Alaska: Birding the Northern Frontier
May 29 - June 16, 2022
Leader: Jan Hansen
$10,400 from Anchorage
This tour offers participants a chance to visit four very different areas of our largest state. We will spend four days exploring the sea coast and tundra around the hard scrabble town of Nome, where birds like Red- necked Stint, Aleutian Tern, Northern Wheatear, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Arctic Warbler and Bluethroat lend the avifauna a decidedly Siberian flavor. Dare I say that over the course of our time in Nome, the spectacular will become mundane? Long- tailed Jaegers, Arctic Terns and Willow Ptarmigan are just three examples of birds that will be seen with such regularity that they will eventually become a distraction from other less abundant target species. One of these target species will be Bristle-thighed Curlew, one of the world’s rarest birds, with an estimated population of only around 10,000 individuals. The only known accessible breeding site for this species is on a dome ridge about 70 miles north of Nome and we will devote one entire day traveling to this area to search for curlews among the more common Whimbrel.
Early June is a peak time for migrants to be moving along the coastal areas near Nome and past trips have recorded Yellow-billed and Arctic loons, Bar-tailed Godwit, Slaty-backed Gull, Red Phalarope and Spectacled Eider among the more common and expected species. We will spend 4 nights in Nome, which will allow us plenty of time to explore all of Nome’s most productive areas more than once and to take advantage of the ever changing component of birds that are present at this season. We will also visit Kenai Fjords National Park, with its breathtaking vistas and scenery, where we will take an all-day boat trip to Northwest Fjord in search of seabirds like Kittlitz's and Marbled murrelets, Red-faced Cormorant, Pigeon Guillemot, Tufted and Horned puffins and mammals like Orca, Humpback Whale, Sea Otter and Steller’s Sea Lion. In the spruce stands outside of Seward we can look for more southerly species like Townsend's Warbler, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Pine Grosbeak, Varied Thrush and Red-breasted Nuthatch, as well as test our sparrow skills with unfamiliar races of Song (rufina) and Fox (unalaschensis). We will also stop at a well-stocked feeding station at the home of a truly unique, native Alaskan character, where Rufous Hummingbirds frequently visit. In the Anchorage area the boreal forests are home to species like Bohemian Waxwing, Spruce Grouse, Boreal Chickadee and American Three-toed Woodpecker.
St. Paul Island, part of the Pribilofs island group, lies in the middle of the Bering Sea. St. Paul is famous for its nesting seabirds and annually hosts thousands of Parakeet, Least and Crested auklets, Tufted and Horned puffins, Northern Fulmar and Black-legged Kittiwakes in noisy cliff colonies just a stone's throw from observers. Sprinkled among these hordes will be a few Red- legged Kittiwakes and Red- faced Cormorants adding a bit of spice to the spectacle. In addition to the nesting cliffs, St. Paul harbors many other interesting birds including Rock Sandpiper (very common), King Eider, Harlequin Duck and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch. Tufted Duck, Bar-tailed Godwit and Brambling are annual visitors and if winds are from the west any number of Asian vagrants can be make an unexpected appearance. Historically, the end of May has been one of the premier times to find Asian shorebirds and passerines on St. Paul with Eyebrowed Thrush, Common Greenshank, Wood Sandpiper and Common Cuckoo being examples of regular visitors.
The final portion of the tour will take us far above the Arctic Circle to Utqiagvik (formerly known as Barrow), America’s northernmost town, where for 67 days during the summer months the sun never sets. Utqiagvik is an experience, a true frontier town on the edge of the Alaskan wilderness surrounded by the icy waters of the Bering Sea and endless rolling tundra pocked with wetlands carved out by the constant shifting and melting of ice and its runoff. It is a fascinating landscape and somewhat otherworldly to those of us generally confined to the lower 48. It is also a harsh and unforgiving place with brutal temperature extremes, violent storms, endless darkness during the winter and endless daylight during the summer. The waters of the Beaufort Sea are often still ice- covered in mid-June and the winds off of the ice can make it feel more like December to the non- initiated. However, amidst this harsh and brutal land, two of the Far North’s rarest birds can be found: Steller’s and Spectacled eiders. Sadly, the numbers of both of these species has been rapidly dwindling and they are no longer as easy to find as they once were. Past trips have been successful though, and we hope that that trend will continue in 2022.
In addition to the target eiders, Barrow has much more to offer the visiting birder. Colorful Red Phalaropes seem to be on every puddle and pond, a small number of Buff-breasted Sandpipers still perform their elaborate courtship ritual and the soft booming of displaying Pectoral Sandpipers is an unforgettable sight and sound. Pomarine Jaegers replace the Long-tailed and Parasitic variety that are so common further south and it’s always possible to find a Slaty-backed Gull among the hordes of Glaucous Gulls. King Eider and Long-tailed Ducks can be abundant, Snowy Owls nest on the tundra outside of town and Yellow-billed Loons occasionally turn up in near shore waters.
Utqiagvik is always exciting and never boring. The combination of habitats visited throughout the tour ensures a lengthy bird list that is certain to be filled with many life birds for everyone involved. That, coupled with the spectacular and unforgettable landscapes that will be the daily backdrop for our travels, is sure to make this trip one of the most memorable you have ever experienced.