VENTflash #146 October 12, 2012

Posted by Victor Emanuel


Victor Emanuel

Victor Emanuel started birding in Texas 69 years ago at the age of eight. His travels have taken him to all the continents, with his areas of concentration being Texas, Ari...

Dear friends,

Alaska owns an undeniable mystique, thanks in large part to its marvelous scenic splendor, spectacular wildlife, and enduring wilderness spirit. I am fortunate to have visited Alaska several times. The wonderful encounters with birds and other wildlife that I've experienced on each of my trips there served as unforgettable reminders of why Alaska is such a powerful draw.

Mount McKinley, Alaska, June 22, 2012

Mount McKinley, Alaska, June 22, 2012 — Photo: Kevin Zimmer

VENT has been operating trips to Alaska for over 30 years, and I am thrilled that we'll return to the far north again next summer with a wonderful slate of tours. If the thought of a trip to Alaska piques your interest, you'll be glad to know that early registration discounts are available on our 2013 Grand AlaskaAlaska Mainland, and Barrow Extension tours. Register for one or both parts of our Grand Alaska tour or Alaska Mainland tour before January 15, 2013 and receive a $500 discount; register for the Barrow Extension before January 15 and receive a $250 discount.

Our Alaska tours are designed to deliver a full natural history experience. While visits to famous and important birding areas are essential, our tours also provide exposure to magnificent scenic wonders and a diversity of ecosystems ranging from coastal forest to treeless tundra. Our tours are led by a team of VENT leaders who, together, possess decades of experience leading tours in Alaska. We use high quality accommodations whenever possible and promote "quality of experience" as a top priority.

Through our various tour offerings, I think we have the right trip for you, whether your desire is to see the "classic" destinations of Nome, Kenai Fjords, and Denali National Park, or to seek rare vagrants and specialty breeding birds at the Pribilof Islands and Gambell on St. Lawrence Island. New in 2013, we will operate a Wild Alaska cruise which visits a number of Bering Sea destinations that our land-based tours can't reach.

I hope you will consider joining a VENT tour to Alaska in 2013!

In this issue:



The Yup'ik outpost of Gambell, located at the western tip of St. Lawrence Island in the north Bering Sea, is hallowed ground among birders as perhaps the premier place to see wayward Asian vagrants during migration. Every year VENT takes birders to this remote location for a chance to intercept some of these stray birds that have wandered off their usual migratory paths.

Crested Auklets

Crested Auklets — Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Gambell birding, while always exciting, can be quite exhilarating; remarkable strays that have occurred here include White-tailed Eagle, Black-tailed Gull, Oriental Pratincole, Green Sandpiper, Jack Snipe, Taiga Flycatcher, Stonechat, Siberian Rubythroat, Dusky Thrush, Eurasian Bullfinch, and many others. Regular here are Common Ringed Plover, Red-necked Stint, Bluethroat, and Red-throated Pipit. Even on days when no vagrants show up, the birding is exceptional. Tens of thousands of murres, puffins, and auklets that nest east of the village are constantly moving just offshore, as are smaller flocks of loons, eiders, and Harlequin Ducks. Migrants passing the point often include Arctic, Pacific, and Yellow-billed loons, Emperor Goose, and Ivory Gull.

We'll also have three days to explore the area around Nome, looking for Bristle-thighed Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, Gyrfalcon, Rock and Willow ptarmigan, Aleutian Tern, Bluethroat, Northern Wheatear, Eastern Yellow Wagtail and others, as well as a variety of large mammals including moose, musk ox, reindeer, and grizzly bear.

This trip may be taken alone or may be combined with our Grand Alaska tour.

Grand Alaska: Gambell/Nome Pre-trip, June 2-10, 2013 with Kevin Zimmer and David Wolf; $4,975 in double occupancy from Anchorage. Combine with Grand Alaska Part I and receive a discount of $500 in double occupancy or $750 in single occupancy.

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Our Grand Alaska tour provides such a comprehensive Alaska experience that we offer this trip in two parts. Either part may be taken individually or combined for the most complete trip to Alaska.

Another shot of the Bluethroat in full song.

Bluethroat — Photo: Barry Zimmer

Part I: Nome & The Pribilofs

This tour concentrates on two of Alaska's premier birding areas: Nome and the Pribilof Islands. We will emphasize finding Alaskan specialty birds and mammals, such as Bristle-thighed Curlew, Bluethroat, and musk ox in Nome while the Pribilof Islands offer an incomparable seabird experience. Thousands of Least, Crested, and Parakeet auklets, murres, Horned and Tufted puffins, and Northern Fulmars nest along its towering cliffs and can be observed almost within touching distance, as can Red-faced Cormorants and Red-legged Kittiwakes. With luck, we may even turn up an unexpected Siberian vagrant or two.

I encourage you to read the tour report from our 2012 tour, in which tour leader Kevin Zimmer beautifully captures the spirit of this outstanding trip. Among the many highlights you'll read about are sightings of Slaty-backed Gull, Arctic Warblers, and Bluethroats in Nome, and visiting the famed seabird nesting cliffs of St. Paul Island in the Pribilof Islands.

Grand Alaska Part I: Nome & The Pribilofs, June 9-17, 2013 with Kevin Zimmer and David Wolf; $6,495 in double occupancy from Anchorage. Register before January 15, 2013 and receive a $500 discount.  Combine with Gambell/Nome Pre-trip and receive a discount of $500 in double occupancy or $750 in single occupancy.

Part II: Barrow, Denali Highway & Kenai Peninsula

Northern Hawk Owl, Glenn Highway, Alaska, June 19, 2012

Northern Hawk Owl, June 19, 2012 — Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Our focus will be on the many special breeding birds of south coastal and interior Alaska, with excellent opportunities for seeing many of Alaska's iconic mammals, as well as some of the most spectacular scenery that the continent has to offer. Highlight species include Trumpeter Swan, Northern Hawk Owl, Bohemian Waxwing, White-winged Crossbill, moose, Dall's sheep, mountain goat, and grizzly bear. Scenic splendor is assured on your visit to Kenai Fjords National Park and along the Denali Highway.

Kevin Zimmer's tour report from our 2012 tour features descriptions (and photos) of his tour group's extraordinary encounters with Boreal Owl, Northern Hawk-Owl, a snow-capped Mt. McKinley, calving glaciers, and much more!

Grand Alaska Part II: Anchorage, Denali Highway & Kenai Peninsula, June 17-25, 2013 with Kevin Zimmer and David Wolf; $3,795 in double occupancy from Anchorage. Register before January 15, 2013 and receive a $500 discount.

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Our Alaska Mainland tour emphasizes three very different areas: the rugged hills, tundra, and seacoast around the old gold-rush boomtown of Nome; breathtaking Kenai Fjords National Park and the adjacent Kenai Peninsula; and the sprawling wilderness in the shadow of majestic Denali (Mount McKinley), North America's highest peak. Plenty of special birds and mammals are features of this fine trip, with sightings ranging from the rare to the spectacular.

Perhaps even outdoing the Trail River photo op from the day before, this late-night shot of the Denali Highway float plane lake was hard to top.

Float plane lake, Denali Highway — Photo: Barry Zimmer

Our 2012 Alaska Mainland tour was another great success, with our tour recording a very high percentage of the specialty birds and enjoying one of the tour's best-ever years for mammals, with sightings of lynx, caribou, grizzly bear, Dall's sheep, and an astounding 17 humpback whales…and that's only for starters! Please read Barry Zimmer's tour report for more about this fantastic trip.

Alaska Mainland, June 14-25, 2013 with Barry Zimmer and Brennan Mulrooney; $6,695 in double occupancy from Anchorage. Register before January 15, 2013 and receive a $500 discount.

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My last trip to Alaska was in the early summer of 2011 when I spent a week with a friend birding around the Yup'ik Eskimo community of Barrow in the far north of the state. Prior to that trip, I had been to Barrow once before, and only for a short visit. I was particularly excited about this opportunity because I knew that a weeklong stay would provide the chance to witness the dramatic changes that can occur daily with the weather and the movement of birds at this high latitude location.

Steller's Eider

Steller's Eider — Photo: Kevin Zimmer

I recall the anticipation I felt that first afternoon looking out the windows of the plane as it descended toward Barrow. Stretching to the horizon in almost every direction were miles and miles of tundra, uninhabited and pockmarked by what seemed like millions of lakes and ponds. The sea stretched out to the north, the first mile from land covered in a silvery sheet of ice. Disembarking the plane, we were greeted by a cold temperature and blustery wind under gray skies. It wasn't long after checking in to the hotel that we were cruising out of town looking for birds. The main road leading east from Barrow parallels the coastline where the wind and tides had pushed the broken winter pack ice onto shore in a twisted and creaking jumble of white bergs that resembled small mountain ranges.

Spring is a magical time in Alaska, but particularly in Barrow when the release of winter's icy grip heralds the rebirth of the high arctic tundra. Bumping over the gravel road, still within town limits, we noticed Common Eiders sitting on the ice offshore, handsomely decked out in breeding plumage. Farther along we came to a pond where another birding group had located two very rare shorebirds: Red-necked Stint and Gray-tailed Tattler.

Spectacled Eider

Spectacled Eider — Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Outside of town we observed a pageant of shorebirds staking out territories on the partially flooded tundra. What a treat it was to be surrounded by Red and Red-necked phalaropes spinning circles in roadside ponds, crisp in their fresh plumage while handsome American Golden-Plovers called from nearby knolls. A little farther on an elegant Pomarine Jaeger coursed over the road, only to be outdone for our attention by a magnificent Snowy Owl flapping its way over the tundra.

That same evening, farther out of town, we enjoyed spectacular looks at King, Spectacled, and Steller's eiders, a trio of waterfowl that rank among the primary draws for any birder coming to Barrow.

As the days passed, each was filled with similar accounts of birds, many just passing through, some staying to nest. Some species we recorded every day while others were one-day wonders. Without a doubt though, one of my favorite memories was watching the conditions change from the time we arrived to the time we departed. As the days warmed, the tundra seemed to spring to life before our very eyes, going from brown and barren to green and inviting, and dappled with the season's first wildflowers. Ponds and lakes that had been covered with ice transformed into sparkling bodies of water that hosted eiders, phalaropes, and a variety of other waterfowl.

The next morning a group of King Eiders was spotted in a lead in the ice pack.

King Eiders — Photo: Barry Zimmer

There are many faces to Alaska, but a trip to Barrow is unlike any other.

VENT visits Barrow once a year. It is a trip that may be taken alone or added as an extension to either our Grand Alaska Part II or Alaska Mainland tours.

Our next Barrow Extension will operate June 25-27, 2013 and will be led by Kevin Zimmer and Barry Zimmer; $2,195 in double occupancy from Anchorage. Register before January 15, 2013 and receive a $250 discount.

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Next summer, for the first time in nearly a decade, I will co-lead a Bering Sea cruise. I am very much looking forward to this trip, and a major reason is that VENT is partnering on this departure with Zegrahm Expeditions, one of the most respected names in adventure travel.

We will take full advantage of the long hours of mid-summer to trace a route across a swath of the North Pacific Ocean from Alaska's southeastern coast through the Aleutian Islands, north through the Bering Sea to the shores of Russia's Chukchi Peninsula, before returning to Nome in far western Alaska.

Whiskered Auklet

Whiskered Auklet — Photo: Michael O'Brien

At sea we'll watch for specialty birds and marine mammals of the North Pacific including Laysan and Black-footed albatrosses, the very rare Short-tailed Albatross, Mottled Petrel, Red-faced Cormorant, and Red-legged Kittiwake. Voyaging among the Aleutians, Pribilofs, and other outposts, we'll lay eyes on the incredible spectacles of thousands of nesting fulmars, puffins, murres, guillemots, murrelets, and auklets. We'll even have good chances for locating the highly localized Whiskered Auklet. Off the ship, numerous Zodiac excursions around remote islands and spectacular bays may produce sightings of brown bears, fur seals, walrus, and Arctic foxes. On landings we'll experience wet Pacific tundra festooned with wildflowers, visit remote Bering Sea communities, and learn of the rich history of the region's indigenous inhabitants, and the explorers, fur traders, and settlers who came after.

Among the many special qualities of this departure is the opportunity to visit destinations where none of our land-based tours go including Kodiak Island, Katmai National Park, Dutch Harbor and Unalaska Island, Hall and St. Matthew islands, and Little Diomede Island.

Wild Alaska: Cruising the Bering Sea, July 11-25, 2013 with Victor Emanuel, Barry Lyon, and Pete Dunne; cabins begin at $11,980 in double occupancy from Anchorage (ends in Nome).

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Although we are not yet a month into the autumn season, writing about Alaska already has me looking forward to my return there next summer. If you are considering a tour to Alaska next summer, I hope you will join one of these superb VENT tours. In the meantime, I hope that thoughts of special birds and world-class scenery of the type that only Alaska can deliver will sustain you through the coming winter.

Best wishes,

Victor Emanuel