Grand Alaska Jun 10—25, 2005

Posted by Kevin Zimmer

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Kevin Zimmer

Kevin Zimmer has authored three books and numerous papers dealing with field identification and bird-finding in North America. His book, Birding in the American West: A Han...

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By any measure, this year?s Grand Alaska tour was a huge success. We enjoyed some of the best weather of any Alaska tour in memory, and although it was a slow year for Siberian vagrants, we had exceptional success with the breeding specialties. As always, Nome got things off to a rousing start. Our first day on the Teller Road produced a herd of musk ox, scope views of a Gyrfalcon on a nest, a cryptic Rock Ptarmigan (in what was obviously a ?crash? year for ptarmigan, this proved to be our only Rock Ptarmigan of the trip), nesting Dippers, and stunningly beautiful Black-bellied Plovers in full breeding dress. Safety Lagoon treated us to point-blank studies of Aleutian Terns right next to the road, a pair of Eurasian Wigeon, and a magnificent pair of Arctic Loons. Farther out the Council Road we saw still more Gyrfalcons, Northern Wheatears, nesting Rough-legged Hawks, and, in the spruce forests near Council, a most cooperative pair of Pine Grosbeaks and a family of Gray Jays, both good birds for the Nome area. The Kougarok Road served up its usual mix of stunning scenery, big mammals (still more close views of musk ox to go with multiple moose and huge herds of reindeer), and great birds. Among the many highlights were a dazzling male Bluethroat, multiple Arctic Warblers, and an exceptionally close pair of Black Scoters. After having performed well for the Gambell/Nome group just three days earlier, the Bristle-thighed Curlew did not cooperate, and hordes of emerging mosquitoes eroded our resolve to continue the search. We ended our time at Nome with close studies of a pair of first-summer Black Guillemots at Cape Nome, an unexpected rarity.

Next up were the Pribilofs, where a lack of westerly winds meant a lack of Siberian vagrants. Our vagrant luck this year was limited to an exceptionally elusive Hawfinch that played hide and seek with us for hours at Hutchinson Hill, and a longipennis Common Tern at the Salt Lagoon that was far more cooperative. But, you don?t visit the Pribilofs for vagrants; you go for nesting seabirds and, once again, we were treated to a true spectacle of breeding alcids, fulmars, kittiwakes, and cormorants on the bird cliffs. What?s more, rare sunny skies and a general lack of wind combined to produce ideal conditions for enjoying the spectacle to its fullest. A stunningly immaculate male McKay?s Bunting was well worth the hike needed to find it, and represented one of the most difficult-to-find of North America?s breeding birds.

News of a nesting Great Gray Owl on the Glenn Highway caused us to cast aside our usual routine for our day of birding the Anchorage area. Employing the reasoning that nothing we could expect to see in Anchorage could top a Great Gray Owl, we decided to go for it, and the strategy paid off in a big way. En route we stumbled onto an unexpected bonanza of Northern Hawk Owls, seeing a minimum of nine different individuals in a 23-mile stretch! The day also produced Trumpeter Swans, scope views of singing Varied Thrush, and crippling studies of American Three-toed Woodpecker. But the Great Gray was the showstopper. We had been cautioned that the bird was no sure thing, since the young had recently fledged and were moving farther from the nest site each day. But after a bit of a hike, persistent deep ?WHOOP? notes signaled the presence of an adult owl, and suddenly, like a huge gray ghost, it was upon us. The bird swooped in and landed in a spruce, allowing prolonged, binocular-filling views for everyone. It was only after the bird had been in sight for several minutes that we looked up and saw the perched fledgling with the pink eyelids that was sitting just above our heads!

The next day we were off to Denali, more relaxed than usual since we had already scored most of the big Denali quest birds. The drive up produced a magnificent family of Trumpeter Swans right next to the road, as well as perched Bohemian Waxwings and skylarking White-winged Crossbills. Our day in the park was diminished by dreary, rainy weather, but still produced nice views of a Northern Shrike, a wolf, and more distant views of a couple of grizzlies. The Denali Highway presented us with Upland Sandpipers, Willow Ptarmigan with downy chicks, nesting Horned Grebes, and still more Northern Shrikes and Gyrfalcons.

We finished, as always, with a trip to Seward and the Kenai Peninsula. On our way out of Anchorage, we decided to make a brief stop to mop up some of the common Anchorage birds that we had missed as a result of switching our day of local birding to the Great Gray Owl chase. This turned out to be a great move when, in addition to nice studies of Boreal Chickadees, we were rewarded with crippling views of a male Spruce Grouse! The Kenai Fjords boat trip produced excellent views of multiple Kittlitz?s Murrelets, in addition to all of the more usual fare, and our return drive to Anchorage netted us yet another Spruce Grouse, this time a hen with two chicks.

All in all, a most congenial group of birders got to see a bunch of great birds and mammals, and we had a lot of fun doing it.