for half the group to take it in and then shot off into the distance. We waited a bit and then, as the afternoon was waning, those that had seen it well headed off towards Anchorage. The rest of us lingered for a while longer, and about 10 minutes into the vigil caught a flash of the male as it exited a nest hole only a few feet above the forest floor and in a spot that was quite difficult to see from the road. We gathered everyone up, and using all available perches (including the step stool and van’s driver seat) soon had everyone in a good vantage point. It didn’t take very long for the female to come into the nest (again staying quite low and coming from behind the nest) and perch near the hole, her satiny black plumage giving off a pleasing sheen in the afternoon light. Black-backed Woodpeckers are quite scarce in Alaska, and tend to occupy recently burned forests for only a few years before moving on to another site; perhaps hundreds of miles away. Being able to see these two handsome and often very tricky woodpeckers so well was an amazing treat and it was with buoyant spirits that we finished the drive back to Anchorage for a night’s rest and a celebration; after all seeing both Woodpeckers and a Northern Hawk-Owl in the same day is an event that doesn’t occur very often!

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 back to Westchester Lagoon, where this time the tide was in our favour. On the island in the lagoon a small group of Hudsonian Godwits were waiting out the high tide, quietly sitting and preening at a much more pleasing distance than our prior sighting. The fuzzy Mew Gull, Arctic Tern and Red-necked Grebe chicks were noticeably larger than they were a week before, and once again we were able to compare Lesser and Greater Scaups in close proximity. Over the lagoons we found a horde of swallows including all four regular Alaskan species (Violet-green, Tree, Bank and Cliff) all hawking insects above the floating mats of vegetation in a nice mixed swarm that offered an opportunity to practice picking out individual species in flight.

We then opted to tangle again with our nemesis bird at Potter’s Marsh; the lingering male Falcated Duck. This time we began our visit with a trip to the boardwalk at the west end of the marsh, where we spent a bit of time watching a female Moose and her two mooselets browsing just underneath the elevated path. Just as we were about to turn our attentions to the birds along the trail some other birders stopped by and mentioned that they had just seen the Falcated Duck at its customary spot near the marshes east end. We quickly changed plans and drove down to the far end, and within a minute of exiting the vans had located the bird still in the back pond with a couple of American Wigeon and Gadwall. Falcated Duck are exceedingly rare in North America, with the bulk of the records coming from the western islands of Alaska. After narrowly missing this bird on four prior visits to the marsh we were elated to finally find the bird so close to the road. Male Falcated Ducks are striking birds, with a pearly-grey body, green and deep maroon head, black and white collar and elongated falcate tertial feathers. We watched the bird as it dabbled around its chosen pond for a few minutes. It then flew a short distance further back into the marsh, vanishing like an apparition into the reeds. Some other birders soon appeared, initially buoyed by our recent success, but soon wearing the look of determined resignation born by that saddest lot of birders; the dipper. We wished them luck and then headed back to the boardwalk, where we teased out a couple of Lincoln’s Sparrows and some nesting Black-capped Chickadees.

After lunch at a local café in Anchorage we set off 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 evidence of the massive earthquake 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 lily-clad lakes in the valley bottoms. We stopped at a site near Moose Pass which allowed us to walk a bit through the forest, where we found a brand-new suite of birds waiting to greet us. Hermit and Varied Thrushes flew off the path at our approach, while Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Dark-eyed Juncos sang from the trees. We tracked down some feeding Pine Siskins that were picking dandelion seeds up from along the road, and while watching the flock were thrilled to spot a pair of Pine Grosbeaks sitting in the weeds as well. We often only see this species coming in to feeders around Seward, so seeing them so well “in the wild” was a special treat for the guides. A male Townsend’s Warbler showed extremely well, coming down to eye level to scold at our brief bout of playback. It is perhaps one of the brightest and boldly-marked western warblers, and was certainly a thrill for the British members of the group.

Although we did not locate any strutting Spruce Grouse (the main impetus for the walk) there was plenty to see, and a few instructive birds too; like the Sooty Fox Sparrow that was singing from a short tree along the road. These coastal birds sound different to the Red Fox Sparrows that we had been seeing throughout most of Alaska, and with their dark chocolate tones, heavily splotched chests, and oversized bills they certainly look different as well. Perhaps one day soon the pertinent committees will properly evaluate the species complex and split the relevant forms. As the afternoon was coming to a close and we had early dinner reservations at a dockside seafood restaurant we pressed on, arriving in Seward with a bit of time to spare before dinner, and finding ourselves in yet another majestic and unique landscape. Seward sits near the northern limit of the coastal temperate rainforest and sits at the head of a beautiful narrow fjord, and embodies a very Pacific Northwest feel, with tall forests reaching almost down to the stony beaches that are covered in banks of drying kelp and driftwood. Dinner was well received, with huge plate-glass windows revealing sweeping views of the coastal mountains and harbor lined with fishing and tour boats, and fresh caught Salmon and Halibut on the tables.

The next day dawned brightly and with little wind, perfect conditions for our day out on the water around Northwestern Glacier, Resurrection Bay and the Chiswell Islands. The seas were calm all day, with only 3 foot swells out in the open waters around the Chiswell Islands, and even flatter water near the coast, a welcome relief for those who had been concerned about mal de mar. As we exited the harbor we slowly cruised by our first of many Sea Otters, relaxing in the still waters of the sound. As is often the case for otters near Seward (in contrast to those further out from town) the animal allowed the boat a close approach, even giving us a bit of a morning wave as we passed. 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 one million hairs per square inch. The hair traps small bubbles of air between the strands, keeping the animals buoyant and warm in the chilly water. 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 flocks 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 dropped off a subset of the passengers who 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. As we neared Cape Aialik the captain received a call from another boat about a pod of Orca nearby. We diverted and were soon quite close to a group of four or five animals, including a young calf. 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 coastline they aren’t truly local residents. We encounter Orca very infrequently on the boat trip, so our half-hour with these magnificent cetaceans was an experience to treasure. We would find a second group later in the day, this time with several large bulls with towering dorsal fins that passed fairly close to the boat. After leaving the Orca group behind 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. Here too were a few Rhinoceros Auklets, a much larger “auklet” that is more closely related to the Puffins than to the smaller auklets. It proved an excellent trip for Rhinos, with over 60 individuals spotted over the day. Here 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 only 6 or so over the course of the cruise, with a few birds remaining close enough for us to see on the water before they took flight. This archipelago proved very good for puffins, with hundreds of Tufted and Horned Puffins (as well as lots of Common Murre) loafing in the water around the boat. 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. 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 few closer birds that elected to remain on the surface as we approached. We found about a dozen individuals this year, often mixed in with Marbled Murrelets, but their mostly white tails and paler body coloration made them fairly easy to pick out even in flight.

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, and to watch a distant herd of Mountain Goats with several small kids in tow that were somehow navigating around on the seemingly sheer cliffs above us. As we left the cliff face someone on board spotted a large Black Bear walking across the hillside above the falls. We rarely encounter Black Bear on the trip, and given that several participants had enquired about the species I suspect that the animal was one of the highlights of the day for several people. It’s not every day that you get to see Bears on a pelagic tour! 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 relatively 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 a bit brief this year, but long enough that we stopped in to see a few Thick-billed Murres sitting on the cliff face alongside their chocolate brown Common Cousins. 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. At one of the groups of Thick-billeds our attention was diverted when masses of birds leapt off the cliff in unison. A large Peregrine was on the prowl, flying right overhead through the fleeing birds several times before landing on a (recently) unoccupied Kittiwake nest. Although we didn’t see the bird successfully catch something the numbers of birds around us made it simple to imagine that this predator would have an easy summers worth of hunting. With the Thick-billed Murres well seen and tallied, we completed the sweep of regularly occurring Alcid species in the Seward region. The Alcid family is thought to have evolved in the Bering Sea, and the nutrient rich waters of Alaska support the bulk of the groups extant diversity. With an impressive 10 species of Alcids on the day (and an additional 2 in the Pribilofs and 1 in Barrow) we realized that we had seen just over half of the world’s species on the tour this year!

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 an astonishing 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 also stopped to watch a feeding adult Humpback Whale, which the captain estimated to be about 30 feet long and 60,000lbs. These physical dimensions took on a greater meaning for us when, to our delight, the animal repeatedly breached just a few hundred yards off our bow. Seeing these iconic behemoths fly through the air is surely one of the touchstone wilderness encounters available in Alaska, and it was a perfect cap to a wonderful day out on the water.

The last day of the main tour dawned with cloudier conditions and a bit of wind, making us thankful for the excellent weather we had experienced out on the boat. We started with a visit to a local’s yard, where we watched as a parade of birds came in and out of the feeders. Of particular note were the pair of Red Crossbills and several female Rufous Hummingbirds, but the up-close views of Pine Grosbeak, Pine Siskin, “Sooty” Fox Sparrow and the local very dark race of Song Sparrow were excellent as well. We then spent the morning exploring 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 the sprightly Chestnut-backed Chickadee, technicolored Townsend’s Warblers, inquisitive Steller’s Jays, furtive Golden-crowned Kinglet and effervescent Pacific Wren. A stunning male Rufous Hummingbird that was perching on the top of some short spruce trees was a nice find, as by late June most of the males have finished with the breeding season and would have already be starting their long migration south towards Mexico. Along the shores of Resurrection Bay, we watched flocks of Harlequin Duck, loafing Sea Otters, pairs of Marbled Murrelets and Pigeon Guillemots and a little group of Surf Scoters bobbing in the water. Northwestern Crows were in their customary intertidal positions, and in almost any chosen direction one could spot a Bald Eagle or two keeping a watch out for their next meal.

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. Some participants elected instead to skip the time in town and to continue birding. This group headed over to the other side of the Bay along Nash Road. We stopped near the commercial dry dock at the southern end of the road and were shocked by the press of humanity on the normally fairly empty beach. Hordes of eager Salmon fishermen were standing along the shoreline and casting their hooks into the rushing tidal waters in search of running Sockeye Salmon. In truth there were too many people here to leave much room for birds, and given the rather stiff breeze we decided to head a bit inland, where we enjoyed very close views of a family of Trumpeter Swans (including three young pink-billed cygnets) paddling along the edge of the road. This family of Swans is a local famous one, with the local paper often closely monitoring their breeding season and sharing regular updates in the press. We also made a return visit to the local feeders, this time finding a Red-breasted Nuthatch, two quite loud Hairy Woodpeckers and some flyover Common Mergansers among the cast of foraging birds.

As we turned the vans northwards we made a brief stop just a few miles out of Seward where we visited a small salmon weir along Bear Creek. Here a local non-profit fishing co-op has a managed salmon run on a small forested creek, and we found dozens 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 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 people attempting to photograph flying fish over the turbulent whitewater. The show was also attended by an American Dipper that was peacefully sitting on a roadside log, offering an additional target for our telephoto lenses.

Our last stop for the day was back near Moose Pass, where we spent a relaxed half hour walking around the road in a vain quest for Spruce Grouse. Though these often enigmatic chickens are not rare in central Alaska finding one is more a matter of luck than skill. Most sightings involve birds standing along roads or on trails and occur largely by happenstance. This year we failed to connect, but in looking for one we did enjoy repeated views of several navy-blue and pumpkin colored Varied Thrushes, and a group of dandelion feeding Pine Grosbeaks. The Grosbeaks allowed extremely close approach as they fed unconcernedly on clumps of seeding flowers along the road. Individual birds had developed their own strategy for reaching the tall seed heads from the ground. One bird simply stomped on the base of the plant, bringing the entire cluster of seeds down to ground level, while the next carefully grabbed individual flower stalks, bending each one in turn. Hermit Thrushes, Juncos and Kinglets provided an aural backdrop to the walk, and several participants spent a bit of time photographing a semi-tame Snowshoe Hare that was foraging near a picnic table. We pulled into our now very familiar 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 mainland North America. The day before our arrival the temperatures were apparently well above 60 degrees, a highly unusual (although becoming less so) phenomenon. Spring had arrived early even this far north, and in contrast to the last few years we found the coast to be virtually ice-free, with small pockets of shorefast ice, and limited floating ice slowly drifting north. Most of the interior lakes were either fully thawed out, or heading in that direction, and only a few stubborn snow drifts remained in the lee of various structures.

The 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 large multi-story 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 in the late morning, which allowed us to drop off our bags, eat lunch and then unpack our birding gear before spending the afternoon exploring around the coastal road system. Although not 64 degrees the day was bright and warm (in the mid 50’s) and the locals were all very much enjoying being outside in the balmy conditions. Our first stop was at a shallow pond with small islets of mud that had been the most active area over the course of the last week for foraging shorebirds. Our principal interest was to try to connect with a recently reported Little Stint, but while looking for that bird we enjoyed repeated and close-range views of many Semipalmated Sandpipers, sharply dressed Dunlin (quite a stunning bird when in full breeding plumage), flocks of grazing Greater White-fronted Geese and a pair of Pacific Loons. We did also locate a Little Stint. This bird seemed quite dull, but showed the back braces, split supercilium, dark-centered scapular feathers fringed with rufous and a rufous tinged crown. Some groups were reporting a fairly bright individual here and others a dull one, a potentially confusing situation for what is generally a quite rare species on the North Slope. While talking with one of the biologists spending the summer around Barrow we heard a rumour that a Little Stint nest had been located this year near town (perhaps the first such finding in North America) so the two-bird theory suddenly seemed more plausible.

Leaving the pond behind we headed north towards the hunting camps along the coast out of town. We stopped at a point where the sea ice was concentrating before the point to scan out on the remarkably calm ocean. Although there were no towering chunks of sea ice this year, the smaller icebergs and ice sheets still came in a bewildering array of shapes and colours. Bright white islets of ice shaped like a whale’s tale or Bavarian cottage mixed with dirtier hunks that had picked up sediment from the shoreline and glittering blueish ice that resembled the colour of our Seward glacier. It’s a constantly shifting environment, with ice appearing from the south and filtering north, sometimes blowing back with the winds against the current and sometimes backing up against the shore. Birds ride and nap on these ice floes, and on the bigger patches one can find loafing seals keeping a wary eye out for the arrival of ursine or human hunters. We spent a bit of time surveying the scene, finding a couple of Common Eiders, lots of Glaucous Gulls and Long-tailed Ducks and even a distant flying Yellow-billed Loon before a participant noticed some closer eiders lounging on a small bit of ice to the south. We repositioned to get closer to them, and after walking up the roadside sand berm were soon face to face with four male Spectacled Eider. The amazingly attractive males, with their odd green nape feathers, silky casque over their orange bills, and prominent white goggles are one of the main targets for birders in Barrow, and to see several males so quickly this year provided a great start to the trip. We found the species to be quite common this year, with little groups of males out on the water virtually every time we scanned. Initially the group was largely sleeping, but as we watched they jumped off their icy perch and began to swim around in front of us. While we were watching them the occasional flock of King Eider (often with a few Commons mixed in) passed by as well. Although excellent in the scope the birds were still a bit too distant for photographic purposes, but luck stayed with us and just a mile or so further up the road we found a male and female Spectacled Eider paddling around in a tiny tundra pool. The various shades of green, yellow and orange on the male’s head were spectacular in the bright sunlight, keeping our cameras busy while we walked out a bit closer to them.

We then turned our attentions to the roads just south of town. Our first stop was on a bluff overlooking the ocean where we found a couple of Black Guillemots paddling along the edge of a larger ice sheet. Although this species breeds around Barrow in small numbers it had been four years since we had last seen them during our tour. Over the previous three years shore-fast ice was thick and the birds were presumably further out, waiting for the breakup to occur before coming in to investigate the beaches. Generally, this species breeds in boulder crevices or burrows, but with nothing but a gravelly beach and permafrost laden tundra around this small population makes do by making a shallow scrape underneath boards or other detritus along the high-water line of the beach. From the elevated vantage point of the bluff we were able to spot distant whale spouts on the horizon but given the distance we could not discern whether the animals were Gray or Bowhead Whales. Here too were foraging Red-throated and Pacific Loons, and more flocks of loafing Long-tailed Ducks and Spectacled, King and Common Eiders. Most of these ducks were males, perhaps indicating that with the rather early spring the males were largely finished courting and copulating for the summer.

We then turned down Freshwater Lake Road, which stretches about a mile and a half south of town, crossing marshy tundra with many small freshwater lakes. Small ponds were scattered 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 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!” 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. Arctic Terns provided lengthy studies as they hovered over the road margins, and several hulking Pomarine Jaegars were sitting out on the tundra or flying past us in a vaguely menacing way, doubtless on the lookout for any shorebird chicks or nests left unguarded, or perhaps a wayward vole or lemming that was not being quite careful enough in the grass. Right at the end of the road we were thrilled to find two pairs of cracking Sabine’s Gulls. These elegant arctic breeders are perhaps the most attractive of North America’s gulls. A usual view down south is of a distant bird in flight, readily identified by its striking wing pattern and buoyant flight. It is here in the high arctic though that a visiting birder can really appreciate the beauty of a Sabine’s. Two courting birds lingered just a few feet from us, with their ashy heads accented with a dark hind collar, bright yellow bill tip, ruby red eyering and surprisingly bright orange-red mouth lining and tongue all on fantastic display. We stayed with them for a half-hour, watching as they chattered back and forth, preened in the sunlight and even flew around us a bit. It’s views like this that make birding around Barrow so special. It’s a place where you can see usually hard to see species extremely well and in the height of their beauty. Eventually we headed back into town to finish checking into our rooms and to have dinner. Afterwards a few participants opted to take a quick check again back at the Stint ponds, but as we arrived the sunshine gave way to dense fog with a bit of a stiff wind, making birding conditions less than optimal to say the least.

We started the next day with an optional pre-breakfast trip north of town. It proved an excellent decision, as in just an hour and a half we managed to track down the brighter Little Stint, found a group of four Yellow-billed Loons that were closer than the previous day; close enough for all to discern their angular wheatgrass yellow bills, and again encountered cooperative male King, Common and Spectacled Eiders. A quick stop in at a house along the coast allowed us to check out an array of fully stocked bird feeders set amongst pallet brush piles and palm trees made from metal poles and whale baleen. Occasionally at this house we find out of range seed eating birds attracted to the food, but this year the seeds were hosting the residents, with several Hoary Redpolls (including a couple of freshly fledged juveniles), many Snow Buntings, and a few Lapland Longspurs.

For the morning, we headed south of town again, this time to the more coastal Nunavak Road that gives access to some shallow vegetated pools just inland from the coast. Here we finally connected with our fourth species of Eider, the smaller but equally handsome Steller’s Eider. The Steller’s Eiders 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. We found at least three pairs of Steller’s along the road, and were able to watch them play hide and seek in the grassy ponds, before waddling up onto drier hummocks to preen and show off for us. Pectoral Sandpipers and Dunlin showed well here too, with several male Pectorals roding low over the tundra uttering their hollow hooting callnotes, and Dunlin foraging virtually right at our feet. A bit further down the road we spotted a ghostly white male Snowy Owl perched on the side of a small building. We watched the bird 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. A biologist has been following the breeding success of Snowies around the Barrow road system for decades, and this year he had already located four nests. Over the course of the day we located a couple more males, and one sitting female way off the road, so it certainly seemed to be at least an average year for the species. Jaeger populations fluctuate with the local abundance of voles and lemmings as well, and this year seemed an excellent one for Pomarine Jaegers in particular. We spotted several pairs along the road including a few handsome dark morph birds. 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, and at one point when we walked out onto the tundra a bit to get a sense for the landscape we were treated to a pair of Pomarines repeatedly swooping past us with grating calls and purpose when we strayed a bit too close to their nest. We backed off quickly, but I suspect that those who came out on the short walk now have a newfound respect for the heft and power of these birds. It’s definitely more intimidating than having Arctic Terns dive bomb you at Potter’s Marsh!              

By the late morning we had covered all of the close roads around Barrow, and with sightings of Yellow-billed Loon, Snowy Owl and all four Eiders already achieved we decided to spend the afternoon just slowly birding out the longest road out of town; the Cakeeater-Gas Well Rd complex that winds about 8 miles out of town to the east. Before heading out there we stopped in at the grocery store to purchase picnic lunch supplies and to visit the Inupiat Heritage Centre gift shop, where several participants bought signed fragments of bowhead whale baleen to bring home as a reminder of their time in the high arctic. Once out on the road we discovered that the sections of the road that had recently been flooded out by adjacent marshes had dried out in the warm weather, which allowed us to eventually reach the end of the road. Just a bit past the main natural gas plant that sits about halfway out the road we turned on a short side road and were treated to very close views of a huge young female Peregrine sitting on a freshly harvested Red Phalarope atop a roadside utility pole. She stayed on her lunch as we parked across from the pole, and soon settled down to eat, with a shower of phalarope feathers drifting down to the tundra below. Here too were a couple of hunting Rough-legged Hawks, including one bird that was hunting by foot, jumping across the tundra in pursuit of Lapland Longspur nests (if the agitation of nearby longspurs indicated anything). That bird, a very pale one, comically jumped onto an old aluminum can, quickly jumping back and then appraising the foreign object with cocked head and an almost inquisitive glare. It’s hardly surprising that with so many breeding birds out on the north slope there are also raptors, though many of the predators likely have to come a long way out on the tundra from their cliff nesting sites, which sit at least 40 miles inland from the coast.

Heading further east along Gaswell Road we found breeding shorebirds, Lapland Longspurs and waterfowl 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. 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 impressive numbers of Greater White-fronted Geese, Tundra Swans, Northern Pintail and Long-tailed Ducks dotting the tundra ponds.

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. A couple of close King and Steller’s Eiders were paddling around in some roadside pools just a bit past the dump, and we also spent a bit of time watching a pair of nesting Pacific Loons that had selected a remarkably tiny grassy islet in a small pond to nest on. We then 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 water, snow, gravel and grassy tundra the landscape of the high arctic is ever-changing, and truly beautiful.

We awoke on our final full day of the tour to find colder temperatures and a heavily overcast sky. 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. We did turn up one more “new” species for the trip, in the form of four Baird’s Sandpipers that were foraging in a gravel-lined pond near the beginning of Cakeater Road, but the main memorable experience for the morning was out at the base of Point Barrow. Here we spent a quiet half-hour just soaking up the absolute quiet of the world. Without a breath of wind we were surrounded by the still iced up Elson Lagoon, and a substantial amount of ice backing up in the Chukchi Sea near the point. Dozens of Ringed Seals dotted the ice floes, and in the small open channels of water we scoped flying Arctic Terns and Kittiwakes working the ice edges, foraging Black Guillemots, Eiders and Loons, and flocks of sleeping Long-tailed Ducks and Glaucous Gulls. It was a bit of a surreal experience, made even more so by the presence of a stadium style bucket seat that a local had planted on the gravelly beach; a perfect place to take in the otherworldly environment that we found ourselves in. 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 178 species for the trip, plus a further 11 for those that took in the Pribilof Islands and an impressive 27 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: 27 June 2019