Grand Alaska Jun 02—17, 2006
By any measure, this year’s Grand Alaska tour was a huge success. The weather was reasonably cooperative, we did well in finding many of the toughest breeding specialties, and it was a fantastic year for Asiatic vagrants. As always, Nome got things off to a rousing start. On our first day in the area we were treated to a number of uncommon or rare species that could easily be missed on a short trip. Among these were Rock Sandpiper, Emperor Goose, Sabine’s Gull, Black Turnstone, and a pair of Red-necked Stints in full breeding plumage. A Franklin’s Gull at Safety Sound was a real find, and apparently a first for the Seward Peninsula.
The next day on the Kougarok Road was filled with highlights and adventure. Despite much effort, we dipped on the Bristle-thighed Curlew. However, we were treated to fabulous studies of a singing male Bluethroat, along with great looks at Rock and Willow ptarmigan, Northern Wheatear, Yellow Wagtail, Wandering Tattler, Hoary Redpoll, and all of the rest of the regular breeding species. As good as the birds were, the mammals may have been even better. A herd of musk ox, numerous moose, a short-tailed weasel, and two families of grizzly bears (one sow with four grown cubs, another with three, and all of them feeding on moose kills) made for an exciting day of game-viewing.
Our last day in the Nome area continued to produce highlights, starting with a fly-by of an adult Slaty-backed Gull at Cape Nome, and followed by excellent scope studies of Emperor Goose (one bird in with a flock of Snow Geese) and a stunning pair of Steller’s Eiders at Safety Sound. That afternoon, we offered an option of a second try for the curlew (led by David) or a trip out the Teller Road (led by Kevin). Incoming bad weather played a part in the success of both groups. It hindered David’s group in their search for the curlew, although they still managed a Northern Shrike and an American Dipper. Meanwhile, the slightly higher elevations of the Teller Road resulted in a veritable blizzard, with horizontal visibility reduced considerably. The snowfall covered all of the high domes of the Teller Road, pushing the birds of the alpine tundra down to the road edges to forage. This worked to our benefit, resulting in numbers of Northern Wheatears, American Pipits, Horned Larks, and Snow Buntings right along the road. The higher elevation shorebirds were also driven down, and we delighted in repeated views of numerous American Golden-Plovers and Baird’s Sandpipers, along with a pair of Surfbirds. Woolley Lagoon hosted magnificent breeding-plumaged Black-bellied Plovers, which looked even prettier against a backdrop of snow. A big bull musk ox near the Penny River rounded out our highlights for the day.
Next up were the Pribilofs, where we got off to a fast start with multiple Wood Sandpipers and good views of both Common and Wilson’s snipe in the same marsh! Later that evening, we delighted in scope studies of a pair of “Bewick’s” Swans; these rare Eurasian vagrants with extensively yellow bills are currently treated as a subspecies of the Tundra Swan. A Snowy Owl was an unexpected treat, as was a Common Sandpiper that dropped in for an hour or so, disappeared while we were looking at it, and was not seen again. There were many fewer birds on the cliffs than usual, but we still managed close views of all of the nesting alcids, Red-faced Cormorant, and the range-restricted Red-legged Kittiwake. Vagrants definitely stole the show on this trip to the Pribs, with additional goodies including three Eurasian Wigeon, a Lesser Sandplover, and a longipennis Common Tern.
As was the case in 2005, 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. On the drive up in the morning, we stopped for a lovely pair of Barrow’s Goldeneyes on a small lake. While we were scoping the ducks, Charlie alertly spotted an owl perched atop a small spruce some distance off. Turning our scopes to the owl, we saw that it was a Short-eared, a good omen of things to come. We had been cautioned that the Great Gray was no sure thing, since the young had recently fledged and were moving farther from the nest site each day. But after a short hike, we came across one of the downy youngsters, perched conspicuously atop a fallen dead spruce. Looking around, we quickly located one of the parent birds, which sat stoically nearby. The next 20 minutes were filled with the sounds of hushed, awed voices and persistent camera shutters, as the photographers among us went into blissful orbit over the frame-filling views we were being afforded. It was only after the birds had been in sight for several minutes that we looked down and saw the second youngster sitting at the base of another dead spruce, less than 15 feet from us! For the second year in a row, the Great Gray Owl was seen as well as you could possibly see it, and was once again voted the #1 bird of the trip.
But our day on the Glenn was not done. Before leaving the area, we were treated to prolonged scope studies of a Northern Hawk Owl, a bird that typically requires persistent searching in the Denali area to find. Brief views of some Bohemian Waxwings whetted our appetites for more, but grumbling stomachs began to take priority. Our lunch stop included a magnificent pair of Common Loons on a nearby lake, and a gas stop added a lovely male Surf Scoter on an adjacent pond. We finished our birding with a stop at Sheep Mountain Lodge where, after a bit of searching, we managed to locate a nesting Boreal Owl that had been on the hotline for the past month. This made it a 4-owl day, with looks at Great Gray Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, and Boreal Owl that would be hard to top!
The next day we were off to Denali, more relaxed than usual, since we had already seen several of the big Denali quest birds. The drive up produced better views of Bohemian Waxwings, as well as a second Northern Hawk Owl. Our timing was excellent for the shuttle bus tour of the park. A male Spruce Grouse strolling across the road brought our bus to an abrupt stop, and we enjoyed good looks as the bird alternately fanned and closed its tail. Soon thereafter, Mount McKinley presented itself and remained largely in view for the remainder of the morning. Close Dall sheep, several Golden Eagles and Willow Ptarmigan, and a total of nine grizzly bears combined with the Denali scenery and pleasant weather to produce a most enjoyable day. The Denali Highway presented us with Horned Grebes, more Bohemian Waxwings, displaying Least Sandpipers, and a most cooperative Arctic Warbler that had probably just arrived on territory.
We finished, as always, with a trip to Seward and the Kenai Peninsula. The Kenai Fjords boat trip produced excellent views of multiple Kittlitz’s Murrelets, a close raft of Short-tailed Shearwaters with a rare Manx Shearwater thrown in for good measure, and some particularly nice views of a pod of killer whales, along with more usual fare. Other Peninsula highlights included scope studies of a male Varied Thrush, multiple stunning Townsend’s Warblers, an American Dipper on a nest, close views of nesting Trumpeter Swans, and a stunning scenic backdrop during virtually the entire trip.
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.