Alaska: Barrow Extension Jun 25—27, 2013

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.  After more than a week of persistent warm, sunny weather that stretched from Nome to Denali for those carrying on from the Alaska Mainland tour, and from Denali through Seward for those carrying over from the Grand Alaska tour, we arrived in Barrow to find temperatures in the mid-30s and wind chills in the low-20s.  But this chilly weather didn’t last long, and temperatures warmed greatly over the next 24 hours, so much so that the mercury climbed into the high 50s, offshore ice started breaking up in a big way, and, for only the second time in my 25 or so June trips to Barrow, mosquitoes started emerging in numbers.

Steller's Eider, Barrow, Alaska, June 2013

Steller’s Eider, Barrow, Alaska, June 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Alaska had experienced a statewide bout of odd spring weather prior to our tours.  Spring came early to many places, but that turned out to be only a cruel and tantalizing hoax that was followed by some severe freezes and lots of late snow throughout the interior.  Lake Hood/Spenard in Anchorage only thawed out on May 18, roads in Nome were closed to within a few miles of town during the last week of May, and at Barrow, the shore ice was completely packed in with no open leads—a major problem for a traditional Inupiat whaling culture, since no open leads meant a suspension of the annual spring whale hunt and a cancellation of the annual Nalukataq or whaling festival that usually coincides with our visits.  Such aberrant weather invariably impacts local bird populations as well, and I suspect that King and Spectacled eiders may have arrived early, been hit by the late freeze, and many may have foregone nesting altogether.

The weather wasn’t the only disruption for Barrow’s bird life.  Lemmings, the prey base for jaegers and owls, hit rock bottom in their population cycle sometime in the past year, and their avian predators bottomed out with them.  Some groups that preceded us to Barrow missed seeing Snowy Owls completely, while other groups reported single owls seen with great effort.  If advance reports meant anything, it was not going to be easy going in Barrow this year.

Once we were on the ground in Barrow, things started falling into place.  We scored great looks at Steller’s and King eiders (breeding plumaged males of each) on our first evening drive to Freshwater Lake, and just as important, came away with good views (after a short trek across the tundra) of a Snowy Owl that Barry spotted some distance out.  We also picked up a lovely Sabine’s Gull feeding along the sliver of open water that bordered the nearshore of the lake.  Much of the appeal of a high Arctic location such as Barrow is due to the high densities of breeding shorebirds, and we were given a taste of this phenomena right out of the gate, with dressy Dunlin, elegant American Golden-Plovers, dazzling Red Phalaropes, and bizarre Pectoral Sandpipers seemingly everywhere we looked.

Steller's Eider, Barrow, Alaska, June 2013

Steller’s Eider, Barrow, Alaska, June 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Tired but happy, we eventually called it a night.  The next day found us covering all three of the major roads in Barrow, from start to finish.  Shorebirds continued to dazzle us, as did an abundance of Steller’s Eiders.  Before the day was out, we would record a total of 18 birds, mostly in the form of pairs liberally distributed across the tundra.  As expected, jaegers were in short supply, but we did find a couple of Pomarines and several Parasitics.  There were no Eurasian vagrants to be found, but despite the lack of the unexpected, we were treated to so much of what makes this high Arctic location truly remarkable.  From numbers of Greater White-fronted Geese and Tundra Swans to the odd hooting flights of Pectoral Sandpipers, to more Snowy Owls, and nesting pairs of Pacific and Red-throated loons, there was no shortage of birds to look at.  The one target that continued to elude us throughout the day was Spectacled Eider.  Sadly, this much sought after species was ultimately missed by all but two people who scored three fly-bys on the final morning Polar Bear excursion.  Bears did not show for either the evening group or the morning group, but both groups were treated to wonderful studies of Black Guillemots, along with lots of King Eiders out at Alaska’s northernmost piece of real estate. A breeding-plumaged Yellow-billed Loon on Elson Lagoon was the highlight of the evening Polar Bear excursion—most of our sightings of this species at Barrow are of fly-bys near the base of the Point.

Snowy Owl, Barrow, Alaska, June 2013

Snowy Owl, Barrow, Alaska, June 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

The final bit of drama came late on our last evening in Barrow.  Warming temperatures had precipitated a sudden breakup of much of the nearshore ice, and we had noticed boats of hunters heading offshore throughout the day.  I had assumed that they were going after the abundant seals that were scattered across the remaining ice, but it turned out these hunters were actually whaling crews with bigger game in mind.  In mid evening, one of the crews succeeded in killing a Bowhead Whale, the first one of the season for the community.  The whale had to be hauled in through five miles of leads in the ice, but at about 1:30 a.m. the crew finally succeeded in hauling it onto shore.  Our late returning bear searchers came across the scene when the crew was still struggling to get the 54-foot behemoth onto the beach.  I came along an hour later, just as the carving of blubber was commencing.  This task continued for hours, and was still going on late the next morning as we were heading out to bird the Gas Well Road.  No matter what we felt about the taking of whales, it was a fascinating glimpse into an ancient culture and tradition, and one that I will never forget.

Throughout our stay, we marveled at the spectacle of nearshore ice (in this, the fourth week of June), midnight sun that never set, both skeletal and still steaming remains of massive Bowhead Whales, the farthest north football field on the continent (and with blue artificial turf at that), $6.00/gallon gas and $9.50 milkshakes, 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.