Alaska: Barrow Extension Jun 27—29, 2015

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. We arrived in Barrow to pleasantly mild temperatures that were to persist throughout our stay. Our elation at the warmer-than-usual conditions was tempered by the realization that, for the first time in the nearly 30 years that I have been birding Barrow in late June, there was no ice within a few miles of the coast. Normally, we arrive in Barrow to find the sea mostly iced-over, with only a narrow strip of open water paralleling the shore, and numerous leads stretching out towards the distant pressure ridges of ice. Not this year. There were only a few small floating slabs of ice to be seen, and those were melting fast. Freshwater Lake, normally 75% or more iced over, was completely ice-free. To add insult to injury, the entire state of Alaska (along with most of the Pacific Northwest) recorded very low snowfall totals for the winter. In Arctic and sub-Arctic Alaska, the normally wet, marshy nature of the summer tundra results from melt water from winter snow and ice that collects on the surface because it cannot penetrate the underlying permafrost layer. Barrow, lying as it does in a very low, coastal plain, is normally extremely wet in June, with abundant shallow melt water lakes and ponds that slowly evaporate over the course of the summer. This year, what little surface water there was had mostly evaporated before we arrived, leaving the tundra much drier than normal, with many fewer, deeper-water ponds and lakes.

Steller's Eider

Steller’s Eider— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 

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 2013, and their avian predators bottomed out with them. Apparently, the lemming population has yet to bounce back, and the same can be said for the Snowy Owls. Some groups that preceded us to Barrow reported seeing only low numbers of owls, or even single owls despite much searching. There was reason to be concerned…

Once we were on the ground in Barrow, things started falling into place. 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 right out of the gate, with dressy Dunlin, elegant American Golden-Plovers, dazzling Red Phalaropes, and bizarre Pectoral Sandpipers liberally sprinkled across the tundra. We also found pairs of Red-throated and Pacific loons, in high breeding plumage, sharing the same pond. Best of all, we connected with a beautiful pair of Steller’s Eiders, one of the most charismatic breeding birds of Barrow, and a species whose numbers have seen significant declines over the past several decades. It was a good start, but there were plenty of other targets that needed to be pinned down, and the absence of other eiders along the Freshwater Lake Road was disturbing.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 

The next morning, following some productive late-night scouting, we headed out the Gas Well Road, the longest of Barrow’s roads, and one that penetrates farthest inland through the tundra. Along with good numbers of shorebirds and waterfowl, we netted two of our biggest targets, Snowy Owl and Spectacled Eider. We actually found five different Snowy Owls on the day, but most of these appeared to be on nests far off the road. Fortunately, the first owl was much closer to the road, and, because it was not on its nest, it was much less skittish about us stopping. In fact, it allowed us to get off the bus and set up scopes for excellent views. With the owl in the bag, we made a beeline for the end of the road, where Barry and I had left three Spectacled Eiders (two males and a female) late the night before. Luck was with us—the birds were still there, and once again, we were treated to prolonged studies of what is, arguably, the most sought-after breeding bird of the Barrow region. In the same area, we found another drake Steller’s Eider (one of 9 Steller’s Eiders seen on the day), allowing us the luxury of alternating our scopes between the two fancy species of eiders while standing in one spot! With the pressure of finding the owl and the Spectacled Eider firmly in our rearview mirror, we could relax and enjoy the many shorebirds and waterfowl, the Pomarine and Parasitic jaegers, Peregrine Falcon, and many more.

Our remaining time in Barrow flew by quickly. Highlights included finding 4 Yellow-billed Loons on one of the coastal lagoons, and then finding another couple sitting on the ocean the next day for even better views. We also located some elegant Sabine’s Gulls along the beach, and enjoyed some good offshore movements of waterfowl (all 4 species of eiders, Surf Scoters, Harlequin Duck, and Brant), loons, and alcids (Common and Thick-billed murres), not to mention an unexpected trio of Whimbrels. Most spectacular was the tightly clustered group of ca. 40 Steller’s Eiders that we found right off the beach on our last morning. They took flight shortly after we stopped, but it was a real treat to see so many of these special ducks in one group.

Spectacled Eiders

Spectacled Eiders— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 

We were never able to pin down any King Eiders on the tundra, although we saw some small groups (with some adult males) moving just offshore (albeit, many fewer than usual). We did locate one female Spectacled Eider on a nest, only the third that I can remember seeing of this increasingly rare species. The early spring and drying tundra seemed to have pushed many of the eiders that were present just two weeks earlier on their way, and, it seems likely that many waterfowl and shorebirds took a pass on breeding this season altogether. Pectoral Sandpipers, in particular, showed little sign of breeding activity (other than one adult escorting 4 downy chicks)—we heard very little male vocalization, and witnessed very few displays—nor were most other shorebirds obviously paired, in spite of being present in good numbers. Overall species diversity was actually higher than normal, boosted by the passage of birds offshore and by the presence of some uncommon waterfowl (e.g. Mallard, Gadwall) on the tundra. 

Throughout our stay, we marveled at the spectacle of a midnight sun that never set, skeletal remains of massive bowhead whales, the farthest north football field on the continent (and with blue artificial turf at that), $7.00/gallon gas, and tundra that swarmed with shorebirds and waterfowl as far as we could see. In summation, Barrow was simply Barrow, and you really do have to see it to believe it.