Grand Alaska Jun 12—27, 2008

Posted by Kevin Zimmer

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Kevin Zimmer

Kevin Zimmer has authored three books and numerous papers dealing with field identification and bird-finding in North America. His book, Birding in the American West: A Han...

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If I had to sum up our 2008 Grand Alaska trip in a single word, it would probably be "fog." Within the course of a single trip, we equaled the previous 23-year total of days spent fogged-in at a location due to flights canceled by fog. The trouble started at Nome, where for two days prior to our planned departure, no Alaska Airlines flights made it in or out. Of course, we were paying only minimal attention, because we were too busy enjoying superb birding in what is my single favorite place in all of North America to bird.

We began our Grand Alaska adventure with an afternoon drive out the Teller Road to Woolley Lagoon. The real fun began just beyond the Sinuk River, when I spotted a Bar-tailed Godwit sailing over the road. As I hit the brakes I noticed a second godwit disappearing over the van and out of my view. As we scrambled out of the van, we quickly became aware that the godwits were coming back towards us at warp speed, but they couldn't have cared less about our presence. Instead, they were bent on strafing a Parasitic Jaeger that clearly seemed to be intent on predation, either on eggs, or, more likely, on some unseen godwit chicks. Again and again the pair of godwits came at the jaeger, like fighter jets taking on a bigger plane. The jaeger was not to be deterred, and soon a Mew Gull entered the dogfight. Now there were three birds dive-bombing the jaeger and harassing it through an impressive series of dives, barrel rolls, and maneuvers that would make any Top Gun envious. But still the jaeger persisted. Then a seemingly unlikely combatant entered the conflict, when a Long-tailed Jaeger piled on and started attacking the Parasitic as well! The Parasitic Jaeger was now the focus of one of the most determined and impressive avian counterattacks that I have ever witnessed, but still, he kept coming back. Meanwhile, two vans full of birders, as well as their leaders, were going out of their collective minds, and several cameras were burning up flash card pixels at obscene rates. Finally, after the battle had been waged without letup for more than 15 minutes, the Mew Gull got down and dirty and went after the Parasitic with ferocious tenacity, driving it completely out of the area. It was an auspicious start to the tour!

The remainder of that first afternoon included gorgeous Red Knots and Black-bellied Plovers in high breeding plumage, Rock Sandpipers, Snow Buntings, and both Rock and Willow ptarmigan. The next day was spent on the Kougarok Road, a day of fabulous scenery, exceptional birding, and magnificent big game. We thrilled to moose and musk ox, delighted in nesting Gyrfalcon and Golden Eagle, and high-fived over Arctic Warblers and a male Bluethroat, all the while trying not to stop too often for a continuous parade of thicket birds, ranging from Wilson's Warblers and Gray-cheeked Thrushes to Yellow Wagtails, Hoary Redpolls, and Golden-crowned Sparrows. Our picnic lunch in the Pilgrim River drainage was enlivened by a locally rare Black-capped Chickadee and singing Blackpoll Warblers, and topped off by a Northern Goshawk on a nest. Then it was off to Coffee Dome, where we split the group. Dave took the folks who had carried over from our Gambell-Nome tour (and who had successfully hiked for the Bristle-thighed Curlew a few days earlier) on a further exploration to the end of the Kougarok Road, while I took everyone else on a hike in search of the Bristle-thighed Curlew. We duplicated the success of the earlier group, making first contact with the curlew in a mere 42 minutes, and eventually working our way to exceptional close studies of one of the rarest and most localized breeding birds in all of North America. On the way back into town, we stopped for a close pair of Rusty Blackbirds, and again for a pair of Northern Shrikes, the male of which put on an exceptional display of hovering and mandible-clacking in response to playback.

The next day found us exploring the Council Road, particularly the fabulous Safety Lagoon area, where Aleutian Terns competed for our attention with a pair of rare Arctic Loons and a close fly-by Yellow-billed Loon. Abundant Common Eiders, mystical Short-eared Owls, perky Northern Wheatears, and a plethora of shorebirds, waterfowl, gulls, and jaegers kept us occupied for the rest of the day.

Then the fun started. For our Monday flight to Anchorage, we got as far as security screening. The incoming flight made two attempts at finding the runway, and then turned around and headed back to Nome. When the afternoon and evening flights canceled as well, we were officially stuck. To make matters worse, the soonest we could re-book for was Wednesday morning, because there was already an unbelievable backlog of passengers who had been trying to get out of Nome for the past three days. And we were not alone. At least three other birding groups were in the same boat, while others were stuck in Anchorage, still trying to get to Nome. So, we bided our time, and continued birding the Nome area through the fog, even scoring some real treats, such as Slaty-backed Gull, Sabine's Gull, a rare (here) Common Loon, and a completely lost pair of Barn Swallows, as well as a nesting pair of American Dippers. By the time our flight arrived on Wednesday morning, we had the menus of every restaurant in Nome committed to memory! As it turned out, we were the lucky ones––other groups originally scheduled for our same flight didn't make it out until Thursday night or Friday morning, having already lost whole chunks of their Alaska itineraries in the process.

Upon arrival in Anchorage, we hit the ground running, trying to make up for lost time. We had already lost one day off the Denali Highway portion of our tour, and we were facing a long drive starting in early afternoon just to get to our lodge. The scenery along the Glenn and Richardson Highways was spectacular, and we made some select stops for photo-ops and special birds, among the former the spectacular Matanuska Glacier, and among the latter, Trumpeter Swans and Barrow's Goldeneyes. No stop was more special than when eagle-eyed Cheryl spotted a Northern Hawk Owl atop a telephone pole, resulting in scope-filling views for all of this classic taiga bird. We pulled into the Tangle River Inn in time for a fashionably late salmon dinner, and then hit the sack with visions of Smith's Longspurs dancing in our heads. Those visions became reality the next morning, when we delighted in no less than four males and one female of these handsome and localized breeders. Our hike across the alpine tundra for the longspurs was truly magical, and a true trip highlight. Further exploration of the Denali Highway provided us with spectacular views of multiple Trumpeter Swans, point-blank studies of Arctic Warblers, a most inquisitive red fox, caribou, and some of the most dazzling views of the Alaska Range that anyone could ask for. All too soon it was time to leave and head back to Anchorage.

Next up was St. Paul Island (the Pribilofs). Our flight out was uneventful, and we were barely on the ground before we had tallied our first Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches, one of the few landbird species on the island. But we had not come to this tiny island in the middle of the Bering Sea for landbirds. We were here for the fabulous bird cliffs, where thousands of alcids, cormorants, kittiwakes, and fulmars breed cheek-to-jowl, and offer up intimate studies and countless photo-ops for camera-carrying birders. We reveled in scope-filling comparisons of Common and Thick-billed murres, Black-legged and Red-legged kittiwakes, Horned and Tufted puffins, and more cute little auklets than you could shake a stick at. In between visits to the cliffs, we tallied a male Eurasian Wigeon, a pair of dandy Red-necked Stints, a spectacular female Red Phalarope and an even more spectacular drake King Eider, some frustratingly elusive Ancient Murrelets, hundreds of dapper Harlequin Ducks, a cooperative Slaty-backed Gull, a spectacular feeding concentration of several hundred Northern Fulmars just off the beach, and crippling views of a most obliging Winter Wren. And then, just to keep us from going into orbit, the fog set in. Yep, another canceled flight and another day of retracing familiar routes, but hey—at least we got to eat more delicious fresh halibut! Fortunately, we were only delayed one extra day, and the delay only cost us our flex day in Anchorage. We made it out the following day, and we were all happy to be through with internal flights for the duration of the main tour.

Our final leg saw us driving to Seward, and birding en route. A stop at Westchester Lagoon yielded Hudsonian Godwits and Alder Flycatcher, and various stops along the scenic Seward Highway produced a pair of Pine Grosbeaks and a pair of nesting Three-toed Woodpeckers. The weather gods had one last, cruel trick in store for us, whipping up the seas so much that our boat trip to Kenai Fjords on the following day couldn’t make it out of Resurrection Bay. This cost us a few species, as well as our planned viewing of Northwest Glacier, but we salvaged the day with a spectacular pod of orcas, close humpback whales, bunches of Marbled Murrelets, close Black Oystercatchers, and some pretty entertaining sea otters and Steller's sea lions. Land-based birding around Seward allowed us to clean up a number of missing passerines, among them Boreal and Chestnut-backed chickadees. On the drive back to Anchorage we hit paydirt when I spotted an elegant male Spruce Grouse just off the side of a campground road. We had beat the bushes in vain for this bird just 48 hours earlier, and now we had one at our feet without any effort whatsoever. It was truly an exceptional end to a most successful tour, in spite of some exceptionally difficult weather.

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. You all were great sports about dealing with the frustrations that were simply out of our control. Dave and I are already looking forward to next year's trip, but this time, without the fog!