A Red-necked Stint peers through dry grasses at Nome. Photo: Gary Rosenberg
Alaska is a spectacular state with stunning snow-covered peaks rising out of flower-laden tundra and vast glaciers flowing into forest-lined fjords. June is a wonderful month to search for the state’s special birds. We’ll begin in Denali National Park where the breathtaking immensity of Mt. McKinley and the Alaska Range will provide a splendid backdrop as we watch for Grizzly Bear and several species of birds more common in the forested interior of the state such as Northern Hawk-Owl, American Three-toed Woodpecker, White-winged Crossbill and Bohemian Waxwing.
We’ll continue on to Nome where rolling tundra, rich in ptarmigans, skuas, and shorebirds, merges with rugged mountains and rushing streams, home to singing Bluethroats and Arctic Warblers, and nesting Gyrfalcons, and the adjacent Bering Sea coast with the likes of Arctic Skua and Aleutian Tern. Around the city of Anchorage we’ll look for Boreal Chickadee and Spruce Grouse in well-forested city parks, Hudsonian Godwit and a range of breeding waterfowl along the shore of Cook Inlet, and American Dipper along Fish Creek. We’ll conclude on the Kenai Peninsula and Resurrection Bay with more magnificent scenery and impressive displays of marine birds and mammals, including a boat trip out into the Kenai Fjords where we should see calving glaciers and Kittlitz’s Murrelets.
Our main tour is bookended by optional extensions to the great seabird colonies of the Pribilof Islands where thousands of alcids join the very local Red-legged Kittiwakes and the odd stray species from Asia; and to the very different tundra of Barrow where all four species of Eider, throngs of shorebirds in full display mode and, in most years, Snowy Owls nest.
Day 1: The Pribilofs pre-tour begins in Anchorage with an introductory meeting at 18.00. Night in Anchorage.
Days 2-3: We depart very early for a flight to the Pribilof islands and the village of St. Paul on the morning of Day 2. Here we’ll have ample time to discover the richness of a Bering Sea seabird colony. The auk family is thought to have evolved in this region, and looking at the thousands of Common and Brunnich’s Guillemots, Horned and Tufted Puffins, and Parakeet, Crested, and Least Auklets, one has little trouble believing the theory. Add in Northern Fulmar, Red-faced Cormorant, and the near-endemic Red-legged Kittiwake, and the sum is an extraordinary display. Often these nesting seabirds are on ledges just a few yards away, offering superb opportunities for photography.
Our visit to St. Paul will concentrate on nesting species, but in early to mid-June we can also hope for late migrants and perhaps a rarity or two. Our previous tours to St. Paul at this season have recorded White-tailed Eagle, Common Pochard, Red-necked Stint, Common Snipe, Wood Sandpiper, Common and Oriental Cuckoos, Pacific Swift, Eyebrowed Thrush, Olive-backed Pipit, Grey Wagtail, Siberian Rubythroat and Hawfinch. In addition to the birds, Saint Paul Island hosts the world’s largest colony of Northern Fur Seals which are easily viewed from hides, and very tame Arctic Foxes. Nights in St. Paul.
Day 4: After a morning’s birding at St. Paul, we’ll return to Anchorage in the late afternoon. Night in Anchorage.
Day 4: The tour begins in Anchorage where we’ll meet those returning from the Pribilof extension at 21.00. Night in Anchorage.
Day 5: We’ll begin this morning with a visit to Anchorage’s Westchester Lagoon, where we’ll see nesting Red-necked Grebes and with luck, a variety of summering shorebirds, typically including Hudsonian Godwit and Short-billed Dowitcher. Later we’ll drive the 250 miles north to Denali National Park, a spectacular trip that often provides the best views of Mt. McKinley. Once north of Talkeetna, we’ll enter vast areas of black spruce and willow, where we’ll keep a keen eye out for Spruce Grouse along the road and Bohemian Waxwings or Northern Hawk-Owl perched in the treetops. We’ll arrive at Denali National Park around dinnertime. Night near Denali.
Days 6-7: Denali National Park is closed to most automobile traffic, so we’ll be using the shuttle buses that run about every 30 minutes to points within the park; the complete round trip takes about eight hours. Our main objectives here are scenery and large mammals such as Grizzly Bear, Dall Sheep, and Moose. We’ll also watch for Willow and Rock Ptarmigans, Gyrfalcon and Golden Eagle. We probably won’t see the mountain from the park: Mount McKinley is so colossal that it creates its own weather - usually bad - and clouds typically obscure all but the lowest slopes. Our best views may come as we drive up from Anchorage or on our flights to and from Nome.
On one of these two days, we’ll leave Denali early to spend time birdwatching along the splendid Denali Highway, a well-graded dirt road that runs east through near wilderness for 130 miles. Here we’ll look for birds such as Trumpeter Swan, Upland Sandpiper, Northern Hawk-Owl, Arctic Warbler and, with some luck, Smith’s Longspur. The scenery is magnificent as the road passes from boreal forest to tundra against the backdrop of the Alaska Range. Nights near Denali National Park.
Day 8: After a final morning in the Denali area, we’ll drive back to Anchorage. If we haven’t already seen Northern Hawk Owl, this will be our chance. We’ll arrive in Anchorage in time for dinner. Night in Anchorage.
Days 9-11: We’ll fly on the morning of Day 9 to the Bering Sea town of Nome. If a birder had to choose just one town in Alaska to visit, it would be Nome. This region has most of what makes Alaska Alaska. At Safety Lagoon, where Red-throated and Pacific Divers breed and Arctic Skuas harass nesting Aleutian Terns, migration will still be in progress. We’ll hope to see many waterbirds, perhaps including Emperor Goose or a rarity such as Red-necked Stint or Slaty-backed Gull.
Both of the main roads out of Nome - to Teller and to Taylor - pass through tundra rich in breeding shorebirds, including American and Pacific Golden Plovers and Bar-tailed Godwit, and in the surrounding hills and along willow-lined rivers we may find Gyrfalcon, Willow and Rock Ptarmigans, Bluethroat, Northern Wheatear, Arctic Warbler and Yellow Wagtail. We’ll search especially for Bristle-thighed Curlew, a few pairs of which nest accessibly in the wild mountainous landscapes north of Nome; occasionally we’ve seen the curlews in the same field of view as Muskox. Nights in Nome.
Day 12: After a final morning in the Nome area, we’ll take a mid-afternoon flight back to Anchorage. Night in Anchorage.
Day 13: This morning will provide some ‘down time’ for those who wish, while others may prefer birdwatching around Anchorage, where we should see Boreal Chickadee, White-winged Crossbill and possibly American Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpeckers. Afterwards we’ll drive to Seward through the superb mountain scenery of the Kenai Peninsula. We’ll spend the late afternoon around Seward, where the forest of huge Sitka spruce holds many species that just reach southern Alaska, including Rufous Hummingbird, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Varied Thrush, Townsend’s Warbler, and Pine Grosbeak. The Fox Sparrow we’ll see here along the coast is likely a different species, the Sooty Fox-Sparrow. One of the highlights of our time here will be a dinner of fresh seafood at a restaurant right on the wharf at Seward. Night in Seward.
Day 14: We’ll spend the day out on Resurrection Bay and Blying Sound south of Seward. If the weather is clear, the scenery is awe-inspiring, and we’ll see at least one spectacular glacier. We’ll visit several large seabird colonies, where we should find Tufted and Horned Puffins, Brunnich’s and Common Guillemots and thousands of Black-legged Kittiwakes. Rhinoceros Auklet and Ancient Murrelet are both possible, and near one of the glaciers we’ll search through hundreds of Marbled Murrelets for the occasional Kittlitz’s. In the deep waters at the farthest extent of our boat trip, we could see Short-tailed Shearwater. Marine mammals are also numerous, and we can expect Steller’s Sea Lion, Sea Otter, Humpback Whale and possibly the magnificent Orca. Night in Seward.
Day 15: After a final morning in Seward driving along the edge of Resurrection Bay to look for Harlequin Duck and Wandering Tattler, we’ll return to Anchorage. We’ll make a quick stop at Potter’s Marsh to check for any interesting waterfowl, and if we have time, we’ll return to Westchester Lagoon in search of migrating shorebirds. Night in Anchorage.
Day 16: The tour ends after breakfast. We’ll transfer to the airport in time to connect with our flight home.
Day 16: Those of us continuing to Barrow will connect to a flight arriving in Barrow in the evening. Night in Barrow.
Day 17: Barrow, the most northerly city in Alaska, has a large native population, an excellent hotel and restaurant, and best of all, access to wonderful high-latitude tundra rich in breeding birds. We’ll have the better part of two days to explore this remarkable environment in search of the breeding birds that have made Barrow famous. We’ll search for Steller’s and Spectacled Eiders and Red Phalarope on the numerous lakes and ponds along the roads and Pectoral and Buff-breasted Sandpipers in the tussock tundra. Yellow-billed Loon is also usually present in small numbers, and if it’s a lemming year, Snowy Owls and Pomarine Jaegers are an obvious part of the local bird community; it’s not unusual to see 20 or 30 of each in a single day.
There are sometimes rarer species around, including shorebirds such as Ruff and White-rumped or Stilt Sandpiper, or even a vagrant such as Red-necked Stint, and the town of Barrow attracts vagrant landbirds from both the North American and Siberian sides. There is even an outside chance of a Polar Bear. Nights at Barrow.
Day 18: After another full day’s birding at Barrow, we’ll catch a midday flight back to Anchorage. Night in Anchorage.
Day 19: The Barrow Extension ends this morning in Anchorage.
This tour is arranged by our American partner WINGS
Updated: 27 July 2016