Alaska Mainland Jun 15—26, 2011

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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On our second full day in Nome we ventured north out the Kougarok Road. It was yet another glorious weather day with sunny skies and temperatures in the low 60s. We stopped about 18 miles out as an Arctic Warbler was singing right next to the road. The warbler, a real Alaskan specialty, responded quickly, offering superb views, as did a nearby Fox Sparrow and an Orange-crowned Warbler. Just as we were about to load up again, someone in the group spotted three grizzly bears on a distant hillside. We had nice scope views of a mother and two nearly grown young ambling up an open slope for about ten minutes.

Continuing on, we had, in quick succession: three moose, two stunning pairs of Harlequin Ducks, and a male Willow Ptarmigan that put on a show in the middle of the road. A short distance farther on we had a planned stop at a known Golden Eagle nest site. Just as we came to a stop, I heard the wonderful skylarking song of a male Bluethroat on the left side of the road. We quickly piled out of the vans and almost immediately had very close scope views of this incredible bird. Time after time he ascended up against a backdrop of snowy peaks and then floated down to a willow top for all to admire. The stunning blue and red throat shone brightly in the morning sun, like a brilliantly colored Indian blanket. Another Arctic Warbler perched up just feet away from the Bluethroat. I finally took a moment to look at the eagle nest up to our right and noticed that the adult bird was sitting up nicely in full view. We had one scope on a Bluethroat and the other on a Golden Eagle. Someone noticed a Northern Wheatear on the rocks above the eagle. It was hard to know where to look first!

We finally dragged ourselves away from this embarrassment of riches and within ten minutes had come across a bull muskox right next to the road. A pair of Northern Shrikes feeding young followed, then a close pair of Northern Wheatears at our lunch stop, a dizzying array of tundra flowers, a large herd of muskox with babies and, finally, walkaway scope views of three Bristle-thighed Curlews. Welcome to Alaska!

This year's Alaska Mainland tour was certainly one of our most successful ever. Other highlights in Nome included all five loon species in one day, a pair of Gyrfalcons at a close nest site, stunning Rock Ptarmigans almost at our feet, a Rock Sandpiper that walked right up to the group, and great views of Bar-tailed Godwits, Aleutian Terns, Long-tailed Jaegers, Yellow Wagtails, Snow Buntings, and more.

Seward and the Kenai Peninsula were next on the itinerary. Spruce forests en route yielded Three-toed Woodpecker, Chestnut-backed and Boreal chickadees, Varied Thrush, Townsend's Warbler, and Pine Grosbeak among others. A family of Dippers entertained at a salmon weir, and a mother black bear and cubs gave good views on a high slope. An all-day boat trip to Kenai Fjords National Park produced incredible seabirds including Red-faced Cormorant; Tufted and Horned puffins; Kittlitz's, Marbled, and Ancient murrelets; Parakeet and Rhinoceros auklets; Thick-billed and Common murres; and Pigeon Guillemot. Fourteen humpback whales, nine orcas, Dall's porpoises, sea otters, and Steller's sea lions added to the excitement. But the unbelievable scenery (including a calving tidewater glacier) nearly stole the show on this wonderfully sunny day.

In and around Anchorage, we added two male Barrow's Goldeneyes, a breeding-plumaged Horned Grebe from ten feet away (!), a close displaying pair of Common Loons, a flock of Hudsonian Godwits, and three White-winged Crossbills. A herd of Dall sheep right next to the road was a treat.

Our tour concluded with a visit to the Denali region. On the way up we had 30 minutes of Mount McKinley (Denali) in full view from the Parks Highway. Fantastic! A pair of Bohemian Waxwings perched right overhead near Cantwell, but the prolonged scope view of a Northern Hawk Owl being dive-bombed by robins was the real show-stopper. In the park itself, we saw five more grizzlies, numerous caribou, more moose, and a red fox. A pair of Trumpeter Swans, another black bear, and quick views of two gray wolves crossing the road the next morning were the icing on the cake.

In all we tallied 158 species of birds (seeing nearly all the targeted Alaskan specialties), 26 species of mammals (who will ever forget the fabulous shrew!), 18 species of butterflies (a tour record thanks to the great weather), and wonderful wildflower displays. We enjoyed, without doubt, the greatest weather ever on an Alaskan tour—twelve consecutive sunny, warm days with a cumulative total of about 30 minutes of rain for the entire trip. This was Alaska at its best!