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This male Willow Ptarmigan showed off his breeding display over the tundra in Nome. Photo by leader Tom Johnson.
We’re back from our annual adventure around Alaska, North America’s wilderness playground, and there’s plenty to report this spring - as always! The birding was truly superb, with a selected highlights list of Bristle-thighed Curlew, Bluethroat, White & Eastern Yellow wagtails, Aleutian Terns, Arctic Loon, Kittlitz’s Murrelet, Hudsonian Godwit, Spectacled and Steller’s eiders, Yellow-billed Loon, Sabine’s Gull, and Little Stint. Though these marquee species were certainly welcome, I think most of us were excited just to visit places where we could see shorebirds doing breeding things in breeding plumage! Mammals were also top notch, with gripping sightings of Killer Whales, Moose, and Harbor, Spotted, Ringed, and Bearded seals, too! For more information on particular species, please read below the introduction for an annotated list of birds & mammals.
Fair skies and warm weather (really warm!) dominated our excellent visits to Nome, Seward, and Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow) this spring. We encountered 80°F days in Nome, and the mercury even reached 70°F on our first afternoon in Utqiagvik – this is an almost unbelievable temperature in this far northern place where temperatures usually hover in the 30s in mid-June. Despite the warmth, we managed to avoid any issues from hatches of biting insects, and the days were very, very pleasant. The thermometer was a sobering reminder that we are currently bearing witness to a rapidly changing climate, with Alaska directly in the crucible.
First, we left Anchorage and flew to Nome for three nights. In Nome, we had plenty of time to bird on the three major roads out of town: the Council Road leading to Safety Sound and beyond, the Kougarok Road leading to the mystical hilly land of the Bristle-thighed Curlew, and the Nome-Teller Highway leading to, well, Teller (but we didn’t go that far, opting to spend our time along the road's river valleys and rocky tundra habitats). We made the most out of our time in Nome with early morning departures and optional after-dinner outings to the Nome River Mouth and Safety Sound (with nap breaks strategically sprinkled into the afternoons). Quite memorable to me were the surprise Arctic Loon that snuck up behind us on the ocean adjacent to Safety Sound, the very showy pairs of Eastern Yellow Wagtails on the Teller Highway, the masses of nesting Aleutian Terns at the Nome River Mouth, displaying Bluethroats, the sneaky Bristle-thighed Curlew that we nearly tripped over, and the rare and surprising Kittlitz’s Murrelets that Cory picked out offshore from town on our glassy calm final morning. Nesting Gyrfalcons, Rough-legged Hawks, and Golden Eagles weren't too shabby, either! Nome is probably my favorite non-Cape May birding destination in North America, and I was pleased that it was in its full glory during this spring’s visit.
On to Seward! We returned by air to Anchorage, picked up our vans, and drove south along Turnagain Arm and then through the mountains to reach beautiful Seward. This town, nestled along the rugged, spruce-lined shore of Resurrection Bay, was our home for two nights. Our main motivation for visiting Seward is the chartered boat trip that we take into Kenai Fjords National Park. Once again, Captain Tanya Shober took us around Cape Aialik to the Chiswell Islands and eventually the Aialik Glacier, helping us find a special assortment of marine birds and mammals including 9 species of Alcid (highlight species: Kittlitz’s & Marbled murrelets, Parakeet Auklets, Rhinoceros Auklets, and Ancient Murrelets), Black Oystercatchers, Killer Whales up close (REALLY close), Humpback Whales, Sea Otters, and plenty of Steller’s Sea Lions. Guest leader Andrew Dreelin from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology joined us for our boat trip to help point out key species, and he also kept our eBird lists for the day (not a simple task on long boat trips!). On our return trip from Seward to Anchorage, we visited birdfeeders and birded along a transect through forest habitats, finding Red and White-winged crossbills, Pine Grosbeak, Rufous Hummingbird, American Dipper, Trumpeter Swan, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Varied Thrush, and more.
The final stage of this tour requires a flight north from Anchorage over the vast interior of Alaska and the impressive Brooks Range, that enormous Arctic mountain chain that cuts east-west across the northern part of The Great Land. This air journey allows us to visit the coast of Utqiagvik (formerly called Barrow), the northernmost city in the United States of America. Here the icy sea meets the tundra and the animals are largely different from those found in other parts of Alaska. The native Alaskan community hunts whales and seals, but birders come here primarily to seek Arctic-breeding shorebirds and waterfowl. We were shocked by the warm air temperature and the vast amount of open water along the shoreline here (more than I’ve seen here before in early-mid June), but it became clear that the open water made for great seawatching. Setting up our scopes on the beach across from the Top of the World Hotel, we were able to see migrating and commuting Yellow-billed Loons, Brant, Long-tailed Ducks, Thick-billed Murres, and all four species of eiders. This was just an aperitif for the action we enjoyed on the coastal tundra, where we took in up-close views of Spectacled, Steller’s, and King eiders, nesting Sabine’s Gulls, a territorial Little Stint, breeding Pomarine and Parasitic jaegers, and pure white Snowy Owls. The breeding displays and fights of the Pectoral Sandpipers and Red Phalaropes also punctuated this fascinating landscape. Seals were surprisingly easy to see from shore this year in Utqiagvik, with both Ringed (many) and Bearded (just three of these big guys) seals on offer on the nearshore ice. Once we soaked in as much of the birdlife of Utqiagvik, we made sure to visit the Inupiat Heritage Center to learn about the human history and culture of the area. **A quick note on the name of this place - In October 2016, the city of Barrow held a vote, with voters deciding to officially change the name of the city to "Utqiagvik," an Inupiat word meaning roughly "the place where we gathered wild roots." We choose to honor the official native name of this place, but do note that many people, including many native residents, still call the place "Barrow." **
Returning to Anchorage after such a thrilling experience in the true Arctic was bittersweet, but there was more birding left to do! In Anchorage, we made our final attempt at Potter Marsh to see the oft-hidden Falcated Duck that had performed so nicely for us on our Part 1 tour (no luck this time), and then put a bow on the birding with a lovely group of Hudsonian Godwits in the scope at Westchester Lagoon. One final dinner at the Flying Machine Restaurant helped us toast our favorite birds and beasts, and then we parted ways for the trip home.
Cory and I would like to offer thanks to all of the members of our group for helping to make this a memorable experience! Karen Turner anchored the logistics of our operation from the Austin office and deserves much applause for her efforts. We also thank Andrew Dreelin for his help on the Seward boat trip.
Until next time!
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
Anatidae (Ducks, Geese, and Waterfowl)
GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE (Anser albifrons)
BRANT (BLACK) (Branta bernicla nigricans)
CACKLING GOOSE (Branta hutchinsii)
Denali National Park has some of the finest scenery found anywhere in North America. Photo by group member Eileen Wheeler.
CANADA GOOSE (Branta canadensis) [N]
TRUMPETER SWAN (Cygnus buccinator)
TUNDRA SWAN (WHISTLING) (Cygnus columbianus columbianus)
NORTHERN SHOVELER (Spatula clypeata)
GADWALL (Mareca strepera) [N]
EURASIAN WIGEON (Mareca penelope)
AMERICAN WIGEON (Mareca americana) [N]
MALLARD (Anas platyrhynchos) [N]
NORTHERN PINTAIL (Anas acuta)
Group member Richard Hall captured this incredibly atmospheric photo of male Spectacled Eiders swimming between chunks of ice near the base of Point Barrow.
GREEN-WINGED TEAL (AMERICAN) (Anas crecca carolinensis)
CANVASBACK (Aythya valisineria)
RING-NECKED DUCK (Aythya collaris)
GREATER SCAUP (Aythya marila)
LESSER SCAUP (Aythya affinis)
STELLER'S EIDER (Polysticta stelleri)
At least 25 Parakeet Auklets loafed around a breeding colony in the Chiswell Islands, offering us great views as they flew around the cove and landed on rocks near their hidden burrows. Photo by leader Tom Johnson.
SPECTACLED EIDER (Somateria fischeri)
KING EIDER (Somateria spectabilis)
COMMON EIDER (PACIFIC) (Somateria mollissima v-nigrum)
HARLEQUIN DUCK (Histrionicus histrionicus)
SURF SCOTER (Melanitta perspicillata)
WHITE-WINGED SCOTER (NORTH AMERICAN) (Melanitta deglandi deglandi)
Eiders might have contributed to some slight smiles for our group in Utqiagvik. Photo by leader Cory Gregory.
BLACK SCOTER (Melanitta americana)
LONG-TAILED DUCK (Clangula hyemalis)
BARROW'S GOLDENEYE (Bucephala islandica)
COMMON MERGANSER (Mergus merganser) [N]
RED-BREASTED MERGANSER (Mergus serrator)
Phasianidae (Pheasants, Grouse, and Allies)
WILLOW PTARMIGAN (Lagopus lagopus)
This female Barrow's Goldeneye is typical of birds that we see in Alaska in June in having a mostly dark bill (unlike the bright yellow-orange shown in most published field guides). The relatively small bill, steep forehead, and hindneck "mane" help us confidently identify this one as a Barrow's regardless of its bill color. Photo by group member Richard Hall.
RED-NECKED GREBE (Podiceps grisegena)
Columbidae (Pigeons and Doves)
ROCK PIGEON (Columba livia) [I]
RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRD (Selasphorus rufus)
SANDHILL CRANE (Antigone canadensis)
BLACK OYSTERCATCHER (Haematopus bachmani)
Charadriidae (Plovers and Lapwings)
AMERICAN GOLDEN-PLOVER (Pluvialis dominica) [N]
PACIFIC GOLDEN-PLOVER (Pluvialis fulva)
SEMIPALMATED PLOVER (Charadrius semipalmatus) [N]
This male Red Crossbill was one of a pair that came in to feed at Ava's feeders near Seward. Recordings of their calls suggest that these were "Type 3" Red Crossbills, a small-billed type that focuses on conifers like Western Hemlock and Sitka Spruce. Photo by leader Tom Johnson.
KILLDEER (Charadrius vociferus)
Scolopacidae (Sandpipers and Allies)
BRISTLE-THIGHED CURLEW (Numenius tahitiensis) [N]
WHIMBREL (HUDSONIAN) (Numenius phaeopus hudsonicus) [N]
BAR-TAILED GODWIT (Limosa lapponica)
HUDSONIAN GODWIT (Limosa haemastica)
BLACK TURNSTONE (Arenaria melanocephala)
SURFBIRD (Calidris virgata)
DUNLIN (Calidris alpina) [N]
Photo opportunities abounded on this tour, especially on the gravel bar at the Nome River Mouth where Cory, Richard, and Bob showed off "Delta formation." Photo by leader Tom Johnson.
BAIRD'S SANDPIPER (Calidris bairdii)
LITTLE STINT (Calidris minuta) [N]
LEAST SANDPIPER (Calidris minutilla)
PECTORAL SANDPIPER (Calidris melanotos) [N]
SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPER (Calidris pusilla) [N]
WESTERN SANDPIPER (Calidris mauri)
SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER (Limnodromus griseus) [N]
LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER (Limnodromus scolopaceus)
WILSON'S SNIPE (Gallinago delicata)
RED-NECKED PHALAROPE (Phalaropus lobatus) [N]
We watched a fascinating interaction between several female Red Phalaropes competing for a single male in Utqiagvik. A reversal of the typical "males fighting over female" scenario, it was impressive to see one female come out as the top contender after an extended battle. She eventually cozied right up next to the placid, clearly smitten male. Photo montage by group member Richard Hall.
RED PHALAROPE (Phalaropus fulicarius) [N]
SPOTTED SANDPIPER (Actitis macularius)
WANDERING TATTLER (Tringa incana)
GREATER YELLOWLEGS (Tringa melanoleuca)
LESSER YELLOWLEGS (Tringa flavipes)
Stercorariidae (Skuas and Jaegers)
POMARINE JAEGER (Stercorarius pomarinus) [N]
PARASITIC JAEGER (Stercorarius parasiticus) [N]
LONG-TAILED JAEGER (Stercorarius longicaudus) [N]
Alcidae (Auks, Murres, and Puffins)
COMMON MURRE (Uria aalge) [N]
THICK-BILLED MURRE (Uria lomvia)
BLACK GUILLEMOT (Cepphus grylle)
The birds were great, but we also met a local human celebrity: Richard Beneville (in the sunglasses), the birder-friendly mayor of Nome, checked up on us in the grocery store. Photo by leader Cory Gregory.
PIGEON GUILLEMOT (Cepphus columba)
MARBLED MURRELET (Brachyramphus marmoratus)
KITTLITZ'S MURRELET (Brachyramphus brevirostris)
ANCIENT MURRELET (Synthliboramphus antiquus)
PARAKEET AUKLET (Aethia psittacula) [N]
RHINOCEROS AUKLET (Cerorhinca monocerata)
HORNED PUFFIN (Fratercula corniculata) [N]
TUFTED PUFFIN (Fratercula cirrhata) [N]
Laridae (Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers)
BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE (Rissa tridactyla) [N]
SABINE'S GULL (Xema sabini) [N]
The Killer Whales of the Chiswell Islands approached us very closely, even diving under our boat at times! Photo by group member Eileen Wheeler.
BONAPARTE'S GULL (Chroicocephalus philadelphia)
MEW GULL (AMERICAN) (Larus canus brachyrhynchus) [N]
HERRING GULL (Larus argentatus)
SLATY-BACKED GULL (Larus schistisagus)
GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULL (Larus glaucescens) [N]
GLAUCOUS GULL (Larus hyperboreus) [N]
ALEUTIAN TERN (Onychoprion aleuticus) [N]
ARCTIC TERN (Sterna paradisaea) [N]
RED-THROATED LOON (Gavia stellata) [N]
This stonking adult Arctic Loon gave us plenty of opportunity to see its white leg patches and its combination of bold white neck stripes and a lead-gray nape. Overall, the bird also shows a lankier shape than the smaller-billed, puffy-necked Pacific Loon. This species is rare and typically quite wary in western Alaska. Photo by leader Cory Gregory.
ARCTIC LOON (Gavia arctica)
PACIFIC LOON (Gavia pacifica) [N]
COMMON LOON (Gavia immer)
YELLOW-BILLED LOON (Gavia adamsii)
Procellariidae (Shearwaters and Petrels)
SHORT-TAILED SHEARWATER (Ardenna tenuirostris)
Phalacrocoracidae (Cormorants and Shags)
RED-FACED CORMORANT (Phalacrocorax urile)
PELAGIC CORMORANT (Phalacrocorax pelagicus) [N]
DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT (Phalacrocorax auritus)
Accipitridae (Hawks, Eagles, and Kites)
GOLDEN EAGLE (Aquila chrysaetos) [N]
Ancient Murrelets lined up for us in the calm, protected waters of the Kenai Fjords National Park. Photo by group member Richard Hall.
NORTHERN HARRIER (Circus hudsonius)
BALD EAGLE (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
RED-TAILED HAWK (HARLAN'S) (Buteo jamaicensis harlani)
ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK (Buteo lagopus)
SNOWY OWL (Bubo scandiacus)
SHORT-EARED OWL (Asio flammeus)
BELTED KINGFISHER (Megaceryle alcyon)
DOWNY WOODPECKER (Dryobates pubescens)
HAIRY WOODPECKER (Dryobates villosus)
Falconidae (Falcons and Caracaras)
GYRFALCON (Falco rusticolus)
PEREGRINE FALCON (Falco peregrinus)
Tyrannidae (Tyrant Flycatchers)
ALDER FLYCATCHER (Empidonax alnorum)
NORTHERN SHRIKE (Lanius borealis)
Corvidae (Crows, Jays, and Magpies)
STELLER'S JAY (Cyanocitta stelleri)
Pomarine Jaegers were easy to observe on the tundra of the North Slope this spring. In years without lemmings, these jaegers can be absent at Utqiagvik; in boom years for lemmings, the jaegers can be very common here. Photo by leader Tom Johnson.
BLACK-BILLED MAGPIE (Pica hudsonia)
NORTHWESTERN CROW (Corvus caurinus)
COMMON RAVEN (Corvus corax)
HORNED LARK (Eremophila alpestris)
TREE SWALLOW (Tachycineta bicolor)
VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOW (Tachycineta thalassina)
BANK SWALLOW (Riparia riparia)
BARN SWALLOW (Hirundo rustica)
CLIFF SWALLOW (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota)
Paridae (Tits, Chickadees, and Titmice)
BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEE (Poecile atricapillus)
RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH (Sitta canadensis)
PACIFIC WREN (Troglodytes pacificus)
AMERICAN DIPPER (Cinclus mexicanus)
GOLDEN-CROWNED KINGLET (Regulus satrapa)
Evening light and relaxed birds made for a very memorable experience with some Surfbirds near Safety Sound outside of Nome. These odd sandpipers breed on the rocky hills of the Seward Peninsula, but we usually encounter them like this as they feed along the coast. Photo by leader Tom Johnson.
RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET (Regulus calendula)
Phylloscopidae (Leaf Warblers)
ARCTIC WARBLER (Phylloscopus borealis)
Muscicapidae (Old World Flycatchers)
BLUETHROAT (Luscinia svecica)
NORTHERN WHEATEAR (Oenanthe oenanthe)
Turdidae (Thrushes and Allies)
VARIED THRUSH (Ixoreus naevius)
GRAY-CHEEKED THRUSH (Catharus minimus)
SWAINSON'S THRUSH (Catharus ustulatus)
HERMIT THRUSH (Catharus guttatus)
AMERICAN ROBIN (Turdus migratorius)
EUROPEAN STARLING (Sturnus vulgaris) [I]
Motacillidae (Wagtails and Pipits)
EASTERN YELLOW WAGTAIL (Motacilla tschutschensis)
Our boat trip to Kenai Fjords was very good for seeing Sea Otters up close and personal! Photo by group member Richard Hall.
WHITE WAGTAIL (Motacilla alba)
AMERICAN PIPIT (Anthus rubescens)
Fringillidae (Finches, Euphonias, and Allies)
PINE GROSBEAK (Pinicola enucleator)
COMMON REDPOLL (Acanthis flammea)
HOARY REDPOLL (Acanthis hornemanni)
RED CROSSBILL (Loxia curvirostra)
WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL (Loxia leucoptera)
PINE SISKIN (Spinus pinus)
Calcariidae (Longspurs and Snow Buntings)
LAPLAND LONGSPUR (Calcarius lapponicus)
SNOW BUNTING (Plectrophenax nivalis)
Passerellidae (New World Sparrows)
AMERICAN TREE SPARROW (Spizelloides arborea)
FOX SPARROW (SOOTY) (Passerella iliaca sinuosa)
Male Common Eiders of the v-nigrum subspecies show a carrot-orange bill, very different from the drab yellow-olive bills of Atlantic birds. Photo by leader Cory Gregory.
FOX SPARROW (RED) (Passerella iliaca zaboria)
DARK-EYED JUNCO (SLATE-COLORED) (Junco hyemalis hyemalis)
WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW (GAMBEL'S) (Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii)
GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROW (Zonotrichia atricapilla)
SAVANNAH SPARROW (Passerculus sandwichensis)
SONG SPARROW (Melospiza melodia)
Icteridae (Troupials and Allies)
RUSTY BLACKBIRD (Euphagus carolinus)
Parulidae (New World Warblers)
NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH (Parkesia noveboracensis)
ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER (Oreothlypis celata)
YELLOW WARBLER (Setophaga petechia)
The large numbers of Aleutian Terns nesting around the Nome River Mouth made it very easy to enjoy excellent views. Photo by leader Tom Johnson.
BLACKPOLL WARBLER (Setophaga striata)
YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER (MYRTLE) (Setophaga coronata coronata)
TOWNSEND'S WARBLER (Setophaga townsendi)
WILSON'S WARBLER (Cardellina pusilla)
ARCTIC GROUND SQUIRREL (Spermophilus parryii)
We were amused by the fierce territoriality of this Sabine's Gull. The gull's mate was on a nest nearby, and each time a Red Phalarope flew into the area around the nest, the non-incubating gull would immediately chase the phalarope away. Photo by group member Richard Hall.
RED SQUIRREL (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)
MUSKRAT (Ondatra zibethica)
NEARCTIC BROWN LEMMING (Lemmus trimucronatus)
KILLER WHALE (Orcinus orca)
HARBOR PORPOISE (Phocoena phocoena)
HUMPBACK WHALE (Megaptera novaeangliae)
RED FOX (Vulpes vulpes)
Leader Cory Gregory lined up nicely on this male Willow Ptarmigan. Meanwhile, the ptarmigan seemed intent on maintaining his claim on that particular stretch of Nome roadway.
COYOTE (Canis latrans)
SEA OTTER (Enhydra lutris)
STELLER'S SEA LION (Eumetopias jubatus)
HARBOR SEAL (Phoca vitulina)
SPOTTED SEAL (Phoca largha)
RINGED SEAL (Phoca hispida)
BEARDED SEAL (Erignathus barbatus)
MOOSE (Alces alces)
A single Short-tailed Shearwater sailed back and forth just offshore from the Nome River Mouth. There was a large flock of gulls foraging on small fish here, and the shearwater was clearly attracted by all of the commotion. Though the species gathers in flocks that number in the millions in the Bering Sea in autumn, it is an uncommon-to-rare bird from shore in Nome in June. Photo by leader Tom Johnson.
CARIBOU (Rangifer tarandus granti)
MUSKOX (Ovibos moschatus)
DALL'S SHEEP (Ovis dalli)
Totals for the tour: 160 bird taxa and 19 mammal taxa