Grand Alaska Jun 03—18, 2007
Posted by Kevin Zimmer
By any measure, this year's Grand Alaska tour was a huge success. The weather was mostly cooperative, we did well in finding many of the toughest breeding specialties, and we were treated to some exciting Asiatic vagrants.
As always, Nome got things off to a rousing start. A trip out the Teller Road on our first afternoon gave us a nice introduction to birds of the alpine tundra, with stunning views of breeding-plumaged Red Knots and Rock Sandpipers, not to mention Rock Ptarmigan, Northern Wheatear, and Snow Buntings. Elegant Black-bellied, Pacific Golden, and American Golden plovers in high breeding plumage were also a treat, as were a close herd of musk ox.
The next day found us on the Council Road, where Bar-tailed Godwits, a stunning Peregrine Falcon, numerous Aleutian Terns, an eerie Short-eared Owl, and a wonderful array of waterfowl that included a male Eurasian Wigeon were just a few of the many highlights. A hike across a flower-blanketed, alpine dome produced a group of Surfbirds and another herd of musk ox. This herd, upon becoming aware of our presence, went into the classic "circle the wagons" defensive posture, which wasn't enough to prevent one feisty little baby from getting out front and center. A pair of Gyrfalcons, the female impressively larger than the male, provided the proverbial icing on the cake.
On our final full day in the Nome area, we split the group. My co-leader, David Wolf, took half of the group up the Kougarok Road, which is hands-down my favorite birding road in North America. Predictably, they were treated to spectacular scenery as well as stellar views of such specialty birds as Bluethroat, Bristle-thighed Curlew, and Yellow Wagtail, and even picked up a Slaty-backed Gull at the landfill as a major bonus. Since the other half of our participants were carrying over from the Gambell-Nome tour and had already spent a full and very successful day on the Kougarok Road, we offered them an option of going farther out the Council Road than we had previously been on either tour, just to cover some new ground. In going all the way to Council, we ended up visiting the only spruce forest in the Nome region, with nice looks at Boreal Chickadees and Varied Thrushes as our reward. Along the way, we were treated to a dazzling male Bluethroat engaged in repeated skylarking bouts, as well as another obliging Northern Wheatear, close walk-up views of a number of Sabine's Gulls along the coast, and a singing Arctic Warbler.
The Pribilofs were next in line, and we hit the ground running. An Eyebrowed Thrush had blown in on a west wind just hours before our arrival, and our first excursion became a surgical strike directed at seeing this rare vagrant. The bird cooperated, and in no time all of us had secured scope views. A male Tufted Duck, a Black-headed Gull, and a Common Snipe were all good pick-ups, and we braced ourselves for the always-hoped-for "Siberian Express" to drop more vagrants into our laps. Unfortunately, the Siberian Express must have been derailed, for despite three consecutive days of strong winds out of the west, the only additional vagrant to show was a Whimbrel of the Asiatic subspecies variegatus. In spite of this, we contented ourselves with a spectacular show of Ancient Murrelets (some 40+ of which were concentrated in the harbor), a male Steller's Eider, and the usual extravaganza of cliff-nesting alcids, Red-legged Kittiwakes, and Red-faced Cormorants, not to mention hundreds of Harlequin Ducks.
A day-trip up the Glenn Highway from Anchorage yielded perched Bohemian Waxwings, a most responsive American Three-toed Woodpecker, and a very vocal pair of Trumpeter Swans, among other gems. Our subsequent foray into the Denali region was as notable for mammals as for birds. From a rarity standpoint, the distant wolverine seen from the shuttle bus was tops, but, for most people, the spectacle of a lone black wolf in hot pursuit of a female caribou and calf for hundreds of meters was the show-stealer. We were denied (some would say spared) the sight of the actual kill, but we can be pretty sure of the outcome. On our return drive, we spotted the wolf calmly feeding on something in the same valley where we had previously seen it gaining on the calf. Five grizzlies rounded out our list of spectacular predatory mammals for the day. There were birds to be seen as well. A Gyrfalcon perched atop Marmot Rock on Polychrome Pass was most satisfying, whereas a male Spruce Grouse that scampered across the road before most of our group could see it was not. The Denali Highway yielded nice scope views of White-winged Crossbills and a very territorial Arctic Warbler, which caught up everyone in the group on this Alaskan specialty.
As always, we ended our tour by birding the Kenai Peninsula from Anchorage to Seward. Anchorage treated us to nice looks at a number of typical boreal forest birds, from Olive-sided Flycatchers and Boreal Chickadees to Swainson's Thrush, as well as a nice variety of breeding waterfowl, from both species of goldeneyes to Canvasbacks with downy ducklings. We also enjoyed nice studies of a black bear. Seward produced great views of Pine Grosbeak, Townsend's Warbler, Varied Thrush, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, and Red Crossbill. We also enjoyed the antics of a vocal pair of Bald Eagles, one of which was seen carrying a Black-legged Kittiwake to its nest! A stunning male Barrow's Goldeneye feeding placidly on a quiet pond and a female Common Merganser frantically escorting an adorable brood to safety along a rushing stream were equally memorable. Our visit to this region was capped by a boat trip to magnificent Kenai Fjords National Park, which, in addition to magnificent scenery, an actively calving tidewater glacier, a pod of orcas and multiple humpback whales, comical sea otters, and bow-riding Dall's porpoises, yielded good views of Kittlitz's and Marbled murrelets, a large raft of Short-tailed Shearwaters, and good numbers of Rhinoceros Auklets. Throw in a couple of excellent seafood dinners at Ray's, and it was the perfect conclusion to our Grand Alaskan adventure.
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. Dave and I are already looking forward to next year's trip!