Alaska Mainland Jun 14—25, 2013

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 first full day in Nome, we headed out the Teller Road. We had barely reached the edge of town before several Long-tailed Jaegers appeared next to the road. Lapland Longspurs, Hoary Redpolls, and Red-necked Phalaropes followed in short order. A perched Rough-legged Hawk (one of five that morning) gave great views, as did the male Willow Ptarmigan in the middle of the road. Out the window, the trill of an Arctic Warbler caught our attention and soon we had wonderful scope studies of this Old World species. Several more ptarmigan were spotted, along with Parasitic Jaegers, Harlequin Ducks, and a stunning American Golden-Plover. A patch of willows along the roadside yielded two incredible male Bluethroats dueling over the habitat. We watched, mesmerized, as these avian gems skylarked, chased each other around, and posed for pictures. A herd of Musk Ox on a distant ridge provided some nice scope views. In a higher, rockier portion of tundra we located five Rock Ptarmigan (one of which posed 20 feet away on a mound of dirt), a spectacular male Snow Bunting, a pair of Northern Wheatears, several more American Golden-Plovers, and two breeding plumaged Red Knots. On the way back into town, a Pacific Golden-Plover added to our ever growing list, as did a moth-like Short-eared Owl floating effortlessly over the tundra.

After lunch, we took the Council Road toward Safety Lagoon and beyond. A much closer group of Musk Oxen at the Nome River mouth caused quite a stir. At the Safety Sound bridge we watched as three Bar-tailed Godwits circled directly over our heads, enjoyed a pair of Black Turnstones just feet away, and had a late Red Phalarope and Sabine’s Gull in the same pond. Nearby, a third year Slaty-backed Gull was a nice find. Pacific and Red-throated loons dotted the lagoon, and the Tundra Swans were too numerous to count. Black Scoters and Common Eiders were also much in evidence. A pair of Aleutian Terns, another regional specialty, circled around our van, showing off their white foreheads and black bills. Near the town of Solomon the road turned inland, and here someone in the group spotted three Grizzly Bears across the water. Though far away, they provided good, lengthy scope studies. A perched Peregrine Falcon, a fly-by Merlin, and a pair of Eastern Yellow Wagtails all vied for our attention. Finally, we reached a spot where a pair of Gyrfalcons was nesting. Three downy white babies were in the nest, but initially no parent to be found. Then someone spotted one of the adults on a rocky cliff face above the nest site. We enjoyed long scope views of this wonderful Arctic species. All of this was packed into one day of our recent Alaska Mainland tour!

Other Nome area highlights included four Bristle-thighed Curlews (one within 20 feet of us for several minutes), a pair of Arctic Loons, several more Arctic Warblers (one at Salmon Lake almost in our laps), Golden Eagles, a wonderful study of Wandering Tattler, a mating pair of Harlequin Ducks, Blackpoll Warbler from about 10 feet away, Caribou, and lots of wonderful tundra wildflowers.

The second leg of our tour was to the Kenai Peninsula and Seward. En route we enjoyed a family of Horned Grebes, fledgling American Dippers being fed by their parents, striking Townsend’s Warblers, Varied Thrush, Pine Grosbeak, Boreal Chickadee, Dall’s Sheep, Mountain Goats, a Grizzly Bear from about 50 yards away, and more. An all-day boat trip into Kenai Fjords National Park was very productive with hundreds of Horned and Tufted puffins, the best views of Ancient Murrelet ever for this trip, Parakeet and Rhinoceros auklets, Marbled and Kittlitz’s murrelets, Pigeon Guillemot, Common Murre, Red-faced Cormorant, a rare Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, Sea Otters, bow-riding Dall’s Porpoises, a pod of Killer Whales, and 11 Humpback Whales. The Humpbacks put on an incredible show with breaching, tail lobbing, and bubble net feeding. What a day! The return journey to Anchorage produced great views of the always elusive Three-toed Woodpecker, in addition to Trumpeter Swans, Rufous Hummingbird, Steller’s Jay, and Chestnut-backed Chickadee. In Anchorage itself we added Barrow’s Goldeneye, Hudsonian Godwit, and Western Wood-Pewee among others.

The final leg of the tour was a visit to Denali National Park. We were blessed with totally clear skies on the day of our shuttle bus ride. Mount McKinley towered above the Eielson Visitor Center, resulting in the best scenery show I have seen in the park. Another Grizzly Bear, several Moose (including three bulls), and more Caribou and Dall’s Sheep were all found on our ride. On the bird front, we had multiple scope views of Bohemian Waxwing in this area, as well as Merlin, Golden Eagle, Northern Harrier, Trumpeter Swans, White-winged Scoter, and more.

Our 11-day journey through Alaska produced over 150 species of birds, 20 species of mammals, countless superb dinners (with salmon, halibut, and king crab topping the list), and unseasonably warm temperatures with almost no rain for the entire trip. I can’t wait to get back!