Birdfinders' banner

Google

Search Birdfinders
Search the web

ALASKA 2005

Birdfinders first tour to Alaska was an overwhelming success. After our flight to Anchorage and an overnight stay in a very nice motel in a country location, we headed down to Seward seeing Trumpeter Swan, the first of many Golden-crowned Sparrows and Varied Thrushes, Boreal Chickadee and Rusty Blackbird en route. At Seward we enjoyed remarkable views of a large flock of Harlequin Ducks (mainly breeding-plumage males) as well as numerous Glaucous-winged Gulls, Pigeon Guillemots and Northwestern Crows. After a good night's sleep, our Kenai Fjords boat cruise was blessed with superb weather, clear skies and a flat, calm sea. As we headed out of the sound, we first encountered Sea Otters shortly followed by Marbled Murrelets, Pigeon Guillemots and Horned and Tufted Puffins. The fog then rolled in so we decided to head straight for Northwest Glacier, which was an excellent decision as we soon broke into clear skies again. As we headed on, Ancient Murrelets and Parakeet and Rhinoceros Auklets were seen in good numbers at very close range and our captain slowed down on each occasion so that we could enjoy excellent views. Eventually we reached the glacier and the scenery was to say the least, absolutely breath-taking. We had only one other ship for company (they generously sent over some freshly-made cookies!) and so were able to sit back, relax and watched pieces of glacier breaking off, all in total silence except for the amazing noise this made. Eventually, we had to start our journey home but not before we had watched Kittlitz's and Marbled Murrelets side-by-side for comparison and our only Black Oystercatchers of the trip. Other birds seen on the return journey included Pelagic and Red-faced Cormorants, Short-tailed Shearwater and Brünnich's Guillemot, whilst non-birding highlights were superb views of a Humpback Whale and a school of Dall's Porpoise riding the bow. Back on land in the evening, we enjoyed a short drive seeing Gray and Steller's Jays.

The third day of the tour was one of only two wet days on the entire trip. Nevertheless, we made the best of it with our return journey to Anchorage punctuated by stops for birds like Northern Goshawk, Rufous Hummingbird, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Song Sparrow, Pine Grosbeak and Pine Siskin. Back in Anchorage the weather had improved considerably and we were able to enjoy a late afternoon visit to a local park where Hudsonian Godwits and Short-billed Dowitchers (all in breeding plumage!) and Bonaparte's Gulls were the highlights. Driving north to Denali National Park, we made many stops en route seeing a number of speciality birds: Pacific Diver, Tundra Swan, Surf and White-winged Scoters, Willow Ptarmigan, six Northern Hawk-owls (yes six, including one from just a few yards), Great Gray Owl (roosting in the open 20 feet away) plus American Tree and Savannah Sparrows. Although a travel day this was certainly not a wasted day! Next day we took the bus tour into Denali National Park (no private vehicles are allowed in the park). Although primarily a scenery and mammal day, we did score with one major bird, superb views of Gyr Falcon. It was unfortunately wet for the first half of the day, but this didn't spoil the enjoyment and we were able to get great views of Caribou (Reindeer!), a Grizzly Bear and her cub, and best of all, a Wolf alongside the bus! Leaving the National Park next day, we enjoyed the scenic Denali Highway. Bufflehead, Upland Sandpipers, more Northern Hawk-owls, Gray-cheeked and Swainson's Thrushes and Blackpoll Warbler enlivened the journey until we stopped for lunch, where an Arctic Warbler gave great views. After lunch, we walked around the tundra on our second search for the highly-elusive Smith's Longspur without success, but we did see American Golden Plover, Long-tailed Skua, Horned Lark and Lapland Longspur.

After an overnight stay in very comfortable cabins, we resumed our search for Smith's Longspur. There had been just one uncorroborated report from 2 out of the 100s of people who had looked this year but we were not to be put off. After a couple of hours walking round the tundra, we eventually saw a male in flight and after a further search, all enjoyed fabulous views of this highly-enigmatic bird. For many on the tour this was their final longspur, having seen Chestnut-collared and McCown's on Birdfinders' Colorado and Wyoming tours. Next we headed for the local town (hamlet better describes it!) for a celebratory lunch at the only restaurant cum garage in town. The afternoon was spent driving back towards Anchorage to stay at our comfortable motel (free breakfast, laundry and internet!).

Next day we headed back to Anchorage airport for the flight to Nome via Kotzebue, which is just within the Arctic Circle. At these normal latitudes weather can be unpredictable but we were again blessed with superb weather for our three days. After picking up our hire vehicle, we headed east along the coast seeing our first Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers, what turned out to be locally-common Yellow Wagtails and the only American Pipit of the tour. Groups of Common (Boreal) Eiders and Long-tailed Ducks were found around Safety Lagoon, along with a Black Guillemot, a major rarity here, whilst Red-throated Divers were very common. In a roost of Glaucous Gulls we found our only Vega Gull of the tour together with a Black Turnstone. On our second day in Nome, after breakfast, we headed north towards the traditional Bristle-thighed Curlew breeding areas stopping only to look at Bluethroats, a family group of White-fronted Geese and nests of Gyr Falcon and Rough-legged Buzzards en route. The walk up through the Dwarf Willows, then onto the tundra, was not too strenuous and it was not long before we were enjoying superb views of at least three male Bristle-thighed Curlews. We stayed a while to enjoy the spectacle before slowly heading south again. Further new birds for the tour on the way back to Nome included Northern Waterthrushes and a Northern Wheatear (a rare breeder from Asia). With time to spare, we investigated a report of Spectacled Eiders at Cape Nome but all we could find were single Peregrine Falcons and Ruddy Turnstone. Compensation was had however, by sorting through a large gull flock, where no less than three Slaty-backed Gulls were found (one first year and two second years) alongside an even-rarer first year Thayer's Gull. Our final full day around Nome was spent firstly looking for Red-necked Stints and Black-throated Divers (both rare breeder in Alaska) around Safety Lagoon. An initial scan gave us six Bar-tailed Godwits and a flock of Sabine's Gulls in summer plumage and Black Guillemot numbers had increased to three. A small flock of Red-necked Stints were eventually found distantly on the opposite side of the lagoon mouth so we recrossed the bridge where after a slightly nerve-wracking few minutes we eventually relocated the flock which were mostly in breeding plumage with one outstandingly marked bird. Several Dunlin were also seen and not long afterwards, we found one of the Black-throated Divers and whilst still looking out for Spectacled Eiders, we were fortunate enough to see all three species of scoter in a day, including our first Black Scoters. In the afternoon, we headed west along an inland route with distinctly different scenery. Our first target was not a bird, it was a mammal: Musk Ox, and it didn't take us long to find a lone bull lying in the snow to cool off (it was amazingly hot in Nome with temperatures reaching the mid to high 60s °F). An American Dipper was found singing under a bridge and whilst enjoying superb views of this bird, we were able to sort through the numerous Common Redpolls, eventually finding two well-marked Arctic Redpolls. With only a short time left in Nome and all the speciality birds under our belts, we relaxed in the morning before taking the flight back to Anchorage, again via Kotzebue. With clear skies, we were able to enjoy superb views of the Seward Peninsula, culminating in distant views of Siberia just before we landed at Kotzebue. On our final leg of the journey it began to cloud over, but just at the critical moment, the clouds broke and there it was standing out proud above the other mountains, Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America. A brief stop at an Anchorage city park on the way back to our motel gave us even better views of the Hudsonian Godwits together with four Surfbirds and Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs standing side by side.

The final leg of the tour was a flight to St Paul Island, part of the remote Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea. Unfortunately the flight was delayed, but eventually we took off in a small twin-engined light aircraft via Dillingham. The journey was uneventful, and on arrival on the island we were greeted not only by our local guides but sunshine, one of about 10 days like this every year! The weather was so good in fact that we could see one of the other Pribilof Islands, St George, in the distance. After checking into the hotel and taking dinner (but not before we had ticked Gray-crowned (Hepburn's) Rosy-finches!, we visited some of the spectacular seabird cliffs and were treated to views of Red-faced Cormorants, Northern Fulmars, Common and Brünnich's Guillemots, Black-legged and Red-legged Kittiwakes, Crested, Least and Parakeet Auklets and Horned and Tufted Puffins: phew what a start! Rock Sandpipers were literally everywhere, whilst the Aleutian sub-species of Winter Wren looked significantly different from their Eurasian cousins. Snow Buntings could be found everywhere with rocks, from the port to the screes on the hills, whilst Lapland Longspurs occupied the tundra niche. A check through the Harlequin Ducks in the harbour was rewarded with a female King Eider and a first year Steller's Eider. Our second day started rather foggy but this soon cleared and although not as sunny as yesterday, gave us yet another good weather day. With a solitary male McKay's Bunting on territory at the far end of the island, this was our first destination after breakfast. We had been told that we might have to put in several hours to get good views because the bird was very flighty but immediately on arrival there it was, both in flight and on the ground. It was breeding with a female Snow Bunting and constantly disputing territory with male Snow Buntings, so we settled down to enjoy multiple views of this very special bird. As an added bonus, after leaving, we found our only Wandering Tattler of the tour, in full breeding plumage on the rocks. Two Eurasian Teal were a nice bonus and we were able to enjoy repeat views of all the seabirds. Finally, a further visit to the harbour gave us better views of both the King and Steller's Eiders. On our last day on St Paul Island, we were able to revisit many of the seabird cliffs to enjoy the spectacle and photograph them. After dinner, we made the return flight to Anchorage and despite a puncture in the hire vehicle, once again stopped off at the park in Anchorage before checking into our motel for the final night.

With an evening flight back to the UK via Chicago, we spent the morning in Eagle River nature centre close to our hotel. Several new species were seen from the attractive trails, including Belted Kingfisher, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, Great Horned Owl and Golden-crowned Kinglet, before rain and an emergence of mosquitoes put an end to the birding. We returned to the airport (again via the city park), caught our flight to Chicago and even though we only had a 30-minute connection time, caught our ongoing flight arriving back in London next day 15 minutes early, with all our luggage coming off the belt first! We had recorded a total of 175 species in Alaska, including all of the speciality birds in the areas we visited, together with many mammals and enjoyed incredibly good weather with incredible scenery.

Bristle-thighed Curlew

Bristle-thighed Curlew