ALASKA BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Alaska: Day 1 The tour begins this evening in Anchorage, where we will stay overnight.
Alaska: Day 2 Early this morning we will visit Lake Spenard and Lake Hood where we will have our first introduction to Alaskan birding. Here we may well see Pacific Loon (or Pacific Diver), Red-necked Grebe, Lesser Canada Goose, Spotted Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope, Mew and Bonaparte’s Gulls, Violet-green and Tree Swallows, and a variety of ducks including Green-winged Teal, American Wigeon, Greater and Lesser Scaups and Barrow’s Goldeneye, whilst the surrounding scrub holds American Robin, Myrtle Warbler, Pine Siskin and Savannah and White-crowned Sparrows. Afterwards, a morning flight will take us to far western Alaska and the town of Nome for a four nights stay. We will have the rest of the day to explore the surrounding area.
Alaska: Days 3-5 Situated on Norton Sound on the Bering Sea coast, Nome is a Mecca for birders in search of arctic specialities. We will use the three roads leading out of the town and explore the varied habitats in search of some of North America’s rarest birds. Bounded by tundra on three sides and the Bering Sea coast on the other, the small estuary and lakes at the edge of town attract many waterbirds including the stately Sandhill Crane, Semipalmated and Pacific Golden Plovers, Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Wandering Tattler, Surfbird, Black Turnstone and sometimes Red-necked Stint and Vega and Slaty-backed Gulls (the latter often amongst the many Glaucous Gulls). We will drive along the coast towards Safety Sound, a real migrant trap, where birds pause whilst the ice further north breaks up. The uncommon Emperor Goose and the dainty Sabine’s Gull turn up regularly here on migration and there is always the chance of a real rarity.
More commonly encountered birds we can expect to find in this fine area include Red-throated Loon (or Red-throated Diver), Tundra Swan, Black Brant, Common Eider, the beautiful Harlequin Duck, Surf Scoter, Black Scoter, White-winged Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Arctic Tern, the elegant and much-sought-after Aleutian Tern and the smart Lapland Longspur (or Lapland Bunting).
On one day we will leave early for a drive along the famous Kougarok Highway in search of one of the world’s least-known birds, the Bristle-thighed Curlew, which is currently under study by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. We will devote part of the day to finding this rare and sometimes difficult species which shares its habitat with the more common and very similar Hudsonian Whimbrel (sometimes split from Eurasian). With persistence we should be treated to views of both, allowing us to make direct comparisons between these two closely related species. During our drive along the Kougarok Highway, we will pass through the scenic Kigluaik Mountains. The many cliffs here provide nesting habitat for a number of raptors including Golden Eagle, Rough-legged Hawk (or Rough-legged Buzzard) and the magnificent Gyr Falcon.
Other breeding birds we will look out for are Peregrine Falcon, Rock and Willow Ptarmigans, American and Pacific Golden Plovers, Bar-tailed Godwit, Long-tailed and Arctic Skuas (or Long-tailed and Parasitic Jaegers), Grey-cheeked Thrush, American Tree, Red Fox and Golden-crowned Sparrows, and Hoary (or Arctic) and Common Redpolls. Several primarily Eurasian passerines nest locally in Alaska, including Alaska Wagtail (the local form of the ‘Eastern Yellow Wagtail’ complex), Bluethroat and Northern Wheatear.
We should also find the extraordinary Musk Ox, which is sometimes present in good numbers, as well as Caribou (or Reindeer) and American Beaver.
Alaska: Day 6 After some final birding in the Nome area we will take an afternoon flight back to Anchorage for an overnight stay.
Alaska: Day 7 Before breakfast we will have an opportunity to visit Westchester Lagoon in the centre of Anchorage where, with luck, we will see Short-billed Dowitcher and Hudsonian Godwit.
Later we will drive south along one of Alaska’s most scenic roads to the little town of Seward for a two nights stay. Our first stop as we drive south will be at the famous Potter’s Marsh. This wetland area is always teeming with waterbirds and here we can expect to find a number of new species. At the marsh, or in the damp scrub and woodland nearby, we should also be able to find Ring-necked Duck, Redhead, the impressive Belted Kingfisher, Alder Flycatcher, Cliff Swallow, Black-capped Chickadee, Black-billed Magpie, Wilson’s Warbler, Dark-eyed Junco, Song and Lincoln’s Sparrows, Red-winged Blackbird and the uncommon Rusty Blackbird.
Continuing south, we will stop at Beluga Point and scan the waters on the off chance that some stunning white Beluga Whales have come to hunt for salmon in the bay. The surrounding hillsides harbour a healthy population of Dall’s Sheep and we will pass some spectacular mountain scenery and stop frequently to explore the surrounding forests, lakes and mountain passes for some of the birds typical of this habitat including Common Loon (or Great Northern Diver), Northern Goshawk, Northern Flicker, the tiny Rufous Hummingbird (the world’s most northerly ‘hummer’, here at the edge of its range), Olive-sided Flycatcher, Hermit and Swainson’s Thrushes, the colourful Steller’s Jay, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Pacific Wren and the restricted-range Northwestern Crow.
Alaska: Day 8 The highlight of our visit to Seward will undoubtedly be a cruise out into the Kenai Fjords, truly one of Alaska’s greatest treasures. High, snow-capped mountains, magnificent glaciers that protrude into the pristine waters like icy fingers and abundant wildlife all make for an enthralling excursion. Glaucous-winged Gulls and Black-legged Kittiwakes are abundant, and as soon as we leave the dock we will start to look for the superb selection of auks which frequent the area and in particular we will be keeping our eyes peeled for Pigeon Guillemot, Common Murre (or Common Guillemot), Ancient, Marbled and Kittlitz’s Murrelets, Parakeet and Rhinoceros Auklets, and Horned and Tufted Puffins.
Other species we should encounter include Pelagic and Double-crested Cormorants, American Black Oystercatcher and perhaps Short-tailed Shearwater. Marine mammals are also well represented and we will keep a constant lookout for huge Humpback Whales, impressive Killer Whales (or Orcas), fast-moving Dall’s Porpoises and Steller’s Sealions. The superb Sea Otter is often present in large numbers, while Bald Eagles can often be seen resting on the mudflats and cliffs near Seward or lumbering across the bay.
Alaska: Day 9 Today we will explore the extensive spruce forests that clothe the Seward area and the Kenai Peninsula. By walking some easy trails we can expect to see many of the forest specialities of south-western Alaska. Amongst the species we hope to find are the tame but sometimes elusive Spruce Grouse, the Harlan’s form of the Red-tailed Hawk, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, the strikingly-coloured Varied Thrush, Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets, Chestnut-backed and Boreal Chickadees, the nomadic Bohemian Waxwing (if we are lucky), Grey Jay, Pine Grosbeak and Orange-crowned, Townsend’s and Blackpoll Warblers. We will also be keeping a constant lookout for Black Bears, which are quite common, though elusive, in this area. Eventually we will return to Anchorage for an overnight stay.
Alaska: Day 10 Today we will make our way north to the famous Denali region for a two nights stay. Along the way we will check several small lakes, some of which teem with wildfowl. We will be keeping a careful lookout for Trumpeter Swan and Bufflehead. Moose are also quite plentiful along this stretch of road and many of them have young (mostly twins) at this time of year.
As we approach Denali, given clear weather, we should have breathtaking views of the huge massif of Mount McKinley, which, at an impressive 6195m, is the highest peak in North America.
Alaska: Day 11 The Denali region is a very scenic part of Alaska and, during our visit, we will surely enjoy some spectacular views. Birds are well represented and we will be on the lookout for Northern Harrier, Merlin, Say’s Phoebe, American (or Buff-bellied) Pipit, Northern (or Great Grey) Shrike and White-winged (or Two-barred) Crossbill. We will also have another chance to find the impressive Gyr Falcon. Brown Bear (here of the form popularly known as Grizzly Bear) can also be regularly seen.
Alaska: Day 12 This morning we will head out along the Denali Highway, which runs eastwards to the town of Paxson where we will stay overnight. Boggy forested areas near the beginning of the highway sometimes hold a few Upland Sandpipers, and we will put some effort into finding this strange-looking wader (half plover, half sandpiper) as it may take us some time!
Working our way slowly east, we will check the many ponds and small lakes for a number of species, including Horned (or Slavonian) Grebe, Least Sandpiper and Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs. We also have another opportunity to look for Trumpeter Swan and scoters and will witness a landscape literally littered with beaver lodges! This is prime duck-breeding territory, and although we will have seen most of the species already, the scenic beauty along the highway and the abundance of birdlife on the pools will once again have us awestruck!
The scrub and forest along the highway hold Yellow Warbler and Northern Waterthrush, as well as Arctic Warbler, the only Phylloscopus warbler to nest in North America. This area is also one of the best in Alaska to search for Northern Hawk Owl, although we may have to check the tops of a lot of spruce trees before we finally find one of these superb diurnal predators!
Mammals are also well represented, and we will have another chance to find many of the species present in the Denali region. In particular, we will have a pretty good chance of seeing an American Beaver.
Alaska: Day 13 This morning, we will make a concerted effort to find one of Alaska’s more elusive inhabitants, the delightful Smith’s Longspur. This striking bunting arrives exceptionally late on its breeding grounds and is right at the edge of its range in this area. It also seems to be getting rarer, but nevertheless, we shall diligently search suitable damp grassy areas in the hope of finding one. Later in the day we will head back to Anchorage for an overnight stay, passing some of the most amazing glaciers one could ever hope to see!
Alaska: Day 14 This morning we will fly northwards, crossing the Arctic Circle, the impressive Brooks Range and the vast tundras of Alaska’s North Slope en route to the small town of Barrow for a two nights stay beside the Arctic Ocean. If the weather is clear we should enjoy some fantastic views as we fly over vast areas of unspoilt wilderness. As we approach Barrow we will pass over a flat tundra landscape dominated by a honeycomb pattern of huge ice-wedge polygons that have been formed by the endless annual cycle of the thawing and freezing of the permafrost. Here at more than 71°N latitude the sun does not set for nearly three months in summer (although the frequent arctic fog may make us forget that this is the ‘Land of the Midnight Sun’!), while in the icy depths of winter it stays below the horizon for just as long.
Our programme at Barrow will to a certain degree be determined by the extent of the pack ice, which is likely to be only just starting to break up in mid-June. If conditions are favourable we may spend some time this afternoon scanning open water areas amongst the ice for divers and ducks, and, of course, there is always that slim possibility of a Polar Bear to keep the adrenalin flowing!
Alaska: Day 15 Today we will explore various places in the Barrow area, taking advantage of the continuous daylight at this time of the year! The tundra at Barrow is particularly rich in breeding wildfowl and shorebirds and by now the surface ice will have begun to melt, forming pools which lie on top of the permafrost. At this season the tundra is alive with the sights and sounds of displaying ducks and waders whilst menacing skuas patrol back and forth.
Our main quarry here will be the gorgeous, though sadly fast-declining, Spectacled Eider and with a modicum of luck we will locate a pair on a tundra pond. We will also be keenly scanning the tundra for the beautiful Steller’s Eider and that truly arctic predator, the Snowy Owl. The populations of many arctic predators fluctuate enormously in parallel with the cyclic changes in the lemming and vole populations. These small rodents, known for their boom and bust cycles which take place once every four to five years, are the main food source for many of the birds and mammals here in the far north.
Amongst the other interesting species we can expect to find during our forays at Barrow are Greater White-fronted Goose, the handsome King Eider, Baird’s and Pectoral Sandpipers, Long-billed Dowitcher, Red (or Grey) Phalarope (here in its splendid red breeding plumage and hopefully displaying), Pomarine Jaeger (or Pomarine Skua) and Black Guillemot. We also have another chance of seeing Sabine’s Gull, although this species is sometimes absent until later in the summer.
A number of shorebird species are breeding at the extreme limit of their range in the Barrow area and therefore occur in fluctuating numbers from one year to the next (and so are of unpredictable occurrence). These include Black-bellied (or Grey) Plover, Sanderling, White-rumped Sandpiper, the dainty Buff-breasted Sandpiper and Ruddy Turnstone. If there are open leads in the ice close inshore while we are at Barrow we will also have a fair chance of seeing the uncommon Yellow-billed Loon (or Yellow-billed Diver).
Alaska: Day 16 After a final morning at Barrow we take a flight back to Anchorage for an overnight stay.
Alaska: Day 17 Our Alaska birding tour ends this morning at Anchorage.
PRIBILOF ISLANDS EXTENSION
Alaska (Pribilofs): Day 1 The extension begins this evening at Anchorage, where we will stay overnight.
Alaska (Pribilofs): Day 2 This morning we will take a flight to St Paul Island, situated some 800 miles (1300 km) from Anchorage in the Pribilofs, where the largest remaining Aleut population in the world resides. Situated amidst the cold waters of the Bering Sea, these islands are home to some three million seabirds! Upon our arrival in mid-afternoon we will be transferred to the King Eider Hotel, our base for the next two nights. Later we will set out by bus to begin our explorations of the island.
Alaska (Pribilofs): Day 3 The Pribilofs offer a seabird spectacle which has made them world-famous amongst birders. During our stay, we will have time to visit most of the best seabird cliffs on St Paul.
At Reef Point, not far from the settlement, the cliffs often teem with seabirds. Northern Fulmars, Black-legged Kittiwakes and hordes of puffins, auklets, guillemots and cormorants seem to occupy every available piece of rock. Every inch of space is claimed by nesting birds and by carefully searching the cliffs we should gain fantastic views of all of the nesting auks. Common and Thick-billed Murres (or Common and Brünnich’s Guillemots) and diminutive Least Auklets are abundant, whilst bizarre Crested Auklets and Parakeet Auklets are much in evidence and comical Horned and Tufted Puffins are constantly travelling to and from their breeding ledges. A few Pigeon Guillemots breed below the cliffs.
Other highlights here will include Red-faced Cormorant and the extremely localized Red-legged Kittiwake (which only breeds here and on a few other islands in the Aleutian and Komandor chain). Arctic Foxes, here of the Pribilof subspecies which remains largely dark even during the winter, will be keeping a close eye on us from their dens close to the bird cliffs.
We will also have the opportunity to visit a large Northern Fur Seal colony where we will be able to admire some large bulls at very close range from behind one of the specially erected hides, their incredible barking calls ringing through the air.
Around the edge of the little town, we can expect to find Gray-crowned Rosy Finch (here of the distinctive Pribilof race umbrina), the handsome Lapland Longspur (or Lapland Bunting) and the Pribilof form of the Pacific Wren. Salt Lagoon and the freshwater lakes and marshes are likely to produce various wildfowl and shorebirds, including Long-tailed Duck, Semipalmated Plover and Least Sandpiper. At this time of year, there is always the chance of an Asiatic stray, such as a Long-toed Stint, Wood and Common Sandpipers, or Gray-tailed Tattler, overshooting from Siberia. Salt Lagoon attracts large numbers of the local Glaucous-winged Gulls and lingering Glaucous Gulls, and we will search amongst them for rarities such as Vega or Slaty-backed Gulls, while the striking King Eider regularly turns up on migration. Landbird vagrants also occur here and could include Common or Oriental Cuckoos, or Brambling.
In the southwestern part of the island we can visit more seabird cliffs where beautiful Harlequin Ducks are commonly seen offshore and Buffleheads are often present. Providing weather conditions are good (fog can be a problem here) we can expect to have close up views of many of the auk species, and enjoy absolutely wonderful photographic opportunities. Another of the speciality birds here is the Pribilof race of the restricted-range Rock Sandpiper, which nests on the dry tundra.
In addition, the beautiful McKay’s Bunting, a species restricted to just a few islands in the Bering Sea, sometimes winters on St Paul and occasionally lingers until late May. In the last decade or so there have been few May records, so we will count ourselves exceedingly fortunate if we come across one.
Alaska (Pribilofs): Day 4 After a last morning on St Paul we will take a flight back to Anchorage to join those arriving for the main tour.