Alaska: Barrow Extension Jun 24—26, 2009

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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The Barrow extension to our Alaska tour was, once again, wildly successful. Of course, eiders are the premier draw in Barrow and we had fantastic experiences with all four species. We had barely gone four miles out the Gaswell Road our first morning when someone spotted a pair of Steller's Eiders in a marshy area to the right. Quickly we realized that there were three pairs interacting together. We walked up on them and had excellent scope views from about 100 feet. A short distance out the same road we encountered a female Spectacled and an immature male King on tundra ponds right next to the road. Pectoral Sandpipers sailed about over the tundra, chests puffed out in their odd, hooting display flights. Gorgeous Red Phalaropes dotted most of the ponds and equally brilliant American Golden-Plovers and Dunlin darted about. Stunning Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs, both downright common, flitted about at every stop. At the end of the road, we found a displaying Buff-breasted Sandpiper, always a good find here. 

By mid-morning, we began working our way back toward the coast and up the road toward Point Barrow. We had no sooner hit the coast when someone spotted a group of four male Spectacled Eiders swimming close to the shore. We got out and walked up on the birds, which had settled down on the beach. We had wonderful views of these strange white-goggled beauties, as they slowly swam out to a small patch of pack ice to rest. Long-tailed Ducks were abundant with flocks of 600 or more milling about the ice. Pairs of Red-throated and Pacific loons worked the edges of the ice. Another male Steller's was studied at length near the end of the road, and we also enjoyed close views of Baird's Sandpipers working the edge of a nearby pond. On the way back to lunch, we found a lone male Common Eider floating in the sea on the north edge of town. Three male eiders down, one to go!

Our goal after lunch was to locate an adult male King Eider. We covered all three of the roads out of Barrow and marveled at the breeding shorebirds; saw two female Kings; located a very unexpected and totally cool male Ruff with a wonderful white "mane"; watched bold Parasitic Jaegers chase Arctic Terns, plovers, and anything else they could annoy; and discovered the unlikely pairing of a very lost Varied Thrush foraging side by side with an American Golden-Plover on the tundra! Late in the afternoon we finally found our target, an incomparable male King Eider resting on the shore of a small lake near the point. We walked up on it and had superb studies of this bizarre and gorgeous bird. Males of all four eiders were in the bank in less than 12 hours.

The next day, those who went on the optional Point Barrow excursion not only stood on the northernmost point in North America, but also witnessed an incredible showing of nine polar bears feeding on a whale carcass! The rest of us were pleasantly surprised to find a Snowy Owl perched on a telephone pole a short distance outside of town. Most years this species is easy to find in Barrow, but this year the lemmings had crashed and no one was seeing owls. We felt very fortunate to get this one. Late in the morning, when folks returned from watching the bears, we were able to locate a second owl as well. This day yielded seven King Eiders (another adult male), five Spectacleds, and a flyover of a Yellow-billed Loon before we had to depart in the evening back to Anchorage.

In all we had fantastic views of all the eiders, two Snowy Owls, a Yellow-billed Loon, and incredible shorebirds with the very uncommon Buff-breasted and the accidental Ruff. Hard to have been more successful than this!