Alaska Mainland Jun 15—26, 2012

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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Once again our Alaska Mainland tour was filled with wonderful birds, interesting mammals, great food, and spectacular scenery. We began our trip in Nome, my personal favorite destination in North America, and met with immediate success along the Teller Road. A herd of musk oxen, including babies, were right along the roadside just outside of the town limits. In quick succession we tallied stunning Pacific Loons, Long-tailed Jaegers everywhere, Willow Ptarmigan, Harlequin Ducks, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Lapland Longspur, Common and Hoary redpolls, Northern Shrike, a Rock Sandpiper (very scarce here) that landed right in the middle of our group, a striking breeding-plumaged Snow Bunting, and gorgeous breeding-plumaged Pacific and American golden-plovers, Black-bellied Plover, and Ruddy Turnstone. A post-dinner excursion to Safety Lagoon netted several Bar-tailed Godwits, an Arctic Loon, several Short-eared Owls, and a second year Slaty-backed Gull among others.

Willow Ptarmigan -- Nome, Alaska, June 2012

Willow Ptarmigan — Nome, Alaska, June 2012— Photo: Barry Zimmer

The next day we ventured out the Council Road where highlights included another Arctic Loon, many Red-throated Loons, late Sabine's Gulls, Aleutian Terns, more Bar-tailed Godwits, Common Eider, too many Tundra Swans to count, Brant, and a locally rare Barrow's Goldeneye. A pair of Gyrfalcons had a nest near the road and we watched the mother attending to her four young for quite some time. We also had active nests of Rough-legged Hawk and Peregrine Falcon not far away. Two grizzly bears were spotted on an open slope to the left, and while we watched them feeding, we were serenaded by an Arctic Warbler in a nearby thicket, and then distracted by a Wandering Tattler on the river below us. A pair of Northern Wheatears near Skookum Pass were the icing on the cake that day.

We followed that success with even greater rewards along the Kougarok Road the next day. An adult Slaty-backed Gull at the dump started the day off and was followed by more Arctic Warblers, two more Northern Shrikes, a male Bluethroat, a Golden Eagle feeding young, and three Bristle-thighed Curlews less than forty feet away! The curlews were the most cooperative I have found there, and we were able to study and photograph them at leisure.

On our final morning in Nome, we finally tracked down the previously elusive Rock Ptarmigan along the Teller Road despite some serious fog. We also watched a pair of Pacific Loons at nest, tallied nine more Willow Ptarmigan, and added another grizzly bear before catching our flight to Anchorage. After enjoying a sumptuous dinner of salmon and halibut, we briefly birded a local park where Red-necked Grebes, Hudsonian Godwit, and White-winged Scoter were among the fare.

Moose -- Denali Highway, Alaska, June 2012

Moose — Denali Highway, Alaska, June 2012— Photo: Barry Zimmer

The next portion of our tour was a visit to Seward and the surrounding Kenai Peninsula. Stunning breeding-plumaged Horned Grebe, American Dipper, Varied Thrush, Northwestern Crow, Boreal Chickadee, and Gray Jay were among the avian highlights on the way down. We also had wonderfully close moose and some distant mountain goats. In Seward, we added Marbled Murrelet, Pigeon Guillemot, and 65 Harlequin Ducks on a short post-dinner excursion. The next day we took an all-day boat trip out to Kenai Fjords National Park where the scenery and mammals almost stole the show from the birds. Seventeen humpback whales, a finback whale, forty or more Dall's porpoise, two mountain goats, Steller's sea lions, sea otters, and harbor seals topped the mammal list, while Kittlitz's and Ancient murrelets, Parakeet and Rhinoceros auklets, Tufted and Horned puffins (by the hundreds), Common and Thick-billed murres, Black-legged Kittiwakes, and Black Oystercatcher were among the avian highlights. On the return trip to Anchorage the following day we added Rufous Hummingbird, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Steller's Jay, Pine Grosbeak, and White-winged Crossbill to our rapidly expanding list. 

The final leg of our tour was a visit to Denali National Park and surrounding areas to the north of Anchorage. We had fantastic views of Denali (Mount McKinley) on our drive up the Parks Highway, as well as within the park the next day. Mammals continued to vie for our attention with a spectacular lynx right next to the road (only my second ever), two more grizzly bears, lots of caribou, a porcupine, and close Dall's sheep. Although we missed the Northern Hawk Owl for the first time in years, we did add Trumpeter Swan and Bohemian Waxwing to the bird list.

In all we tallied over 150 species of birds and 22 species of mammals, and enjoyed wonderful scenery virtually throughout the trip, very nice weather (only one afternoon with rain), and fantastic food including king crab, salmon, halibut, blackberry pie, and more!