A Field Guides Birding Tours Report

Alaska Fall Goldmine: Ross's Gulls in Barrow 2023

October 6-10, 2023 with Cory Gregory guiding

Field Guides Birding Tours
The star of the show was the incredible Ross's Gull. Our tour coincided with the perfect wind and we ended up with views of hundreds of these high-arctic gulls! Photo by guide Cory Gregory.

There is a short list of places on this planet where we could be so floored by a bird spectacle while having such a short bird list. Barrow, formally known as Utqiagvik now, is on that list. Every October there is a phenomenon that occurs at the northern tip of the US and our trip was specifically designed to sample that.

The Ross's Gull, a small but gorgeous arctic gull sporting a wedge-shaped tail and pinkish coloring, has long been a bit of a mystery to birders and ornithologists alike. Once it was discovered where they nested and where they migrated, it became obvious that Barrow was THE place to catch a glimpse. We spent several nights there, 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle, to ensure we overlapped with the right weather. As it turns out, the weather was good for Ross's migration the entire time! Although the wind was screaming out of the northeast for much of our visit, and the dastardly windchills kept us huddled behind the van, the Ross's Gulls were migrating! And not just a couple dozen, but instead many hundreds!

Although Ross's Gulls, of course, stole much of the show, there were a lot of other fascinating species that we encountered. For example, the spectacle of thousands and thousands of migrating ducks, mostly consisting of Common Eiders and Long-tailed Ducks, was something very special to witness. Add to that the King Eiders which migrated by in fewer numbers, and even a couple of the rare Spectacled Eiders that flew by right offshore. Although the shorebirds had long since nested and departed the region, we did encounter a couple of Red Phalaropes swimming and picking along the side of a lagoon. Of course, there were other odds and ends that we enjoyed watching in Barrow such as a big and burly Pomarine Jaeger, a couple of uncommon species like Black Scoter and Greater Scaup, and of course the local Snow Buntings and Hoary Redpolls.

Although the "palm trees", made with whale baleen, did little for recalling a warm tropical climate, we stayed warm in our comfortable hotel, some fun local restaurants, and of course tucked away in our van together. This really was an enjoyable trip filled with things none of us had ever seen! I do thank you for coming with me to the high arctic and I do hope to see you again on another Field Guides trip.

Stay warm out there and keep dreaming of pink!

Good birding,

—Cory (The Curlew)

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

Anatidae (Ducks, Geese, and Waterfowl)

CANADA GOOSE (Branta canadensis)

Seen in the Anchorage area on our night prior to flying north.

TRUMPETER SWAN (Cygnus buccinator)

At least half a dozen of these were seen nicely at Potter Marsh.

TUNDRA SWAN (WHISTLING) (Cygnus columbianus columbianus)

Also at Potter Marsh, this northern species outnumbered the previous species.

Field Guides Birding Tours
At this time of year, the sun does funky things like staying low on the horizon a lot longer. Still, at times the sunlight filtered through in a golden yellow for us... but not a warm golden yellow! Photo by guide Cory Gregory.

NORTHERN SHOVELER (Spatula clypeata)

A couple of these distinctive dabblers were seen at Potter Marsh before we flew north.

AMERICAN WIGEON (Mareca americana)

More than a dozen of these attractive dabblers were scoped at Potter Marsh.

MALLARD (Anas platyrhynchos)

Common in the Potter Marsh area.

Field Guides Birding Tours
Barrow, formally known now as Utqiagvik, is the northernmost town in the US and coming with that is an interesting unique taste. Here, for example, is a gateway arch made from whale bones. Photo by participant Larry Reis.


Although there was only one, this long-necked dabbler was also seen at Potter Marsh.

GREEN-WINGED TEAL (AMERICAN) (Anas crecca carolinensis)

At least half a dozen of these tiny dabblers, the smallest in the world, were seen at Potter Marsh.

RING-NECKED DUCK (Aythya collaris)

Like all the previous waterfowl in this list, this diving species was seen at Potter Marsh before we flew north.

GREATER SCAUP (Aythya marila)

We spotted one of these in the lake near the dock in Barrow. This is a pretty uncommon duck to have up there at this time of year.

Field Guides Birding Tours
At times the Ross's Gulls were very near shore, dipping down and feeding from the surf. Needless to say, the views we had were incredible! Photo by guide Cory Gregory.

SPECTACLED EIDER (Somateria fischeri)

Lucky for us, Barrow is a decent place to hope for this uncommon species. We eventually saw several, although just one or two at a time, and usually mixed with close King Eiders. If you were quick with your camera, you might find you photographed these too!

KING EIDER (Somateria spectabilis)

Of all the eiders, this was one of the common ones that we saw hundreds of! Most of the ones that we were able to ID were close fly-bys along the shoreline. We spent time going over the ID marks, especially the shape of the bill and the "grin". To see hundreds of King Eiders is such a remarkable thing!

COMMON EIDER (Somateria mollissima)

The most common eider species we saw migrating past Barrow. The migration spectacle was likely due to the perfect wind direction and we sure enjoyed watching incredible numbers flying through! It was hard to estimate but I'm sure we saw many thousands.

BLACK SCOTER (Melanitta americana)

We spent a fair amount of time scoping offshore for any and every duck we could find. At one point, it paid off when we found a couple of these uncommon scoters. They were female types and were swimming with the much larger eiders.

Field Guides Birding Tours
Gulls weren't the only specialties we sought after. We were also keen to see Spectacled Eiders and we did just that as documented here with this photo. This flock contains a Spectacled Eider (top) in addition to a King Eider (left) and Long-tailed Ducks (bottom right). Photo by participant Paul Beerman.

LONG-TAILED DUCK (Clangula hyemalis)

In terms of huge numbers, this northern species takes the cake! The swarms of these rocketing past, heading south was truly impressive. We easily tallied between 5,000-10000!

COMMON MERGANSER (Mergus merganser)

Potter Marsh had a couple of these but that was our only sighting.

Scolopacidae (Sandpipers and Allies)

RED PHALAROPE (Phalaropus fulicarius)

Although this is a common species here at other seasons, most had migrated south by now. Still, we ended up finding a couple of these on the lake near the boat ramp and they posed really nicely for photos.

Stercorariidae (Skuas and Jaegers)

POMARINE JAEGER (Stercorarius pomarinus)

We saw this burly jaeger near the end of the runway.

Field Guides Birding Tours
Not all the Ross's Gulls were flying by! Some would feed in the surf right next to shore allowing for incredible photo opportunities. At times, they even sat on the water mere feet from us. Incredible! Photo by participant Larry Reis.
Laridae (Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers)

BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE (POLLICARIS) (Rissa tridactyla pollicaris)

These gulls are actually quite attractive even though they were overshadowed by the following species. Like the Ross's, these were migrating through and we ended up enjoying good views of both adults and juveniles. Over the course of our visit, we tallied about 750 and that might be a vast undercount.

ROSS'S GULL (Rhodostethia rosea)

This beautiful, rose-breasted, black-collared, wedge-tailed gull was the main purpose for our northern adventure and we couldn't have been happier with how our experience unfolded. Yes, the chilly winds were blasting out of the northeast for most of our stay but that also meant that it was likely pushing birds in the Beaufort Sea closer to shore. Shortly after we arrived and ventured north towards the old runway, we saw our first Ross's, wafting up the shoreline! The more we waited and watched, the more Ross's Gulls started to pass by. The following days the flood gates opened and between the snow squalls, we tallied dozens, and then hundreds of these usually hard-to-see arctic waifs. With a breeding range that was discovered only in 1905, this is a relatively little-known species. But it was soon discovered that numbers of them were seen in Barrow during a window in the fall. Thankfully, for us, each of our days in Barrow we were rewarded with many looks at this high-arctic species. I'll never forget the flocks floating past, alongside kittiwakes, sometimes dipping down into the surf. Over the course of our short stay, we saw probably nearly 500! Amazing, just amazing.

GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULL (Larus glaucescens)

We found one sleeping bird in Barrow that looked good for this species but it never lifted its head.

GLAUCOUS GULL (Larus hyperboreus)

This large northern gull was by far the most obvious gull around Barrow. They were sleeping on frozen ponds, quarreling at the landfill, and of course flying by the oceanside. It's hard to estimate numbers but surely several hundred were seen.

Field Guides Birding Tours
Glaucous Gulls were conspicuous and were essentially the only "big" gull around. Flying along the shoreline, these beasts came quite close at times which allowed for fun photography. Photo by guide Cory Gregory.
Gaviidae (Loons)

PACIFIC LOON (Gavia pacifica)

At least some of the loons that flew over were this species but the views were quick.

Procellariidae (Shearwaters and Petrels)

SHORT-TAILED SHEARWATER (Ardenna tenuirostris)

On one of our days along the shore, the winds were just right and this tubenose was being pushed to within sight. A very conservative estimate of 600 was made but considering the rate was at times 3 birds per second, this is probably an undercount.

Accipitridae (Hawks, Eagles, and Kites)

BALD EAGLE (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)

We had a beautiful adult flyby along the road in Chugach State Park on our pre-Barrow portion.

Field Guides Birding Tours
At times small flocks of Ross's Gulls would fly by which allowed us to study them in detail. Here's a photo of three non-breeding adults. Photo by participant Paul Beerman.
Corvidae (Crows, Jays, and Magpies)


Before we flew north to Barrow, we saw a couple of these distinctive Corvids around Anchorage.

COMMON RAVEN (Corvus corax)

This large and intelligent Corvid is one of just a couple passerine species found in Barrow at this time of year. We saw a couple most days and had a one-day max of 6.

Fringillidae (Finches, Euphonias, and Allies)

HOARY REDPOLL (Acanthis hornemanni)

A couple of the redpolls at the feeders in town looked to be this species with the pure white undertail and frostier back.

Field Guides Birding Tours
Even though the sky colors on our trip were dominated by ocean grays, the pink of the Ross's Gulls really stood out sometimes! And then some, as you can see here on the right, showed almost no pink. Photo by guide Cory Gregory.
Calcariidae (Longspurs and Snow Buntings)

SNOW BUNTING (Plectrophenax nivalis)

Our first two came from the feeders in town and then we later found a flock of 6 out in a grassy area south of town.


ARCTIC FOX (Vulpes lagopus)

We enjoyed quick looks at this northern specialty near the landfill where it looked to be hanging out in a culvert.

Field Guides Birding Tours
Another northern specialty that we enjoyed point-blank looks at was Red Phalarope. Although they had lost their breeding colors, we still enjoyed getting pictures of this mostly-pelagic species. Photo by participant Larry Reis.

BLACK BEAR (Ursus americanus)

Cool! We were driving along in Chucach State Park near Anchorage when we glanced uphill and saw one of these! It wasn't a small one either. Pretty soon, others keyed in on what we saw and it garnered a lot of attention.

DALL'S SHEEP (Ovis dalli)

We saw a few along the side of the road near Anchorage and so we got out and scoped this species up on the hillside. These were pretty cool to see, especially the youngsters.

Field Guides Birding Tours
Our group! You can tell two things; first, it's cold! Secondly, we were one happy bunch of birders having explored Barrow and witnessing the Ross's Gull spectacle. Photo by guide Cory Gregory.

Totals for the tour: 29 bird taxa and 3 mammal taxa