A journey to the farthest north reaches of mainland North America is always fascinating, and heading to Utqiagvik (also widely known as Barrow) in October has an extra layer of mystique. Between the shortening days, the whitening ground, the solidifying water, and the promise of rarely seen avian spectacles, it has an ambiance as unique as the place is remote.
This year, it had been much warmer than usual in the lead-up to the tour, and we arrived as the first snow of the autumn to stick to the ground was falling. This snow was accompanied by strong Northeasterly winds, and we rushed to get out into the field as quickly as possible, even pushing off lunch until later, to try and take advantage of these winds that are often advantageous for bringing Ross's Gulls close to shore. While this first day of seawatching didn't return any pink gulls to us, it did give us our first experiences with the one-of-a-kind Point Barrow seawatch. Almost as soon as we began, a mixed flock of Pacific and Yellow-billed Loons flew over, and we had a good showing of Yellow-billed Loons, with around a half dozen individuals, most of which were adults in breeding plumage! We also spied dozens of Common Eiders and hundreds of Long-tailed Ducks, which was but a faint shadow of what was to come over the next few days. We also found time to wrest our eyes away from the sea and scope the southwestern-most part of Elson Lagoon, where we found a couple of Spectacled Eider mixed into the liberal sprinkling of King Eiders and Long-tailed Ducks. There was also tantalizing word of an Ivory Gull south of town, but by the time we got directions and got over there a while later, it had gone MIA. We missed it this time, but we now had another great target to shoot for.
The next two days of birding saw us spending plenty of time at multiple vantage points around the base of Point Barrow, watching the Chukchi Sea in front of us and Elson Lagoon behind us to the east. The numbers of sea-ducks flying by went from hundreds (of both Common Eider and Long-tailed Duck) on the 7th to several thousand on the 8th. The flocks of Common Eider, some several hundred strong, flying along the south side of the lagoon, then over our heads and out to sea, were especially impressive. Mixed into these eiders we were able to pick out quite a few King Eiders and the odd Spectacled Eider here and there, and we were again awash in loons. In the meantime, we scrutinized every single small gull that appeared on the playing field, and while we ended up with a seasonally high number of Black-legged Kittiwakes, we still didn't connect with anything pink.
During a brief respite from the cold at the Department of Wildlife Conservation we talked to some of the scientists working in the area, and it turned out that not only was the water temperature eleven (!!) degrees (F) above normal for the date, but the sea ice was 300 miles from shore, and no Bowhead Whales had yet been seen anywhere near shore. Against the backdrop of this knowledge we were more than pleasantly surprised to still connect with several rarely seen ice-dependent animals on our second day full day. The first was a seal that was bobbing off shore, occasionally sticking its head out of the water between dives. Assuming it was going to be a more expected Spotted Seal or Ringed Seal, we didn't pay it terribly close attention at first. Then on one of its prolonged periods above water (a few seconds) we saw the small head and prodigious whiskers of a Bearded Seal! This ice seal is one of the most important seals for the native Inupiat people, but it's very rare to see them away from ice.
As unexpected as the Bearded Seal was, it would soon be eclipsed (and then re-eclipsed). Later in the afternoon, another seal was spotted, but its size as it disappeared underwater made it look very suspiciously NOT like a seal. After some tense waiting, it resurfaced...tusks first! A Walrus was completely unexpected given the lack of ice, and we had not one, not two, but three Pacific Walrus making their way slowly to the southwest off shore. Amazing, and a huge highlight for all!
We also spent some time exploring the rest of the open road system of Barrow, racking up an impressive tally of Snowy Owls of all plumages (from ones that were more black than white to ones which were entirely white), even getting to see one ambush a lemming through a foot of snow and then swallow said lemming whole in one gulp. Then, after our last eider-filled seawatch (but continuing the theme of a lack of pink) at the base of the point, we headed towards town to try and track down the Ivory Gull, as we had found out that someone had had it earlier in the day. As we were wrapping up a brief comfort stop at the hotel, some fresh news came to me hot off the presses, another visiting birder who we had been crossing paths and sharing sightings with over the past couple of days was looking at the Ivory Gull! We sped over to the spot, and sure enough, there it was: the whitest of white gulls. We watched this Ivory Gull as it stalked around the now snow-covered tundra, occasionally picking at the remains of something that was out in the grass adjacent to the side road from which we were viewing. Thanks, Herb!
We checked into the airport around sunrise on our final morning, and then headed back once more unto the breach to look for Ross's Gulls from the beach. Alas, the placid seas and calm winds, while an excellent recipe for our flight out of Utqiagvik to be on time, did not produce the pink pixies, and our snow white gull of the arctic would remain alone atop the pedestal of gulls for the trip.
It was an exciting adventure to the arctic with this group, and it was a genuine pleasure to travel with each and every one of you. Walruses, Snowy Owls, battalions of Common Eiders filling the sky below big Yellow-billed Loons and with Spectacled Eiders mixed in amongst their ranks, Arctic Foxes, even more Snowy Owls, and with the white chocolate cherry of an adult Ivory Gull on top--what a trip it was! Be well, and I hope to run into you again somewhere on this big bird-full globe of ours.
KEYS FOR THIS LIST
One of the following keys may be shown in brackets for individual species as appropriate: * = heard only, I = introduced, E = endemic, N = nesting, a = austral migrant, b = boreal migrant
Totals for the tour: 21 bird taxa and 4 mammal taxa