A Field Guides Birding Tours Report

Alaska I - Part One (Homer & Denali) 2021

May 29-June 6, 2021 with Chris Benesh & Jesse Fagan guiding

This is a clear example of why we love Alaska. It is therapeutic to visit places like this, especially after the past year. It is good to know they still exist. This video by guide Jesse Fagan was taken on the Denali Highway at Mile 31 from Cantwell.

If you had to pick one place to visit after a year of not being able to go anywhere, then Alaska would probably be high on your list. As one person said, "The entire state of Alaska could be a national park." It's so very true. The first segment of our two-part Alaska offering visited two impressive sites: Homer, located on the Kenai Peninsula, and famous Denali National Park. The Kenai Peninsula juts south, with Anchorage to the north and Seward and Homer located on either side, east and west. The scenic drive from Anchorage to Homer skirts the large Cook Inlet, along which you eventually arrive at tidy Homer and scenic Kachemak Bay. To reach Denali NP you head north, where you might catch a glimpse (if the weather is kind) of the tallest mountain in North America, Denali, at 20,310 feet.

We spent our first few days in Homer. However, on the way there we made one important stop for a Northern Hawk Owl that Chris spotted while cruising along at 70 mph. Quite possibly that will be the spot of the year! We made a few other important ticks along the way, such as a pleasant Golden-crowned Sparrow singing on the shores of Summit Lake and our first Moose. We were fortunate enough to have a boat ride in Kachemak Bay with Karl and Beth. This three-hour tour was very good for a few alcids including Marbled Murrelet, Tufted and Horned puffins, and Common Murre. We also saw thousands of Black-legged Kittiwakes at a breeding colony and had nice views of Grewingk Glacier. Back on the mainland, we enjoyed fresh halibut for dinner and a Boreal Chickadee or two, and Varied Thrush put in a nice appearance. We then headed back to Anchorage for one night, but not before watching Aleutian Terns chirping in flight along the beach, a drumming American Three-toed Woodpecker at a recent burn, and Mountain Goats seen through the scope!

We were fortunate to have several days of clear weather to enjoy the jaw-dropping views of Denali Peak. This just added to the overwhelming splendor of the area. Now, this is Alaska! It was especially evident during our birding drive along the Denali Highway. This is a relatively untraveled road where you can enjoy the big views and sweeping landscapes. We spotted grizzlies on the slope, watched a Lesser Yellowlegs calling from the top of a spruce tree, and enjoyed Barrow's Goldeneyes on mirrored ponds. The picnic lunch here wasn't too bad either, eh?(Chris has the recipe.) Oh, and by the way, don't forget to put on your seat belts!

Chris and I had a wonderful time birding with you all. Thanks for rolling with the punches as we watched the service industry slowly recover after a year of dormancy. We might have been a little rusty, too, so thanks for understanding. We look forward to sharing more good times with you in the field. Best of birding in 2021, and here's to a more "normal" 2022 and beyond.

—Jesse aka Motmot (from Lima, Peru)

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)

BRANT (BLACK) (Branta bernicla nigricans)

A small flock of 6 birds flew by us at Anchor Point.

CACKLING GOOSE (ALEUTIAN) (Branta hutchinsii leucopareia)

CANADA GOOSE (Branta canadensis)

TRUMPETER SWAN (Cygnus buccinator)

Small numbers were seen each day during our time around Homer and on our drive north to Denali.

Field Guides Birding Tours
Boom! We started off the tour with real fireworks. We sawe this Northern Hawk Owl along the highway between Anchorage and Homer. Thanks for the photo by participant Judith Harackiewicz.

NORTHERN SHOVELER (Spatula clypeata)

A few small flocks were seen on the Denali HW. One of the more northern breeding waterfowl, hence the common name.

GADWALL (Mareca strepera)

At least one was at Westchester Lagoon on our first morning.

AMERICAN WIGEON (Mareca americana)

Fairly common, seen everyday of the tour.

MALLARD (Anas platyrhynchos)


Like Northern Shoveler, this species is aptly named for its breeding distribution. Seen in different spots along the tour in pretty good numbers.

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

Small numbers on most days.

RING-NECKED DUCK (Aythya collaris)

One of the less common ducks seen on this tour.

GREATER SCAUP (Aythya marila)

Quite common on this tour route. Seen in good numbers most days. Slighly more common (it seemed) than the next species. In some areas, however, both species overlapped.

LESSER SCAUP (Aythya affinis)

HARLEQUIN DUCK (Histrionicus histrionicus)

The males are so spectacular looking. Thankfully, they were seen well on several days.

SURF SCOTER (Melanitta perspicillata)

Just one in the Homer area.

WHITE-WINGED SCOTER (Melanitta deglandi)

A flock flew by during our Homer boatride, but then we had breeding birds on ponds along the Denali HW. Very cool to see their breeding habitat.

BLACK SCOTER (Melanitta americana)

A quick fly by while birding the beach along Anchor Point.

LONG-TAILED DUCK (Clangula hyemalis)

One was offshore at Anchor Point.

BUFFLEHEAD (Bucephala albeola)

COMMON GOLDENEYE (Bucephala clangula)

This species was the less common of the two goldeneyes. There were a few at Lynn Ary Park in Anchorage.

BARROW'S GOLDENEYE (Bucephala islandica)

Fairly common and seen well in good numbers on several days.

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A lovely shot by participant Amy Padgett of this Arctic Tern with a small offering for its mate.

COMMON MERGANSER (Mergus merganser)

Both mergansers were nearly side by side for nice comparisons at Anchor Point. Common and Red-breasted were both seen well during our tour.


Phasianidae (Pheasants, Grouse, and Allies)

WILLOW PTARMIGAN (Lagopus lagopus)

Well, Don finally stopped for a Willow Ptarmigan! Seen well (eventually) on our Denali bus ride.

Podicipedidae (Grebes)

RED-NECKED GREBE (Podiceps grisegena)

Common on the tour. Several were on the lake at our airport hotel.

Columbidae (Pigeons and Doves)

ROCK PIGEON (Columba livia) [I]

Gruidae (Cranes)

SANDHILL CRANE (Antigone canadensis)

Seen in the Homera. Always nice to hear them calling.

Charadriidae (Plovers and Lapwings)

SEMIPALMATED PLOVER (Charadrius semipalmatus)

Scolopacidae (Sandpipers and Allies)

BAR-TAILED GODWIT (Limosa lapponica)

We made a special effort to find these at Lynn Ary Park in Anchorage. We had one good female in the scope, but there could have been a couple of more around that walked out of view.

HUDSONIAN GODWIT (Limosa haemastica)

Seen at Westchester Lagoon and again at Lynn Ary Park, both spots in Anchorage.

BLACK TURNSTONE (Arenaria melanocephala)

A group of 8 were seen well on the mudflats at Westchester Lagoon on our first morning of birding.

SURFBIRD (Calidris virgata)

Also on the mudflats at Westchester, we found a group of Surfbirds!

WESTERN SANDPIPER (Calidris mauri)

Small numbers in Homer.

SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER (Limnodromus griseus)

RED-NECKED PHALAROPE (Phalaropus lobatus)

Lots along the Denali HW.

GREATER YELLOWLEGS (Tringa melanoleuca)

We had both yellowlegs in the Homer area.

LESSER YELLOWLEGS (Tringa flavipes)

I don't think any of us will forget the calling Lesser Yellowlegs from atop the spruce tree along the Denali HW! Shorebirds in trees; not something most of us are used to seeing.

Stercorariidae (Skuas and Jaegers)

LONG-TAILED JAEGER (Stercorarius longicaudus)

Chris spotted a distant bird (probably sitting on a nest) during our Denali bus ride. Don wouldn't let us out to scope it. ;-)

Alcidae (Auks, Murres, and Puffins)

COMMON MURRE (Uria aalge)

Around a thousand individuals were seen in a couple of large flocks during on our Homer boatride.

Here we are beginning our boat ride in Kachemak Bay out of Homer. Our first Marbled Murrelets are coming right up! Video by guide Jesse Fagan.

PIGEON GUILLEMOT (Cepphus columba)

Good numbers seen on the Homer boat ride. We estimated 75 or so.

MARBLED MURRELET (Brachyramphus marmoratus)

Good numbers on the water during our Homer boat trip.

HORNED PUFFIN (Fratercula corniculata)

We saw well two individuals near Gull Island mixed with the Tufted Puffins. Not many breed here so we were lucky to set eyes on a couple of them.

TUFTED PUFFIN (Fratercula cirrhata)

As we approached Gull Island we saw this species floating in the water mixed with other alcids. There is a small population that breeds here.

Laridae (Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers)


Thousands on the Homer boat ride.

BONAPARTE'S GULL (Chroicocephalus philadelphia)

Seen at Westchester Lagoon on our first morning.

MEW GULL (AMERICAN) (Larus canus brachyrhynchus)

One of the more common gulls during our trip. Seen most days and in good numbers. As Chris was explaining, there is a potential split coming here. North American (American) breeders will be called "Short-billed Gull," while Old World (European) breeders will be "Common Gull."; though individuals from NE Asia are sometimes referred to as "Kamchatka Gull."

GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULL (Larus glaucescens)

Large numbers in the Homer area including many GW X Herring Gull hybrids, sometimes referred to as "Cook Inlet Gulls."

ALEUTIAN TERN (Onychoprion aleuticus)

Seen and heard very well along the beach at Anchor Point.

ARCTIC TERN (Sterna paradisaea)

One of our first new birds of the tour as it greeted us in the parking lot at Westchester Lagoon.

Gaviidae (Loons)

RED-THROATED LOON (Gavia stellata)

Just one on the pond at Westchester Lagoon.

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A lone Steller's Sea Lion guards its position on Gull Island in Kachemak Bay, where thousands of Black-legged Kittiwakes were nesting. Photo by guide Jesse Fagan.

PACIFIC LOON (Gavia pacifica)

Large numbers offshore at Anchor Point. Many seemed to be moving down the bay.

COMMON LOON (Gavia immer)

Small numbers in the Homer area.

Phalacrocoracidae (Cormorants and Shags)

PELAGIC CORMORANT (Phalacrocorax pelagicus)

Seen on our Homer boat ride.

Accipitridae (Hawks, Eagles, and Kites)

GOLDEN EAGLE (Aquila chrysaetos)

A pair were seen on the Denali bus ride.

NORTHERN HARRIER (Circus hudsonius)

Several male "Gray Ghosts" were seen along the Denali HW.

BALD EAGLE (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)

Good to see so many, especially in the Homer and Anchorage area.

RED-TAILED HAWK (HARLAN'S) (Buteo jamaicensis harlani)

Just one on our drive north to Denali NP. We made a quick stop to check it out soaring above us.

Strigidae (Owls)

NORTHERN HAWK OWL (Surnia ulula)

Chris had an amazing spot while we were cruising at 70 mph towards Homer. Awesome views of this low density and often missed species.

SHORT-EARED OWL (Asio flammeus)

One distant bird, not seen very well by most, on the Denali bus ride.

Alcedinidae (Kingfishers)

BELTED KINGFISHER (Megaceryle alcyon)

One was seen calling in flight during a stop along the Denali HW.

Picidae (Woodpeckers)


We made a stop on our way back from Homer at a forest with a recent fire burn (which this species loves). As luck would have it, there was one around that responded nicely for great views.

HAIRY WOODPECKER (Dryobates villosus)

Falconidae (Falcons and Caracaras)

MERLIN (Falco columbarius)

A pair were nesting somewhere near our hotel in Homer.

Corvidae (Crows, Jays, and Magpies)

CANADA JAY (Perisoreus canadensis)

Seen in the Denali area. This was a recent name change from Gray Jay to Canada Jay in 2018.

STELLER'S JAY (Cyanocitta stelleri)

Just one, but in Homer we were at the extreme northern limit of this species range.


For folks living in the East, it was a treat to see this species everyday on tour.

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This shot clearly says "Alaska!" Fantastic capture of a Bald Eagle in flight by participant Clifford Thurber.

NORTHWESTERN CROW (Corvus caurinus)

Seen in the Homer area where fairly common. Enjoy this one while you can as there is talk of lumping it back with American Crow.

COMMON RAVEN (Corvus corax)

Paridae (Tits, Chickadees, and Titmice)

BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEE (Poecile atricapillus)

Just one on our first day out.

BOREAL CHICKADEE (Poecile hudsonicus)

Around in good numbers in the spruce forest at Homer.

Hirundinidae (Swallows)

TREE SWALLOW (Tachycineta bicolor)

The next two species seemed to hang out together and were common in the Homer area just about anywhere there was water. You had to look carefully to tell them apart.

VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOW (Tachycineta thalassina)

BANK SWALLOW (Riparia riparia)

A few were picked out of the swallow flocks.

CLIFF SWALLOW (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota)

We made a couple of stops at overpasses along the Denali HW where they were nesting.

Regulidae (Kinglets)


Seen at a stop (stomping for Spruce Grouse) on our way north to Denali.

RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET (Regulus calendula)

Fairly common, at least by voice, in the spruce forest in various places. They always sound so upbeat!

Sittidae (Nuthatches)

RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH (Sitta canadensis)

Another species that was easy to locate by its voice. And, like Canada Jay, another species with the specific epithet of 'canadensis.'

Sturnidae (Starlings)

EUROPEAN STARLING (Sturnus vulgaris)

Turdidae (Thrushes and Allies)

VARIED THRUSH (Ixoreus naevius)

Always great to see this species, and though relatively common by voice in the spruce forest, it can be a challenge to see them well.

GRAY-CHEEKED THRUSH (Catharus minimus)

Seen super well singing from atop a spruce tree on the Denali HW. This area seemed the apex of breeding Catharus thrushes!

SWAINSON'S THRUSH (Catharus ustulatus)

Preferred more mixed hardwood, than the previous species; a mix of spruce and other deciduous trees. Pretty common in the Denali area.

HERMIT THRUSH (Catharus guttatus)

One was singing outside our hotel in Homer each morning. A nice way to wake up!

AMERICAN ROBIN (Turdus migratorius)

We stopped looking at them after awhile, but we did remark that their song seems very different from southern birds. I am not sure Georgia birds would recognize by voice individuals from Alaska!

Muscicapidae (Old World Flycatchers)

NORTHERN WHEATEAR (Oenanthe oenanthe)

One on the Denali bus ride that Chris picked out. It was a tough angle for half the bus.

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We found Boreal Chickadee in the spruce forest in the Homer area. Thanks to participant Amy Padgett for this very crisp photo—nice!
Fringillidae (Finches, Euphonias, and Allies)

COMMON REDPOLL (Acanthis flammea)

Small numbers were seen around Denali.


Good looks at a pair in Homer, but larger flocks were seen on the Denali HW.

PINE SISKIN (Spinus pinus)

Fairly common in Homer.

Passerellidae (New World Sparrows)

AMERICAN TREE SPARROW (Spizelloides arborea)

We caught up with one on our last stop after a long day on the Denali HW.

FOX SPARROW (SOOTY) (Passerella iliaca sinuosa)

This was the subspecies seen in the Homer area. Several were around the hotel grounds.

FOX SPARROW (RED) (Passerella iliaca zaboria)

This warmer subspecies was encountered in the Denali area. It is part of the same subspecies group that one finds in the East.

DARK-EYED JUNCO (Junco hyemalis)

WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW (GAMBEL'S) (Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii)

Good numbers around on most days, though heard more often than seen.

GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROW (Zonotrichia atricapilla)

We enjoyed a singing bird at Summit Lake Lodge, our first one of the trip, but not our last.

SAVANNAH SPARROW (Passerculus sandwichensis)

SONG SPARROW (RUFINA GROUP) (Melospiza melodia kenaiensis)

This subspecies was seen well at Anchor Point near Homer. It is grayer and less boldly streaked than other subspecies.

LINCOLN'S SPARROW (Melospiza lincolnii)

We watched one singing from a small tree at Bishop's Beach in Homer.

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Denali in all its beauty—we were lucky to have a couple of days where the summit was visible. Photo by guide Jesse Fagan.
Parulidae (New World Warblers)

NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH (Parkesia noveboracensis)

One of the more common songs heard along the Denali HW.

ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER (Leiothlypis celata)

Heard or seen on each day of the tour.

YELLOW WARBLER (Setophaga petechia)

BLACKPOLL WARBLER (Setophaga striata)

This species was fairly common in the spruce forest along the Denali HW.

YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER (MYRTLE) (Setophaga coronata coronata)

TOWNSEND'S WARBLER (Setophaga townsendi)

We called up a responsive pair on Palmer Road above Homer.

WILSON'S WARBLER (Cardellina pusilla)

Just a couple in the low vegetation along the Denali HW.


SNOWSHOE HARE (Lepus americanus)

Several along Palmer Road in Homer were still with some white in their coats.

ARCTIC GROUND SQUIRREL (Spermophilus parryii)

Good numbers were seen sitting around during our Denali bus ride.

RED SQUIRREL (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)

Also known as Pine Squirrel and found throughout Canada and the Lower 48.

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We spotted these four Grizzlies walking along the slope as we drove the Denali Highway, presumably a mother with three cubs. Considering the distance, this is an excellent shot by participant Clifford Thurber.

MUSKRAT (Ondatra zibethica)


We had our first encounter on the high slopes above the Denali HW (an adult with three cubs), and a few other views during our Denali bus ride.


Surprisingly, we had an individual on one of each day we were in the Homer area. Often missed on tour and rarely seen.

STELLER'S SEA LION (Eumetopias jubatus)

One on Gull Island within the Black-legged Kittiwakes.

HARBOR SEAL (Phoca vitulina)

Small numbers in the Homer area.

Hey Rachel, we didn't forget your birthday! Video by guide Jesse Fagan.

MOOSE (Alces alces)

Lots! We did well finding Moose in Homer and again around Denali, though no large antlers were seen on the bulls yet.

CARIBOU (Rangifer tarandus granti)

Lots of Caribou on the Denali bus ride. Don was sure happy about that!

MOUNTAIN GOAT (Oreamnos americanus)

We picked up several small groups on the high slopes above Tern Lake on our way back from Homer.

DALL'S SHEEP (Ovis dalli)

We had sheep on the high ridges near Homer and again on the Denali HW.

Totals for the tour: 103 bird taxa and 12 mammal taxa