Alaska Highlights Jun 16—27, 2015

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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An argument could be made that this was our most successful Alaska Highlights trip ever! We saw nearly every target bird, added in some nice rarities, had wonderful mammal displays, and enjoyed about the best weather possible.

A male Bluethroat, an incomparable gem of a bird, stole the show for the morning.

Bluethroat— Photo: Barry Zimmer

 

We started in Nome, where we were greeted with blue skies and temperatures that reached an incredible 80 degrees! Right out of the gate, we stopped at a new breeding colony of Aleutian Terns adjacent to the airport. We enjoyed great views of this specialty before heading out on the Teller Road. Two trips out this road produced countless highlights. A herd of Musk Oxen, a mother Moose with two tiny calves, a pair of Willow Ptarmigan right in the middle of the road (the male staying for several minutes), scope study of a Rock Ptarmigan, a Rock Sandpiper in display flight right over our heads, an absolutely stunning male Bluethroat, close Arctic Warbler, a nesting pair of Rough-legged Hawks, a flyover Gyrfalcon, Northern Wheatear, breeding-plumaged Pacific and American golden-plovers, numerous Long-tailed Jaegers, a lone Grizzly Bear and more!

The Council Road winds along the coast to Safety Lagoon and then veers inland to the high tundra beyond Solomon. A rare male Spectacled Eider, a female King Eider, Eurasian Wigeon, Bar-tailed Godwits, Black Turnstone, a Red-necked Stint, a late Red Phalarope, a very rare Thayer’s Gull, two adult Slaty-backed Gulls, hundreds of Common Murres, two Short-eared Owls, a Gyrfalcon nest with three babies, and Eastern Yellow Wagtails topped the list here.

Another shot of one of the Bristle-thighed Curlews below Coffee Dome. This bird was tied for the favorite bird of the tour by group vote!

Bristle-thighed Curlew— Photo: Barry Zimmer

 

The final road out of Nome is the Kougarok Road. Our last full day was spent on this road tallying the likes of Bristle-thighed Curlew with babies, Golden Eagle on a nest, another Gyrfalcon nest with a gray morph adult feeding the young, an out-of-place pair of Bohemian Waxwings, and a Northern Shrike among the most notables. All of these amazing sightings were during the first three days of our tour!

We returned to Anchorage in time for a great dinner followed by a visit to nearby Westchester Lagoon. Here we were greeted by numerous Red-necked Grebes, a male Barrow’s Goldeneye, a very uncommon male Canvasback, a small flock of Hudsonian Godwits, Arctic Terns with babies, and more. Near the hotel, a flock of 20 or so White-winged Crossbills proved to be the icing on the cake.

The middle leg of our tour took us to the Denali region. On what was supposed to be largely a travel day, we managed to locate a pair of Trumpeter Swans with a nest, a female Spruce Grouse with chicks (an entire story could be written about this episode alone!), a marvelous Northern Hawk Owl, and a responsive pair of Boreal Chickadees. We also had good views of the top of Mount McKinley from our lunch spot along the way! A shuttle ride into the park the following day yielded great views of Moose (including a huge bull), four Grizzlies, Dall’s Sheep, and very close Caribou. On our return to Anchorage we added a few new birds, including the always hard-to-find American Three-toed Woodpecker and a Solitary Sandpiper calling from a tree!

Later that day along the Denali Highway, we were fortunate in finding this Northern Hawk Owl in short time. It was tied with the curlew for favorite bird of the trip.

Northern Hawk Owl— Photo: Barry Zimmer

 

The final portion of the tour was spent in the Kenai Peninsula and Seward region. The drive to Seward was very productive with nesting American Dippers at two locations, a fantastic bathing Bald Eagle from about thirty yards away for fifteen minutes, close Northwestern Crows, stunning Varied Thrushes, a dozen or more Pine Grosbeaks, Rufous Hummingbird, Townsend’s Warblers, Mountain Goats, and the discovery of a vagrant Common Yellowthroat at Potter Marsh. Delicious pies at Summit Lake Lodge cannot be overlooked. After a sumptuous seafood dinner, we took a quick run along Resurrection Bay where we enjoyed Marbled Murrelet and Pigeon Guillemot from shore. An all-day boat trip to Kenai Fjords National Park and the Chiswell Islands ensued. It was hard to say whether the birds or the mammals or the scenery dominated the day. On the birding front we had Short-tailed and Sooty shearwaters, Black Oystercatcher, Common and Thick-billed murres, Horned and Tufted puffins (both common), close Parakeet Auklets, Rhinoceros Auklets, and Kittlitz’s Murrelets. Mammal highlights included a small pod of Orcas, 16 Humpback Whales, countless Sea Otters, and playful Dall’s Porpoises by the dozens riding the bow of our boat. Fog-drenched coastal fjords, a towering waterfall, snowcapped mountains, and a calving tidewater glacier that was very active during our visit all vied for our attention. Birding on the last day produced Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Steller’s Jay, the coastal race of Song Sparrow, and a wonderful Pacific Wren in full song!

In all we tallied 166 species of birds, 20 species of mammals, and marveled at endless stunning scenery, all the while under fantastic weather conditions (we had almost no precipitation the entire trip and unusually warm temperatures throughout). I can’t wait to get back next year!