Alaska Mainland Jun 14—25, 2005

Posted by Barry Zimmer

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Barry Zimmer

Barry Zimmer has been birding since the age of eight. His main areas of expertise lie in North and Central America, but his travels have taken him throughout much of the wo...

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The vivid blue throat with the rusty red bull’s-eye literally glowed in the frame-filling Questar view. The varied and beautiful song tumbled forth, first as the bird perched, and then in a fabulous skylarking display. A second male arrived, chasing the first with a backdrop of snowy peaks and rolling tundra domes. A great sighting of a Bluethroat is almost certain to be atop the favorite list of any Alaska tour, and this year was no different. As we soaked up the incredible views of the two Bluethroats, someone in the group noticed a sow grizzly with three grown cubs working downslope toward the Nome River just a few hundred yards away. We watched these majestic bruins for over ten minutes as they foraged in the thickets across the river. Overhead a pair of Golden Eagles soared across the valley heading for their nesting site just up the road. A pair of belligerent Mew Gulls gave chase. An Arctic Warbler let loose with its trilling song just across the road, and was joined in chorus by Golden-crowned and Fox sparrows and the haunting song of a Gray-cheeked Thrush. Welcome to Nome and VENT’s 2005 Alaska Mainland tour!

Enjoying some of the best Alaska weather in memory, we traveled from Anchorage to Nome to Seward to Denali and back, tallying 165 species of birds, 22 species of mammals, and endless breathtaking vistas. In the Nome area, the highlights were almost too numerous to mention. One day along the Council Road some members of the group saw all five species of loons in just a few hours, including the rare Arctic. A Bristle-thighed Curlew put on a great show for the hardy hikers near Coffee Dome, and we had wonderful scope views of three Gyrfalcons at two nest sites.  Although it was a down year for ptarmigan in general, we had great studies of both Rock and Willow right next to the road. A Rock Sandpiper sitting on a nest with a backdrop of tundra flowers was certainly a thrill, as were the Bar-tailed Godwits on the high tundra, the Yellow Wagtails in flight display, pairs of Northern Wheatears on rocky outcrops, Aleutian Terns overhead, and the Arctic Warblers which seemed to call from every thicket. Three separate herds of musk oxen were exciting, particularly the one at our picnic lunch that watched us from just a couple of hundred yards away. And how about the ?common? Nome fare? Long-tailed Jaegers are one of the most visible birds in the area. Lapland Longspurs skylark from the roadside every few hundred yards, while Hoary Redpolls frequent nearby snowbanks. Fabulous breeding-plumaged Pacific and American golden-plovers, Black-bellied Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones, and Red-necked Phalarope dart about the tundra and small ponds. This is truly sensory overload!

The Kenai Peninsula nearly matched Nome for excitement. A female Spruce Grouse with chicks, a black bear, and a very close Three-toed Woodpecker en route to Seward started the parade of memorable sightings. A fantastic boat trip to Kenai Fjords National Park resulted in excellent views of Kittlitz?s, Marbled, and Ancient murrelets; Parakeet and Rhinoceros auklets; Horned and Tufted puffins by the hundreds; Red-faced Cormorants; humpback whales; bow-riding Dall?s porpoises; cuddly sea otters; and spectacular calving glaciers—all this under sunny skies and near 70-degree temperatures!

Denali National Park yielded a great mammal display with 13 more grizzly bears, several moose, and a gray wolf. Avian highlights for this portion of the trip included an astounding 12 Northern Hawk Owls, 17 Willow Ptarmigan, three Bohemian Waxwings, and three Northern Shrikes.

Even the Anchorage area produced memorable moments with a very close Red-necked Grebe carrying her black-and-white-striped babies on her back, 50 or more Hudsonian Godwits studied from 30 yards away, and a family of Barrow?s Goldeneye (including a stunning male) viewed at leisure on a hatchery pond.

Our 2005 Alaska Mainland tour, like others before it, was an incredible success. With numerous bird species found nowhere else in North America, unmatched mammal viewing, and the best scenery on the continent, it is truly a must destination for all naturalists.