Barrow Extension to Grand Alaska Jun 17—19, 2006

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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This year's Barrow Extension was like a blast from the past, and hopefully, a harbinger of visits to come. For the first time in years, all four species of eiders were easy. We thrilled to walk-away crippling views of breeding-plumaged male Steller's and Spectacled eiders, two species that have undergone precipitous population declines over the past few decades. On the first morning we enjoyed prolonged studies of three male Spectacled Eiders with a single female, and a pair of King Eiders thrown in for good measure! A mixed flock of King and Common eiders loafed on the ice just down the street from our hotel, and could be scoped at leisure any time we passed. As spectacular as the Spectacleds and Kings were, they may have been trumped by the elegant pair of Steller's Eiders along the Zigzag Road on the second day that allowed us such close approach. In general, the eiders seemed tamer than in the past, which may indicate that campaigns to get the local subsistence hunters to stop hunting both Spectacled and Steller's eiders are having an impact. At any rate, our repeated close studies of each of the eider species were the best we have enjoyed in years. Our biggest problem with eiders was in trying to decide which of the fancy males was the most attractive!

This was also a big lemming year, which meant that Pomarine Jaegers were everywhere, and Snowy Owls were also present in decent numbers. It also meant that lemmings were scooting out from underneath our feet every time we walked on the tundra. As always, the extravaganza of breeding shorebirds, from booming Pectoral Sandpipers to spinning Red Phalaropes, was in full gear. This year we were treated to some of the less common high arctic breeders such as Buff-breasted Sandpiper (displaying), Sanderling, and Stilt Sandpiper, all of which are much more common in Arctic Canada and the eastern portions of Alaska's North Slope. A Lesser Sandplover (Mongolian Plover) was an unexpected bonus bird, as was an Olive-sided Flycatcher that was clearly lost.

Our rarest find by far was the Ardea heron that came winging its way along the coast of the Chukchi Sea (escorted by Glaucous Gulls!) as we stood looking at eiders. Any heron is a major rarity at Barrow, and the second I spotted this one I realized that we needed to make sure that it wasn't a Gray Heron, a bird whose nearest breeding populations in Siberia might be closer to Barrow than are the nearest breeding populations of Great Blue Heron. I started screaming "Heron, heron, get on this heron, and check the color of the thighs!" We scrambled for the scopes, and were able to track the bird in flight until it disappeared from view far to the north. Subsequent attempts to find the bird on the ground netted nothing. All of us perceived the color of the thighs to be grayish-white (those of Great Blue Heron are rusty or chestnut), and the bird showed a highly contrasting, continuous black stripe along the sides of the belly (the stripe in Great Blue is usually somewhat broken and less bold). Also, the bird appeared somewhat stockier, less elongate than a typical Great Blue Heron (lending an in-flight configuration that was almost more night-heron like). However, the bird also appeared somewhat darker gray than Gray Herons that I have seen in Africa, and it did not show white marginal coverts on the leading edge of the wing, which would have been typical for Gray Heron. Photos of the bird have been circulated to a number of people, and the reaction has been mixed (some favoring Gray Heron, more favoring Great Blue, with most unwilling to put a name on it), but decidedly inconclusive. Either way, it was a mega-rarity for Barrow! Stay tuned?

Our trip ended with a bang, when breaking news of a polar bear on the beach across the street from our hotel completely interrupted breakfast. Everyone piled out of Pepe's right after ordering, and when it became apparent that the bear was no longer in the immediate vicinity, we loaded into the van and started checking likely overlooks. News of a second bear over at Browerville prompted me to drive north, and at the first possible overlook we struck pay dirt! Dion spotted the polar bear, 300 meters out on the ice, busily engaged in eating something. We hopped out for scope studies and digiscope photos, then piled back in the van and returned to the restaurant just in time for them to serve our still-hot meals. Forty-five minutes later we were at the airport, checking in for our flight to Anchorage! Talk about a wild finish!