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, and June is a wonderful month to search for the state’s special birds. We’ll begin in Nome where rolling tundra, rich in ptarmigans, skuas, and waders, 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 Black-throated Diver and Aleutian Tern. The second leg of the tour will take in the interior of the state, and 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, the scarce Smith’s Longspur and elegant Bohemian Waxwing. 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 Kittiwake 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.
*Note this Pribilofs pre-tour extension on the 13th June 2021 departure is one day longer due to flight schedules to St. Paul.
Day 1: The Pribilofs pre-tour begins at 18.00 in Anchorage. 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 and Terek Sandpipers, 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 full morning’s birding at St. Paul, we’ll return to Anchorage in the late afternoon, where the Pribilofs Pre-tour concludes.
Day 4: Our main tour begins with a meeting in the lobby of our Anchorage hotel at 20.00. Night in Anchorage.
Days 5-7: We’ll fly on the morning of Day 5 to the Bering Sea town of Nome. If a birder had to choose just one town in Alaska to visit, it should 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 Tern and Arctic 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 nesting Gyrfalcon or Golden Eagle. Willow and Rock Ptarmigans, Bluethroat, Northern Wheatear, Arctic Warbler, and Eastern Yellow Wagtail all occur here as breeders. 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 8: After a final morning in the Nome area, we’ll take a mid-afternoon flight back to Anchorage. Night in Anchorage.
Day 9: 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 our base for the night near the eastern end of the Denali Highway. It’s a spectacular trip with 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 our cabins in the midafternoon, with some time to look around the grassy tundra near the lodge for species such as Smith’s Longspur and Trumpeter Swan. Night near Paxson.
Day 10: We’ll leave our comfortable lodge early this morning to bird the splendid Denali Highway, a well-graded dirt road that runs east through near wilderness for 130 miles. Here we’ll look for Trumpeter Swan, Spruce Grouse, Bohemian Waxwing, Arctic Warbler, and with some luck, Northern Hawk Owl and Upland Sandpiper. The scenery is superlative and the wild lands seemingly endless as the road passes from boreal forest to tundra against the backdrop of the snowy Alaska Range. We’ll spend all day on the road, reaching our lodge for the next two nights near the entrance to Denali National Park. Night near Denali NP.
Days 11: Denali National Park is closed to most automobile traffic, so we’ll use the shuttle buses that runs 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 Ptarmigan, 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 back to Anchorage or on our flights to and from Nome. Night near Denali NP.
Day 12: After a final morning around Denali, where we will look diligently any of the interior Alaska species that we may still be missing we will head back towards Anchorage. Our route to Anchorage will take us by some excellent areas where we can look for American Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpeckers, Boreal Chickadee and Bohemian Waxwings. We’ll arrive in Anchorage in time for dinner. 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. A lovely feature of our time here will be a dinner of fresh seafood at a restaurant right on a Seward wharf. Night in Seward.
Day 14: We’ll spend the day 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, Thick-billed and Common Murres, and thousands of Black-legged Kittiwakes. Rhinoceros Auklet and Ancient Murrelet are both possible, and near one of the glaciers we’ll search through the groups of Marbled Murrelets for the globally rare Kittlitz’s. In the deep waters at the farthest extent of our boat trip, we could see Sooty Shearwaters. 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 final views of nesting Mew Gulls and Arctic Terns. If we have time, we’ll return to Westchester Lagoon in search of migrating shorebirds. Night in Anchorage.
Day 16: The main tour concludes this morning in Anchorage.
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, Semi-palmated, Western Sandpipers, Dunlin and Long-billed Dowitchers in the tussock tundra. White-billed Diver is also usually present in small numbers, and if it’s a lemming year, Snowy Owls and Pomarine Skuas 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 waders such as Ruff and White-rumped or Stilt Sandpiper, or even a vagrant such as Red-necked Stint or Gray-tailed Tattler, 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 morning 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.
Updated: 01 December 2020