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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Alaska: The Majesty of the North

2011 Tour Narrative

The 2011 Alaska Majesty tour combined the best of birding in Alaska into one wonderfully varied trip. The sheer scope of the wildlands in Alaska is astounding, with many ecosystems still functioning in a close to pristine state.  From the Pribilofs, with cliffs laden with nesting seabirds and rarities like Eyebrowed Thrush and Brambling, and the towering peaks of Denali where we encountered Bohemian Waxwings, Barrow’s Goldeneyes and Trumpeter Swans to the open tundra of Nome with its breeding Bar-tailed Godwits, golden plovers, Long-tailed Jaegers, new birds seemed to pop up at nearly every stop!  We located as well an impressive 25 species of mammals this year, with a female Grizzly Bear and cub (at a comfortable distance), and a super pod of Orca being the highlights.  Birding the state in June combines the chance for a rarity or two in Bering Sea outposts with the full press of breeding activity from the states many migrant species and the beginning of one of the best wildflower shows on the continent. 

Birding in the Pribilof Islands combines a fantastic array of breeding birds in a remote setting with the chance to encounter stray birds from Asia.  The windswept tundra, steep volcanic cliffs, sandy beaches, and grass-lined freshwater lakes make for a surprisingly dynamic mix of habitats for such a small, isolated island.  This year’s (somewhat extended) pre-trip extension to the Pribilofs exceeded all of our expectations.  Although shorebird migration was virtually non-existent (as it was over much of the Bering Sea in 2011) the breeding species were all present and displaying.  Over the course of the several days on the island Rock Sandpipers, with their churring flight songs were near constant companions, outcompeted only by the ubiquitous Lapland Longspurs that seemed to be nearly everywhere in the island interior.  The cliffs and grassy bluffs around the west and south shores of the island played host to an incredible array of confiding and wonderful breeding seabirds.  It is hard to become tired of sitting and watching Thick-billed and Common Murres, Horned and Tufted Puffins, Crested, Least and Parakeet Auklets and Northern Fulmars all courting, preening on cliff ledges that are a scant 10 meters away and at eye level.  I think many of this year’s participants nearly filled their camera cards on the first day!  As if the alcids were not enough the cliffs of the Pribilofs serve as the primary breeding area for the diminutive and beautiful Red-legged Kittiwake.  Our daily and close range studies of this species generally with Black-legged Kittiwakes in close proximity for comparison purposes was a highlight for many.  In 2011 we encountered a few scarce mainland species, such as Tundra Swan, Greater White-fronted Goose and Lesser Scaup, as well as some less common migrants such as Bar-tailed Godwit and Yellow-billed Loon.  Of particular interest though were the few vagrant species that we turned up during our visit.  During the five days we were on the island we located 4(!) Brambling (including a smartly plumaged adult male) around the island’s rocky shorelines, along with a flighty Eyebrowed Thrush lurking on the east side of an isolated volcanic cinder cone for two days, constantly playing hide and seek with the group.  Rounding out our list of Asiatic strays we enjoyed repeated views of a variegatus Whimbrel along a kelp strewn sandy beach.  The Northern Fur Seals were already massing along their breeding colony sites, and we enjoyed watching the huge males competing for the best stretches of coast, giving credence to the oft quoted moniker of “the Galapagos of the North”. 

Due to a faulty FAA instrumentation array at the Saint Paul airport we were delayed in leaving the Pribilofs this year and as a result the Denali leg of our tour was cut rather short.  Nevertheless we made the trip up to Denali National Park, admiring the jaw-dropping scenery and a fine array of interior Alaska birds along the way.  On the drive up we made a quick stop at a small creek, where we found an active dipper nest under the highway underpass.  Watching the adult birds forage and then bring in prey items to their hungry brood was a special treat!  Our hotel is situated on a high bluff overlooking a glacier-fed river and a ring of snow-clad alpine peaks.  The comfortable lodgings and excellent food provide a great base for exploring the region.  Due to our shortened schedule we were unable to enter the park, and had to fit what is usually two full days birding into one abbreviated day.  We certainly made the best of it!  Rivers and streams lined with willow and alder and isolated stands of Black Spruce and Larch provide excellent cover for an array of breeding passerines, and this year we enjoyed a wonderful chorus while exploring roads near Denali National Park.  The songs of Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked Thrushes were accompanied by Wilson’s, Blackpoll and Orange-crowned Warblers, and the cheerful tones of Fox and White-crowned Sparrows.  Small lakes dotted the stretches of tundra, with stately pairs of Trumpeter Swans, several pairs of the attractive White-winged Scoters, the occasional pair of the exquisite Barrow’s Goldeneyes, and a wealth of more commonly seen waterfowl, all busily producing a new generation of life.  At one large lake we watched a pair of Bohemian Waxings as they sallied out to catch insects along the waters edge as Wilson’s Snipes continually called overhead.  Some of the larger lakes also contained nesting Mew or Bonaparte’s Gulls, Red-necked Grebes and Pacific or Common Loons.  Mammals are often a highlight of a visit into interior Alaska, and this year we found several Moose, some with young calves, foraging in bogs along the road and a small herd of Caribou along a tundra-clad ridge.  We drove back to Anchorage the next afternoon, timing our arrival to coincide with high tide in Cook Inlet.  The huge tidal flows along the Anchorage waterfront reveal impressive expanses of glacial silt at low tide, but the birds are generally too far away for satisfactory views.  At high tide however there can often be large numbers of waders and gulls loafing along the narrow ledge of coastline close to the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.  In a short hour of strolling along the coastal trail we enjoyed excellent comparative studies of Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, various species of gulls, and the prize of the area; three stunning Hudsonian Godwits in their dapper summer plumage. 

The next portion of the tour took place in Nome, a long famous birding location and historically interesting town situated along the southern coast of the Seward Peninsula.  This gold-rush era boomtown retains a very frontier like feel, with local gold panners dredging along the shoreline, and a seemingly endless number of saloon options.  Three gravel roads stretch out into the tundra, offering about 300 miles of road to explore through stunning mountains, over rushing salmon choked streams, and along willow/alder clad drainages.  With three and a half birding days scheduled around Nome we ventured down one of the roads each day.  The Teller Rd, which stretches west paralleling the coast but staying a few miles inland held a wonderful array of interesting sights for us.  For starters it was sunny, and the blue sky over the tundra is always a magnificent sight.  We lucked into a very cooperative pair of Rock Ptarmigan along the road just a half hour out of Nome.  Their numbers fluctuate from year to year and 2011 was a low year for them so the group was fortunate to enjoy such close range and lengthy views.  Shortly thereafter some excitement was provided by the presence of an apparently rabid Red Fox which we retreated from with due haste.  Further down the road we found our first Northern Wheatears and two stunning displaying Bluethroats that were singing in a roadside patch of alders.  This beautiful bird has a highly restricted range in North America, and for me at least epitomizes the avian wonders of western Alaska.  Not done there though we had fun sorting through groups of Parasitic and Long-tailed Jaegers foraging along the entrance road to Woolly Lagoon, and were happy to see both Pacific Golden and Black-bellied Plovers in their full regalia.  An idyllic lunch stop at a large river crossing allowed us to relax with a dozen Arctic Terns feeding just a few feet away from the van, while Pacific Loons loafed in an eddy along the creek and Harlequin Ducks foraged in the rushing waters upstream.  All this bounty just 10 miles from where we had stopped to watch a distant sow Grizzly Bear with a cub gamboling in the tundra, ah, Alaska!  The Kougarok Road heads north from Nome, following the Nome River Valley inland and passing through a mixture of alpine passes, open tundra with large lakes, and huge craggy mountains.  This road has always felt the wildest to me, and with a massive Golden Eagle nest (with two fuzzy chicks) guarding the first turn, and a pair of cooperative (if distant) Gyrfalcons a few miles up it did not fail to disappoint this year.  Arctic Warblers were audible at nearly every stop, and we managed excellent views of a singing male.  Willow Ptarmigan were also in evidence, providing a nice contrast to the Rock Ptarmigan of the day before.  On one of the lakes we found two pairs of Black Scoter, and on an alpine pass a displaying American Golden-Plover stole the show from the nearby herd of about 16 Muskox.  The main attraction of the road though is found a little over 70 miles from Nome, where, on the top of a rounded dome-shaped hill there are a few pairs of the very range-restricted and globally rare Bristle-thighed Curlews.  2011 is shaping up to be an unseasonably hot and dry year around Nome, and many groups that had been searching for the Curlews within the week before our visit had been unsuccessful.  Despite making the hike up and searching the entire ‘normal’ breeding grounds we too failed to locate any curlews (or whimbrel for that matter).  A subsequent group found three birds well off the normal area on the hill and away from the road in dense brush.  It is likely that they will not breed this year, and were already foraging in order to bulk up for the lengthy migration over the Pacific.  The Council Road stretches east along the coastline and then down the narrow isthmus that frames the 20 miles long Safety Lagoon.  This narrow sound hosts large numbers of waterbirds and shorebirds throughout much of the year.  This year we were thrilled to have excellent views of a pair of Arctic Loons, a specialty of Nome but by no means guaranteed in spring.  Also present were some interesting shorebirds such as Bar-tailed Godwits, Red Knot and Black Turnstone, many beautiful Common Eiders, stately Tundra Swans and our best views of Muskox.  The Aleutian Tern colony near Nome was very active this year, with over 60 birds present on each of our visits, and on one visit we spied a sleeping Ringed Seal (which should have been to the north already following the pack ice) along the harbor breakwall.  Our four days in Nome went by quickly, with excellent birding and lots of mammals.  After a fantastic lunch at the airport pizza shop we flew back to Anchorage to begin the final leg of the journey. 

Some morning birding around Anchorage produced a nice array of forest birds, with the highlights likely being a singing Varied Thrush perched up in a close spruce tree and a responsive and very cooperative American Three-toed Woodpecker.  In the city parks we visited a near constant chorus of Alder Flycatchers, Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warblers and Fox Sparrows kept our ears entertained as we enjoyed views of Black-capped and Boreal Chickadees and our first Golden-crowned Kinglets.  After lunch we drove down to Seward, our base for the next two days, with a brief stop at a local birder’s house just out of town.  New birds came rapidly at the feeders, with a multitude of Rufous Hummingbirds, at least 4 Pine Grosbeaks, a Hairy Woodpecker, flocks of Pine Siskins each being admired in turn.  Seward is a small fishing and tourist town nestled at the head of a beautiful narrow fjord that is flanked by steep sided mountains that reach into the alpine zone near their peaks.  When the weather is nice, as it was this year, the town embodies a very Pacific Northwest feel, with tall Sitka spruce forests down to the stony beaches covered in kelp and driftwood.  The next day we enjoyed near perfect conditions for our boat trip out to the Northwestern glacier, Resurrection Bay and the Chiswell Islands.  Overcast skies allowed for excellent viewing conditions on the water and both the birdlife and the mammal life were exceptional.  Not 10 minutes into our trip we stopped to admire a Sea Otter loafing on the water’s surface (one of about 20 individuals that we encountered on the trip).  As we left the mouth of the bay a huge pod of Orca were foraging on a migrant school of salmon.  Numbers of Orca were visible in every direction, and for over half an hour we drifted as animals traveled right by the boat.  Given the number of Orca present it is likely that the animals belonged to the rarely seen offshore Orcas, which tend to travel in super pods and range widely over the world’s deep oceans.  Other mammals seen during the trip included bow-riding Dall’s Porpoises, Steller’s Sea Lions, Harbor Seals (with pups) on ice floes, several Humpback Whales, two groups of River Otters swimming along the coast and a couple of agile Mountain Goats lounging on an impressively steep slope.  The Chiswell Islands are an important breeding site for thousands of seabirds, and our captain made a conscious effort to wind through the islands at a slow pace.  Thousands of Horned and Tufted Puffins, Common Murres and Black-legged Kittiwakes were found on the islands cliffs or on the water around the islands.  Hidden amongst the throngs of the more common species we picked up two small groups of Parakeet Auklets (not regularly encountered on these boat trips), and some Ancient Murrelets.  Coming into the fjord by boat is a magical experience, as the straight gets progressively narrower and the fjord walls seem to close in around you.  Several small glaciers dotted the walls as we neared the huge Northwestern glacier at the tip of the fjord.  These active glaciers were calving into the water at a good rate, choking the head of the fjord with an expansive area of floating ice.  The cold water around the ice floes combines with the tide to create a fast moving current that brings nutrients up from the fjord’s bottom.  It is in this current that one can find the enigmatic and endangered Kittlitz’s Murrelets.  We had excellent views of eight birds this year, both on the water and in flight and were able to compare them at close range with the similar but much more common Marbled Murrelets.  Also present in the fjord were large numbers of Rhinoceros Auklets, bringing us to an incredible 12 species of alcids for the tour!  The overcast conditions served us well in terms of viewing the glacier as well, since the blue colour of the ice is enhanced in flat lighting.  Enroute back to the harbour we encountered a couple of Sooty Shearwaters rounding out a truly wonderful day out on the ocean. 

On our last day we explored the coastal forests and shore near Seward, adding species such as Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Northwestern Crow, Hermit Thrush, Brown Creeper and Townsend’s Warbler to our list.  A quick search of the extensive mudflats at the head of the bay revealed an amazing 70 Bald Eagles loafing on snags, and a real surprise in the form of two Marbled Godwits.  A Small population of Marbled Godwits breed in an isolated area of SW Alaska, and finding these two birds in Seward was an unexpected treat!  All too soon we had to venture north back to Anchorage, with stops to admire Sockeye Salmon migrating up a forested stream, and Red-winged Blackbirds and Western Wood-Pewees in Anchorage Parks before making it back to our hotel.  I really enjoyed the trip this year.  It’s always a pleasure for a tour leader to share a great array of birds and wildlife against amazing scenery with a congenial and active group of birders!

- Gavin Bieber

Updated: July 2011