Barrow Extension to Grand Alaska Jun 18—20, 2007

Posted by David Wolf

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David Wolf

David Wolf is a senior member of the VENT staff and one of our most experienced tour leaders. After birding the U.S. and Mexico for over a decade, an interest in the wildli...

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As we descended through the clouds on our approach to Barrow, it was immediately apparent that this area was different?really different?from anywhere else we had been on our Grand Alaska trip. As far as the eye could see was flat coastal tundra, dotted with innumerable polygon lakes and ponds. Some appeared thawed and open, while the larger lakes were still quite frozen. Extensive brash ice was pushed up along the shoreline in town and around the Point, but as we circled offshore we could see that the main ice pack was already gone. The waters where the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas come together were quite open, unusual at this time of year. In spite of a brisk cold wind (37 degrees F) and spitting rain, we made our first excursion that evening, pausing for a few shorebirds before arriving at the Freshwater Lake. Almost immediately a stunning male Spectacled Eider flew right in towards us and landed in a marsh at close range, for a lengthy study and photo session. This species is in an unexplained rapid decline, making it the specialty bird of Barrow, and it was great to find one right away.

For the next two days the weather was gorgeous?mostly clear, almost no wind, and with temperatures reaching 50 degrees F?and we set about thoroughly exploring the road system here. The breeding shorebirds were a highlight, especially the ridiculous hooting displays of male Pectoral Sandpipers, the elegant female Red Phalaropes chasing the drabber males, and the wing-lifting antics of the Baird's Sandpipers. Lemmings were present in good numbers and with them came the predators, especially three jaegers and several shy Snowy Owls. Waterfowl were still on the move, including a pair of Eurasian Wigeon, and we found more Spectacled Eiders, but our greatest rarity was a surprise Ring-billed Gull far to the north of its normal range.

An evening trip to the Point for most of the group did not produce a polar bear, but we did find a gorgeous Yellow-billed Loon in an open lead. The lovely Steller's Eider, another Arctic species in a sharp decline, eluded us until our final morning, but then we enjoyed a very approachable pair on a tundra lake. Single White-rumped Sandpipers were also a good find; this species is at the limit of its range here and quite irregular. Afterwards, from the bluff in town, we thrilled to bowhead whales feeding far offshore in the open waters, while four Black Guillemots at the edge of the ice were a nice surprise. Several strolls out onto the tundra were enjoyed by all, a rare opportunity to explore this unique environment in a bit more depth. With the snow already gone, the surface was mushy (permafrost is only one-and-a-half to two feet below the surface here, so the meltwater stays on top). The first wildflowers were coming into bloom, insects were emerging, and the shorebirds seemed to be displaying everywhere. Our time here passed all too quickly. I know that I, for one, never expected to leave Barrow with a tan and a slight sunburn!