Birdfinders' banner

Google

Search Birdfinders
Search the web

ALASKA 2008

Awesome is probably the best word to describe our birding and wildlife experiences in Alaska. Quite simply, Alaska is unlike any other North American tour that we offer. This year was blessed with fine cool weather, fantastic birding, spectacular mammals and constantly stunning scenery. We counted ourselves extremely lucky to get through the entire tour without any of the weather related mishaps apparently suffered by other tour groups. The quaint Alaskan town of Eagle River would serve as a hub for much of the tour and a far better alternative to staying in downtown Anchorage.

The tour began in earnest on June 13th, though five of our party had already arrived on the 12th. We started with a slight itinerary change heading north to Denali and saving Seward until later in the tour. This turned out to be extremely fortuitous as we had a wonderful journey north along the Parks Highway which included seeing a female Harlequin Duck, American Dippers, Alder Flycatcher, Boreal Chickadee, Gray Jay and best of all, a family party of Northern Hawk-owls right by the road! Next day it was the mammals that stole the show in Denali National Park as we tallied Dall's Sheep, Carabou, Moose, Arctic Ground Squirrel, and Snowshoe Hare. The highlight was six Grizzly Bears in the park including a mother and two well-grown cubs. The Denali Highway, reputed to be the most scenic birding highway in North America, was full of picturesque lakes supporting Horned Grebes, White-winged Scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, Buffleheads, Northern Pintails, and Red-necked Phalaropes. American Tree Sparrows, Blackpoll and Arctic Warblers graced much of the route along the highway.

The next day, two hours of pre-breakfast 'tundra' birding at Tangle River was one of the highlights of the whole tour. We quickly located several fine male Smith's Longspurs, and enjoyed close views of breeding Hudsonian Whimbrels, Long-tailed Skuas and American Golden-plovers, plus a distant Short-eared Owl, all within magnificent scenery. Journeying back to Eagle River we found Pine Grosbeak, Red-tailed (Harlan's) and Rough-legged Hawks, breeding Pacific Loons, Northern Flicker, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Western Wood-pewee, breeding Rusty Blackbirds and a Solitary Sandpiper at various stops en route. A further two Northern Hawk Owls and an absurdly close adult Bald Eagle graced the Glenn Highway on the same day.

Seward on the Kenai Peninsula was just a wonderful experience all round and our scheduled boat cruise on the Kenai Fjords was one of the most anticipated days of the tour. Sea Otters, Humpback Whales and Orcas, Steller's Sea Lions and an impressive bird list which included Pigeon Guillemots, Ancient, Marbled and Kittlitz's Murrelets, Horned and Tufted Puffins, Red-faced and Pelagic Cormorants, Parakeet and Rhinoceros Auklets and Brünnich's Guillemots (Thick-billed Murres) were all part of this tour which eventually culminated in the spectacular 'calving' of Aialik Glacier. It was also down in Seward where we encountered a handful of species and sub-species found nowhere else on the tour including 'Kenai' Song Sparrow, 'Sooty' Fox Sparrow, Steller's Jay, Northwestern Crow, Red Crossbill, and a pair of Chestnut-backed Chickadees tending a nest.

The summer solstice found us in Nome, as far north as we would go on this particular itinerary, and we had three very enjoyable days here, as we did in 2007. Common birds in or close to town included Red-throated Diver, Glaucous Gull, Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers, and lots of Lapland Longspurs. Compared to our 2007 visit, major differences included the large-scale presence of Short-eared Owls and Arctic Redpolls. We would encounter both species on each of our days in Nome, and often in unexpectedly high numbers such as 10 Short-eared Owls seen along the Kougarok Road. Parties of up to a dozen Arctic Redpolls almost matched Common Redpolls in numbers this year. On the other hand we found very few eiders and there would be no Spectacled Eiders for us this year. Besides these, we found most of the key birds for which Nome is renowned including Black-throated Diver (Siberian form), Taverner's Cackling Goose, Tundra Swan, Surfbird (two with downy young), Black Turnstone, Pacific Golden-plover, Red-necked Stint (remarkably, nine birds seen on the last morning!), Bristle-thighed Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, Slaty-backed and Vega Gulls, Aleutian Tern, Eastern Yellow Wagtail (now split from Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava) and Northern Wheatear. The discovery of a White Wagtail in town by three of our party who'd decided to have a relaxed morning in Nome was another highlight and a very good bird for this tour. White Wagtails are few and far between in North America and this bird related to the East Siberian form ocularis. Although we had no further luck with bears in Nome we did see plenty of Musk Ox and a huge heard of Caribou.

The final stage of the Alaska tour was a three-day trip to the Pribilofs. It was also time to say our goodbyes to Trevor and Carol, and Derek who wouldn't be joining us for the optional Pribilofs extension. However, there was time for some excellent birding in Anchorage before our respective flights and in the morning we visited Westchester Lagoon finding close Red-necked Grebes, Blue-winged Teal, Canada Geese, Barrow's Goldeneye and both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs – all at very close range. The adjacent mudflats at Cook Inlet already held good numbers of returning shorebirds including over 120 Short-billed Dowitchers, 80 Hudsonian Godwits, and even a Surfbird! A smattering of gulls included some American Herring Gulls and about 25 Bonaparte's Gulls.

We were very fortunate in having an on-time departure for St Paul in the Pribilofs. On arrival we were greeted by our guide Cameron Cox and quickly shown to our rooms. We put on warm gear and headed straight out into the field! At the town harbor we found our first Red-legged Kittiwakes, about eight birds in total inside a larger flock of Black-legged Kittiwakes, and also saw Slaty-backed, Glaucous, Glaucous-winged and a hybrid (Glaucous-winged x Slaty-backed) Gull.

After dinner we came across the first of many Arctic Foxes, and enjoyed very close Rock Sandpipers by the road to Northeast point. This area was to remain our focus for the rest of the evening as we scanned in vain for a previously reported White-billed Diver. However, did enjoy some good passages of Short-tailed Shearwaters off Hutchinson Hill, our team rising admirably to the challenge of picking them out from the much more numerous dark-phase (plus intermediate and white phase) Pacific Northern Fulmars. Nearby Webster Lake held several Eurasian Teal and two Grey Phalaropes, one in pure winter plumage and one in full summer dress!

The following day we enjoyed good views of some of the cliff-nesting seabirds including Crested, Parakeet and Least Auklets and Brünnich's Guillemots but with conditions being far from ideal we elected first for a close look at a colony of Northern Fur Seals. Later, off East Landing, Fork-tailed Storm-petrels appeared with one, then two and eventually three birds giving prolonged views just 150 meters off shore with a flock of about 200 feeding Northern Fulmars. For just about all of us, these had to be the best views of Fork-tailed Storm-petrel that we'd ever experienced.

The rest of our time on St Paul was spent watching seabirds and the handful of resident passerines on the island which comprised of Grey-crowned Rosyfinch, Snow Bunting, Lapland Longspur and the ever elusive Winter Wren which showed itself to just one person in the whole group! The only other passerine that we saw during our stay was a wandering, evidently lost, Sand Martin.

In addition, there was an injured but still very fine looking male King Eider, plus an excellent side-by-side comparison of Red-faced and Pelagic Cormorants. Once we eventually left St Paul the direct flight was trouble free and we had great views of Mt McKinley as we came into Anchorage.

After a final night in Eagle River, we called in at the always-impressive Eagle River Nature Center. This excellent reserve has a good reputation for woodpeckers and it didn't disappoint producing Hairy, Downy and American Three-toed Woodpeckers and what was very likely a drumming Black-backed Woodpecker – sadly not seen. Just before entering the reserve we'd noted Merlin and Red-breasted Nuthatch. By mid-morning it was time to head for Anchorage and say our goodbyes to Paul and Andrea Kelly. With still enough time for a short visit to Kincaid Park we had superb views of Bald Eagles, Fox Sparrows, Alder Flycatchers and Yellow Warblers, and a cow and calf Moose that was a good bye from Anchorage before the mid-afternoon flight home.

Thanks go to all our participants, especially Paul and Andrea Kelly who drove the second vehicle and made valuable a contribution towards the smooth running of the tour.

Bristle-thighed Curlew

Bristle-thighed Curlew