Alaska Mainland Jun 13—24, 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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It is always hard to decide which of the myriad highlights of a tour to write about. In the case of our recent Alaska Mainland tour this was especially true. The last evening I asked people to choose their three favorite birds of the tour, and the following highlights reflect their choices.

Topping the list was the magnificent male Bluethroat in Nome. Against a backdrop of snow-covered peaks, this stunning little thrush displayed from two close willow tops. With the brilliant blue and orange bull's-eye on his throat and his wonderful cascading song, he entertained us for over 15 minutes from as close as 40 feet away. Certainly this is one of the most highly sought birds of any trip to Alaska.

Coming in a close second was the marvelous Northern Hawk Owl along the Denali Highway. We spent a considerable amount of time looking without success before we finally found one. Initially it was about a half-mile away, but it eventually came right up to the road and was joined by its mate atop a small spruce. A pair of White-winged Crossbills perched next to the male in a failed effort to drive him away. This last-minute find confirmed what persistence in a search can do for you!

Tied for third among the vote-getters were Gyrfalcon and Ancient Murrelet. The Gyrfalcons were nesting in a very opportune spot this year—right along the road, at eye level, and viewable from about 75 feet away. We had scope views of the female perched on the side of the nest with three fuzzy youngsters. It was the best view I have ever had of this species. The Ancient Murrelets, which are always tough to see well on a Kenai Fjords boat trip, performed exceptionally well this year. One pair flushed right in front of the bow and flew only a short distance before landing again for nice views on the water.

Other species mentioned as favorites included the following: Willow Ptarmigan—we saw 21 on this trip including several very close views of males, females, and tiny chicks; Horned Puffin—many hundreds from our boat trip, often side by side with the equally impressive Tufted Puffins; Barrow's Goldeneye—particularly memorable were our first two, both stunning males on Summit Lake with their reflections showing in the glassy waters; Pacific Golden-Plover—like so many of the shorebirds on this trip, these beauties were in their finest breeding plumage, a wonderful combination of gold, white, and velvety-black; and Lapland Longspur—arguably the most common passerine in Nome, these skylarking gems were constant companions on the tundra.

Of course there were many other wonderful highlights: a male Eurasian Wigeon at Safety Lagoon, lengthy scope views of a pair of Arctic Loons, Rock Ptarmigan from ten feet away, Bar-tailed Godwits and Aleutian Terns feeding along the Nome River mouth, a very impressive total of 26 Kittlitz's Murrelets near Northwestern Glacier, repeated scope views of Arctic Warblers, a pair of Northern Wheatears on the rocky tundra, and stunning Snow Buntings nearly at our feet! In addition to all the wonderful birds, we tallied 22 species of mammals. Topping the list was the gray wolf that we watched right in front of our bus for easily five minutes. Other notables included 15 grizzly bears (a three-year-old near Salmon Lake was especially close); several superb, close studies of musk ox, including one group with four tiny calves; Dall's porpoises bow-riding so close below us that we were getting wet from the spray of their blow; and 21 humpback whales in one day! All this, combined with arguably the best scenery in North America and generally excellent weather, made for one of our best Alaska trips ever!