Alaska: Barrow Extension Jun 27—29, 2008
Posted by Kevin Zimmer
Once again, Barrow provided a fitting exclamation point to our Alaska tour season. The weather was good; make that ideal, with persistently sunny skies (around the clock), and temperatures that climbed into the 50–60° F range. In fact, it got so balmy that we witnessed some mosquito emergence on our last day, which is only the second time in more than 20 years of Barrow trips that I've even seen a mosquito there. The shore ice was more broken up than I've ever seen it, which diminished our chances for polar bears, and which also meant that any migrant seabirds would not be concentrated in leads along the shoreline.
This was a big lemming year, with lemmings squirting out from underfoot every time we walked across the tundra. That meant numbers of Snowy Owls, and despite the fact that the owls retreated from the roadsides along with the receding snow, we still enjoyed multiple scope-filling views, and found at least eight different nests. Pomarine Jaegers, the other great lemming predators of these parts, were thick as flies, and stirring up trouble with practically every other bird species in the area. Aggressive by nature, these feathered pirates harassed Snowy Owls, gulls, shorebirds, waterfowl, and even one another—it seemed as if everywhere we looked, there was a jaeger mixing it up with some other bird. As usual, the breeding cycles of the many shorebirds were in full gear, from spinning Red Phalaropes and dressy Dunlins to booming Pectoral Sandpipers and probing Long-billed Dowitchers—seldom were we out of sight of some smartly-plumaged shorebird.
For all of this, when I think of Barrow, the first things I think of are breeding plumaged eiders. There is probably no more readily accessible location for seeing all of the eiders in full breeding plumage, and on the tundra (as opposed to only in flight). Each eider is spectacular in its own right, so much so that my choice for "favorite eider" often boils down to which one I've seen last. Steller's Eider and Spectacled Eider, by virtue of their relatively small ranges and rapidly declining global populations, are, arguably, the two most special and sought after of the four species, and they were certainly a focal point of our visit. We were not to be disappointed. Steller's Eiders were present in the largest numbers that I have ever encountered at Barrow (my visits dating back to 1987). With a minimum of 40 individuals encountered, we had exceeded the combined trip totals of the past several years. It was especially gratifying that all of the birds encountered were either mated pairs or individual males out on the tundra, indicating that these were all summer residents (transients would most likely be seen in small groups moving along the immediate shoreline). The local abundance of this near-threatened species, combined with the generally tame demeanor of most of the individuals encountered, suggests that recent campaigns to get the local subsistence hunters to stop hunting both Steller's and Spectacled eiders may be having an impact. We sweated Spectacled Eider for the first day, but found a magnificent drake on the second day that allowed us a very close approach. That was to be our only male Spec, but he provided prolonged close-range studies, and in the end, we walked away from him. King Eiders were less conspicuous than in most years, probably in large part because we were here somewhat later than usual, and most of the migrants had already moved on through. We were treated to fabulous studies of a mated pair near Freshwater Lake, as well as a second stunning drake on Stint Pond, and a few scattered females.
Barrow always manages to produce at least a few surprises, and this year was no different. Top honors for rarest birds went not to some exotic Siberian vagrant, but to a very lost Swainson's Hawk, and a nearly as out-of-place Killdeer. Our optional excursion to Point Barrow did not produce a polar bear, but it did provide the chance to pose for photos at the northernmost spot in the United States (if not the "top of the world," at least the closest thing that one can drive to). And we were the first VENT group ever to lay witness to the brand new, synthetic, blue-turf football field (featured in several recent documentaries and news stories), which is surely the northernmost football field in the world!
Thanks to all of you for making this Barrow Extension extra special and a whole bunch of fun!