Alaska Mainland Jun 16—27, 2008

Posted by Barry Zimmer

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Barry Zimmer

Barry Zimmer has been birding since the age of eight. His main areas of expertise lie in North and Central America, but his travels have taken him throughout much of the wo...

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Our 2008 Alaska Mainland tour faced some difficult challenges with the loss of nearly two full days in Nome due to heavy fog in the area. Despite this we had a superb tour with myriad highlights from most of the Alaskan specialty birds to fantastic mammal viewing, to having Denali (Mount McKinley) in full view for two consecutive days!

The Nome section was condensed into a little over a 24-hour period, so we had to maximize our time. Arriving in late morning, we made a brief check of the Teller Road before lunch. A Willow Ptarmigan greeted us roadside—and nearly climbed into our van! Spectacular Long-tailed Jaegers cruised about the tundra, a Short-eared Owl glided about like a giant moth, and both species of redpolls foraged in the snowbanks. A cooperative Dipper put on a show along the Penny River.

After lunch we headed down to world-famous Safety Lagoon. Every stop along the way seemed to produce another highlight. Stunning Common Eiders lounged along the shore, while large flocks of Brant and Tundra Swans rested on the lagoon. Aleutian Terns gave several close fly-bys, and Pacific and Red-throated loons in full breeding plumage graced the tundra ponds. A pair of Yellow Wagtails posed in the scope, while a small group of reindeer sauntered by. A rarely seen Arctic Loon was spotted and was followed by Harlequin Ducks, Black Scoter, Black Turnstones, Red-necked Phalarope, Sabine's Gull, and Lapland Longspurs—a dazzling parade of birds. It was hard to know where to look first. We closed the afternoon with very close views of Rough-legged Hawk and a territorial Arctic Warbler which had probably just arrived from Siberia. A post-dinner option netted a Bar-tailed Godwit at the Nome River mouth.

The next morning we headed inland up the Kougarok Road. Our main target was the spectacular Bluethroat. En route we had a bull musk ox right next to the road, stopped for two different Golden Eagles on nests, and studied a Gyrfalcon on its nest as well. Then Kim heard a Bluethroat calling behind his van. We tracked it down and enjoyed prolonged views of this gem in full skylarking display. This is certainly one of the most
special birds of Alaska, and was voted as the favorite bird of the tour by our group! Other highlights along this road included both American and Pacific golden-plovers in breeding plumage, a grizzly bear on a kill, and huge herds of reindeer. Then it was time to head back to Anchorage.

Our next stop was the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage. Spruce forest along the way yielded a hen Spruce Grouse with chicks, Three-toed Woodpeckers at a nest, scope studies of singing Varied Thrush, ten Pine Grosbeaks in view at once, and nice views of Dall's sheep and mountain goats. The scenery along the way was nothing short of breathtaking. Our full-day boat trip out of Seward was much rougher than usual, but still produced a great list of birds with hundreds of Tufted and Horned puffins, Rhinoceros Auklets right next to the boat, good views of both Marbled and Kittlitz's murrelets, stunning Red-faced Cormorants, humpback whales, Dall's porpoises, sea otters, and a calving glacier! We also had nice looks at White-winged Crossbills, Northwestern Crow, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, and Steller's Jay in the Seward area. A Bald Eagle pair was nesting right behind our hotel!

The Anchorage area produced Horned and Red-necked grebes, Hudsonian Godwits, incredible looks at Boreal Chickadee, and several Barrow's Goldeneyes among others.

The final leg of our journey was the Denali region. Low-lying clouds obscured our view of the majestic mountain on our ride up from Anchorage, but a pair of Bohemian Waxwings that afternoon provided nice consolation. Late that night the skies began to clear and I was hopeful for the next day's shuttle ride into the park. We were greeted by completely blue skies the next morning, and had fabulous views of the mountain with only a few low, wispy clouds around the base. Mammals were out in force with a very impressive total of 15 grizzly bears, 5 red foxes, countless snowshoe hares, and a sprinkling of caribou seen. The real highlights, however, were two lynx (a rarely seen species), the second of which was right on the road affording superb studies. This was a life mammal even for me!

That evening we had an option to go out the Denali Highway to look for Northern Hawk Owl. After some effort we were rewarded with excellent close views. The next day (our last), we saw another, more distant hawk owl, more waxwings and crossbills, a close porcupine, and a pair of Trumpeter Swans. Mount McKinley remained in full view the entire day!

In all we tallied over 150 species of birds, had one of our best mammal trips ever, and experienced the best luck with viewing Mount McKinley of any Alaska tour I have led. Another wildly successful visit to the Last Frontier!