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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Alaska: Majesty of the North

2024 Narrative

Our 2024 trip across the magnificent state of Alaska just wrapped up in spectacular fashion. More than most places in North America the birding often winds up playing second fiddle to a wide array of jaw-dropping scenery. The birds are surprisingly diverse for such a northerly location and we tallied an impressive 186 species on this year’s tour (including the Barrow extension). The sheer scope of the wildlands in Alaska is astounding, with many ecosystems still functioning in a close to pristine state. It’s hard to pick out favorites as each leg of the trip held its own prizes. Around the open tundra and seemingly endless rolling mountains of Nome we found breeding Aleutian Terns, Bristle-thighed Curlew, mating Bar-tailed Godwits, Bluethroat, Arctic Warbler, American and Pacific Golden Plovers, and both Willow and Rock Ptarmigan. Anchorage gave us some very close views of nesting Arctic Terns and Short-billed Gulls, nesting American Three-toed Woodpeckers, displaying White-winged Crossbills and even an amazingly cooperative male Spruce Grouse that seemed intent on devouring all of our shoelaces! Around Fairbanks we were fortunate to find two Northern Hawk Owls along the highway, as well as a nestling Boreal Owl peering out of an artificial nestbox, some handsome Bohemian Waxwings and several Hammond’s Flycatchers on territory. The remote and wild Denali Highway revealed its hoped-for Smith’s Longspurs in their stunning summer plumage, nesting Trumpeter and Tundra Swans, several Arctic Warblers, nesting American Dipper and impressive colonies of Bank and Cliff Swallows. Seward provided another complete change in atmosphere, with dark green forests, rocky beaches and towering coastal mountains with numerous ice fields and glaciers. In the fjords that fringe the Kenai Peninsula we had a simply perfect boat trip which produced excellent views of Red-faced Cormorant, Parakeet Auklet and Kittlitz’s Murrelets (among 10 species of alcids for the day). The coastal forests held Rufous Hummingbird, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Pacific Wrens and Townsend’s Warblers. We wrapped up in Barrow, with up close and personal views of Steller’s, Spectacled and King Eiders in perfect plumage, an apparent pair of Red-necked Stints, a vagrant and apparently territorial Common Snipe and a wealth of displaying shorebirds which were all dressed to impress.

The mammals were certainly worth mentioning too, with 23 species during the trip. Iconic wilderness species like Moose and Grizzly Bear (a sow with three cubs, pelagic mammals like Sea Otter, Humpback Whale and Orca, and charismatic mini-fauna like Arctic Ground Squirrel, Cinereous Shrew and Brown Lemming provided an excellent complement to the birds. Barrow was particularly good for us with mammals as we enjoyed multiple encounters with Polar Bear and even spotted a distant pod of Bowhead Whales out past the shore-fast ice. 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.


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 extension to the Pribilofs coincided with an unusual cold spell, with gusty winds largely from the Northwest and even appreciable snowfall on one morning. It would seem that in the Pribilofs, much like the rest of western Alaska the icy grip of winter was still holding on well into June. 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. Recent and unprecedented warming trends across the southern Bering Sea are unfortunately having a noticeable impact on the islands breeding seabirds, with large die-offs and nesting failures of many species over the past couple of seasons. Compared to the numbers of birds that typically are found on the cliffs by June this years’ 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 2-5 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. 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 Pacific Wren population was in good shape, with territorial birds in most of our most visited spots along the coasts and rockier slopes. Also in good numbers this year were Least Sandpipers, which seem to be spreading to several new breeding locations around the island this year.

Our flight out this year was scheduled for the early morning, allowing us to arrive on the island in time for lunch. After our meal and some reorganization time we headed out for the afternoon, joining the other newly arrived groups for what the local guides on Saint Paul term the “rarity roundup”, where we seek out the potentially lingering known rare birds around the island. We met with mixed success, as unfortunately for us both the lingering pair of Garganey and a Long-toed Stint seemed to have taken off just before our arrival. Happily though we encountered at least two Common Snipe (one of which displayed repeatedly overhead flashing its white banded underwings to good effect), several cooperative Wood Sandpipers, a pair of Tufted Duck and several Eurasian Wigeon! We also spent a bit of time studying the local Rock Sandpipers out on the tidal flats of the Salt Lagoon. 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 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 and were in fact originally described as a separate species.

After dinner we then turned our attentions to the nearby Tonki Wetlands, a small marsh attractively sandwiched between 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 Kittiwakes 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 field marks 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 short drive later back through the dunes brought us to the beginning of the Tonki Wetlands, a series of small ponds fringed with marestail and spongy tundra. Here we quickly located a male Canvasback and three wary Tundra Swans paddling around in the first pond, with some Eurasian Wigeon and all 4 of the local breeding duck species for company (Long-tailed, Green-winged Teal, Pintail and Greater Scaup). Here too we obtained excellent views of Red-necked and Red (a male) Phalaropes as they worked the edge of the marsh nearly at our feet. The black sand beaches and dunes and small rocky headland proved productive too, with some curious Harbour Seals, loafing White-winged Scoters and some passing Red-faced Cormorants. WE moved over to the eastern side of the same wetland complex, where we were happy to get good views of a variegatus Whimbrel (a potential split from our North American birds), as well as two more Wood Sandpipers, which seem to be having a banner year all across the western outposts of Alaska. Our final stop for the day was around the islands main rock quarry, where along with excellent studies of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch and Snow Bunting we found our first cooperative Pacific Wren and a scarce in spring Gray-cheeked Thrush. The Wren is of particular interest as they 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 forceps-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. Our day was a wrap with some sweeping views of the rocky island interior from the top of the quarry lip, which served to whet our appetite for some exploring over the next two days.

Our second day on the island dawned cold and snowy, with an amazing amount of large and fluffy flakes carpeting the island in a white blanket. Although snow in June is not unheard of this marked a personal first for me (with 16 different springs under my belt). Thankfully the snow melted off by lunch, but in the meantime, it sure seemed like we were back in February or March! We elected to spend the morning outing heading up to the Northeast Peninsula rather than our customary first morning trip out to the seabird cliffs. This allowed us to stay in the vans through the snowier part of the morning and by the time we reached the Northeast Peninsula the snow had largely ceased and the viewing conditions were much clearer. We started by scanning Webster Lake, where we located another pair of Tufted Ducks as well as a snoozing Black Scoter. The latter is a highly unusual species to see inland on the island, occurring more often in small flocks passing out to sea. At the nearby Seawatch we spotted a nice flock of King Eider with several fully coloured males, our first Horned Puffins bobbing out on the calmer waters of the bay and a somewhat out-of-season Red-necked Grebe. A smaller marshy pond nearby held a pair of locally rare Northern Shoveler, adding to our already impressive duck list. We then headed out to the tip of the island, where 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 currently active 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 interesting passerines, but the view of the surrounding ocean was lovely and some we were happy to spot several large rafts of Crested Auklets out just past the breakers. As we drove back past Webster Lake we were surprised to spot an immature Bald Eagle slowly flapping over the water (scattering Long-tailed Ducks and Scaup in dramatic fashion). The bird angled towards us and eventually perched on the small cabin along the lake shore. It was a wonderful sight, with the eagle roughly the same size as the small cabin’s chimney and looking positively gigantic next to a couple of mildly annoyed Rosy-Finches. Eagles are rare out in the Pribs, but often when one shows up they stay for a year or more, feasting on the abundant summer prey and wintering waterfowl.

In the afternoon we turned our sights to some spots around town, with the undoubted highlight being a single White Wagtail that was plying the grassy edges of the Salt Lagoon and the open sandflats near the harbour. This attractive old-world species is less than annual in the Pribilofs, and a first on the island for our early June trips. In the recently redeveloped town marsh (which now sports a raised access road that serves to dam the water up into a larger pond than before) a wet walk around the margins produced no less than three more Wood Sandpipers, a couple of rather sad looking Bank Swallows that were trying their best to find insects over the water, a Common Snipe and several Eastern Yellow Wagtails. This species is annual in spring, but we found them to be more common than usual this year, perhaps driven south as they crossed the Bering Sea by the persistent north winds.

Once at the end of the road at Reef we visited a small cliff laden with murres, kittiwakes and a few puffins and auklets, obtaining some excellent photos as the birds sat among the golden lichen-covered rocks. The seabirds are typically more active on the cliff in the mornings, but this was a wonderful introduction to the local breeders, with most species sitting at very close range. We walked along the cliff edge for a bit, scanning the flocks of alcids out on the water and were very pleased to spot two Ancient Murrelets that were slowly swimming along right beneath us. This is the rarest breeding alcid in the islands, with breeding confirmation only occurring a few years prior. The birds were close enough that we could really take in their white hairline, black throat, pink bill and pale blue-gray backs and we followed them for several minutes as they slowly headed north along the shore. 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.

For our evening outing that night most opted for a solid night sleep but a few stalwart participants joined me for another walk around the marshes at Pumphouse, where it seemed that the long-staying pair of Garganey had indeed vacated the premises. We then toured the edge of the Salt Lagoon, watching a few Arctic Foxes hunting for treats in the mud, and took a spin around the harbour, where we were amazed by a huge flock of Harlequin Ducks (over 300 strong) that were sitting on the harbour breakwalls along with a dozen or so King Eider. The presence of so many Harlequins around the island through the summer months (thousands of birds in total) is a mystery, as many individuals are fully adult but the species doesn’t breed locally.

Our second full day on the island was sunny and comparatively calm. After breakfast, we drove out to the Southwest of the island, bound for the higher cliffs of the Ridge Wall (dubbed Tourist Point in island parlance). 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 van. 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. The short cliffs out at Ridge Wall 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 several pairs of Crested Auklet below us on the ocean. 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 species of Kittiwakes were excellent as always, offering the visiting birder ample opportunity to study the many differences between the two species. After filling up a few camera cards we struck out for the end of the road at Southwest Point. Here the cliffs rise as you head northward along the islands west coast, eventually topping out at roughly 500 feet. The island’s most recent lava flows occurred here, with a black rocky shelf around the point that bears a striking similarity to the shores of the Hawaiian Islands (from a geologic, not faunal persepective). We walked around the shoreline here, taking in busy pairs of Pacific Wren and Gray-crowned Rosyfinches and even teasing up a single Hoary Redpoll from some thicker grasses. This will prove to be only a temporary life bird for the group though, as a recent AOU decision to lump the three Redpoll species has already passed. As we retraced our steps back towards town we stopped in at Antone Slough, where we enjoyed close-up views of nesting Least Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers, as well as another passing Eastern Yellow Wagtail, two chattering Common Redpoll, a male Common Goldeneye and a pair of distant Eurasian Wigeon.

Just before lunch, we elected to make a short at the local store which allowed folks to pick up some souvenirs or snacks, or perhaps just peruse the shelves, where familiar items take on new dimensions when visitors notice the sometimes eye-watering pricetags. A pair of Greater White-fronted Geese were out on the Salt Lagoon, soon flying overhead and giving us a good showing of their black speckled bellies and bright orange bills. Here too we were treated to the heart-warming sight of a sprightly and obviously ecstatic Artic Fox that had caught a huge Dungeness-like crab (much larger than the foxes head) and was trotting back towards its den in triumph.

That afternoon, we did our dutiful check of the hotspots around the Northeastern Peninsula, this time finding a pair of stunning Horned Grebes at the Webster Seawatch, our only Vega (Herring) Gull and Glaucous Gull for the island and two female (or first year male) Buffleheads. The winds shifted to the east and built up some steam, making the exposed hill at the tip of the Peninsula fairly uncomfortable, so we decided to check out a small roadside marsh near the base of the peninsula, finding the oddly spongy moss-covered ground to be fascinating to walk on. Here we again located several pairs of Least Sandpipers and Red-necked Phalarope, as well as our friendly neighborhood Bald Eagle and another variegatus Whimbrel.

After dinner and some consolation with the other birding group on the island we decided to spend the evening exploring the third main road on Saint Paul. This largely sandy but well-packed track takes off behind the airport and snakes straight north through the interior before ending on the north shore near the islands midpoint. It’s a lightly trafficked route, and provides access to a wide grassy plain, and a shore with short cliffs and volcanic ledges interspersed with small beaches that often hold significant amounts of drying kelp. On the way north we stopped at the top of Lake Hill, where in some impressively sturdy wind we took in the three extant calderas (two with well-defined slopes and round lakes). The landscape and 360-degree views were excellent, and we even managed to spot the island’s herd of introduced Reindeer well out in the tundra. This herd numbers nearly 300 individuals and spends much of the summer in the higher and rocky country away from the roads (and local hunters on ATVs). Once out at the end of the road on the north shore we scanned the small pond, finding a couple of sleeping Wandering Tattlers and a pair of Green-winged Teals that were acting like they had an active nest before spending a relaxing hour or so slowly walking west along the shore. With the smell of the sea and kelp in our noses and the sounds of crashing surf it was a meditative walk. As hoped though the tranquility was pierced several times with passing birds, including a few passing Black Scoters, another pair of Horned Grebes (which is truly a rare bird here in June), a constant stream of passing Kittiwakes and Murres and even a rarity! As we neared our chosen turn-around spot a medium sized shorebird flew in and briefly perched beside us, quickly taking off but passing slowly at eye-level in the winds and giving a piercing sharp flight call. The call (and white wingbar) cemented the identification as a Common Sandpiper, and one participant even managed excellent shots of the bird in flight! This is a nearly annual bird in the Pribilofs in spring, but none had been seen for several days prior to our visit so we can likely assume it to be a new arrival.

The fun wasn’t done for the night though, as about twenty minutes after returning to the lodge we got word from the USFWS biologists that a male Common Pochard had been in Polivina Lake a bit earlier in the evening. I headed out and quickly found the bird as it swam around a marshier section of the lake (at the farthest point from the road). Soon after the other birding group arrived and once they were on the bird I headed back to the hotel to gather up all the participants that were on their way to bed. Everyone who roused themselves got to see the bird in the scope, although by the time we returned it had rather unhelpfully tucked its head in making it impossible to see its characteristic silver-blue subterminal bill band. We vowed to return the following morning to see if the bird was awake and foraging and then called it a night.

For our final day on Saint Paul, we began with the somewhat laborious check-in process for our scheduled early afternoon flight. Then, with boarding passes in hand we left the airport, arriving in a parking lot that was covered in a remarkably dense swirling fog. Not exactly the weather that one hopes for on a flight day, but happily for us the ceiling soon lifted and the flight came in just an hour or so later than scheduled. Since the dense fog negated any chance of scanning the back shoreline of Polovina Lake for the Pochard we decided to return to the Town and Reef Peninsula for the rest of the morning. A wet stomp around town marsh produced excellent views of two Wood Sandpipers, poor views of a Common Snipe and a sighting of all three Bank Swallows which seemed to have weathered the snowstorms of the prior two days with no discernible issue. Our main goal for the morning though was a return 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. One pair of Crested Auklets were very close indeed, and we spent some time watching them as they chattered back and forth, standing with their ridiculously long floppy crests dangling over their faces like a pair of disaffected fashion models. We then walked down to the seal blind, watching the beachmaster Fur Seals squabble a bit over some particularly valuable ocean side property, and talking a bit about the history and biology of the species and its central importance to the resident families of the islands. As the morning waned, we headed up to Polovina Lake, where we were unfortunate to not be able to relocate the previous night’s Pochard. A potential reason existed though, as the island held one more avian surprise for us in the form of a starch-white adult male Snowy Owl that was sitting out in the tundra near the lake shore (and perhaps keeping the Pochard and resident Scaup carefully tucked down into the grassy verges. There are not too many June records of this most arctic of Owls, and the bird was the first (and likely only) one reported during the islands tour season. This ethereally white predator provided our last addition to the triplist (which this year tallied an excellent 66 species on Saint Paul, and 150 species overall since we departed Saint Lawrence Island just over a week before. All too soon we had to load up for the return flight, taking off and leaving behind a beautiful and remote speck of land that so few people in the world have been able to enjoy.



Our main Majesty tour started off with a morning flight to Nome; a long famous birding location and historically interesting town situated along the southern coast of the Seward Peninsula. This gold-rush era boomtown retains a very frontier-like feel, with local gold panners dredging along the shoreline, and a seemingly endless number of saloon options. A recent discovery channel program exploring the vagaries and vicissitudes of gold dredging has resulted in a decided uptick in the number of small private gold dredging rafts offshore, adding to the frontier-like feel. Three unpaved roads snake their way out into the tundra, offering about 250 miles of road to explore through stunning mountains, over rushing salmon-choked streams, along willow/alder clad drainages and up into alpine tundra which is usually liberally decorated with an array of wildflowers in mid-June. This year was rather different though, as a scant week and a half prior to our visit there was still substantial shore-fast ice, snow blanketing much of the landscape and very little open water. Since that time the temperature had rapidly climbed, resulting in appreciable melting, total loss of sea ice and the opening of most water bodies along the coast. During this rapid change an amazing density of birds arrived en masse to the coast, and lucky birders who were in the area had turned up a long catalog of rare and unusual species. Those reports had dwindled just before our arrival, but we decided to spend that first afternoon birding the Council Road and looking at some of the places that had recently held interesting birds. Before leaving the Nome city area though, we spent a bit of time just introducing ourselves to the more common birds around town. Small ponds along the road held pairs of approachable Greater Scaup, Pintail and Green-winged Teals, as well as the rotating bands of Red-necked Phalarope. Here too we teased out a handsome pair of Bar-tailed Godwits and some foraging Long-billed Dowitcher and Western Sandpipers as they moved around the series of shallow ponds below the road. At another pond just outside of Nome we watched a pair of Red-throated Loon swimming and occasionally diving, with one bird tucked in beautifully on a nest facing the road and in good sunlight. As one participant remarked “I see Red-throated Loons every winter, but seeing them like this, in their subtle but stunning breeding plumage is like getting a life bird.” The Nome River Mouth was flooding due to the snowmelt, but we still enjoyed views of several Pacific Golden-Plovers and along the shoreline were able to get up close and personal with a striking female Red Phalarope bobbing around in the surf in amongst a small flock of Red-neckeds. Seeing this species pair in such a way made the comparison of their striking size and structural differences easy; a difference that is hard to appreciate when one sees these small birds singly at distance at some far-flung inland reservoir or from a rollicking boat on a pelagic tour.

We then spent a bit of time working out the beginning of the council road, where in addition to a nice mix of more common species we were thrilled to have a lengthy encounter with three male Willow Ptarmigans along the road. One bird in particular scuttled around in close proximity to our parked van, flaring his black tail and occasionally cackling at us before fluttering off into the tundra. The summer of 2023 was a particularly excellent season for ptarmigan, with the nearly ridiculous densities being termed a ptarmocalypse (or ptarmageddon) by whimsically inclined visiting birders. This summer proved to be excellent as well, with daily sightings of Willows in double digit numbers during our stay. A stop in at Hastings Creek revealed a single Red-necked Stint scampering around the mudflats in the company of Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers. This bright little Asian wader is scarce but annual around Nome, with some individuals likely lingering to breed near the coast. With a bright orange-red head and throat and largely white underparts it’s a striking bird, and we were lucky to have extended views as it came closer and closer to our vantage point. Out on the shores of safety lagoon we turned up a pair of out-of-range Bonaparte’s Gulls and were quite happy with our close views of Red Knot and Dunlin in their full summer finery. As we planned a full day out on Council Road for the next day we headed back in for dinner, appetites whetted to better explore what is surely one of the finest birding locations in the country.

The typhoon that struck the region in September of 2022 ripped through not only the town but also the road along Safety Lagoon. During the previous summer some extensive roadworks in the area made birding the area somewhat challenging, so we were glad to see that the work had been completed this year. For our first full day around Nome, we wandered as far back on the council road as we could, eventually reaching the stony Skookum Pass (just behind the active snowplows that were still busily clearing the last vestiges of winter from the higher parts of the pass. Our first stop was back at the Nome River Mouth, and this visit revealed our first Aleutian Terns flying over and calling at close range and showing off their white foreheads and black bills to good effect. These small and unique terns are more closely related to the suite of tropical terns such as Bridled and Sooty than they are to Arctic Tern. The species breeds at only a handful of known locations around the margins of the eastern Bering Sea and spend their winters at sea somewhere in the South Pacific or Indian Oceans, thus making Nome perhaps the most accessible site in the world for the species. Once out on Safety Sound we found the recently ice-free shoreline to be less busy than it was during the earlier WINGS Gambell/Nome tour, but with some scanning managed good views of a nice array of shorebirds including Black and Ruddy Turnstone, Long-billed Dowitcher, impressive numbers of Red and Red-necked Phalarope and even a couple of locally scarce Lesser Yellowlegs. As is generally the case, ducks were well represented. Among the huge flocks of Black Brant and Northern Pintail we encountered lots of Common Eider and both Common and Red-breasted Mergansers, as well as a nice array of more familiar puddle ducks floating around in the lagoons. Lapland Longspurs, Hoary Redpolls and Savannah Sparrows provided excellent views, and hunting Long-tailed Jaegers and Common Ravens plied the skies. At one point an Eastern Yellow Wagtail flew just in front of the van, staying up at eye level for several minutes as we paced it from close range. This attractive old-world passerine breeds along the western parts of Alaska and adjacent Russia. Sadly, their populations seem to be declining (although this year we were surprised by the number of birds we spotted right along the coast), possibly due to the rapid increase in pesticide use in Southeast Asian rice paddies where the species spends much of the winter. At a couple of stops along the lagoon we located more foraging Aleutian Tern plying the road edge and giving exceptional views, and over the course of the day we picked up all three species of Jaegar, and some excellently close and simply stunning views of Pacific Loons. Near the Safety Sound Bridge we finally connected well with several elegant Sabine’s Gulls that were loafing on the sandy point. Surely the world’s most attractive gull these charcoal cowled birds with ruby eyerings, delicate yellow-tipped black bills and multi-hued wings defy the groups normal palette of gray and white with aplomb. Likely our “best” bird of the Sound area though was the trio of Arctic Loons that we spotted just offshore a little past the Safety Sound Bridge. Very similar to the much more common Pacific Loon, these scarce breeders around Nome are always a major target for visiting birders. We spent some time going over the less well-known fieldmarks, such as the blockier head, darker nape, often upturned bill angle, and bold neck stripes that serve as ID features as the birds slowly but steadily worked further out from the beach, eventually disappearing in the now sunshine-filled haze.

We took a pleasant picnic lunch at the famous train to nowhere, a rusty old train that was originally an elevated people mover in Chicago before being sold to ply the tundra between Nome and Council. A storm cut the small bridge out leaving the train stranded, and it soon sunk into the marshy tundra, never to move again. Our time was punctuated by some displaying Semipalmated Sandpipers that were hovering overhead and giving their rolling songs, as well as by a family of locals readying their boat for a fishing and hunting trip and close flybys from both Parasitic and Long-tailed Jaegers which happily for us didn’t seem particularly interested in our sandwiches or snacks. After lunch we decided to go further up the road to see if we could reach the higher elevation stony tundra around Skookum Pass, some 20 miles inland from the end of the Safety Sound. This proved an excellent choice, as just a few miles in from Solomon we spotted a large female Moose across the narrow valley. She seemed to be in distress as she ran back and forth and kept staring down in the willow thickets lining the river. We were just speculating that she must have a calf stranded along the bank, or that perhaps there was a predator nearby when the call came in from the back van that there were bears in the river! We changed our angle a bit and were soon treated to views of a huge female with three young and very fuzzy cubs clambering out of the rushing water! The four bears trotted and shuffled a bit uphill, occasionally stopping for a shake or to stare at our vans as they slowly made it uphill. All the while the female Moose was still running back and forth, leading us to think that her calf was likely cowering in the willows, and probably thankful that our arrival had prompted the bears to head for higher ground. We only rarely see bears around the Nome roads, and generally when we do, they are quite distant, so to see four individuals at close range and for several minutes was truly exceptional. On the increasingly soft and snow lined road inland we were stunned to spot a male White-winged Crossbill feeding on new cone bracts in a two-foot-tall conifer (the only such tree in view) a bit below the road and looking decidedly out of place. We reached the top of the pass just as the ploughs finished sweeping the final few dozen feet. Parking at the top we enjoyed the truly exceptional alpine views, with snowy peaks in all directions. We spent a bit of time unsuccessfully looking for Northern Wheatears (which generally nest near the pass but may not have arrived yet given the snow). While exploring though we stumbled across a couple of Horned Larks foraging around on a stony field, watched several American Pipits giving short display bouts above the road, and, in a truly lucky moment were able to witness a passing Common Raven disturb some large shorebirds than turned out to be a mixed flock of Whimbrel and Bristle-thighed Curlew! Only a few people cued in on the distant calling bird though, so we were still very keen to look for curlews the next day on the Kougarok.

The trip back to Nome went smoothly but with few new additions to the birdlist, although we were happy to spot a small group of White-winged Scoters on the water (sadly the only such group during our visit, which made our prospect of finding a Stejenger’s Scoter among them quite poor). A smaller dark-billed gull caught our eye near the Safety Sound Bridge, and when it finally flew out of the gull flock so that we get a good look it was clearly a year old Glaucous-winged Gull. We also met a rather happy-go-lucky hiker who was back-country camping out on the lagoon (apparently frequenting an abandoned shed where he shared his space with a local Red Fox). He indicated that he had refound the Great Knot that had been in the area the prior day along the beach just west of the bridge and after thanking him we decided to check out the area ourselves. We asked permission from the nearby Safety Roadhouse to access the private property and then walked in, surveying the drying kelp line with great anticipation. We found the flock of four Surfbirds that the Knot had apparently been spending time within short order, but sadly for us (although for many participants the Surfbirds were prize enough) their exotic companion seemed to have departed. The beach too was lovely; a pleasant sandy shore with artfully twisted piles of driftwood that would quicken the heart of many a New York gallery owner and small dunes topped with rapidly greening-up Rye Grass. Thankfully too the prior day’s cold and persistent winds were gone, making the bright sunny afternoon feel almost tropical. This sentiment was enhanced as we neared Nome, with seemingly half of the town out on the beach cooking barbeque, playing volleyball or (incredibly to several participants) lounging bikini-clad on the sand or splashing around in the water!

On our second full day, we took the Kougarok Road which heads inland from Nome, initially following the Nome River before passing through a mixture of alpine passes, open tundra with large lakes, and huge craggy mountains. This road has always felt the wildest of the three roads to me and is generally the one that I think back on after trips. We traveled inland about 25 miles, with a stop at the Nome Dump where we rather quickly picked out a very handsome adult Slaty-backed Gull that was perched up on one of the dump fenceposts. With a markedly darker back and wider white tertial crescent it stood out amongst the much paler Glaucous and Short-billed Gulls. This handsome gull has seemingly become harder to see around Nome in the last few years, and it had been several years since we had found a bird in such excellent plumage. A little further inland we stopped to look for any signs of activity from the local nesting pair of Gyrfalcon. The nesting site this year was in a novel spot, and the sun angle made viewing difficult, but we did manage to see the silvery-grey male standing over a fluffy white chick! We vowed to return in the afternoon when the light would be much more favorable and then went a few miles more and stopped to check out a traditional nesting cliff for Golden Eagle. This time the lighting was more favorable, and in addition to spotting one of the birds standing atop its massive nest we found its partner perched atop a rocky spire on the ridgeline. While watching the Eagles we spent a bit of time looking at some of the more common “bush” birds of the Seward Peninsula in the adjacent roadside willow scrub such as Golden-crowned, American Tree and Red Fox Sparrows, Wilson’s and Yellow Warblers and Gray-cheeked Thrushes. Nearer to Salmon Lake we stopped at willow clad slope and reveled in an audio experience from a couple of invisible Varied Thrushes as well as some cooperative Hoary Redpoll and a bevy of undeniably fluffy and cute Snowshoe Hares gamboling on the remaining snowbanks.

Our usual comfort stop at the Salmon Lake picnic ground was unfortunately still blocked by snow, so we pressed on a bit further, stopping for a couple of cooperative Rock Ptarmigan that were sitting up on prominent rocks a bit above the road. These would prove to be our only Rock Ptarmigan of the trip, but as they lingered for a quarter hour or more in our scopes, we felt it quite satisfactory. Leaving the Ptarmigan still perched up in the morning sun we headed further north bound for our main location for the day out near Kilometer marker 72. Just after we crossed the Pilgrim River bridge though a spanner was thrown in our plans when we realized that the rapid snowmelt had damaged a culvert under the road. Rapidly flooding waters had swirled around the broken pipe and quickly eaten about 70 percent of the roadbed, with the remainder being markedly undercut. We knew that another birding group was ahead of us and had not passed them coming back so we suspected that the damage was quite recent and likely to continue to develop. Rather than risk getting stuck on the wrong side, or having the road collapse under the weight of the van we turned back to find a picnic lunch spot along a high stony ridge that gave us unsurpassed views of the snowy coastal mountains and a liberal crusting of alpine wildflowers, rich lichens and mosses. Here, in addition to lunch, we found a few displaying American Pipits and a pair of Northern Wheatear that perched on nearby stones and a huge boulder for several minutes. This species is a bit of a Seward Peninsula specialty in the United States. It’s an elegantly marked species clad in silver-grey, white and black that breeds in rocky windswept places, and after finishing their breeding cycle make an incredible migration back across Asia, the middle east and over the Sahara Desert to reach their wintering grounds in eastern Sub-Saharan Africa!

After lunch we decided to return to the damaged culvert to see if the road crews were perhaps in the process of repairing the damage. As we neared the area a male Rusty Blackbird flew in front of us and then paralleled the road heading north. We paced the bird for an incredible 3 miles before it veered off down a river, surely the longest pacing of a migrating passerine by a car that I have ever had! Arriving back at the culvert we found the road to be in exactly the same state, although the waters had notably receded. We elected to leave one van on the Nome side of the damage, and then walked the group across, following carefully afterwards with the now-empty second car. The road held firm, and we all piled in and were soon near the base of our target hill where we made a quick comfort stop. Here we heard a quietly calling Bluethroat that was lurking in some dense willow shrubs downslope from the road. We soon found the bird perched up on a taller bare willow, occasionally launching into the sky and fluttering down with fanned out wings and tail. It’s a simply exquisite bird, with a throat that would make even the brightest hummingbird jealous, and always a highlight for a visiting birder to Nome. The males display for just a couple of weeks, throwing caution to the wind and being quite obvious. Once that short display period is over though they revert to their more normal retiring skulky selves, staying in the dense willow tangles and refusing to pop up to show off their good looks to appreciative crowds.

After admiring the Bluethroat we parked in the prescribed spot on the hill, close to the trail that has been worn into the tundra by the incessant feet of intrepid Curlew-seeking birders. To our relief we found the temperature comfortable, the winds light, the bugs absent and the trail conditions firm; a near-perfect day out on the hill. As we climbed slowly uphill, we noticed that Wildflowers were beginning to poke through the dry grass, with lots of bright pink/purple Louseworts and azaleas and an array of small white and yellow mustards. Singing Savannah Sparrows and Lapland Longspurs sounded off along the trail, and as we neared the notably drier sections of the upper part of the hill we were happy to study a pair of American Golden-Plovers (which also breed at the site). We scanned the margins of the hill and picked up a curlew-type bird tucked in on a likely nest. It was distant, and we had to walk well around it in order to close the distance and improve the light angle. When we finally got a decent look we could see that the apparent golden back spots were actually small grass stalks in front of the bird, and that we had found a nesting Whimbrel. Thankfully though we had no time to get discouraged, as within a few minutes another Whimbrel flew overhead calling, which seemed to get all the breeding birds up on the hill equally agitated. Soon we could hear the characteristic whistles of a pair of Bristle-thigheds and were thrilled to spot the birds heading towards us. They passed overhead and then made a perfect wheeling flight around the hill, with multiple passes over our position. We could clearly see their apricot-coloured rump and tail and salmon-tinged flanks, and the audio was simply perfect as well. Bristle-thighed Curlew is an extremely long-distance migrant undertaking an extraordinary cross-Pacific migration from their South Pacific Island winter homes to remote grassy hills in the Seward Peninsula and Y-K Delta. It is not an easy species to preform population level studies on due to the remote nature of both its breeding and wintering grounds, but recent attempts have estimated that the species numbers fewer than ten thousand individuals. Leaving the birds in peace we headed back down the hill, quite jubilant with our lengthy and close-range flight view and suitably awed by the sweeping 360-degree wilderness views from the ridge. We then returned to the culvert and repeated the navigation of the damaged area with an empty van. Since we were by now quite behind schedule we hurried back south, stopping again once we reached the Gyrfalcon nest. As we had hoped the lighting was much improved, and this time we could really see the male and his two chicks at the nest. Even better, the female soon swept in calling and carrying prey (we think a decapitated ptarmigan). The male called back and then flew over to take the prey, landing on the ridgeline and soon producing a shower of white feathers as he began to pick it clean. We spent quite some time drinking in the view of these magnificent raptors as they sat against a field guide worthy backdrop. This was undoubtedly our best day in Nome, and the group was in a festive mood as we returned to the hotel.

Our flight back to Anchorage was scheduled to take place in the mid-morning this year, but when we arrived to check-in we discovered that it would be delayed by roughly three hours. Some folks decided to just relax back in the hotel lobby and coffeeshop, but a few elected to spend the time birding a bit more around town and out the council road as far as the Safety Sound Bridge. Although we didn’t add to our Nome species count it was a nice ending to our time out on the Seward Peninsula, with studies of Common Eider, Brant, Sabine’s Gulls and Aleutian Terns as well as lots of close-up Red-throated and Pacific Loons and a nice array of more common shorebirds and ducks. The delay meant that we reached our Anchorage hotel at 3pm, so we left the rest of the afternoon open so that folks could catch up on rest or laundry or whatever other tasks they had to do before the next leg of our journey which was a three-night trip into the heart of the State and the epically scenic Alaska Range.


We commenced the interior leg of the trip with some morning birding around the city of Anchorage. After dealing with a mechanical fault with one of the vans (a task accomplished remarkably quickly, with a replacement van arriving in less than 20 minutes) we headed over to Kincaid Park. This 1500-acre park is largely wooded, with dozens of hiking and biking trails snaking around and the occasional open field for sports. The expansive forest serves as a home for a wide variety of wildlife including Moose, Black Bear and nearly all of the bird species found in the Anchorage bowl. Our chief reason for the visit was to see if a particularly bold Spruce Grouse that had been recently reported by several visiting birding groups was still performing along one of the lighted ski trails. We walked over to the coordinates, stopping a few times to admire our first singing Swainson’s Thrushes and chattering Red Squirrels, and right on cue the male grouse strode out onto the path to greet us. Spruce Grouse can be absurdly bold and tame when displaying and this bird lingered all around the group, strutting between peoples legs, pecking at their shoes and even (for Skye) hopping onto an outstretched arm and riding it back into the woods! It was quite the way to experience a life bird! The park had a few more treats in store too, as large numbers of White-winged Crossbills were foraging in the trees with many birds dropping down into lower branches and really showing off their colours to great effect. We also were able to visit with a nesting pair of American Three-toed Woodpeckers that were incubating (or at least we assume because we could not hear any begging sounds) in a hole in one of the lighted trail utility poles. It took a bit of patience before everyone obtained good looks of one or the other adults as they sat near the hole during nest exchanges. And in the next pole down the trail, we found a nesting pair of Boreal Chickadees that were actively feeding young. The adults would often perch in a nearby spruce before hopping up to the cavity, allowing us to really study their brownish caps and buffy flanks. The trail held our first Red-breasted Nuthatches, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Alder Flycatcher and calling Ruby-crowned Kinglets as well, making for a pretty good assemblage of species for such a small area.

By now it was late morning, and we had a long drive ahead to reach our next nights destination out on the eastern end of the Denali Highway. We struck out north, soon leaving the suburban sprawl of Anchorage and Palmer behind as we climbed up the Matanuska Valley towards Glenallen and then north to the Denali Highway junction. It’s a stunning route that largely follows the path carved by the retreating Matanuska Glacier. We drove by remnant hanging glacial valleys, over rushing rivers, past crystalline alpine lakes and dark green spruce forests that stretched to the horizon with a few stops along the way for lunch (overlooking the glacier) and petrol. At one small marshy lake along the Richardson Highway, we enjoyed lengthy views of a pair of Rusty Blackbirds, with the singing male perched on a roadside spruce for several minutes uttering his characteristic metallic screech of a song. Here too were a few displaying Greater Yellowlegs flying over the road and briefly landing in the treetops. As we neared the Denali Junction the clouds set in and a light rain began to fall, negating the normally truly spectacular views of the peaks of the Alaska Range. We made the final 42 miles push to the west, arriving at our comfortable and authentically local lodge in time for dinner.

The main reason for our one-night stay in such a remote part of the state was so that on the following morning we could seek out the often-elusive Smith’s Longspur on its breeding grounds. After breakfast we set off for a walk across the spongy tundra to get out to a flat stretch of land adjacent to a small lake. Most Smith’s breed on the relatively flat lands of the North Slope and occur in small clusters where their preferred microhabitat of bunchgrass, very short willows and cottongrass swales dominate. This particular spot has been used by a few birds for several years, and after having birding groups visiting for a few years there is now a discernible (mostly) trail that makes the trek to and from the site quite a bit easier than it used to be. Once we were in place it didn’t take long before we spotted our first bird. It was a male in flight over the grassland, and although it was calling as it came overhead and then plummeted down not too far from our positions it soon popped up again and flew well off to the west. We soon heard two other birds singing, and with quite a bit of patience and slowly working closer we were eventually able to see the bird on the ground for several minutes as it walked around, foraged on some seeding grasses and occasionally sang. Smith’s are stunning birds in breeding plumage, with sandalwood-coloured underparts and a wonderfully bold black and white striped head. At least two male Longspurs were foraging in the short grasses and occasionally perching up for a short song bout. This species is a polygynandroussongbird, a remarkable breeding strategy that is very rare in birds. Polgynandry is a mating system in which both males and females have multiple mating partners during a breeding season. The males do not hold territories but rather follow females around in the tundra. Birds may mate up to 350 times over the course of the nesting season, with all the active nests representing young from multiple male partners. Male birds assist the female that they are most attached to but will also help at other nests nearby. It’s quite a free-wheeling free love kind of arrangement out in the high arctic tundra! Happy with our views we walked back, taking in a selection of waterfowl in the nearby ponds, a nesting Least Sandpiper and a smattering of pretty tundra wildflowers as we meandered back to the road.

We then returned to our lodge, where we enjoyed lunch out on their small, enclosed patio in the company of dozens of wheeling Cliff Swallows busily gathering mud for their rapidly growing nests on the Maclaren River Bridge. 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 that attract a wide array of waterfowl including nesting Tundra and Trumpeter Swans atop their impressively large nests, little flocks of moulting Common Mergansers and Lesser Scaup, impressive numbers of Green-winged Teal, American Wigeon and Northern Shoveler, and in the deeper lakes, a few Surf or Black Scoters, handsome Barrow’s Goldeneye and perky Bufflehead. 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 Blackpoll and a few Yellow and Orange-crowned calling as well. Of particular note were our excellent views of a very cooperative Arctic Warbler, likely recently arrived from its wintering ground in Southeast Asia. It repeatedly sat up on high exposed alder branches, and even stayed put long enough for some extended views in the scope! 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). One particularly lovely stop was at the Clearwater Creek Bridge, where, in addition to yet more nesting Cliff Swallows we spent some time with a pair of American Dippers that were feeding young in their large mossy nest that was tucked up under the central span of the little bridge.

We arrived at our hotel that lies a little south of the Denali National Park entrance in the early evening. Our well-appointed and comfortable rooms are tucked into the spruces along the banks of the Nenana River. They’re far removed from the throngs of tourists that cram into the resort-style hotels that are clustered around the park entrance, and the sounds of the river make for an excellent aural backdrop to a good nights’ sleep. Before popping off to bed though we enjoyed a sumptuous meal at one of the fancier park hotels. Devouring our King Salmon or Lamb shanks with aplomb in a glassed-in restaurant perched high up above the valley floor was a great way to cap off a truly exceptional day in the field.

The next day is generally reserved as an all-day sightseeing trip into Denali National Park using the concession buses to access the Eielson Visitor center that sits about 66 miles in from the park entrance. During the summer of 2021 however a large landslide along Polychrome Pass wiped out the road. This had always been a concern, as the road had been dug into what was essentially a scree slope about 1000 feet above the valley floor. The views were superlative, but the very narrow roadbed and incredibly steep slopes made for tense driving conditions at the best of times. The park has started to rebuild in a new location, but under their construction plan it is likely that it will be at least 2026 before vehicles can again access the pass, visitor’s center and the higher elevations that make the area so famous for sightseeing and mammal watching. Given that condition we decided to spend the day to the north around Fairbanks (as we had during the 2022 and 2023 tours). It’s roughly a two-hour drive to Alaska’s second city, dubbed the golden heart of Alaska by the somewhat poetically inclined bureau of commerce. Over the course of our drive, we followed the path of the meandering Nenana River as it cut north through the Alaska Range and entered the high rolling hills with extensive deciduous forest and wide marshy plains that characterize the interior of the state. The prior WINGS tour had also headed north on their trip a few days prior and we were armed with coordinates for where they had spotted two juvenile Northern Hawk-Owls along the highway. As we neared the site, we spotted an adult bird perched up on a tall bare tree right on the road edge. We pulled over and were treated to exceptionally good views of the bird as it sat up and even made a couple of unsuccessful hunting forays into the grasses lining the road! A few miles further down the road we found another adult, and again were able to spend some time watching it as it sat up along the edge of a black spruce bog. Our lengthy scope views of this elegant owl, with its long, banded tail and piercing yellow eyes will linger in the memories of this years’ participants for a long time. About half-way into the drive, we stopped in to view the large black-and-white metal tripod that is used by the town of Nenana for the Nenana Ice Classic; a popular event in which the registrants place a guess (to the minute) as to when the ice on the Tenana will break up. Tickets are $3.00 a guess, and the winners can pocket sizable prize money (roughly $220,000 last year, although the majority of the funds go to local charities). In 2022 we made contact with a friendly Fairbanks-based birder who was hosting a nesting pair of Boreal Owls in his yard. This year his owls had already fledged, but luck was with us as a friend of his was still hosting a family in one of their nest boxes. We called and were invited to stop by, so once we arrived in town and polished off a quick lunch, we headed over to her house that was tucked up into the woods a bit north of the city. Even before we had parked, we could see that one of the chicks was hanging out of the hole, watching our progress with interest as we shuffled around, parked and then set up scopes and cameras. Amazingly the bird stayed in view for nearly a half hour as we studied its milk-chocolate plumage and intent glare! Nancy, our host, indicated to us that we were lucky indeed as this was the first day that the chicks had been so cooperative. Boreal Owl is probably the least frequently encountered of all of the owl species in the ABA area, as its small size and largely remote breeding areas keep it generally away from prying human eyes. I suspect many participants would have counted the day a success with just this lengthy view of Boreal Owl, but the Fairbanks area had several more surprises in store for us.

Leaving the owl still peering out of its box, we headed a bit further north, down the rather remote and little-traveled Steese Highway. A few years ago, a visiting birder with a flat tire pulled over to change it out and in the process, found a territorial Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, a species that was barely known from the state and whose closest known population was several hundred miles to the east in the Yukon Territory of Canada. Subsequent visits proved that several birds were present, and this small population has persisted ever since the original sighting. We pulled over in the prescribed spot and within just a few minutes were looking at a pair of quite cooperative Hammond’s Flycatchers that were bouncing around in the trees just in front of our parked vans. Although we didn’t end up locating any Yellow-bellied this year the area held our only Solitary Sandpiper and Belted Kingfisher of the trip, as well as our first cooperative Lincoln’s Sparrow and a Northern Flicker.

We then headed a bit out to the Northwest of the city to spend a bit of time birding around the Peat Ponds Wildlife Area. This small marsh not too far from the main University of Alaska campus has several small ponds, ringed by sedgebeds and short spruces. Here we tallied our first Ring-necked Ducks and a pair of locally rare Blue-winged Teal, a stunning full-breeding plumaged Horned Grebe and a couple of Rusty Blackbirds. This is a declining species, a rather unusual condition for a blackbird, and much study is currently ongoing in an attempt to pinpoint the reasons behind their decline. As we started to pull out of the park, we found a handsome pair of Bohemian Waxwings sitting quietly in a small spruce just off the road. This elegant and quite colorful species is quite ephemeral in central Alaska, and 2024 was not a particularly productive year for them in the state, so we were quite pleased with our sighting. Before leaving Fairbanks, we ate dinner at a local Thai restaurant that offered a few interesting Thai-Alaska fusion dishes (such as lemongrass halibut) and then checked out a spot on the edge of campus where we had briefly seen a large and suspiciously dark grey owl disappear into the spruces just before dinner. I suppose it’s always good to have a little mystery in one’s life, but it sure would have been nice to find that bird perched! On the way back to our Denali hotel we stopped in at a brewery in Healy where the famous bus featured in the life of Christopher McCandless (and subsequent book by Jon Krakaeur and movie “Into the Wild”) is now parked. We were able to walk around (and even in) the bus, and see a few copies of some of Christophers writings, as well as enjoy the ambience of a back-country Alaska brewpub with luau themed decorations! As we neared our hotel a truly spectacular double rainbow appeared against a patch of darkened skies; lighting up the mountain ridges in a multi-hued prismatic glow that surely could rival any wintertime aurora.

The following morning, we packed up and made a short pilgrimage to the Denali National Park Visitor’s Center and main gift shop. After this bout of retail therapy and a bit of time ogling the quite impressive park dioramas we turned the vehicles southwards bound for the west end of the Denali Highway. Here we spent much of the morning slowly birding some of the small lakes that line the road enjoying close up views of singing Lincoln’s Sparrows, some curious Canada Jays and our first seen Ruby-crowned Kinglet. At one particularly productive lake we found a few pairs of stately White-winged Scoters paddling around the still waters, and while watching those we noted a woodpecker flying over the lake and off to the north side of the road. We walked off the road a bit in that direction and soon after leaving the road we could hear begging juvenile woodpeckers a few dozen meters further off into the tundra. Picking our way down we soon located a family group of Black-backed Woodpeckers in a tall dead spruce. At least two young were in the nest cavity, calling continuously as they occasionally peered out of the hole waiting for one of the parents to come in with food. We watched them for a while, eventually seeing both the male and female come in with food, and subsequently perching a bit above the hole. 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. With the hundreds of square kilometers of forests across the boreal zone experiencing die-offs due to spruce bark beetle infestations (a native species that has gone rogue with the warming of boreal winters allowing for better survivorship into the spring) the populations of these two species of woodpecker have really been climbing; a short-term gain that may reverse in the long term if spruce recruitment continues to be poor. Leaving the Denali Highway behind we stopped into Cantwell for what turned out to be perhaps our best lunch of the trip. A roadside and admittedly incongruous Jamaican Sandwich and Salad shop hosted us with some amazingly tasty food that could easily have come from a higher end deli in the heart of some trendy fast-paced U.S. city. After lunch we drove the rest of the way back to Anchorage, with a stop to view Mount Denali in all its glory as it towered over the snow-capped foothills of the Alaska Range. The mountain is high enough (at over 20,300ft) that it generally creates its own weather and is visible only on rare occasions, so we felt especially lucky to have both the north and south peaks fully visible under bright blue skies.


Our final 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 quick check of nearby Lake Spenard where we found our first Common Goldeneye, both Horned and Red-necked Grebes, and a smattering of more regular puddle ducks. Checking the tide tables, it was clear that the tides were not in our favor for a good chance at shorebirds along the coast but as we had heard that at least a couple of Godwits had recently been seen out on the mudflats well to the south of Westchester we decided to try a couple of overlooks to see if we could get lucky even at low tide. No Godwits appeared but we did find a pair of foraging Sandhill Cranes and a herd of American Wigeon and Green-winged Teal mucking about on the mudflats. We decided to stop in at Westchester Lagoon as well, where we were treated to instructive comparison views of Greater and Lesser Scaup and Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs. The small lake here held an amazing number of breeding Red-necked Grebes, with many adults carrying their stripe-faced offspring on their backs just a few feet offshore. Here too were some foraging Bonaparte’s Gulls, a pair of Common Loon, and our first and only Gadwall of the trip. At one point an adult Bald Eagle flew over the lagoon and within seconds the assembled hordes of Short-billed Gulls and Arctic Terns were wheeling around in unison and diving down on the hapless Eagle which then carried on out to the coast. Fuzzy chicks of Short-billed Gull and Arctic Tern were on excellent display out on the small island in the lagoon, looking much larger and stronger than they had about a week earlier when I visited the area with my Gambell-Nome group.

Our final stop around Anchorage involved a visit to the long boardwalk up at the Western end of Potter’s Marsh. Here we were quite surprised to hear the familiar call of a Common Yellowthroat coming from some short alders below the boardwalk. Although this is a familiar species to most North American birders it is actually a vagrant in Alaska, and this sighting marked only our second in 24 years of Alaska tours! The boardwalk also provided us with excellent views of perched Tree Swallows, singing Alder Flycatchers, Lincoln’s and Savannah Sparrows and displaying Wilson’s Snipe as well as a wonderful pair of Bald Eagles that were tending a nest with several ungainly brown fledglings. Eventually we pulled ourselves away and ate lunch at a local café in Anchorage before setting off on the roughly two-hour drive south to Seward that follows the shoreline of Turnagain Arm before passing over the scenic Kenai Peninsula. Despite the passage of nearly five decades, substantial evidence of the massive earthquake (magnitude 9.2) that struck just off the peninsula in 1964 was still quite apparent during 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. A stop in at the near postcard-perfect Tern Lake revealed a pair of calling Common Loons (one with a fuzzy black chick in tow), a family group of Trumpeter Swans, lots of foraging Arctic Terns and even a couple of Mountain Goats that were scrambling about near the ridgelines. We even took the time for a bit of fish-watching, with dozens of small Three-spined Sticklebacks darting about around the edge of the lake. Several seasonally bright males were engaging in mouth-to-mouth combat above their woven grass nests while a few females looked on approvingly.

We arrived in Seward in the mid-afternoon, finding ourselves in yet another majestic and unique landscape. The town is nestled at the head of a beautiful narrow fjord and is flanked by steep-sided mountains that reach into the alpine zone near their peaks in the mid-afternoon. Seward has a very Pacific Northwest feel, with tall Sitka Spruce forests down to the stony beaches covered in kelp and driftwood. We made our first stop at a local birder’s house just out of town. New birds came rapidly at the feeders, with a female Rufous Hummingbird, a small flock of Red Crossbills, both Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, a pair of Steller’s Jays, an American Crow (here of the until only recently unrecognized Northwestern variety) and throngs of Pine Siskins each being admired in turn. It was a short but very effective introduction to the more widespread birds of this temperate coastal forest!

The next day dawned with dense mid-level fog occluding some of the coastal mountains (but thankfully not down to water level, where it was remarkably calm and clear, nearly perfect conditions for our day out on the water around Northwestern Glacier, Resurrection Bay and the Chiswell Islands. The seas remained nearly flat all day, with less than a meter of swell out in the open waters, and even flatter water near the coast, a welcome relief for those who had been concerned about mal de mar. This year we elected to charter our own boat, expertly captained by the boats’ owner Tanya and partner Captain Callie. This meant that instead of being on one of the multi-story large Kenai Fjords boat with well over 100 general interest customers we were able to direct the day to focus in on the seabirds. The 47-foot craft was perfectly constructed for our purposes, with a large heated cabin, and outside deck space (with seats) that was large enough to comfortably accommodate our whole group. Even better, the lower railings and position meant that we were much closer to the birds! Just after we left the harbour we were astonished to spot three Great Blue Herons flying low over the bay. This is a scarce to very rare species in the Kenai, and marked our first ever WINGS sighting in Alaska! Shortly after the herons we stopped to admire our first of several Sea Otters. These undeniably charismatic mammals are always a huge hit with tourists, and this animal performed well, lounging on its back and occasionally hammered down on a large spider crab that it was holding on its chest. Populations of these magnificent mustelids have rebounded in the last hundred years after heavy persecution for the fur trade. Sea Otters have the densest hair of any mammal, with an incredible 750,000 hairs per square inch. The hair traps small bubbles of air between the strands, keeping the animals buoyant and warm in the chilly water. Here too were our first Double-crested Cormorants and Marbled Murrelets, and, on a roofline along the harbour break wall a pair of Song Sparrows (here of the markedly larger and darker local race).

As we motored out of Resurrection Bay, surrounded by yet more rubbish Alaska scenery in all directions we began to see our first little groups of Common Murres and Tufted Puffins loafing on the water, and several more pairs of diminutive Marbled Murrelets flying away from our approach. The boat then diverted a short way off Fox Island to spend some time with our first Humpback Whales. We spent an enjoyable twenty minutes or so watching as a pair of whales (a mother and calf) surfaced, fluked, breached and rolled around just a hundred meters or so off the bow. This is the most common species of whale around the Kenai in summer, with hundreds of whales using the area to fatten up for the lean months in the tropics where they bear their young. Apparently, most of the local whales here spend their winters off the coast of Maui, making the trip in a little short of a month each way. About a mile from this sighting, we found a second mother-calf pair, and these ones spent easily 15 minutes circling around our boat just a few meters from our position. They were close enough for us to clearly see the individual bumps and grooves around their heads, as well as to hear their quiet chatter and smell their rather krillaceous breaths. It would be hard to see whales any better!

The flat seas aided in our quest for alcids sitting in the water, and near the western edge of our open water crossing we picked up first one or two and then a dozen Ancient Murrelets. Several of the groups remained on the water for long enough to get decent views, and we had others that flew across the bow close enough that we could discern their white underparts, flared white supercilia and black throat outlined by a white half-collar. Often this is the species of alcid that we see most poorly on the boat, as Ancients seem particularly wary of approaching craft; diving while still out at distance and then winging away after surfacing. Soon after admiring the Murrelets, we began to navigate through a network of small islands just off the tip of Cape Aialik where we stopped in a narrow channel between two steep-sided islands and picked out a flock of Parakeet Auklets on the water. These small alcids are not common around Seward, and as they were close to the boat, we were able to hear their distinctive parrot-like calls as they debated whether to fly or dive at our approach. This archipelago proved very good for puffins, with dozens of Tufted and Horned Puffins (as well as lots of Common Murre) loafing in the water around the bases of the cliffs. Colonies of Black-legged Kittiwake and Glaucous-winged Gulls lined some of the islands, and on the rocky headlands we spotted small groups of bellowing Steller’s Sea Lions as they lounged along the shoreline. Perhaps the most exciting find here though was the small number of nesting Red-faced Cormorants that were tucked in on a fold in the cliffs. These large and very colorful cormorants are at the extreme eastern edge of their breeding range around Seward, and numbers seem to fluctuate from year to year. On this particular day we counted at least seven individuals, which is a particularly good number!

We then moved out a bit from shore, arriving in the Chiswell archipelago. Soon we began to see larger numbers of Horned and Tufted Puffins and Common Murres on the water and zipping overhead. With the relatively low numbers of alcids around much of the North Pacific it was with some relief that we tallied birds here in the hundreds rather than the in the ones. Murre and Kittiwake numbers were markedly low here though compared to a decade ago. The rapid decline of many seabird rookeries around the Bering Sea and much of the north Pacific has been attributed to several factors, with a rise in sea temperature and shifting sea currents being perhaps the major factors. Biologists in the region are hopeful that the near complete collapse of some Murre colonies is a blip, and that better years are to come. It can be hard to be optimistic about the state of the worlds ecosystems sometimes, but we did saw lots of puffins that were so full of fish that they could not take off as we approached; paddling furiously on the water surface like middle-aged overweight men trying to learn how to surf. As we had hoped the Chiswell Islands produced a fine showing from the local seabirds, with cliff-nesting Common Murres up on ledges and small rafts on the water, a few Thick-billed Murres tucked in to their normal spot on Beehive Island (this is a fairly scarce breeding species around Seward, as the larger colonies tend to be out in the colder and deeper waters of the Aleutians and Bering Sea), and quite a few Horned and Tufted Puffins around the boat or in the air overhead.

Leaving the Chiswells we began to motor up into Aialik Bay, just in time for the foggy conditions to fully lift, revealing an astonishingly attractive coastline with towering steep-sided mountains, hanging glaciers and alternating patches of dense forest or bare rock. Along a patch of seaweed encrusted shoreline we picked out a pair of handsome Black Oystercatchers foraging along the low tide zone with their pink legs and bright red bills glowing in the midday sun. The waters in the bay were like glass, and with our low position above the waterline and the now excellent light we stopped often for extended views and photos of an array of swimming alcids. Among the groups of Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot and Tufted Puffin we picked out several dozen Rhinoceros Auklets and yet more Ancients that were, if anything, even more cooperative than the first ones! As we neared the hulking (and bright blue-hued) Aialik glacier at the head of the bay we began to have to navigate through the maze of small icebergs, growlers and bergy bits that had been released by the calving glacier. The cold water around these ice floes combines with the tide to create a fast-moving current which brings nutrients up from the fjord’s bottom. It is within this current that Kittlitz’s Murrelets tend to spend much of their time. We slowed to a crawl, carefully scanning the water around the ice floes and within minutes had success with our main target species of the day, with several pairs and trios of Kittlitz’s close to our bow. Amazingly the birds didn’t fly at our approach, and we were able to study them on the water at an astonishingly close distance. Perhaps it was the size of the boat, or the skill of the captain, but our views this year were simply superlative; undoubtedly the best and lengthiest experience that I can remember. With the Kittlitz’s Murrelets on the days log we effectively had a clean sweep of all 10 species of local alcids (and exceptional views of all of them to boot!) The Alcid family is thought to have evolved in the Bering Sea, and the nutrient rich waters of Alaska support the bulk of the family’s extant diversity.

On the way back to Seward we were treated to a close encounter with several resident Orca, and a bow-riding troupe of acrobatic Dall’s Porpoise that cruised along with us (at the prescribed 11 knots) for several minutes. We even enjoyed quick views of a mother and calf Mountain Goat clambering around on the forested cliffs and, just before returning to port, found a locally famous Humpback Whale (named Morgan le Fay) which gave us a great sendoff as she flared her distinctive white-tipped tail at us on a deep dive. We pulled into the dock with our heads spinning from the exceptionally good and memory-filled day, thankful for the amazingly cooperative weather and exceptionally good birding.

The final birding day of the main tour started off with a full morning of birding around the town of Seward. Our first stop was back at Ava’s feeders, where, among the by now more familiar species, we enjoyed close views of a pair of Sooty Fox Sparrows. These chocolate-colored birds with unstreaked backs and spotted underparts bear little resemblance to the Red Fox Sparrows that we had seen around Nome, and surely represent an excellent candidate for full species status once some graduate student somewhere does a little bit more work on the species in the small zones of overlap. A pair of Varied Thrushes put in an appearance as well, although the birds were flying back and forth over the property at an impressive height (an odd behavior for what is essentially a forest understory bird). Around Lowell Point we parked and took a pleasant walk amongst the towering Sitka Spruce and Western Hemlock forests that line the trail out to Caines Head. The short but dense understory of moss, ferns and devil’s club was lush and green, and many of the large trees were laden with huge mossy limbs, making for quite a verdant and vertically challenging (compared to most of our birding locations in Alaska) environment. On the walk we located our first Townsend’s Warblers, glowing an almost neon yellow and black against the deep green tones of the forest, as well as our only Golden-crowned Kinglets, Hermit Thrush, Pacific Wren and Chestnut-backed Chickadees. With their bright rufous-brown flanks and backs, brownish crowns and a perky and cheerful demeanor Chestnut-backeds are, arguably, the most charismatic of the new world tits.

We enjoyed a slightly early lunch at a little café in downtown Seward and then had some time off to explore the town. Many in the group elected to visit the nearby famous Alaska Sea Life Center, a public aquarium that features excellent exhibits of the marine and littoral life of Alaska, including a lot of interesting birds such as live Spectacled, Steller’s and King Eiders, Harlequin Ducks and Puffins. One huge pen holds a towering artificial cliff complete with nesting Red-legged Kittiwakes that were busily constructing nests with provided moss. The aviary includes a two-story aquarium as well, and the views of birds diving down nearly 30 feet underwater trailing a line of silver bubbles in their wakes were exceptional. The center is actively breeding both the rare Eiders and hopes to produce kittiwake chicks as well for release into the wild.

Once we were reunited, we started the leisurely journey back north towards Anchorage. A planned short visit to a small fish weir on Bear Creek, just a tad north of the Seward suburbs lengthened a bit due to the show on offer. Here a local non-profit fishing co-op has a managed salmon run on the small, forested creek, and we found hundreds (maybe thousands) of plump sockeye salmon running up against the weir. The fish were gathering in the clear waters just downstream of the dam and often could be seen jumping up onto the first platform of the weir structure. The salmon choked creek was also attended by a family of American Dippers that included two very busy adults that were continually bringing in prey items to feed their seemingly insatiable youngsters which were still tucked into their mossy nest on the side of the main co-op building. As by now the afternoon was beginning to peak we pressed on northwards, arriving at our now quite familiar home base in Anchorage in perfect time for a final dinner with the entire group. We had a few farewells to make too, as roughly half the participants were heading home rather than continuing on for our post-tour trip to Alaska’s remote North Slope.


This year’s flight up to Barrow was scheduled for the mid-afternoon rather than our customary late morning so we held onto the vans and offered a bit of relaxed birding around Anchorage in the morning before we headed to the airport around lunchtime. For those that opted to participate we spent our time birding around a few coastal spots near the airport. Although we didn’t turn up any new species for our trip it was still quite an enjoyable walk, with singing Wilson’s, Yellow, Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned Warblers, Swainson’s Thrushes, Northern Waterthrushes and Black-capped Chickadees livening up the woods, little groups of foraging Wigeon, Gadwall and Green-winged Teal out on the mudflats and several irate Lesser Yellowlegs giving their ringing alarm calls or reeling songs from the tops of trailside spruces. We also enjoyed very close views of a group of four Moose that were feeding in a small swampy patch of woods right along the road. Two of the animals were busily growing their antlers, with several feet of velvet-covered bone jutting out at odd angles from their skulls. One participant remarked that if we humans had to go through that much physical effort to successfully breed there might be far fewer people in the world…

We ate lunch at the airport after checking in and then boarded our slightly delayed plane to Barrow, arriving at about 5:15 in the afternoon. Utqiagvik (Barrow) sits at 71 degrees and 17 minutes N at the northern tip of the United States. The point just north of town falls just a bit short of the tip of the Boothia Peninsula in Canada’s high arctic, which is the highest latitude point in mainland North America. We had heard through the guiding grapevine that much of the North Slope was still locked in winter conditions, with persisting and extensive snow and ice. A warm-up had recently occurred, resulting in a melting of most of the snow and a shift from a white color palette to a brown one but Ice was still dominating along the shorelines, with very little open water to be seen.

The ramshackle town of Barrow houses roughly 4800 residents. The town serves as the commercial hub of the entire North Slope, and is the largest Inupiat town in the country. It’s a sprawling and surprisingly large place, with a substantial number of large multi-story buildings and a well-developed (if not always well maintained) urban road network. As many of the residents have some means due to the flush of income from the oil industry there are lots of vehicles, boats, ATV’s and Ski-Doos lying about the town. When they break down, they are typically just laid to rest in the yards, as the removal of such heavy equipment is expensive. With the houses all up on stilts to prevent the melting of the underlying permafrost, puddles of water tend to form under and around the houses, making for a most unusual suburban look. Although a lot of the houses look like they could fall apart at any moment, and the yards tend to be filled with broken down ATV’s, snowmobiles and trucks the insides of the buildings are warm and homey, and the locals are quite proud of their town, and their heritage.

We checked into our hotel, picked up the hire car and then, after a surprisingly delicious dinner at the local Japanese restaurant we the ground running, eager to see what the high arctic had in store for us. Several birding groups had departed on our incoming flight, and they left with tales of a myriad of vagrant shorebirds that they had seen. Unfortunately for us those species had been located over the early part of the prior week, and by the time of our visit most had filtered out of town with the rapid melt of the surrounding tundra. With only a few hours after dinner at our disposal we elected to try to track down a couple of high-target species that we hoped were still in the area. Chief among these were a territorial Common Snipe and a recently discovered Temminck’s Stint. Both species eluded us, but we turned up a pair of stunning Red-necked Stints along the roadside instead. This old-world shorebird has been flirting with colonizing the east coast of the Bering/Chukchi Seas, with over summering birds now regularly recorded by birders and biologists around the Seward Peninsula and scattered spots around the Northwest slope. Last year a nesting pair was found in Barrow and this pair of birds were definitely acting like they might be settling in as well. While poking around for the stakeout species we stopped to soak in our first wave of north slope birds, with breeding Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers, Red-necked and Red Phalaropes and lots of Greater White-fronted Geese all showing extremely well. Cheerful Snow Buntings were seemingly everywhere, and we were happy to spot a displaying trio of Baird’s Sandpipers (a locally scarce breeding species) that spent quite some time foraging just a few meters away, often in the company of several smaller Semipalmated Sandpipers which provided an excellent opportunity to tease apart their pertinent identification features. We also were happy to locate a nesting Black Guillemot that was perched in the rocks along a newly constructed road culvert. Generally, this species breeds in boulder crevices or burrows, but with nothing but fine gravelly or sandy beaches and permafrost laden tundra nearby the local birds eke out their existence by making shallow scrapes underneath boards or other detritus along the high-water line of the beach. Last year we noted a single bird at this new rocky culvert line, and this year there were at least 2 birds seemingly using the unintentionally created artificial burrows in the rip-rap crevices. This marked our final species of alcid (and the 11th overall) for the main tour. Along with the aforementioned birds we also located our only Lesser Sandhill Crane for Barrow as it flew north along the coast. As the town sits at the northernmost point along Alaska’s north slope and offers some vertical structure in a sea of quite flat tundra it tends to collect errant birds that have overshot their normal ranges. We found our first example of that trend on our first evening when we spotted three Barn Swallows (all of the more expected North American subspecies) zipping around over the tundra. Although this is a very familiar species over much of the continent it is quite rare throughout the majority of Alaska. We also stopped in at a local house with birdfeeders in a bare yard right on the shore of the Chukchi Sea. The owners have erected a unique series of brushpiles, using bones, cable spools and wooden pallets, as well as some creative metal and whale baleen palm trees to provide a bit of cover for the local birds. As usual the feeders were hosting lots of Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs as well as a few Hoary Redpolls. In 2023 we had a rather sobering discussion about climate change with the homeowner, as the historically permafrost laden coastline is thawing, with significant erosion exacerbated by more intense fall storms. A company specializing in stabilizing such conditions (by injecting some sort of hardening material horizontally into the banks) had visited later in that summer but on our visit, it was obvious that their plan hadn’t worked, as the road around her property was now non-existent, with just a few feet separating her deck from the new shoreline. It was a stark reminder of just how much the Arctic climate has been changing over the last decade. The winds began to pick up and the fog really rolled in on us in the evening, and with the colder and less optimal conditions a lot of the local birds seemed to go to sleep. We took a cue from them and popped off to bed ourselves, eager to see what the morning would bring us.

The rest of our time in Barrow was spent under calm conditions and bright sunny skies (and as we were visiting during the Solstice it stayed sunny even overnight). For our full day around town, we investigated all of the roads that were open; as with the heavy lingering snow much of the outer sections of the road network were still blockaded. For much of the morning we birded to the east of town, along the Cakeeater and Gaswell Road complex. This road is the longest one around Barrow, winding about 8 miles out of town, although at the time of our visit the second half of the road was not open to vehicles due to flooding. Although there was still no sign of the several shorebirds species from the other side of the pond we enjoyed the local breeding species immensely. Breeding shorebirds, Lapland Longspurs and waterfowl were much in evidence at every turn. Listening to the display calls and watching the breeding behavior of shorebirds (all at their most colorful) is a memorable experience, as during migration and winter these birds seem to do little but feed, preen, and sleep. Almost every puddle in the tundra held a few Red or Red-necked Phalaropes, busily courting or feeding and in the larger lakes we found stunning pairs of Pacific Loons and loafing squadrons of Long-tailed Ducks. Equally common were the impressively dynamic Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers, American Golden-Plovers and Dunlin which were all singing or courting from the slightly drier rises in the tundra. Likely the star shorebird species though (as always) was the displaying Pectoral Sandpipers, whose oddly grouse-like rituals and cackling and whooping calls seem decidedly un-waderish. The males sport almost black chests, with inflatable sacs underneath that cause their dark breasts to wobble like a pendulum as they fly back and forth across the tundra. As one participant stated; “Now I understand why they are called Pectoral Sandpipers!” Jaegers put on a memorable show too, with all both Pomarine and Parasitics vocalizing and interacting with each other. These elegant (if menacing) aerial predators are most closely related to shorebirds than to gulls and terns, which they more closely resemble. For most North American birders, Jaegers are frustrating birds that are seen far offshore and often in confusing subadult plumages so it was lovely to see multiple adult birds with full tails at close range from the comfort of land. Over the course of the day we also encountered a couple of male Snowy Owls perched out in the tundra. Numbers of these impressive predators fluctuate in accordance with the local vole and lemming populations, but even on poor lemming years there will be a few Snowy Owls around Barrow and thankfully for us, in 2024, there were plenty of owls on offer.

The day really belonged to the eiders though. Our first encounters with this stunning group of birds occurred when we spotted a couple of pairs of King Eiders in ponds near the dump. It’s admittedly difficult to pick a favorite species of Eider but these male Kings, with their sport an amazing prismatic heads and protruding black scapular sails make their case well. Just a bit further down the road past the dump (and over a snowy section that we had to navigate by foot) we found our first handsome Spectacled Eider. The amazingly attractive male, with its odd green nape feathers, silky casque over their bills, orange bills and white goggles is one of the main targets of a trip to Barrow, and although this first bird was annoyingly distant and in the heat haze (heat haze at 40 degrees is a novel concept) we were lucky to enjoy much closer views of several pairs at much closer range later in the day. Here too we were treated to an astonishing view of a large female Peregrine Falcon chasing down a hapless and obviously terrified Pectoral Sandpiper. As the birds passed us the frantic sandpiper broke left and tumled onto the road right in the midst of our group, eventually winding up huddled right next to my boot and remaining there for several minutes! The Peregrine circled a few times and then headed out into the tundra looking for something else to terrorize, and after some time I moved my shoe and the Pectoral took off too.

Our final local breeding eider took a little longer to track down, but while we were watching a few shorebirds bathing along the road edge south of town we were thrilled when a pair of Steller’s Eiders came flying by, settling down in a small marshy pool just a few meters from our position. Often these birds can be wary, but this pair seemed fully intent on denuding the pond of its complement of aquatic vegetation. Male Steller’s are stunning with their mossy green patches in the lores and nape, apricot tinged chests, zebra-striped backs and even a black beauty mark oddly placed on the flank combine for a really beautiful bird. The female is less boldly patterned, resembling a stocky and very dark teal, but is lovely in her own right. After a little bit of an eider photo shoot, we continued on to the end of the road, where the thick expanse of sea ice below the bluff seemed to stretch on almost to the horizon. Scanning the wintery scene we noticed a cream-coloured lump out among the icy floes; a snoozing Polar Bear! Numbers of these magnificent mammals were still around town, likely due to the persisting sea ice and presence of several Bowhead whale carcasses out at the point. We had actually spotted a bear the prior day as it wandered around the carcasses, but our views were from well over 4 miles and the bear was just barely visible even in the scopes. This bear was probably less than ½ mile away from our position, providing much better views as it occasionally stretched out an oversized paw, rolled over on its back like a lazy goldendoodle or even stood up briefly before flopping back over and reentering a dream state.

After dinner we re-checked a few spots hoping for some new shorebird species, and although we didn’t turn any up we did find that there were now two Black Guillemots checking out the rip-rap at the culvert, and that a small flock of wigeon that included three Eurasian and two American had joined the flock of Northern Pintail, Long-tailed Duck and the errant Black Scoter. A few hardy souls elected to stay out past midnight and their herculean efforts were incredibly well rewarded. When they returned to the coast south of town they discovered that snoozy bear had finally woken up. Initially he was strolling around well offshore, but he then angled in and effectively walked right towards the groups position, stopping just a few hundred meters off the beach. Unbeknownst to our group there was a walrus carcass tucked under the bluff and all of a sudden, the bears snooziness and site-fidelity made perfect sense. Our group backed off to the safety of the van, where they subsequently witnessed the bear walk right in. It was close enough to hear its occasional snuffles and grunts and to see little strings of saliva dribbling out of the corner of its mouth! The group lingered for an hour or more watching the bear and were even treated to views of a small pod of Bowhead Whales out in the open water past the far edge of the ice. At times the two iconic mammals were apparently occupying the same field of view in their binoculars!

The last day at Barrow allowed us to spend a bit more time really enjoying watching arctic birds in their summer element. We checked again for the Common Snipe, and this time, amazingly, were treated to views as the bird landed on a telephone pole right next to us after making several flight passes while uttering its characteristic hollow rolling song. As it flew overhead, we could clearly make out the white underwing panels that also help to separate this species from the expected Wilson’s Snipe. This individual had been found about a week prior to our visit, and marked only the third or fourth member of its species to be found on the mainland (although it is a reasonably common migrant on islands in the Bering Sea). Buoyed by success at last (we had tried for this bird about 6 or 7 times over the past two days) we revisited the Salt Lagoons where we were surprised to see a few flocks of Snow Geese passing overhead. One larger flock contained a markedly smaller bird with a rounded head and apparently small bill that we (through looking at photos) realized was a Ross’s Goose; a quite scarce species in the state and a write-in for the trip’s cumulative list. We also re visited with a few pairs of Spectacled, King and Steller’s Eiders, refound snoozy bear (asleep and full of walrus again) and even located a singing Golden-crowned Sparrow that was perched on a trailer in town. In the mid-afternoon we headed to the airport, bound for Anchorage one final time. We arrived to a summery 73-degree day, training perhaps for the summer time temps that most participants would be finding when they arrived home the following day. We finished the tour back at our now very familiar base along the shoreline of Lake Hood, with a fine dinner and one of our favorite servers in attendance. I hope that this year’s participants enjoyed the array of birds, wildlife, scenery and experiences as much as I did, and I continue to view this tour as one of the best introductions possible to the beauty and richness of the far north reaches of our continent.

-          Gavin Bieber

Created: 02 July 2024