Alaska Mainland Jun 16—27, 2014

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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Easing out of the boat harbor in Seward, it was hard not to marvel at the spectacular scenery that surrounded Resurrection Bay: three hundred and sixty degrees of jaw-dropping beauty that would accompany us throughout the day. Of course we had birds on the mind, and almost immediately our attention was drawn from the scenery to passing Arctic Terns, a Northwestern Crow, a playful sea otter, and an adult Bald Eagle perched on a channel marker.

While awaiting our boat's departure from the harbor, we enjoyed the 360 degree, stunning scenery around Seward.

Some of the stunning scenery around Seward.— Photo: Barry Zimmer

As we progressed out of the bay, the number of birds on the water began to increase—at first just a few Marbled Murrelets dotting the surface, then a few small flocks of Common Murres and comical Horned Puffins. Pigeon Guillemots joined the crowd, and then someone spotted a Humpback Whale behind the boat that allowed great studies. A group of Dall’s Porpoises headed toward our boat and rode the bow for some time (we would see many groups of these incredible mammals during the day).

Cutting across the bay to an area known as “The Spire,” we began to pick up more and more puffins, including good numbers of Tufted Puffins amongst the Horned. Cruising up close to some rugged cliffs, we found several Red-faced Cormorants in with the more common Pelagic Cormorants. This species seems to have declined in this area in recent years, so we were fortunate to see them so quickly and so well on this day. As we headed toward the Chiswell Islands (home to tens of thousands of nesting seabirds), we got a call that some killer whales had been reported a short ways ahead. We quickly spotted a few in the distance, then a few more to the right, then some to the left—suddenly, we were in the midst of an Orca super pod! Over 20 of these magnificent animals were surfacing all around us, including several bulls with their massive dorsal fins and at least one little baby. Humpbacks were also much in evidence on all sides, as well as at least one Finback. It was a whale paradise!

At Spire Cove we had nice studies of the locally declining Red-faced Cormorant.

The locally declining Red-faced Cormorant.— Photo: Jeff Culler

With much ground to cover though, we finally pushed onward to the Chiswells. At two islands known as “the Beehives” we saw puffins of both species by the hundreds buzzing in and out of the sea stack islands. The water surrounding the islands was covered with other birds, including a couple of Thick-billed Murres in with the Commons (great comparisons), two small groups of Parakeet Auklets, and the first of many Rhinoceros Auklets. Black-legged Kittiwakes covered the cliffs like a white blanket. A few Steller’s Sea Lions adorned nearby ledges, as did a pair of noisy Black Oystercatchers. Great commotion arose on the islands as both a Peregrine Falcon and a Bald Eagle cruised by looking for a snack.

Onward we pressed toward Northwestern Glacier (a calving tidewater glacier that would have been worth the trip alone). Rhinoceros Auklet numbers were way up this year and we saw many groups in passing; we totaled over 400 for the day! As we approached the glacier, we spotted several of the highly-sought Kittlitz’s Murrelets on the water. Three of these allowed the closest approach I have ever had—one literally within 15 feet of the bow, slowly swimming away. What luck!

Two more Bluethroats dueled along the roadside, this one allowing superb views.

Two more Bluethroats dueled along the roadside.— Photo: Barry Zimmer

After spending some time watching the glacier, we began our journey back toward Seward. A pair of Ancient Murrelets kicked up off the water and our captain deftly maneuvered the boat right next to them. We had wonderful views of the last of our target species that we had been missing. Unparalleled scenery, great weather, over 45 whales, and great views of every seabird species that we had been looking for—a perfect day!

Of course the all-day boat trip into Kenai Fjords National Park is but one day of our Alaska Mainland tour. We began by heading to Nome (my single favorite birding destination in North America). In three days we tallied so many great birds, including such gems as Eurasian Wigeon, single male Spectacled and King eiders, Arctic Loon, Willow and Rock ptarmigan, Northern Goshawk, Golden Eagle, Bar-tailed Godwit, Rock Sandpiper, Slaty-backed Gull, Aleutian Tern, Northern Wheatear (including a pair with a nest at our lunch spot), the incomparable Bluethroat in full skylarking display, Arctic Warbler, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, and Snow Bunting to name a few. Among the more common species seen all around Nome were the likes of Long-tailed Jaeger, Lapland Longspur, and Hoary Redpoll. Musk Ox were also much in evidence and we enjoyed many great views of these strange and wonderful mammals.

Nearby, a family of Trumpeter Swans was unusually cooperative.

A family of Trumpeter Swans was unusually cooperative.— Photo: Barry Zimmer

We also birded the Anchorage area and the Kenai Peninsula down to Seward. Highlights in these areas included a Trumpeter Swan pair with babies, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Harlequin Ducks, breeding-plumaged Horned Grebes, a pair of Three-toed Woodpeckers at the nest, American Dipper, Boreal and Chestnut-backed chickadees, Varied Thrush, and Pine Grosbeak, among others. Good views of Dall’s Sheep and Mountain Goats were had along the highways.

Denali National Park and the surrounding area was our final destination. A very cooperative Northern Hawk Owl topped the list, but Bohemian Waxwings and White-winged Crossbills weren’t far behind. We also had spectacular views of Mount McKinley (Denali) in full view on our ride up to the park!

In all it was a very successful trip full of Alaskan specialties; a few rarities; lots of big, spectacular mammals; great food (king crab, halibut, and salmon); and all of that never-ending scenery!