Alaska: Barrow Extension Jun 26—28, 2012

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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It seems as if I often begin Alaska trip reports with some variation of, "No two trips to Alaska are ever the same," and this year's Barrow Extension was a perfect example. Weather very nearly derailed us right out of the gate—first, in delaying the inbound flight that was due to take us from Anchorage to Barrow, and then, when fog blanketed the Barrow area, causing us to miss our first approach, and making our second approach more than a little suspenseful. Once on the ground, we were greeted with the news that our rental bus was "broken" and that we would be forced to caravan in three vehicles—a tour first! With the weather and vehicle delays making for an exceptionally late hotel check-in and dinner, and with fog limiting visibility to less than a hundred yards, the planned evening birding excursion was scrapped in favor of sleep.

Steller's Eider, Barrow, Alaska, June 27, 2012

Steller's Eider, Barrow, Alaska, June 27, 2012— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Fortunately, Barrow is a great place to play catch-up. With 24 hours of daylight (at least at this time of year) and only a few roads, none of which are longer than 11 miles, it doesn't take long to cover all of the accessible birding areas. So, when we awoke to much-improved visibility the next morning, we were able to hit the ground running. The sprinkling of vagrants that had been reported from Barrow in the preceding weeks (an eclectic mix of Siberian goodies and less inspiring, but even more out-of-range North American birds such as Common Grackle) had seemingly all left for greener pastures, with the exception of a lingering male Ruff that annoyingly eluded us despite multiple targeted searches on our part. But, one doesn't (or at least shouldn't) travel all the way to Alaska's northernmost point primarily to look for vagrants, birds that, by definition, are not to be expected. Rather, we travel to Barrow to look for spectacular male eiders, breeding Snowy Owls, and a multitude of displaying, breeding-plumaged shorebirds, loons, and waterfowl, and, with a little bit of luck, perhaps a polar bear. In all of these regards, our 2012 trip was a grand success.

Informed by 25 years of June visits to Barrow for comparison, a few things about conditions this year stood out to me. First, it was clearly a "down" year for lemmings (we saw but one during our tundra stomps) and their major predators (Snowy Owls and Pomarine Jaegers). Despite this, Poms were present in decent numbers, including both light-morph and dark-morph individuals, and Snowy Owls, though less common than usual, did show nicely. The male from a nesting pair along the Gas Well Road routinely perched on poles along the road, but even more impressive was a female (or sub-adult male) in the old cemetery that snatched a Red Phalarope right in front of us! I was also struck by much lower than normal numbers of many of the nesting shorebirds (particularly such typically common species as Dunlin, Long-billed Dowitcher, and Red and Red-necked phalaropes), although Pectoral and Semipalmated sandpipers and American Golden-Plovers were as conspicuous as ever.

Snowy Owl, Barrow, Alaska, June 28, 2012

Snowy Owl, Barrow, Alaska, June 28, 2012— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Despite a lack of the unexpected, we were treated to so much of what makes this high Arctic location truly remarkable, and given persistent good weather (after the initial bout of fog), we were able to enjoy our time out of the vehicles, including a few lovely stomps across the wet tundra. Most important, we scored breeding-plumaged males of all four species of eiders, with spectacular, prolonged studies of each of the "Big 3" (Spectacled, Steller's, and King). The lovely pair of King Eiders that we hiked out to was particularly cooperative, as was the mixed-species eider flock (all 4 species present) that loafed on the water across the street from our hotel! A breeding-plumaged Yellow-billed Loon on the large saltwater lagoon was another big treat—most of our sightings of this species at Barrow are of fly-bys near the Point. Also notable was a singing Varied Thrush in town, a Horned Puffin amid the leads in the near shore ice, a Semipalmated Plover incubating her clutch of four camouflaged eggs, and the antics of several Black Guillemots seen on our excursion to the Point. We also had the good fortune to find a very large, although fairly distant polar bear out on the ice from Point Barrow—this coming after multiple parties had failed to find one in the previous couple of days. All the while, we marveled at the spectacle of near shore ice (in this, the fourth week of June), midnight sun that never set, skeletal remains of multiple massive bowhead whales, the farthest north football field on the continent (and with blue artificial turf at that), and marshy tundra that swarmed with shorebirds and waterfowl for as far as we could see. In summation, Barrow was simply Barrow, and you really do have to see it to believe it.