Alaska: Barrow Extension Jun 24—26, 2010

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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Once again, Barrow provided a fitting exclamation point to our Alaska tour season. The weather was about average, with daily temperatures ranging from 34–40° F, light winds, and only occasional light precipitation. Persistent fog did limit horizontal visibility, rendering sea-watching impossible, and making it hard to pick out any rarities amongst the common shorebirds on distant mudflats. The shore ice was still in when we went to bed the first (late) evening, but with a shift in winds, was nowhere to be seen when we awoke a few hours later! By afternoon of our first full day, the shore ice was back, although in a narrower band and more broken up than usual for this date, 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 poor lemming year (following last year's "crash"), as was immediately apparent from the general lack of Pomarine Jaegers. Although we saw a few Poms on each of our three days, their abundance or lack thereof provides an excellent barometer of the local lemming population. Snowy Owls were hard to come by in 2009, and I anticipated problems this year, but in spite of the dearth of lemmings, Snowy Owls were present in reasonable numbers (at least 10 seen, with multiple encounters all three days and at least two active nests). 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. This year there were a few elegant Sabine's Gulls and a handsome pair of Pacific Loons hanging around along the shoreline of Freshwater Lake. They all seemed to be feeding on sticklebacks that were apparently concentrated in the shallows at the edge of the ice melt. Foraging opportunities were so good that the birds appeared oblivious, or at least indifferent, to our presence, and it was hard to know which of these stunning (in full breeding plumage) species to focus on.

For all of this, when I think of Barrow, the first thing I think of is 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) than Barrow. 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. We started off with 4 fly-by Spectacled Eiders that blasted across the Freshwater Lake road on our initial excursion. Our disappointment over this not-good-enough-to-count look soon yielded to joy when I found a pair on the ground some distance from the road. We walked close enough for good and prolonged scope studies, which meant that I slept much better that first night, just knowing that the premier glamour bird of Barrow was under our belts! While scouting later that night, I found 3 pairs of Spectacled Eiders hanging together in the same area, as well as an adult male that seemed to be off on his own. Over the next two days, we were treated to numerous excellent views of scattered Specs along this same road, which may have represented repeat encounters with the same 7 individuals, or else, a steady turnover of new birds moving across the tundra. Regardless, we had more quality views of both males and females than in any year in recent memory, culminating in a successful stalk on our last afternoon of 3 adult males hanging together on a small pond.

It was no surprise that Spectacled Eider was voted "Favorite Bird" of the trip, although King Eider gave it a run for its money. We had individual Kings and pairs of Kings scattered across the tundra throughout our stay, and several groups of 20–50 birds moving north along the coast on our final day. But one particular male (with his largely ignored [at least by us] mate in tow) along the Gaswell Road on the morning of Day 2 was the ultimate showstopper. We had nice scope views from the road, but about half of our group patiently and successfully stalked the birds. We were rewarded with mind-blowing, walkaway studies, with the eiders still feeding after we turned and headed back to the road. The Spectacled Eider has the clear edge on rarity, novelty, and mystique, but it's pretty hard to beat a fully adult male King Eider in all its glory!  That bird has 7 colors to it, and we were close enough to see all 7 with binoculars alone!

Steller's Eider was the last holdout of the breeding eiders (we often see Common Eiders as well, but only as migrants moving along the coast). For most of the past decade it has been the hardest eider to find on our June visits, although that disturbing trend was reversed in 2008 when we found at least 40 birds in a few days, most of them in clearly mated pairs scattered across the tundra. That population boom appears to have been only temporary, with only 3 pairs found by our 2009 group, and only 2 pairs found this year (and even then, only after much searching). Nonetheless, the pairs that we found were very cooperative, and yielded excellent scope views, allowing us to once again achieve the eider hat trick! The relative abundance of Spectacled Eiders over the past few years, and of Steller's Eiders in 2008, 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 these near-threatened birds may be having an impact.

Our optional excursion to Point Barrow did not produce a polar bear (the fog was a huge obstacle), but it did provide some fascinating insights into the whaling culture of the Inupiat people and ice-road trucking (thanks to Nathaniel for his very informative and entertaining discussions of each), as well as nice studies of Black Guillemots and 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). Along the way, we enjoyed numerous hearty meals at Pepe's (tacos on the tundra!) served up with Fran's remembrances of Johnny Carson, and witnessed such novelties as a toilet-topped totem pole; a synthetic, blue-turf football field (featured in several recent documentaries and news stories and surely the northernmost "American football" field in the world); and an unexpected mileage post for Wall Drug!

Thanks to all of you for making this Barrow Extension extra special and a whole bunch of fun!

Favorite Bird (as voted by the group):

1. Spectacled Eider
2. King Eider and Red Phalarope (tied)
3. Steller's Eider