25 May Arrived in Anchorage
26 May Flight to St Paul was cancelled; Lake Hood, Hillside Park and Potter Marsh
27 May Westchester Lagoon and Coastal Trail, Anchorage; Flew to St Paul
28 May St Paul
29 May St Paul and flew to Anchorage PM
30 May Eagle River Nature Center; Chugach State Park and Arctic Velley
31 May Ship Creek, Westchester Park and Coastal Trail; Hillside Park, Lake hood
1 June Potter Marsh, Girdwood, Alyaska Resort and Iditarod Trail
2 June Flew to Nome; Cape Nome PM
3 June Teller Road, Nome
4 June Council Road, Kougarok Road, Nome
5 June Flew to Anchorage AM; Drive to Seward with stops at Girdwood and Russian River
6 June Kenai Fjords National Park All day; Lowell Point PM
7 June Seward to Anchorage; Palmer and Sheep Mountain Lodge
8 June Sheep Mountain Lodge; Glenn Highway, Tolsona Campground to Tangle Lakes Inn
9 June Tangle Lakes Inn; Denali Highway to Healy
10 June Denali National Park
11 June Parks Highway, UA Fairbanks
12 June Flight to Barrow
13 & 14 June Barrow and back to Anchorage
15 June Eagle River Nature Center and Arctic Valley and flights home
Trip Report for our Venture to
Grand Alaska and Pribilofs
May 25 - June 15, 2013
It’s always a spectacular flight into Anchorage and again this was no exception. The mountain ranges surrounding the city were snow-capped and stretched to the horizon. Our hotel was very convenient to Lake Hood, so we had daily chances of seeing the movement of waterfowl in between the constant floatplane flights. Our first 2 days were spent exploring the areas around Anchorage, especially as our first flight across to St Paul was cancelled. This is a fairly regular occurrence as the Pribilofs are prone to fog on many days each year.
Thankfully we had plenty to do so exploring some of Anchorage’s excellent birding spots. Despite the aircraft, Lake Hood is always good for waterfowl and every day the make-up changes from day to day. Northern Pintail, Barrow’s Goldeneye, and American Wigeon were all here one day and gone the next. Pacific Loon and Red-necked Grebe were also at the lake and we ended up with great selection of waterfowl over our extended day in the Anchorage area. Hillside Park is one of my favorite spots with trails winding up through the spruse and fir forests. Yes, there are bear and moose there, so we had to constantly be aware! We did see a couple of Moose, but they seemed unperturbed by our presence. Small passerines are not abundant, but we still managed to see several thrushes, including Swainson’s, Hermit and the beautiful Varied Thrush with its oddly electronic song. Other typical boreal specialties included Boreal Chickadee and Gray Jay.
After a morning at Westchester Lagoon, where it’s always good for waterfowl (Green-winged Teal, Gadwall and American Wigeon) and our only Horned Grebe of the tour, it was back to the Airport again to attempt to fly to St Paul. Yes, we made it this time and we winged our way across the Bering Sea to the little speck of land that was to be our home for the next 2 days. After walking into the airport and down the hall to our rooms, we hit the ground running with our local guides on St Paul. In the 48 hours we were on-island we crisscrossed St Paul looking for the classic sea and cliff-nesting birds, as well chasing any available Asian stray that was around. It was not a banner year for eastern vagrants, but we did see the long-staying Wood Sandpiper, Eurasian Wigeon and Tufted Duck, and were the only group to find a Common Greenshank. The winds were predominantly easterly so we were treated to Cliff and Tree Swallows and Savannah Sparrow- not quite what we were looking for. Thankfully the seabirds cooperated with incredible views of Crested, Parakeet, Least and Rhinoceros Auklets, as well as the wonderful Red-legged Kittiwake. The food in the giant cannery was pretty good and the island was still pretty snow-covered from a late snowfall making some of the driving and tramping a little difficult. We left on time which was probably a first and were soon back in Anchorage.
This year we had planned an extra couple of buffer days so we would not miss any of our time in Nome, so we continued our exploration around the Anchorage area. A great birding spot north of town is the Eagle River Nature Center. On our last visit we had great views of Black-backed Woodpecker, but there had been no nesting reports in the area this year. Highlights had to be the stunning views of Violet-green Swallow on a nest box and Wilson’s Snipe “singing” from the top of a spruce tree. Arctic Valley is usually reliable for Golden-crowned Sparrows and they were singing away, despite the ice and snow. There were even a few butterflies along the roadside- most being Northern Marbles and Western Whites. As we had time we had another walk at Ship Creek and Westchester Lagoon- always great spots for migrating shorebirds and waterfowl. On the vast mudflats we watched a pair of Hudsonian Godwits in their breeding finery before heading back to Hillside Park. The network of trails and paths is somewhat confusing as they double as ski trails during the winter.
A slight tapping alerted us to a male here-toed Woodpecker excavating a nesting cavity- great views and our only one on the tour. Another good spot near Anchorage is Potter Marsh- reliable for nesting Arctic Terns and various ducks. Girdwood is a small town south along Turnagain Arm and here the forested neighborhoods produced Rufous Hummingbird, as well as Red-breasted Nuthatch and Townsend’s Warbler. It was then off to Nome for what has to be one of my favorite spots in Alaska. Great scenery and great birds, with the chance for some good mammals as well. What was more incredible was the warm, sunny weather and we could bird at times without a coat! Our first afternoon was spent seawatching from Cape Nome followed by the late afternoon and evening atop Anvil Mountain. Despite the snowy conditions, the Bluethroats had arrived and watching them display in the evening sunshine was breathtaking. There are 3 main routes out of Nome and yes, we did each of them- birding quite different along each of the roads. The Kougarok Road heads inland and passes braided rivers and willow thickets while the Council Road follows the coast allowing views of Safety Lagoon and the rapidly thawing ocean.
Opposite the entrance A slight tapping alerted us to a male here-toed Woodpecker excavating a nesting cavity- great views and our only one on the tour. Another good spot near Anchorage is Potter Marsh- reliable for nesting Arctic Terns and various ducks. Girdwood is a small town south along Turnagain Arm and here the forested neighborhoods produced Rufous Hummingbird, as well as Red-breasted Nuthatch and Townsend’s Warbler. It was then off to Nome for what has to be one of my favorite spots in Alaska. Great scenery and great birds, with the chance for some good mammals as well. What was more incredible was the warm, sunny weather and we could bird at times without a coat! Our first afternoon was spent seawatching from Cape Nome followed by the late afternoon and evening atop Anvil Mountain. Despite the snowy conditions, the Bluethroats had arrived and watching them display in the evening sunshine was breathtaking. There are 3 main routes out of Nome and yes, we did each of them- birding quite different along each of the roads. The Kougarok Road heads inland and passes braided rivers and willow thickets while the Council Road follows the coast allowing views of Safety Lagoon and the rapidly thawing ocean. The Teller Road heads across some more mountains before dropping into the settlement of Teller- a somewhat quiet and tatty village. The birding was as good as we expected with many of the classic Nome bird being around-, Wheatear, Emperor Goose, Rock and Willow Ptarmigan, Bluethroat, and American and Pacific Golden-Plovers, with a few surprises, such as Red-necked Stint, White Wagtail and great views of a nesting Gyrfalcon.
It’s always sad to leave Nome (there’s no place like it!) but there was plenty more of Alaska to cover. Our next day was in Seward and a boat trip around the Kenai Fjords National Park. There’s always plenty to see on this wildlife-rich trip and today was no exception. A pod of Orca was moving through the bay and several Humpback Whales entertained us with heir breaching. Steller’s Sea-Lions had hauled out onto the rocks and thousands of seabirds thronged the cliffs, including Horned and Tufted Puffins and the diminutive Marbled Murrelet. We never did identify the Kittlitz’s Murrelet for sure, although we did have one very likely suspect! My spot for Chestnut-backed Chickadees was successful the next morning (along with yet another Moose) as we drove north through Anchorage towards Sheep Mountain Lodge on the Palmer Highway. It’s a beautiful drive along the Matanuska Valley and we searched the tips of every spruce tree for Northern Hawk-Owls- alas no luck! The weather remained rather nice as we birded along the Glenn Highway (again no NHO) - even the normally reliable Tolsona Campground was without owls, although it’s certainly makes a lovely spot for a picnic.
The Denali Highway had received a late and heavy snowfall in mid-May, so it had remained closed until fairly late. The swaths of snow along the highway made for beautiful scenery, although a little bleak looking for early June. Some of the roadside ponds were still frozen, although most of the expected waterfowl were present. Around Tangle lake Lodge (our home for the following night) the evening was filled with the songs of Gray-cheeked Thrush, American Tree Sparrow and Yellow and Blackpoll Warblers. Cliff Swallows nested nearby and a pair of Say’s Phoebes was using the camp behind the buildings as a loafing area. Again no NHO’s along the Denali Highway, although we later heard that none were seen by any of the birding groups this year, but thankfully we did find a singing Arctic Warbler amidst the snowy scenery. An Olive-sided Flycatcher was our only one of the trip and no Grizzlie’s although the habitat looks perfect. We have to visit Denali National Park and the mammals were wonderful. I believe our count of Brown Bears was about 7, including a couple in the road- seemingly oblivious to the chaos they were causing inside the tourist bus. We had almost giving up seeing a Wolf, when a white one walked along the middle of the road. Again chaos in the bus as everyone tried to take photos. This particular wolf had been radio-collared- a rather strange sight here in the wilderness. Unfortunately the weather had worsened by the time we reached the visitor center and a cold rain forced us back into the bus for our return journey.
The following morning it was time to head north towards Fairbanks and our last part of the tour. Mosquitos at the Fairbanks Museum forced us to truncate our birding and to reserve our energy for the Great Alaskan Salmon Bake in the evening! At least we had a few good butterflies on the museum grounds. Our flight to Barrow was early, but of course it was already light (not sure that it even got dark that night!) and we were soon birding the somewhat gray tundra around Barrow. Birding here involves checking and rechecking the traditional spots, as the pools quickly thaw and the birds move around to take advantage of the newly available habitat. Long-tailed Ducks were common and Pacific Loons were on many of the open pools. Snow Buntings and Lapland Buntings were everywhere, but rare passerines seemed to be almost absent this year, except for an American Robin nesting on a front porch- very strange. Thankfully the ducks cooperated and we had great views of all 4 species of Eider, including the very strange Spectacled Eider – along the Gaswell Road. Red and Red-necked Phalaropes were common on the shallow pools and some extensive searching we thankfully found a distant Snowy Owl.
Barrow is a strange town, but rather interesting to explore. The Inuit Museum was well worth a visit and eating out was always entertaining in an unusual way!
It was almost time for the afternoon flight back to Anchorage when we had our biggest “adventure” of the tour. One more time along Gaswell Road to look for the reported Ruff, when we once again scanned the ice near the “shooting camp”- and there out on the ice, chewing on some blubber, was an amazing and incredible Polar Bear! Needless to say those napping in the car soon leapt out to enjoy this rare sight. Another birding group was nearby so we alerted them to the bear as well. I suspect that this individual was the male that had been reported around town by the locals. He certainly was a big fella and did not like us watching- even though we were quite a way away, so he grabbed a chunk of blubber and ran off across the ice to eat in peace- without his group of admirers and photographers. Wow! That was a great end to a terrific trip and certainly a sight to remember. We finished with 181 species of birds, 15 species of butterflies and 19 mammals, including all 3 species of North American bears- great stuff!