Alaska Highlights Jun 15—26, 2016

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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Once again our Alaska Highlights tour lived up to its billing, providing us with incredible birds, impressive mammals, and endless awesome scenery. On our first morning, prior to catching a flight to Nome, we made a quick detour to a local park in Anchorage where, rumor had it, a pair of American Three-toed Woodpeckers were nesting. Not only did we see both the male and female woodpeckers visiting the nest, but we also tallied a wonderful pair of Pacific Loons in breeding plumage, several Red-necked Grebes, and a majestic Bald Eagle. Not a bad first half-hour of any tour!

Also present at Goose Lake was an amazing pair of Pacific Loons.

Pacific Loons — Photo: Barry Zimmer

 

Arriving in Nome in the late morning, we hit the ground running. We ventured out the Teller Road as quickly as we could after lunch. We had barely made it to the town limits when two bull Musk Oxen demanded our attention along the roadside. These prehistoric animals have increased quite a bit in the Nome area in the past several years, and we enjoyed stellar views. Avian highlights came fast and furious. A Long-tailed Jaeger perched on a tundra tussock was followed quickly by a male Willow Ptarmigan. Brilliant Pacific Golden-Plovers in full breeding attire were followed by equally stunning American Golden-Plovers for comparison. A male Northern Wheatear grabbed our attention, and then a stealthy pair of Rock Ptarmigan (in a year when this species was way down in numbers). Bar-tailed Godwits, Short-eared Owl, Rough-legged Hawk, Arctic Warbler, Hoary and Common redpolls, Lapland Longspur, Tundra Swan, Red-throated Loon, Red-necked Phalarope, and Long-tailed Duck—the list went on and on. We paused for dinner and then, taking advantage of the 21 hours of sunlight, offered a post-dinner option to the Nome River Mouth. A small nesting colony of Aleutian and Arctic terns was evident from the bridge, as was a wayward Slaty-backed Gull. Shorebirds were numerous in the growing mud flats, and while scanning through them Rafael spotted a rare Red-necked Stint! Frantic moments ensued in making sure everyone got on this nice find. We capped off the evening with good views of a Northern Shrike, and finally called it a day around 11 PM! All of these amazing highlights were crammed into our very first day of the tour!

After a quick lunch, we ventured out the Teller Road for the afternoon. We had not even left the town limits when a roadside Musk Ox demanded our attention.

Musk Ox — Photo: Barry Zimmer

 

The next two-and-a-half days in Nome were equally successful. Highlights included a Gyrfalcon at a nest, Golden Eagle, Common Eider, Harlequin Duck, all three scoters, several more Willow Ptarmigan (including a pair with tiny chicks), eight Bristle-thighed Curlews, Black Turnstone, Surfbird, Black-bellied Plover, Parasitic Jaeger, three very rare Crested Auklets (a tour first), Eastern Yellow Wagtail, and a skylarking male Bluethroat that was voted the “favorite bird of the tour” by the group! A Grizzly Bear below the Gyrfalcon nest site was the icing on the cake.

Day two in Nome got off to a bang with a displaying male Bluethroat right out of the gate!

Bluethroat — Photo: Barry Zimmer

 

The second leg of our trip took us to the Denali region. Traveling north from Anchorage, I had warned folks that this would largely be a travel day and could be a little light on birds. I could not have been more wrong! A burn near Willow the previous summer had resulted in a spike in woodpecker sightings. Some advanced scouting helped us to enjoy epic views of nesting American Three-toed and Black-backed woodpeckers, both with nearly fledged young. The Black-backed is a generally rare bird in this region. Shortly after leaving the burn, we were very lucky to spot a hen Spruce Grouse along a side road. Circling back, we not only had incredible views of her, but found that she had ten chicks as well! More stops en route to our lodging produced a bevy of target birds including Trumpeter Swans on a nest, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Boreal Chickadee, Gray Jay, Blackpoll Warbler, and a stunning male White-winged Crossbill. So much for this being just a travel day!

The next day we took the shuttle bus ride into Denali National Park. The highlight of the day, and perhaps the entire trip, was spotting this Canadian Lynx next to the road. Our driver said it was the first found for the entire season in the park!

Canadian Lynx — Photo: Rafael Galvez

 

The following day we boarded a shuttle bus into Denali National Park itself. Birding is tough from the bus; therefore, mammals and scenery are the prime objectives. A Grizzly Bear put on an amazing show along the roadside, eventually coming to within 30 yards of the bus. Dall’s Sheep were numerous, including two right on the road. Roughly 150 Caribou were seen, as well as a few Moose (including evening birding, we would tally eleven for the day). The show stealer, however, was a Canadian Lynx (apparently the first of the entire season spotted within the park) that gave superb views along a creek drainage. Cloudy skies, however, prevented us from seeing the mountain. Heading back to Anchorage the next day, we tallied a small group of Bohemian Waxwings and another Spruce Grouse with chicks. The best moment of the day came when the skies cleared just as we arrived at our lunch spot, and we had Mount McKinley in nearly full view for about a half-hour! What luck!

But clearing skies also brought good things. Mount McKinley magically appeared into view at our lunch spot, as we headed south toward Anchorage. Only ten percent of visitors in June get to see the mountain.

Mount McKinley— Photo: Barry Zimmer

 

The final portion of the tour is the Kenai Peninsula area to the south of Anchorage. Here our luck continued. En route to Seward, we found the likes of Chestnut-backed Chickadee, American Dipper, Varied Thrush, Townsend’s Warbler, Pine Grosbeak, and a family group of rare Red Crossbills. Wall-to-wall scenery and some distant Mountain Goats filled out the day. The next day we had a nine-hour boat trip into Kenai Fjords National Park and the Chiswell Islands. Despite some very challenging weather (cold and rainy), our bird list was superb. Horned and Tufted puffins; Common and Thick-billed murres; Ancient, Marbled, and Kittlitz’s (best views ever) murrelets; Rhinoceros and Parakeet auklets; and Black-legged Kittiwakes by the thousands topped the list. Mammal highlights included a pod of eight Killer Whales right next to the boat, four Humpback Whales, several Dall’s Porpoise, Harbor Seals, Sea Otters, and Steller’s Sea Lions. All in all a great day! Though somewhat anti-climactic, our final day heading back to Anchorage yielded Rufous Hummingbird, Steller’s Jay, and a very feisty Pacific Wren among the more notables.

Soon, we were seeing puffins of two species. Here a Tufted Puffin took off next to our boat.

Tufted Puffin — Photo: Mark Davidson

 

On our wonderful journey we tallied 160 species of birds and 20 species of mammals, and enjoyed near constant, stunning scenery. Additionally, we enjoyed superb meals of salmon, king crab, halibut, blackberry and blueberry pies, and more. Alaska is simply amazing!