Alaska June 2008 The Last Frontier!
We arrived in Anchorage on June 12th and joined our UK based birding tour Birdfinders. Next day we commenced our drive to Denali, birding several sites enroute with early morning delights of Harlequin Duck and American Dippers. The swampy Mat-su Valley gave excellent views of breeding Wilson's Snipe, Boreal Chickadee and Grey Jay.
Further along the Parks Highway a fluffy juvenile Northern Hawk Owl had being spotted by a keen birder from the minibus ahead of us while traveling at 60mph. Well we stopped traffic on this busy road of curious onlookers while we watched an adult Hawk Owl feed her three begging young, we were in awe at the force the Lemmings were being stuffed down their throats and the quantity they could devour. We were stunned that within a few hours of birding Alaska we had achieved our most wanted bird of the trip An hour or so later we continued our drive North taking in Alaska's breath taking scenery from snow covered mountain peaks, boreal forests to tundra, other good birds included Bonaparte's Gull, Solitary Sandpiper, Swainson's Thrush, Northern Waterthrush and breeding Great Horned Owl's with their young just behind our accommodation in Cantwell which we stayed for two nights.
Denali National Park was our mission and it did not disappoint the mammal lovers among us. We travelled around by shuttle bus as limitations are in force to protect the environment and wildlife that roam freely in this vast wilderness. Our sightings include Moose walking along the road feet away from the bus, herds of Caribou feeding on open grassland and at times running at great speed through the plains, Dall's Sheep on cliff edges and the highlight seeing Brown (Grizzly) Bears which included a mother and her two cubs feeding in there natural habitat, a brief view of Lynx galloping through the bushes and no shortage of Horse Shoe Hare and Arctic Ground Squirrels. Although it was a scarce year for raptors in the park, we were hopeful for views of Gyrfalcon, but it had not being faithful to its eerie but we had excellent views of several Golden Eagle, dozens of Willow Ptarmigan and our first sightings of Varied Thrush as we left the car park.
Birding along the Denali Highway was an exceptional day for the variety of birds which included Ducks such as Ring necked, Long tailed, Buffelhead, Pintail, a rarity in the form of Eurasian Wigeon along side American. Blue and Green winged Teals, Lesser Scaup, White winged Scoter and Horned Grebes. Warblers included Arctic, Yellow, Myrtle, Wilsons, & Blackpoll. The pools hosted Lesser Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper & Red necked Phalarope.
Next day near to Tangle Lakes/Paxton pre-breakfast birding proved to be tundra delight! Arctic lit dawn with 360 degrees surrounding's of undulating tundra laden with purple Arctic Lupine flowers and a chorus of bird song to sharpen ones senses, keeping company with stunning views of Smith's Longspurs, Lapland Buntings, a few breeding pairs of Long tailed Skuas, American Golden Plovers, Hudsonian Whimbrel and Short eared Owl all within the back drop of snow capped peaks. We could have stayed the day, a truly treasured memorable morning never to be forgotten. The afternoon journey back to Anchorage specialised in Rough legged Hawk, Red tailed (Harlans) Hawk, Bald Eagles, Pacific Loons, Three toed Woodpeckers, Northern Flicker, Pine Grosbeaks, White winged Crossbills and Bohemian Waxwing.
We travelled to Seward for our long anticipated pelagic in Resurrection Bay and were blessed with superb visibility and calm seas, excellent for photography! Leaving the harbour our first stop was greeted with close views of sleeping Sea Otters, Over thirty Bald Eagles, feeding on the flats. The boat brought us close to seabird colonies of Red faced, Pelagic and double crested Cormorants, Horned and Tufted Puffins, Brunnicks and Common Guillemots, Marbled and Ancient Murrelets, parakeet and Rhinoceros Auklets. As we approached deeper waters around Chiswell Islands the excellent birding was spoilt by views of at least Thirteen Humped backed Whales, some with calves. We cruised the icy waters slowly to closer looks at tidewater Glacier known as Aialik all the time listing to the boats hull crushing its way floating ice and watching Kittlitz's Murrelets from the bow. We parked close to this freezer for a lazy lunch and dressed in layers of waterproofs, gloves were invaluable to encounter the enormity of this chilling glacier, enjoying its thunder like sounds as ice broke off and dived into the sea below it, how quickly it re-submerged on the surface, to silently float away as a mobile iceberg. This was the pinnacle of awesome sights in all of our world birding trips. Our nine hour pelagic concluded with stunning views at several pods of Killer Whales (Orcas), some of which we complained were too close for the camera lens. An absolutely incredible day, a must for the serious birder, animal lover or photographer.
On mid-summers day we flew into Nome and spent five days birding surrounding areas which coast-lined the Bering Sea. It was a bumper for Arctic (Hoary) Redpolls, they out numbered Common (Mealy) Redpolls, we were grateful to gain invaluable experience these Polls had to offer for our home based birding. One of our target species was the rare Bristle-thighed Curlew which involved early morning hike up rough mountain terrain. We were rewarded with three, one calling male that landed close by. Birding the panaramic views we saw several Pacific and America Golden Plovers breeding along side each other, Sandhill Cranes, hunting Long tailed and Arctic Skuas, Taverner's Cackling Geese, Black Brants, Greater Snow Geese and Rough legged Hawks.
Birding Safety Sound Lagoon was stunning with impressive colony of Aleutian Tern's, not bad for waders and Gull's with Semi palmated and Western Sandpipers in abundance. Black Turnstone, Mew, Vega, Slaty backed, Thayer's and Glaucous Gulls. Passing the reminisces of the old gold mines, we birded higher altitudes for summer plumage's Snow Buntings, American Pipit, Northern Wheatear, Horned Lark and a pair of Surfbirds rearing their young on bare mountain ridge.
Our last day in Nome three of us had an early morning stroll up this sleepy western style town, we glanced out to the Bering Sea to see White winged Scoter, harlequin Ducks and Divers off shore, to our amazement we heard that familiar call of White Wagtail in the docklands! Our follow up proved to be a rare find of Siberian White Wagtail, which sent the other birders on a twitch.
We did a three day trip extension to the Pribilofs, Saint Paul is a small Island which lies deep in the Bering Sea approx. seven hundred and twenty miles from Alaskan mainland and circa one thousand miles from Russia. It was originally discovered by a Russian fur trader but now it is a vital colony to Northern Fur Seal after US congress ceased harvesting in 1985, it host 90% of the species and they litter the beaches as rookeries. It was just like turning on the discovery channel except we could smell their flesh! St Paul's climate is Arctic maritime with most days foggy and feeling cool but it gave us the best photographic opportunities of tip toeing around shakey cliff edged colonies which hosted millions of breeding seabirds. This was our chance to catch up with Crested and Least Auklets, King Eider, Short tailed Shearwater and Fork tailed Petrel not seen on the earlier pelagic. Other island specialities included Red legged Kittiwake, Glaucous winged Gull, Rock Sandpiper, Grey crowned Rosy Finch and roaming Arctic Fox.
Our return flight back to Anchorage gave us stunning views of Mount McKinley. It was time to leave Alaska, but not before flying home over the Arctic Circle and being mesmerised by the wonder of the ice-pack.
This is surely one place everyone should have the fortune to see before they die- THE LAST FRONTIER!.
Red throated Diver: breeding and common in Nome. Pacific Diver: Breeding and common in Nome. Arctic Diver: Race of Black throated, several in Nome. Red necked Grebe: Several breeding in Anchorage. Northern Fulmar: Common on St Paul Island. Short tailed Shearwater: Easy to see from St Paul Island. Fork tailed Storm Petrel: Several during a storm off St Paul Island. Double crested Cormorant: Breeding on islets off Seaward. Red faced Cormorant: Common breeding on St Paul Island. Pelagic Cormorant: Common breeding on St Paul Island. Trumpeter Swan: Several pairs near Paxon. Tundra swan: Two pairs in Nome. Canada/Cackling Geese: Several races identified in Nome, Anchorage, Paxon. Black Brant: Only on migration in Nome. Snow Goose: One near adult in Nome. American Wigeon: Common in general. Wigeon: We found two males in Paxon. Shoveler: Common in Paxon. Blue winged Teal: Several in Paxon. Green winged Teal: Several in Paxon and Anchorage. Canvasback: Breeding in Paxon. Ring necked Duck: small numbers in Paxon and Anchorage. Greater Scaup: Common in general. Lesser Scaup: Only a few seen in Paxon. King Eider: One ad male on St Paul Island. Harlequin Duck: Common in Nome, one in Denali. White winged Scoter: A few pairs in Nome. Bufflehead: Pair in Nome. Goosander: Several on rivers in general. Northern Harrier: Several in Paxon. Sharp shinned Hawk: One in Denali. Goshawk: Several in Denali and Paxon. Red tailed Hawk: (Kriders) common. Rough legged Buzzard: Several throughout the trip. Golden Eagle: Several Denali. Bald Eagle: Localised throughout. Merlin: Several throughout. Gyrfalcon: One at a known breeding site Denali. Willow Ptarmigan: Common roadside bird at Denali National Park. Sandhill Crane: Common Nome. Pacific Golden Plover: Common breeding at Nome. American Golden Plover: Common breeding at Nome. Lesser Yellowlegs: several breeding Paxon. Greater Yellowlegs: Several breeding at Nome. Solitary Sandpiper: Uncommon breeding Nome. Hudsonian Whimbrel: Breeding Paxon. Bristle thighed Curlew: Four at Co-co Mountain Nome. Hudsonian Gowit: Common in Anchorage. Wandering Tattler: One on Nome, and one at Paxon. Surfbird: Pair breeding Nome. Rock Sandpiper: Breeding on St Paul Island. Dunlin: Several Nome. Western Sandpiper: Common in Nome. Semipalmated Sandpiper: Breeding in Nome. Least Sandpiper: Common. Red necked Stint: Up to twenty in Nome. Short billed Dowitcher: Common in Anchorage. Snipe: Generally seen most days. Grey Phalarope: One pair breeding on St Paul Island. Red necked Phalarope: Local to common. Long tailed Skua: Breeding in Nome. Arctic Skua: Several in Nome. Bonaparte's Gull: Several breeding Paxon. Mew Gull: Common in Nome and breeding St Paul Island. American Herring Gull: Several Anchorage. Vega Gull: Several Nome. Thayers Gull: One in Nome. Glaucous Gull: Several Anchorage, plenty in Nome. Glaucous winged Gull: Common. Slaty backed Gull: Several in Nome. Black legged Kittiwake: Breeding on St Paul Island. Red legged Kittiwake: Breeding on St Paul Island. Arctic Tern: Common breeding. Aleutian Tern:Common breeding in Nome. Common Murre: Common on St Paul Island. Thick billed Murre: Common breeding on St Paul Island. Pigeon Guillemot: Breeding on St Paul Island. Anciest Murrelet: several in Seward and St Paul Island. Kittlitz's Murrelet: Twenty breeding at Glaciers off Seaward. Parakeet Auklet: Breeding on St Paul Island. Least Auklet: Breeding on St Paul Island. Whiskered Auklet: Breeding on St Paul Island. Crested Auklet: Breeding on St Paul Island. Rhinoceros Auklet: Breeding on St Paul Island. Tufted Puffin: Breeding on St Paul Island. Horned Puffin: Breeding on St Paul Island. Short eared Owl: Common breeding in Nome. Great Horned Owl: Four, two ad and two young in Paxon. Northern Hawk Owl: Several in Denali National Park, including juveniles. Hairy Woodpecker: Several in Anchorage. Three toed Woodpecker: One pair in Anchorage. Northern Flicker: One in Seward. Olive sided Flycatcher: Several Denali. Say's Phoebe: One at Denali. Northern Shrike: Two at Nome Airport. Steller's Jay: Several Paxon. Grey Jay: East in Denali. Black billed Magpie: Localised. Raven: Localised. Bank Swallow: Common. Violet green Swallow: Common. Tree Swallow: Common. Cliff Swallow: Localised. Black capped Chickadee: Common. Boreal Chickadee: One Anchorage. American Dipper: Several Denali. Arctic Warbler: Common in Nome. Northern Wheatear: One in Nome. Varied Thrush: several localised. American Robin: Common. Swainson's Thrush: Localised. Grey cheeked Thrush: Localised. Yellow Wagtail: Two in Nome. Siberian White Wagtail: One in Nome, caused a stir, well twitched. Buff bellied Pipit: Several in Nome. Bohemian Waxwing: Easy in Paxon. Yellow Warbler: Common. Yellow rumped Warbler: Common. Townsend's Warbler: Several Paxon. Blackpoll Warbler: Several Paxon. Northern Waterthrush: Several Paxon. Wilson's Warbler: Several overall. American Tree Sparrow: Localised. Savannagh Sparrow: Localised. White crowned Sparrow: Common. Fox Sparrow: Localised. Song Sparrow: Common. Dark eyed Junco: Common. Smith's Longspur: Several Paxon, difficult. Lapland Longspur: Common. Snow Bunting: Several. Rusty Blackbird: several. Pine Grosbeak: Common in Nome. Grey crowned Rosy Finch: Common on St Paul Island. Crossbill: Several Paxon. White winged Crossbill: Common in Anchorage. Common Redpoll: Common in Nome. Hoary Redpoll: Common in Nome