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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Alaska: Majesty of the North

2021 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Our just-completed route through Alaska embodied many of the aspects that make this area a major world wildlife viewing destination. The snow-capped peaks of Nome were always in view as we searched for the specialties of the Seward Peninsula including displaying Bristle-thighed Curlews whistling overhead and a pair of Gyrfalcons proving why they are masters of the tundra. For one day of our tour the highest peak in North America was entirely visible. Soaking in this behemoth was a great way to start to the Denali portion that was also composed of several grizzly bear sightings, including a playful cub, and herds of caribou and Dall sheep that were fattening up on the new growth. Northern Hawk Owl was a target for many so we were thrilled to have one perched in the scope for as long as we’d hoped for. Traversing roads through the tundra is a surreal experience, but hiking through it is even more dreamlike. We did just that in search of displaying Smith’s Longspurs and reveled in the experience as we watched 3 beautiful males trying to impress a recently arrived female. Seward’s temperature rainforest was in full effect, but there were enough breaks in the weather to get a full day boat trip in to see some of the glaciers that area is known for and the abundance of seabirds littered throughout. While out at sea several Kittlitz’s Murrelets were encountered at close range and Red-faced Cormorants took shelter on the cliffs of the Chiswell Islands. Perhaps the best was saved for last as we recorded a recently discovered first north American record on tour. As luck would have it the Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrush discovered the previous day was still there when we arrived in Barrow, but was missed by searchers the following day. We jetted off immediately to successfully see this bird a mere 3,000 miles away from its normal breeding area. Later the same day a well-timed text message alerted us to a polar bear creeping around the ice near town. We all rushed out and successfully spotted the enormous beast as it pulled carcass scraps out of the icy pools that brought it in close to shore.

IN FULL: The first area we set out to conquer was the Nome portion of the trip. Nome is situated on the southern coast of the Seward Peninsula and famous for its gold rush around 1900. Intrepid miners still dredge the ore-rich soil in hopes of scraping together enough dust to sustain an existence and perhaps even strike it big someday. Remnants of exploration old and new are a constant reminder on the landscape with rusted out bucket dredges and run-down shacks with glory days in the past. Some of these structures still get utilized with a great example of that being the local Common Ravens that insist on using the tall dredge boom’s lattice work to help support their nests. Some of the old bridges transferring materials from port to port also house nesting species including entire colonies of Cliff Swallows and even the spongy nests of American Dippers. With only 2 full days and 3 full roads to explore we immediately set out on the Teller Road after we arrived to this remote outpost. No time was wasted in learning how drastic the climate can be here as we drove down rutted roads flowing with recent rains finding it difficult to spot anything that wasn’t right next to the road. Although not the most favorable conditions, it did provide some close encounters with exciting species. A Long-tailed Jaeger 20 yards from the van sat bold atop a small mound watching us as we clambered out of the vans to capture pictures of a very confiding Eastern Yellow Wagtail, the best look I’ve ever had on this tour of this normally flighty species. Joining the periphery of the pond were mostly bright female Red-necked Phalaropes and dapper male Lapland Longspurs. After finally arriving at our predetermined spot the rain really started coming down, the wind picked up to about 25 miles per hour, and dense fog rolled in creating a scenario out of a movie. Needless to say we all got soaked. The birding came to a halt in these conditions so we headed back to home base with heat blaring and were happy to have nice hot bowls of soup shortly after we got back. Just on the edge of town we saw our first Muskox. This ice-age relict exists here around town probably due to the lack of natural predators. This human-sized mammal has formidable horns used in combat by the males fighting for dominance. Patches of their very soft fur are pulled off and can be found on every other willow tree for close inspection. It’s amazing how smooth this fur feels and not a wonder why it can be made into clothing by the locals for a source of extra warmth in the coldest of times.

The following day we were bound to explore the road to the town of Council, which begins with extended periods of time along the coast, then snakes inland through the tundra passed the historic town of Solomon and follows its mighty river up and over Skookum Pass. The famed Nome River mouth was checked first and yielded both Arctic and Aleutian Terns. It was great to see, and hear, the differences between these two species as they came in and out from the ocean with food for those awaiting on nests. An abundance of Semipalmated Sandpipers were constantly picked through during our foray as we watched them in display flights while males chased each other around zipping right in front of our moving vans as if we didn’t exist. Occasionally a Western Sandpiper could be picked out with its conspicuous rufous cap and scapulars, longer decurved bill, and longer legs. A few large rufous shorebirds were called out and eventually we got close looks at male and female Bar-tailed Godwits that were fattening up for their own nesting attempts. It’s hard to believe these amazing shorebirds will be traveling roughly 7,000 miles in the coming weeks to spend the winter across the Pacific Ocean in New Zealand. Heading east we drove by several small streams that poured out of the tundra into the Bering Sea. Some of these had sheltered water bodies that accumulated just before the final stretch through the sandy beach. One of these ponds was stopped at to get a good look at a pair of Tundra Swans and while doing so Raymond spotted a cracking male Tufted Duck sleeping on the shoreline with some Greater Scaup. Eventually it woke up and floated by displaying it’s namesake tuft in all its glory and showing off the differences between it and its cousins quite well. Other groups alerted to its presence were also successful in seeing this bird later in the day, but it turned out to be a one day wonder as those searching the following day came up empty. Elated from our sighting we headed east some more to Cape Nome, a great place to look for seabirds from shore. Flocks of White-winged Scoters and Common Eiders flew by in droves and singles of Horned Puffin and Pelagic Cormorants were interspersed. A perched Peregrine Falcon high above us in the quarry kept a vigil awaiting any wayward seabirds that might be unable to escape its pursuit. Some fresh grizzly bear tracks in the mud gave us goosebumps and made us all wonder just how recently this huge land mammal passed by this area, or even if it could still be around. We never did see it which made it even more spine-tingling while looking for a bush stop bathroom! Safety Sound is long, and normally filled with flocks of ducks, geese, and swans stocking up on food and energy before they head inland and north to commence breeding. This year those flocks had departed early due to weather patterns, but the remaining birds left were still worth checking out. Great looks at breeding Pacific Loons feeding close to the bridge showed off the gleaming back of their heads well and a unique angle for loon viewing. Several Spotted Seals looked like bobbers just off the coast as they popped up to watch us watch them closely. Around one hundred Tundra Swans slept and fed in small groups towards the east end of Safety Sound, joining the clumps of Common Eiders and singles of Northern Pintails, American Wigeons, and Northern Shovelers. We checked a couple of stick nests further inland where historical nesting attempts have alternated between Gyrfalcon and Common Raven. Neither species was present and we later learned that this nest may have failed. A nice consolation prize to this was spotting a Northern Wheatear high up on a distant ridge. We took our time hiking up to the area this rare breeding species was displaying and got very close to a male adorned with his flashy white rump. Scopes and cameras were busy capturing this amazing thrush as it sang, called, and flew up high alerting the surrounding tundra residents to its favored territory. Along the Solomon River a couple of Wandering Tattlers were spotted hidden amongst the similarly colored river rocks and eventually one of them soared up overhead tooting its own display flight and successfully attracted a female bird to follow it upstream to parts unknown.

Our final full day in Nome was spent birding the Kougarok Road and the 75 miles we covered getting to our main destination. About 45 minutes into our drive a roadside explosion of song alerted us to a male Arctic Warbler establishing its territory amongst the roadside willow vegetation. The group was able to get some pictures as this bold bird chased away competitors and made his presence known calling from exposed branches. Salmon Lake was our first planned stop. This picturesque ice-filled lake is the end of a salmon run up the Salmon River and is the furthest inland these fish travel to breed on the peninsula. A fleeting Arctic Fox was seen well by some upon our arrival to the campground and we were all ecstatic to watch a male Bluethroat in full song and flight display. This beautiful aerialist repeatedly shot up into the sky nearly out of view then slowly drifted back down to its favored perch, all the while showing off its namesake blue throat with red center dot. The reason most people go on this road is to find breeding curlews near its terminus. The hike near Coffee Dome is infamous for its difficult hiking experience best described as walking on top of hairy bowling balls. There is a main trail that has formed allowing passage to be a bit easier, but normally the birds are far off this trail making it a great adventure. As luck would have it after making it up half the length of the trail we heard the diagnostic whistling of a Bristle-thighed Curlew off in the distance. Soon after a bird took off and flew out overhead in full display mode vocalizing back to at least 1 other bird within it’s territory. We scampered over the area and watch with scope as the bird preened and slowly worked it’s patch of tundra in hopes of having a successful breeding run this year. While trying to get good looks at the curlew we stumbled into a family of Willow Ptarmigan, with little fluffy chicks in tow, trying to avoid us as best they could. A bit further down the road we enjoyed a picnic lunch with displaying Bluethroat on both sides of the road. This scenario seemed to make the meal that much tastier. On our way back we checked another historic nesting area for Gyrfalcons. Despite being told by the local bird guide that this nest had failed and they were no longer around a pair of these majestic falconiformes shot out from the cliffside and joined each other on a nearby hilltop. After getting a nice comparative view differentiating male from female based on size in the scope they both took off and for the next 15 minutes we were all treated to the pair floating overhead in constant circling maneuvers making it clear that they were not quite finished with this territory this year. Maybe it’s early enough in the season that they may try to renest?

Our last morning in Nome was spent maximizing our time in search of species we hadn’t crossed paths with yet. The first addition to our growing list was a male Pacific Golden Plover spotted by the back van quite close to the road. By the time the news reached the first van it had already stopped in its tracks and was happily waiting for a flock of over 20 Long-tailed Jaegers to move that were laying down resting in the middle of the road. After nice views of the plover we headed to Cape Nome again and were overjoyed to see how close all the seabirds were this morning and how calm the seas were. This recipe would surely produce something unexpected. We were right! Another birding group send a message that a male Spectacled Eider was close to shore so we shot over to the spot. Luckily it was still there and had no trouble showing off its green head with prominent white spectacles and contrasting black and white body. Given the number of White-winged Scoters close to shore we knew it was only a matter of time before we turned up one of the rare Stejneger’s Scoters being reported over the last couple weeks from this very spot. We heard Raymond yell out “I’ve got one” and we all rushed to get a glimpse of this recently split new species that closely resembles its white-winged cousins, but whose male sports black flanks, a flatter head profile and bigger prominent bill knob. This was a lifer for many on the tour and a great rarity to get under our belts.

The next portion of the tour explored the multitude of forest birding opportunities that the roadways around Anchorage host. Nearby our hotel a small patch of forest produced some exciting episodes. A family of Black-capped Chickadees entertained as did a Ruby-crowned Kinglet with fiery crown exposed, and a Hermit Thrush was curious what all the owl imitations were about. A passing biker then alerted us to the fact a pair of Moose were up ahead on the trail and to be careful. Shortly thereafter we came upon the pregnant female with younger antlered male trying to court. It turned out she was more interested in eating plants than another go at reproduction, but it was a great experience to be so close to such huge wild creatures at a stone’s throw away. A short trip to West Chester Lagoon got us acquainted with many of the local water fowl of the area including good comparative views of Lesser and Greater Scaup, nesting Red-necked Grebes and Mew Gulls each with cute fluffy downed chicks, and numerous American Wigeon, Gadwall, and american Green-winged Teal. A stroll along the coastal trail exposed a hidden Short-billed Dowitcher emerging from the grass and very vocal Alder Flycatcher whipping its head back while bleating out its short but effective song. At a nearby fish hatchery we were treated to an adult American Dipper and 2 recently fledged young bopping around the rushing torrent of Ship Creek in constant feeding fashion and were especially pleased to study the ball of moss nest that clearly these excited youngsters had spent their first weeks utilizing. Chris was especially psyched to catch up with this nemesis bird. It was also hard to ignore the minute Common Merganser fledgling that could not for the life of it figure out how to navigate the brushy verges of the waterway. In a burned area near the town of Willow a family group of Canada Jay’s raucous calls revealed a couple of adults with a very recently emerged young bird they were keeping close tabs on. Our arrow pointed north and we set out to see the highest mountain in North America. Only about 10% of people who visit the area actually get to see the massif exposed so we were hopeful that the clear blue skies might yield a glimpse of this monumental peak. At a quick stop over 35 miles southeast of Denali we pulled over quickly and were rewarded with an entirely clear view of Mt. McKinley towering over the surrounding landscape. After a quick group selfie to commemorate our luck, we cruised northeast to our lodge near the entrance to the park. It’s worth mentioning that our residence here is tucked away amongst the spruce forest next to a calming river that makes a great backdrop for local exploration and sound sleeping. At a nearby modern Alaskan eatery we were not only treated to regionally inspired delicious cuisine, but while waiting outside and completing our checklist an adult Boreal Chickadee showed up with a mouthful of insects for an undoubtedly hungry youngster nearby. Clearly everything that shows up here ends up with a full belly.

The following morning we traveled north near Healy where we checked a small grass-lined lake. An adult Moose was knee deep in the water getting its morning drink and several species of waterfowl were utilizing the area. A trio of Barrow’s Goldeneye floated together showing tell-tale field marks like white crescent at the base of the bill and unique head shapes, as well as a group of male and female Bufflehead actively diving for food. On the backside of the lake some dense spruce forest filled with seed-laden cones revealed a highly sought-after species for the tour. A small group of White-winged Crossbills sat at length foraging on seeds expertly picking each one of with their uniquely shaped bill and long tongue. The rest of the day was intended to explore Denali National Park, taking a bus all the way to the Eielson Visitor’s Center. This relaxing journey was filled with gently rolling scenery and a nice suite of large mammals that kept our cameras busy for the 66 miles it took to get there. The Alaskan Range and its enormity at over 20,000 feet creates its own weather system. This year it produced scattered rain showers, a chill to the air, and mountains shrouded in an ever-changing drift of fog and clouds. Although the birds aren’t generally the main reason to visit here, several Golden Eagles at close range coursing over the bases of the mountains by the bus was a treat to see, as well as White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrows competing for airwaves at just about every stop. The interior grizzly bear has a much blonder coat and smaller size than the coastal brown bears so it wasn’t difficult to pick them out of the green hillsides. Two of the four we encountered were a sow with second year cub slowly strolling and grazing along a willow-lined creek, with the closest encounter being a large adult sleeping just off the road only occasionally rolling over to see what the giant contraption was humming nearby with all the windows open and camera shutter noise. At this same viewpoint we could see another bear further out that had just finished feeding on a caribou carcass and was busy covering it up for later consumption. It then fell asleep close by in case any other opportunistic animals decided to scavenge on this coveted meal. Every few miles one of the common Arctic Ground Squirrels would scamper across the road narrowly avoiding the bus, and scattered over the valleys were caribou mostly resting on the patches of snow to beat the summer heat. To us 50F isn’t too toasty, but for a caribou that still has most of its winter coat on it’s an inferno. To top it off several groups of Dall Sheep were spotted high up on the cliffsides. This species thrives in this park as hunting is not allowed and this large mammal is rare in that it is managed exclusively by large predators in a natural ecosystem setting here.

After our day soaking in the park, we started our drive east along the old Denali Highway for roughly 90 miles of exploration. The beginning of the road is packed with spruce and larch forests harboring several bird species we hadn’t yet encountered. At a scenic bog a Lesser Yellowlegs sat atop a spruce tree giving a constant call of concern to anything coming near to where its likely nest was. Several Lincoln’s Sparrows were jetting to and from cover carrying food to awaiting young. A distant ‘pik’ call was tracked down and revealed a male American Three-toed Woodpecker that eventually flew in close and gave a loud drumming clearly defining its territory. Just after we pulled away from the action a male Spruce Grouse quickly shot across the road in front of the lead van. We parked quickly and waited for the other van to catch up and just as they were getting out the bird slowly walked back across the 2-track for us all to admire. After celebrating we hit the dusty trail again, and just as we did a female Spruce Grouse decided it was her time to have a crowd watch and insisted on sitting roadside for an even better viewing experience. Still excited about our grouse show we were even more joyed to spot a Northern Hawk Owl perched up high above the forest looking out upon its domain. This highway is usually a good bet for this species as there’s ample forest edge with meadows to hunt their favored small mammal prey. After our picnic lunch overlooking the vast Nenana River Valley, we pushed east stopping for various warbler species that were singing along the roads including Wilson’s, Orange-crowned, and Blackpoll. A constant whistled song ringing through the spruce thickets was belted out by male Red Fox Sparrows. This beautiful melody lasted until the trees began to peter out and the endless tundra scenery began. Eventually the remote road led to our lodge on the banks of a major glacier-fed river. A huge Cliff Swallow colony allowed close approach for photo opportunities, and the view of the stunning mountain range to the north was truly awe-inspiring. Just down the road there was also a Bank Swallow colony. We watched as these birds clung to the carved side of a tundra pond mound entering their holes in the muddy banks and then leaving just as quickly. The main reason we spend so much time on the eastern portion of Alaska Route 8 is to maximize our chances of seeing Smith’s Longspurs on their breeding grounds. Many people have seen this longspur species in winter when it closely resembles the coloration and pattern of a female House Sparrow. Although not much to look at down south, when these birds complete their molt into their gorgeous breeding plumage they transform into stunning performers. We had to slowly hike out about 1 mile into the soggy tundra carefully picking our way through the driest of wet spots, hopping over puddles with Wood Frogs just emerging from winter slumber. This is the only frog species that makes it this far north and can cope with the extremely frigid temperatures of the icy landscape in winter. It actually freezes for about 7 months with just enough warmth to keep its insides functional, and able to restart the rest of its body when the ground thaws enough to surface. We arrived at the area we were to look for the longspurs where a large open scene was scattered with bunch and cotton grasses punctuated by dwarf willows, the preferred lek habitat for this unique species. In no time at all 3 male Smith’s Longspurs were heard performing songs in competition with each other and soon enough one of them landed close by. The striking black and white facial pattern in contrast with the burnt orange body was a treat to see and we felt fortunate to witness this eyeful. Smith’s Longspurs are unique in that they practice polygynandry. This is when several males ranges overlap and they have a collective lek that overlaps with several female’s ranges. Each male will mate with multiple females and females will mate with multiple males. This mating can happen hundreds of times throughout the breeding season. Our route south back to Anchorage cruised through the very scenic Matanuska Valley passing the edges of ancient hanging glacial valleys giving birth to raging icy rivers.

The final leg of the mainland tour had us heading southeast across the Kenai Peninsula to the scenic port town of Seward, perched nicely on the edge of Resurrection Bay and the perfect place to explore the glacial fields of Kenai Fjords National Park. Our regularly scheduled boat trip was canceled due to 20-foot seas. Due to this happenstance we had an entire day to check out Seward’s environs and the unique group of birds associated with the temperate rainforest that meets it terminus here. We had a lot to pack into the day before the impending rains arrived so we utilized some strategically placed feeders around town to get up close and personal with several of the resident species. It was helpful to get great comparisons of both Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers that were both bringing in their recently fledged young to grab an easy meal. A pair of Pine Grosbeaks were quite vocal as they perched upon a nearby snag. A melodious whistled song revealed a male Sooty Fox Sparrow in rivaling audio with the more numerous Song Sparrows. Each of these subspecies are much darker overall than others, embodying a plumage that undoubtedly helps them blend in with the dark, dense undergrowth of the wet forests here. Keeping a vigil at hummingbird feeders paid off as we eventually got great looks at a couple of Rufous Hummingbird. This remarkable bird has the longest migration of any hummingbird and soon will start their nearly 3,500 mile long journey to winter grounds in central Mexico. In the nearby lush forests we searched with success for Townsend’s Warblers revealed by their buzzy songs, Steller’s Jays shouting raucous calls, and a particularly confiding Pacific Wren belting out its glorious song with endless rising and falling scale runs. Also here the minute but showy Golden-crowned Kinglet came in for close inspection and a family group of Chestnut-backed Chickadees fed through the mid elevation of the towering spruce trees. The following day much better weather and ‘only’ 5-foot seas meant we could take our boat voyage out into the rich waters surrounding Seward. As we motored through Resurrection Bay we saw our first Sea Otters of the trip, easily floating atop the salt water with their dense coats. Double-crested Cormorants became common as they darted by in small numbers and we started getting our first close looks at Marbled Murrelets. As we approached Cape Aialik our first flocks of Common Murres and Horned Puffins were tallied as they flushed from the approaching boat. It was important to remember the advice the captain gave about keeping one hand on the boat at all times as we entered the open water crossing. Large waves and big swells kept us all on our toes and made it nearly impossible to get our binoculars up on passing birds. We were happy to reach the placid waters of Northwestern Fjord where we took a break from the rough ride and enjoyed seeing small flocks of Kittlitz’s Murrelets, an endangered seabird that feeds in the nutrient rich currents produced by the ice flows and tides of these fjords. After enjoying the giant glaciers, steep scoured rocky mountains, and numerous waterfalls we began our journey back down Northwestern Fjord and out to the Chiswell Islands. Small rafts of seabirds peppered on this leg were the comical-looking Tufted Puffin with blonde hairdo and white face, Ancient Murrelets showing aged appearances, and Rhinoceros Auklets easily spotted as the ‘brown birds with orange beaks’.  A whistled tooting caught our attention as we got close to land and we quickly spotted 3 Black Oystercatchers just out of reach of the crashing waves. Due to the continuing rolling ocean, we could not stay at the towering breeding cliffs of the Chiswell Islands for long, but did manage just enough time to see 6 of the nesting Red-faced Cormorants before they all took off and flew out to sea. The rough waters aren’t good for seasickness which unfortunately a couple people found out, but it is good for pushing birds that are normally further out to sea in to the calmer nearshore waters. This is perhaps the reason we got close looks at a few Sooty Shearwaters close to the boat that showed their frosty underwings nicely. Upon our reentry into Resurrection Bay the captain called out over the speaker that they’d just witnessed the spout of a humpback whale. We motored over and got quite close to an adult female with, still quite large, youngster in tow. The boat slowly drifted back and forth positioning us for perfect viewing angles of the two huge mammals entwined in a beautiful underwater ballet routine. Just as we returned to dock the rain began again and we rushed to our nearby hotel for a quick change of clothes. After some well-deserved delicious pizza, we all headed back to Anchorage for a good night’s sleep in order to get ready for the next leg of our epic journey.

Utqiagvik Extension:

It was about 1:30am when I looked at my phone and saw a text message from Sulli Gibson who was currently in Utqiagvik. It stated that a Rufous-Tailed Rock-Thrush was seen just hours ago at 10:30pm and that he was going to head out first thing in the morning to try and re-find it. I immediately knew the significance of such a record. This bird was not on the current ABA list and was surely a new bird for the North American continent. At breakfast I told the group the exciting news of this prospect and we were all anxious to get on our flight and head up north. About a week prior to this another tour company had to cancel their Barrow portion of the tour because the plane couldn’t land due to bad weather. With fingers crossed that our luck would be better than theirs, we loaded the plane on time, elevated into clear skies, and successfully landed after a 2 hour direct flight into the airport in the middle of the arctic tundra. After checking into our hotel and getting our rental vans as quickly as possible we headed to the borrow pit to begin our highly anticipated search for the Rock-Thrush. We pulled up to the edge of a mound where the bird was last seen but it was not present so we split into 2 groups and each took a radio. This allowed us to cover more ground than searching as a single unit and increase our chances of running into our prize. It was about 30 minutes of searching until we heard Raymond’s voice on the radio that their had found the bird. Now the others needed to get over to the other side of this huge pit as fast as possible. This was not an easy task with its steep sides and loose sand and gravel. Most of the group was successful in getting over to the hillside where the Rock-Thrush was and managed to get good looks. At one point it even landed right next to a couple of our group for a brief moment. We were ecstatic with our successful find and glad to have fulfilled a life-long birding goal for some in seeing a first North American record in person. None of the restaurants in town were doing dine-in so we began the process of ordering our celebratory dinner from one of the local shops. Just after we passed out the food, I got another text from Sulli, this time a post from a local’s facebook page stating they were currently seeing a polar bear out on the sea ice by the college on the north side of town. We realized this may be our only chance to see this mythical animal so we ran down each hallway knocking on doors asking people to bring their dinners with them because we had a chase on our hands. We rushed to the north and saw a bunch of trucks amassed facing the ocean side of the spit. We quickly headed over to see if the bear was still around. It was pointed to us way out on the edge of the ice flow as a yellow-tinged blob. Fantastic! It was still here and, although we had to take the onlooker’s word for it, we had all seen this elusive animal that is very much tied to this icy wonderland. It wasn’t long before the off-white mammal got up and started walking towards shore right in our direction. Eventually we saw what it wanted and luckily it wasn’t us. Some scraps of meat had floated close to shore amongst the ice and every few steps the bear would put its nose high in the air and take a big whiff. We watched as it tore a huge chunk of carcass out of the ice and slowly walked back out to the edge of the sea with its quarry. Either of these fantastic wildlife sightings would have made the entire trip, so to see both in the same day is truly remarkable. There was a lot more to be seen in the surrounding habitat and we had 1.5 days to find it all.

The following day the cold air and crisp winds had subsided and the temperature warmed up and blue sky shone through the marine fog after the first few hours of the morning. A look around the pit for the Rock-Thrush yielded nothing new, so we checked out the rest of Nunavak Road. By the last house a very obvious white mass was sitting on the ground. As the shape took flight and landed on a nearby roof, we were all thrilled to confirm it was our first of many Snowy Owls for the trip. Then made our way out to Freshwater Lake south of town. The land was pockmarked with small pools, each one seeming occupied by some kind of waterfowl. Long-tailed Ducks were paired up and reluctant to fly while they gave there ‘wehuuauaaah’ calls repeatedly letting us know they were present. Bright crimson female Red Phalaropes were nesting and over the course of our time there we found a few nests with eggs. A large mound towards the end of the road had a Pomarine Jaeger on top of its own nest. This formidable bird was keeping an eye out for any intruders that came too close. One of the most common birds along our route was the Snow Bunting. There was never a lack of these around fleeting from the roadsides and singing their marvelous song constantly while there. We passed by a few Dunlin along the road, which were great to see adorned in their breeding best with dark bellies and rufescent wings and back. Right at the end of the road we were thrilled to find a gorgeous Sabine’s Gull nearby. These elegant arctic breeders are perhaps the most attractive of North America’s gulls. Normally in the southern US its readily identified by its striking wing pattern and buoyant flight out at sea. However, it is here in the high arctic that a visiting birder can really appreciate its color scheme. As we crept closer the ashy heads accented with a dark hind collar, bright yellow bill tip, and ruby red eyering were noted. We stayed with the gull for a half-hour, watching as it fed 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. On our walk back to the vans several Pectoral Sandpipers flew across our path in full display. It’s no surprise why they are named this when you see them on their breeding grounds. They floated by low over the tundra with fluffed out chest feathers and grunted a throbbing ‘whoo whoo whoo’ call for all to hear.

We spent a couple of hours seawatching out over the vast Arctic Ocean with its seemingly endless river of ice chunks. When this mass of ice was close to shore the numbers of birds passing close by increased. A major movement of Brant was happening. Some flocks of up to 100 were cruising by at a good clip, and several flocks of King Eiders shot by in groups of up to 50. At least one group of 6 Spectacled Eiders cruised by and were easy to pick out among the more numerous Kings. Even the not so common here Eider made an appearance a couple of times flying by with high rate of speed. A single Thick-billed Murre was followed by scopes and bins and was excitedly new for our trip and a life bird for some. A steady stream of Black-legged Kittiwakes floated by and both Pacific and Red-throated Loons were numerous inshore by the end of the day. Our last hours before our flight were spent searching for breeding eiders on the backroads east of town. Numerous King Eiders were courting several females with head bobbing, wing stretching, and land chasing all taking place. The birds were distracted enough that we could get quite close to inspect the stunning blue, green, and orange coloration on the heads of the males. In one area a female King Eider stayed close to the group and we quickly realized she was hoping we wouldn’t find her nest. On the way back from a stroll through the tundra two pairs of stunning Steller’s Eiders landed in the pond next to the van. These oddly colored males are adorned with white heads encircling a bright green patch on the back of the head and in the lores, peachy sides with oddly placed black dot, and black and white bodies. It’s unclear why they are patterned such, but as we watched them settle into the sides of the pond’s vegetation we saw how well they actually blended in.

As we boarded the plane to head back to our familiar home base in Anchorage we were all elated at seeing a North American first, stunning sea ducks in their breeding best, displaying shorebirds full of might, and an awfully hungry Polar Bear. Impressive was the fact that only a couple of roads lead out of town for a few miles each, yet we still managed to cover 100 miles terrain, with a constant cycling of birds in and out giving us new species to constantly scan through. It’s no wonder people travel to this remote outpost in search of arctic wonder, something only a small fraction of the human population ever gets to do. This was the perfect way to end our Alaska adventure having tallied 167 species of birds and an impressive 21 mammal species. I already can’t wait to come back to the Majesty of the North next summer.


Jake Mohlmann 2021

Created: 13 July 2021