Alaska: Barrow Extension Jun 26—28, 2016

Posted by Kevin Zimmer


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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As usual, our Barrow Extension delivered the expected mix of high Arctic breeding waterfowl, shorebirds, jaegers, and owls, with a few surprises thrown in, that have made this outpost at the “top of the world” (more accurately, at the top of Alaska) a must-visit destination for birders.

All of Barrow’s “glamour” birds were present and accounted for, starting with the eider “hat trick” of King, Steller’s, and Spectacled eiders on the tundra. We scored big with a beautiful drake King Eider and three accompanying females along the Freshwater Lake Road on our first excursion, and saw others moving along the coast on subsequent days.  It was a good year for Steller’s Eiders, with a high of 17 seen on our second day. The bulk of the Steller’s Eiders seen were beautiful males, many of which seemed to be in post-breeding mode already, hanging out, as they were, in what appeared to be bachelor groups. As is often the case, Spectacled Eider was the last holdout, but we located a lovely pair at the end of the Gas Well Road, not to mention a lone female that was vigorously defending her nest from a marauding Pomarine Jaeger. As is always the case here, Common Eiders were encountered only as migrants moving along the coast, but we did get them, giving us a clean sweep of the eiders in our first 24 hours at Barrow!

Steller's Eiders (males)

Steller’s Eiders (males)— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer


Lemming populations in the Barrow area seemed to crash around 2013, and their primary predators, Snowy Owls and Pomarine Jaegers, crashed in numbers right after. The lemmings have yet to rebound, but although owl and jaeger numbers remain depressed compared to earlier “boom” years, they do seem to be creeping slowly upward. We saw at least 6 different Snowy Owls during our short stay, including 5 in one day on 6/27.  The best of these were a nearly immaculately white male on the tundra near Freshwater Lake, and a heavily marked (probably immature) female that was perched atop a domed structure right in town. The male bird was drawing the unwanted attention of every small bird in the area, ranging from passing longspurs to small groups of curious sandpipers. The female bird lingered atop her perch in a really stiff wind, while we scoped her from nearby, eventually lifting off and flying right past us.

Spectacled Eiders

Spectacled Eiders— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer


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, and picked off 1 Yellow-billed Loon for good measure. Our rarest discovery came in the form of a Killdeer, a bird that is among the most common and widespread of North American shorebirds, but which is a true rarity this far north. Other mild surprises included 4 Gadwall along the beginning of the Gas Well Road, a flock of 18 Surf Scoters (mostly/entirely males) moving along the coast, and a couple of Black-bellied Plovers that crossed the road right in front of us. Getting all three species of jaegers, a single elegant Sabine’s Gull, and being able to closely compare Common and Hoary redpolls attending feeders were also bonus highlights.

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 for as far as we could see. In summation, Barrow was simply Barrow, and you really do have to see it to believe it.