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ALASKA 2007

Birdfinders returned to Alaska in June 2007 after a very successful inaugural trip in 2005. This year's tour was lucky enough to find all of the key Alaskan species for this particular itinerary with the exception of McKay's Bunting. In the case of the bunting, the absence of a territorial bird in the Pribilofs meant that we were sure to dip on that one but we more than made up for this with some excellent bonus species. Major highlights included up to three Spectacled Eiders in Nome, two of which were males, a couple of Steller's Eiders on St. Pauls and a completely unexpected (but very welcome!) out-of-range Whiskered Auklet in the town harbor on St. Paul's Island. Much of the success of the trip was down to the dedication of our group. Without their invaluable contribution we probably couldn't have achieved a new tour record of 178 species. The Alaska tour itinerary is packed with quality birds many of which cannot be seen with regularity anywhere else in North America. Think of Black-throated Diver of the Siberian race, Short-tailed Shearwater, Red-faced Cormorant, Gyrfalcon, Willow Ptarmigan, Pacific Golden Plover, Bristle-thighed Curlew, Red-necked Stint, Slaty-backed Gull, Red-legged Kittiwake, Aleutian Tern, Kittlitz's and Ancient Murrelets, Parakeet, Least and Crested Auklets, Horned and Tufted Puffins, Northern Hawk Owl, Arctic Warbler, Bluethroat, Northern Wheatear, 'Alaskan' Yellow Wagtail, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Smith's Longspur, Gray-crowned Rosy-finch (Leucosticte tephrocotis umbrina) and Arctic Redpoll, and you have many of the excellent species encountered on this year's tour.

All of these were seen against a spectacular back-drop of stunningly beautiful Alaskan scenery for which the state has a richly deserved reputation. It was simply awesome. There were excellent mammals too and we enjoyed Arctic Fox, Sea Otter, Northern Fur Seal, Steller's Sea Lion, Black and Alaskan Brown Bear (aka Grizzly), Humpback Whale, Killer Whale, Dall's Porpoise, Moose and Caribou amongst others.

Our trip began in Eagle River not far from Anchorage. Before noon on the first full day we'd seen Moose (a bull, cow and calf), Black Bear and a close (but not too close) encounter with a Grizzly! A hulking female Northern Goshawk perched in the woods was probably the avian highlight of the morning. We then headed south towards Seward birding our way throughout the Kenai Mountains. Red-necked Grebes, breeding Canvasbacks, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Wandering Tattler and Glaucous-winged Gull, Mew and Bonaparte's Gulls Gulls, Arctic Terns and Alder Flycatchers were notable. Dall's Sheep were on the cliffs above Beluga Point. At low tide Bald Eagles were scattered all over the mud flats of Turn-again Arm. Passing through Kenai Mountains we enjoyed excellent views of Sooty Fox Sparrow, Golden-crowned Sparrow and Wilson's Warbler. Great Northern Divers were found breeding on one small lake and on reaching Seward we began to see Northwestern Crows.

Once in Seward we dedicated a full day to a boat trip out onto Resurrection Bay. The birding and mammals were generally excellent, as was our Captain who really knew his birds. Harlequin Duck, White-winged Scoter, Pelagic and Red-faced Cormorants, Horned and Tufted Puffins, Brünnich's, Common and Pigeon Guillemot, Marbled Murrelets, Rhinoceros Auklet, Arctic Skua, and Red-necked Phalaropes were all noted, and we saw our only Black Oystercatchers of the tour. Numerous marine mammals included Steller's Sea Lion, Sea Otters, Humpback and Killers Whales, and we even got close enough to shore to see Black Bear and Mountain Goat. The highlight though would have to be the close views of Kittlitz's Murrelets found at the head of the Northwestern Glacier.

The next morning birding in the vicinity of Seward gave us a number of species that would not be seen elsewhere on the tour including Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Townsend's Warbler and Steller's Jay. Varied Thrushes were quite plentiful but difficult to see. We journeyed north to spend another night in Eagle River picking up Barrow's Goldeneye and Olive-sided Flycatcher en route.

The long drive north to Denali got off to a great start with excellent views of a perched Harlen's (Red-tailed) Hawk close to the road. The day was long with plenty of driving but included some of our best sightings of the trip including American Dipper, Solitary Sandpiper, Ruffed and Spruce Grouse, Northern Shrike, Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee and Trumpeter Swan. Breathtaking views of Mount McKinley and the entire Alaskan Range accompanied us for much of the journey.

Our day in Denali National Park was clear and warm. The ever chatty shuttle-bus driver made numerous stops along the way where we found American Tree Sparrows, a couple of Willow Ptarmigan, 'Red' Fox Sparrow plus mammals such as Moose, Caribou and Snow-shoe Hare. At Polychrome Mountain we elected to bird on foot and enjoyed really nice views of a Gyrfalcon near its nest, plus Say's Phoebe and a displaying Townsend's Solitaire (rare in Alaska). Back at Cantwell a drumming woodpecker near the hotel turned out to be an American Three-toed which gave fantastic close-up looks. In the evening, a pre-supper drive bagged our first Arctic Warblers, Least Sandpipers and Rough-legged Buzzard of the trip.

The next morning we set out on reputedly the most scenic birding highway in North America! By the end of the day, none of us could argue with such a claim. It was simply stunning and the birding excellent – Tundra and Trumpeter Swans, White-winged Scoters, Bufflehead, Barrow's and Common Goldeneyes, Northern Pintail, American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal and Red-necked Phalaropes were found many of the pools and lakes in the tundra. Boreal birds including Bohemian Waxwing, Boreal Chickadee and American Three-toed Woodpecker were seen from the early part of the highway but the songbird of the day was the Arctic Warbler which greeted us at almost every patch of willow scrub. A gentle hike onto the higher tundra produced superb views of Golden Eagle, American Golden-plover, Horned Lark, American Pipit and several Lapland Longspurs. We spent the night at the rather funky but welcoming Tangle River Inn.

After an early start birding in appropriate habitat just east of Tangle River, it wasn't too long before we were admiring our first, magnificent male Smith's Longspur. Hudsonian Whimbrels trilled overhead and Long-tailed Skuas cruised low over the tundra. Walking a little further out into the tundra we were amazed to find more Smith's Longspurs (about three pairs in total) which, in this spot at least, were only slightly less numerous than Lapland Longspurs.

Much of the rest of the day was devoted to the journey south then west back to Eagle River passing through extensive areas of Black spruce forest. We had wonderful views of a pair of Pacific Loons, several Rusty Blackbirds and our only Western Wood Pewee of the trip. Northern Hawk Owl had eluded us until we began heading west along the Glenn Highway. We found one right by the highway and had good views from the bus. Further down the Glenn Highway we had top-notch views of a singing male Pine Grosbeak and later, a soaring Osprey (rare in Alaska).

Next morning we left Eagle River early to check-in for our flight to Nome. Sea mist hampered our arrival in Nome but, amazingly, after five attempts at landing and great skill from the pilot we were on the ground! Being much closer to the Arctic Circle, the change in birding tempo was immediate. Red-throated Divers and Glaucous Gulls were in the town, and the first few miles on the Council road produced Arctic Skuas, Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers and hordes of Lapland Longspurs. At Safety Sound, following-up a report from another birder, we found one very special bird – Spectacled Eider! It was a male too, resting on a sand bar, with just half-a-dozen Common Eiders. Pacific Loons and Snow Buntings were present in the same area, a pair of King Eiders, a dozen Vega Gulls and at least six Slaty-backed Gulls were along the beaches to the east.

We finished off the day with staggering views of Aleutian Terns by the road. Our quest for Bristle-thighed Curlew began early the next day. After a seventy-mile drive, we hiked up a gentle gradient toward the song of a Bristle-thighed Curlew and enjoyed good views of a bird settled in the tundra. Other tundra breeders such as American Golden Plover, Western Sandpiper, Long-tailed Skua, Horned Lark and Lapland Longspur were much in evidence and we saw three or four Bristle-thighed Curlews before leaving.

We had time to bird our back along the Kougarok Road at leisure finding Black Scoter and Surf Scoters, 'Alaskan' Yellow Wagtail, Rusty Blackbirds, Pacific Golden Plovers close to the road with American Golden Plovers close-by for comparison, and Long-tailed Skuas overhead. Other birds en route included two pairs of Taverner's Cackling Geese, a light phase Rough-legged Buzzard and a distant greater White-fronted Goose, and a distant heard of about 30 Musk Oxen. A short diversion to check some scree slopes for Northern Wheatears, gave us about six birds, our first of the tour. We also had great views of two Arctic Redpolls from the bus as well, the only truly convincing Arctics that we saw in the Nome area. As we drove back to Nome a quick stop at Nome landfill before returning to town gave us nice comparisons between Slaty-backed, Vega, Glaucous, and Mew Gulls.

Our last full day in Nome began at the Harbor where eight Harlequins and two Pigeon Guillemots were the highlights. Nome river mouth yielded one of the best birds of the trip – a Red-necked Stint along with Dunlin and a couple of Aleutian Terns. The birding was excellent at Safety Sound with our group finding six Sabine's Gulls, Black Brants, Slaty-backed Gull. We had more views of the male Spectacled Eider plus a distinctly odd looking female which could be clearly identified as a female Spectacled Eider. Another highlight was a Black-throated Diver of the Siberian form – sometimes called Green-throated Diver, and with about five Pacific Divers in the area plus Great Northern and Red-throated Divers, the diver show here was rather impressive! Black Turnstone and Wandering Tattler were also notable.

Further east on the Council Road stopping by the beach to look at a lone eider on the sand we found another Spectacled Eider, our third of the day! A quick scan of a flat calm Bering Sea produced two Horned Puffins, and a party of five non-breeding plumaged King Eiders loafing offshore with a few Common Eiders.

A few miles down the road produced more great finds. About 200 Tundra Swans provided a real spectacle not too far from the road with several Sandhill Cranes in the distance. A flock of nine Bar-tailed Godwits and 10 Long-billed Dowitchers were both new for the trip, and two more Pacific Golden Plovers were found.

We eventually moved inland with a change in birding mode – Alaskan Yellow Wagtails, Common Redpolls, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Northern Waterthrush, Alder Flycatcher and Arctic Warblers were found, and after some searching we eventually found a song-flighting Bluethroat. A drive to higher elevations searching for ptarmigan, produced great views of Golden Eagles, breeding Semipalmated Plovers, Northern Wheatears, American Pipits and some staggeringly beautiful scenery. Later, on the drive back to Nome, we had an amazing encounter with over thirty Long-tailed Skuas hawking for hatching insects low over the road giving stunning photographic opportunities.

Next day we departed from Nome with little time for birding before the flight. We arrived at Anchorage and were back at Eagle River by lunch time with enough time for a leisurely lunch followed by a fairly thorough exploration of the trails at the Eagle River Nature Center. Highlights included a Sharp-shinned Hawk, Golden Eagle, Trumpeter Swans, Varied Thrush, two nests of Downy Woodpecker and perhaps best of all, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet flaring its red crown feathers.

We left Eagle River very early the next morning in preparation for our departure to the Pribilofs and to say good bye to Jeff and Helen who were flying home from Anchorage several hours before we were due to fly to St. Pauls. The early morning drop-off gave us an excellent opportunity for a more thorough search of Westchester Lagoon and the adjacent tidal flats of Cook Inlet. On the tidal flats there had clearly been an influx of returning south bound shorebirds, and scanning from the Coastal trail we saw over 600 Short-billed Dowitchers, six Hudsonian Godwits and several Semipalmated Plovers.

Flying out to the Pribilofs with Penn Air was a great experience, landing first in Dillingham and then arriving at St. Pauls, virtually on time. Our guides, Dylan and Jake were there to meet us and we were soon out birding seeing our first Red-legged Kittiwakes, Rock Sandpipers and Gray-crowned Rosy-finches. After supper we were back out having our first views of a long staying female Steller's Eider, along with Crested and Least Auklets, Horned and Tufted Puffins. With strong onshore winds, seawatching was quite productive coming up with about 15 Northern Fulmars and 8 plus Short-tailed Shearwaters. Back at the harbor, a male Steller's Eider finished off the day and a great start to the Pribilofs tour.

Our second full day on the 'Pribs' began with an easy morning checking the seabird cliffs and enjoying amazing close-ups of a Northern Fur Seal colony. On returning to the harbor to check for Ancient Murrelets we were stunned to find a Whiskered Auklet at close range, a bird which would ultimately linger for several days after we departed. Normally extremely local in range, this bird had presumably wandered north from the Aleutians to furnish the first record for the Pribilofs. As if that wasn't enough, the male Steller's Eider put on a fabulous fly-past show at the same time!

After lunch, the rest of the afternoon was dedicated to watching seabirds on the spectacular cliffs, which was also the only place where we caught up with the endemic form of Winter Wren. The numbers of the latter had been reduced by a couple of successive hard winters. A brilliant day finished off with four Ancient Murrelets in the town harbor found by one of our hard-working local guides.

A last but full morning on St. Pauls produced several King Eiders, Eurasian Teal, Red (Grey) Phalarope (in full winter plumage) and even a Wood Sandpiper, which was the last major sighting of the tour. With that we flew back to Anchorage, spending a short night at Eagle River before taking our respective flights home from Ted Stevens International Airport.

Bristle-thighed Curlew

Bristle-thighed Curlew