phil jeffrey:: Alaska 2012 Trip Report
Resurrection Bay, Seward
This Alaska trip was executed with less planning than I would typically devote to it - not least of all because I'd been procrastinating about researching one - but in 2012 I made the decision to go on my first trip to AK relatively late in the game (mid-March) due to a surfeit of vacation days. In part because of this I took the unprecedented (for me) step of going with an organized tour to Nome for part of the trip, since I had too little time to make educated arrangements. All my other trips (FL, TX, AZ, CO, NM, UT, WY, WA, OR, CA, ND, SD, MN, LA) have been self-organized and researched. In Alaska I concentrated on three types of habitat: inshore pelagic [*]; wetland; arctic tundra. I almost totally ignored the northern boreal because of lack of time and post-Nome exhaustion, but also because the potential life birds in AK were simply not in that habitat type. I started first on the Kenai Peninsula for the first 3 days, moved on to Nome for 4 days and ended up in Anchorage for the last few. The Kenai and Nome legs were the most productive with 10 life birds on each leg and one in Anchorage to give a rather healthy total of 21 with some overlap between potential lifers. This moved me from USA 652 to 673 so depending on your life list you could find more life birds than this. Two whole days were spent traveling to and from AK and about another half day in transit to/from Nome. The difference in time zones (EDT to AKDT) is 4 hours and the and the sheer distance involved (trans-continental and then some) made for about 9 hours flight time EWR-ANC.
[*]: inshore pelagic is technically a contradiction in terms, however I call "pelagic" anything where I have a decent chance of throwing up over the stern. A recommendation of high doses of ginger may have reduced the chances of that in the future, but time (and NC, CA pelagics) will tell.
Useful things learnt before putting my foot in my mouth: Kenai is pronounced Kee-neye and Seward is pronounced Soo-werd. Confusion might arise because Seward is on the Kenai Peninsula whereas the Seward Peninsula is the one that Nome sits on, about as far west as you can get on the continental mainland.
Leaving Anchorage airport there seemed to be no birds milling around the metro area - certainly the winter conditions are likely to decimate things like Rock Pigeon or House Sparrow (latterly I saw Rock Pigeon but the AK state list pointedly excludes them). So my first bird in Alaska was an Arctic Tern hunting over Potter Marsh, which lies south of Anchorage and conveniently on my route down to Seward. A very cooperative Arctic Tern, in fact, just off the parking lot. The day was mostly sunny and in the 50's so I stopped at one of the roadside pullouts for a look - yielding best ever looks at Arctic Tern and Mew Gull (I've seen plenty of Common Gulls) as well as: Northern Shoveler, Red-necked Grebe, Swallow sp (likely Tree or Violet-green). The Canada Geese here sounded odd, but I was pressed for time in order to make it down to Seward that evening so I didn't pull out the scope to take a closer look. In flight they looked large for what I think of as "Cackling" Geese however - eBird records from experienced observers tag them as Canada Geese. Also present were larger gulls with some black in the wingtips. I think these were Herring or Herring X Glaucous-winged but again this would require more time than I had.
Traveling down routes 1 and then 9 toward Seward I saw more Mew Gulls, more Arctic Terns, but also added Black-billed Magpie, Common Raven, Bald Eagle. Passerines were not much in evidence although I believe I saw both American Robin and Violet-green Swallow. At an overlook I stopped to photograph scenery from I saw a dark raptor that I vacillated on ID between Golden Eagle and a very dark Red-tailed Hawk. Harlan's Red-tailed Hawks are reported from that general area so this is the most likely possibility. Other birds included American Wigeon and Trumpeter Swan in roadside lakes. Trumpeter Swans are fairly widespread over the Kenai peninsula by the look of things.
Down in Seward I checked into the Harbor View Inn, did a little shopping for the next day's pelagic at the Safeway which is the sole supermarket in town, and found the local birding surprisingly productive. One or two Mew Gulls were here, but I realized that Black-legged Kittiwakes were hanging around in the harbor (they had black legs, no white in wing tips), along with Arctic Terns and Harlequin Ducks. Cormorants and more gulls were visible across the inlet and American (Northwestern) Crows were scavenging the local park. Best of all was a WANDERING TATTLER (USA #653) in breeding plumage that was on the rocky waterfront at the waterfront park. It was a little shy but gave quite good looks and gave itself away by vocalizing. I did not expect to find that bird in Seward. Further out were two Guillemots that were too distant to distinguish to species (but Pigeon Guillemot is widespread here). Glaucous-winged Gulls were fairly numerous, and here showed no sign of being hybrids with Herring. Seward itself is relatively small, port-dominated, with expensive motels (i.e. $160/night on the cheaper end). A cruise ship left the port that evening while I was eating dinner, apparently backing the entire way down the sound. Seward's dinner options are not outstanding - you'll have more luck in Homer if you're on the Kenai peninsula.
In the harbor I'd seen small alcids before boarding and these turned out to be Marbled Murrelet with one off the stern as we steamed out of the harbor. Black-legged Kittiwakes, Glaucous-winged Gulls, one or two Arctic Terns were with us as we left. Birding was not especially fast initially, and the most interesting thing was a Sea Otter, but as we left Resurrection Bay things got rather better: HORNED PUFFINS (#654) first as we were looking at Otters were the first of many during this trip. Common Murre flocks increased as we headed further out, as did the number of Pigeon Guillemots, mostly as singles or small groups. We were shown a RED-FACED CORMORANT (#655) nesting spot, which gave good looks (but dark, in a cave) with adults coming in with nesting material. We did see other Red-faced during the day but the looks at the nesting site were the most definitive. Quite a few Pelagic Cormorants were seen near the Chiswells and in the Aialik Glacier fjord, and a few Double-crested Cormorants around as well. Near a Harbor Seal location a Black Oystercatcher flew past the boat. Onward, past some Steller's Sea Lions and while crossing a little open water we came across four ANCIENT MURRELETS (#656) which gave decent looks before taking flight.
As we approached the Chiswell Islands the level of bird activity ratcheted up and Murre flocks started to build, Horned Puffins were everywhere and Tufted Puffins were joining them. Black-legged Kittiwake colonies were on several islands as well as Glaucous-winged Gulls, and in one cove we got decent looks at a triplet of PARAKEET AUKLETS (#657). We also got good looks at low level nesting Horned Puffins and a few Tufted Puffins came in fairly close - this is the deal with a smaller boat used here rather than the large boat on the other tour options which cannot get as close. Although there were no Thick-billed Murres on their usual nesting spots a flock of nearby Common Murres turned up a few THICK-BILLED MURRES (#658) amongst them, giving nice side by side views - and those differences are indeed quite subtle in both coloring and structure between the two species.
After the frenetic bird activity of the Chiswell's we turned into the fjord that terminates at Aialik Glacier. While we were stopped for Humpback Whales I spotted another Ancient Murrelet flying away from the boat and then it was a question of working our way down the fjord, with cormorants of all species coming past up the fjord. Headed down the fjord we passed a few sea ducks (Scoter sp, mostly likely) that remained unidentified, a fair number of Common Murres and Puffins but things got particularly interesting as we approached the Aialik Glacier where we started to see small alcids. The first few groups of them were all Marbled Murrelets but before too long we got looks at KITTLITZ'S MURRELET (#659) in a flock with Marbled, and subsequently several pairs of Kittlitz's on their own. The glacier itself is quite impressive, although the ice it calves isn't in the form of large icebergs. Sea Otters and Harbor Seals were amongst the ice filling the water around the glacier. We spent some time at the glacier but by the time we left the Murrelets had somewhat dispersed - doubtless the uptick in the boat traffic in the late morning and afternoon has an impact here. The route back up the fjord was uneventful with brief stops for glimpses of Black Bear and more Humpbacks. After the turn at the top of the fjord it was pretty much full steam back to Seward, given the distance and the lateness of the hour. What had been missing at the Chiswells was any sort of shearwater or storm-petrel and on the way back following a slightly more offshore route there were no signs of any either - a flock of indeterminate sea ducks being the most novel thing (probably Scoters).
Retracing our steps north up Resurrection Sound yielding nothing of note, although it's interesting that Kittiwakes congregate in Seward harbor in greater numbers than seen elsewhere except in breeding colonies. A Pine Siskin passed by the hotel after I returned to crash for the evening. This proved to be the only one for the trip.
Latterly I saw reports of people picking up dead Common Murres from the glaciers and its possible the La Nina event had led to a reduced food availability. A few tens of dead Murres is not a huge impact on a population that appeared to be locally in the thousands, but it is an illustration of how delicate that ecosystem actually is.
The Smoke Shack, Seward
Weather that good could not last, and indeed it was raining when I woke up on Sunday morning. I started the day at The Smoke Shack, a popular local cafe at the port that is inside an old railroad car. Good food and friendly but slow-ish service but its small size made it such that it filled up quickly - get there close to opening (7am). There are other options open even earlier along the road that parallels the small watercraft port. A quick check of Waterfront Park yielded several Marbled Murrelets in the bay and two vocal Wandering Tattlers on the shoreline as well as the usual suspects. I went to the Sea Life Center in Seward to see the exhibits. Although they do sea life rehab there they do not do bird rehab so their interesting bird collection was all born in captivity and/or obtained from other zoos. Several of the birds were very tame, including an attention-seeking Rhinoceros Auklet and it is pretty novel to have Pigeon Guillemot perch up on a post right next to you.
Looking into the bay from either the west side (town) or east side (Nash Road) didn't yield anything of interest. Along Nash Rd I heard more Varied Thrush and in one small lake were two Trumpeter Swans and a small group of Green-winged Teal. It was sttill raining I headed out of Seward north up the valley. I would have been wise to make a stop at Exit Glacier where in retrospect Rock Ptarmigan and Grizzly Bear were to be seen. Instead I stopped at a small lake at mile 15 and found two Horned Grebes, four Barrow's Goldeneye and warblers in the lake-side willows: Yellow Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler and Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle). I stopped at Tern Lake at the junction with the Homer road (AK-1 and AK-9) and found Arctic Tern, Mew Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull and two mating Common Loons. Loons do not mate in a very elegant fashion.
A little further down the Homer road I saw a Belted Kingfisher on wires. Progress along this road was slowed by the inevitable RVs. I skipped earlier stops along this road because of bad weather and wanting to make time, and the first real stop was at Soldotna where I went to the Kenai NWR headquarters and asked about Aleutian Terns. On the face of it the habitat was implausible, since it was in the middle of the boreal forest but it turned out that there was a trail that led quickly down to the Headquarters Lake. Here I saw six ALEUTIAN TERNS (#660) amongst the Arctics, also Mew Gull, Common Loon, Red-breasted Merganser, Bonaparte's Gull, Bald Eagle, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, American Robin, heard Swainson's Thrush call, fly-by Rusty Blackbird. You'll need a scope to pick them off since they're on the other side of the lake, but there were diagnostic views to be had. This was a location I found via eBird.
South of Soldotna I skipped navigating to the more coastal river sites because the roads looked upaved, rocky and rough. Instead I headed straight to Anchor Point ($5 day use fee) where there were any number of Bald Eagles milling around, getting chased by American (Northwestern) Crows. Shorebird movement was minimal with three Greater and two Lesser Yellowlegs. A Savannah Sparrow was in the marsh grass and Yellow Warbler was in the roadside willows. Out on the water were loon sp (non-breeding Commons?), Scaup sp, Harlequin Duck, Red-breasted Merganser, Mew, Glaucous-winged. A Common Merganser flew up-river. A distant jaeger was probably Parasitic but dark and too far out to be definitive.
Down in Homer I checked into the small but decent Pioneer Inn in Homer and headed out to the spit. The tide was going down and no shorebirds were in evidence. Northern Pintail in mud bay, Greater Scaup off Mariner Park but also a Yellow-billed Loon off Mariner park showing bill tilt, structure, yellow color, and an oval neck patch shape all of which pointed to YB over Common (two Commons were further up the spit to compare). Three Yellow-billed Loons were reported in Homer on the AK list that day and the British birders I met on the Seward pelagic found one here later too. Many Kittiwakes, some Mew, some Glaucous-winged Gulls and quite a few Bald Eagles. The Kittiwakes were nesting on the AK Ferry dock at the end of the spit (Land's End) and there was a Black Oystercatcher here too. Thousands of Common Murre were going past the end of the spit from bay towards the Cook Inlet side - it looked like there was a major concentration over near Gull Island on the east side of Kachemak Bay and that feeding flocks set of from and returned to this spot depending on tide level or time of day. Other alcids were relatively scarce - a few Pigeon Guillemots, three Horned Puffins and one Marbled-ish Murrelet in flight. Back down at Mariner Park Aleutian Terns flew over ID'd by call - Aleutians have particularly atypical calls for terns which makes this straightforward. A search for the Aleutian nesting site "at the end of the airport runway" was not successful later in the evening but the wetland overlook had Sandhill Crane, Tree Swallow and Orange-crowned Warbler. And I was bitten by my first mosquito of the trip.
Two Sisters Bakery, Homer
Back in Homer the tide had moved further out so the spit wasn't much of a lure. I had breakfast at Two Sisters Bakery in the old town section and the area around this place was very birdy: Fox Sparrow, Common Redpoll, Boreal Chickadee, Orange-crowned Warbler, winnowing Wilson's Snipe, Yellow Warbler, and the same dabbling duck collection seen earlier (Pintail/Mallard/Wigeon/GW Teal). A trio of swallows (Bank, Tree, Violet-green) were over Beluga Slough, and a family of four calling Ravens were circling nearby. Two Sister's has excellent food and in addition to breakfast I grabbed some to take away for lunch as well - it would be tempting to stay in the B&B rooms above the bakery on subsequent trips. I traveled to the end of the spit but by 9am the tide was pretty much all the way out and nothing of note was on the water a Land's End. Hermit Thrush was singing in town and I saw one at the back of the hotel as I returned there to repack and check out.
Without stops I figured that Homer to Anchorage would be around 4 hours on those roads. So I wanted to leave Homer around 1pm and Anchor River by 2pm latest - the roads aren't heavily trafficked (some congestion in Soldotna, but you're through this in 15 minutes) but it's a lot of distance and most of the time there's one lane in each direction so you're going to get stuck behind something slow one way or the other.
Back on the Homer spit one last time, nothing novel apart from Long-tailed Duck and a mixed Surf/White-winged Scoter flock, with lots of Common Murres and some terns-that-might-be-Aleutian. As with the previous evening there were a lot of Sea Otters within sight of the spit, although none especially close. Not a shorebird in sight. I left to go to Anchor River, hiked up the beach again, found the Bar-tailed Godwit which flew a short distance shortly after I scoped it for useful confirmation. Nothing novel was on the sea or land here compared to the morning's visit and I was on schedule for the day, for once. Headed north out of Anchor River toward Anchorage via Soldotna and en route I saw Gray Jay on the roadside. All sorts of boreal species are possible on this stretch including Northern Hawk Owl. I stopped at Kenai lake for scenics and a single Redhead was in with Scaup sp. A stop at Tern lake had the usual Arctic Tern/Mew Gull combination plus Black-billed Magpies in the pull out and Wandering Tattler. No amount of searching mountain tops yielded white blobs resembling Rock Ptarmigan.
Then I just drove back to Anchorage, stopping at Potter Marsh (Ring-necked Duck - locally unusual?, American Wigeon, Canada Goose, Arctic Tern, Red-necked Grebe, Mew Gull, Glaucous-winged/Glaucous-winged x Herring Gulls) before checking into the hotel. In the evening I went out to Arctic Valley Ski Area at the eastern edge of Anchorage and hiked a short distance into the tundra above ski lodge: White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrows (my second ever sighting of Golden-crowned!), singing Hermit Thrush, Wilson's Warbler, and a WILLOW PTARMIGAN (#662) male singing from willows - like a grouse version of Botteri's sparrow. Swainsons Thrushes were singing further down the valley. The gated road is closed 10pm-6am nearly as far down as the highway so this is something to be aware of.
It was mostly sunny on the Tuesday, particularly in the late afternoon. Stilt Sandpipers (local rarity) and Red-necked Phalaropes were on a small pond between the airport and town. We checked-into the B&B, spied a Muskox in the back yard (Muskox is not really an ox), had lunch and then went birding. Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers, Common Raven, Mew Gull and Red-throated Loons were easy to find. Offshore scoping while sorting out rental car paperwork yielded: Dark-eyed Junco (local rarity in Nome) and a fly-over EASTERN YELLOW WAGTAIL (#663) perhaps migrating in off the sea. The wagtail, like the Arctic Warbler and Bluethroat, are trans-Beringian migrants that transit what remains of the Aleutian land bridge en route from Asia to their AK breeding grounds. A lot of the continental breeding birds appeared to be of an eastern vibe (Red Fox Sparrow, Myrtle Yellow-rumped Warbler), which might be contrary to what you'd expect. Out at Nome River bridge: Red-necked Phalarope, Bar-tailed Godwit, heard Northern Waterthrush, Northern Pintail (common locally), Mallard (quasi-rare locally), Red-throated Loon, Glaucous and Mew Gulls. Glaucous turn out to be the locally common large gulls, although these particular Glaucous were all smaller than the biggest Glaucous I see on the East Coast. Consulting the Olsen & Larsson Gull book I see that these would be (Larus hyperboreus barrovianus) and not (L. h. hyperboreus) - some other guide books suggest the contrary but I trust Olsen and Larsson more. Consistent with this, none of the Glaucous I saw in Nome ever struck me as being as massive as some of the East Coast birds I see, but this could be a clinal feature. (Also noteworthy - the default Herring Gull in Nome would be the Vega Gull vegae ssp, rather than smithsonianus, although I did not see any confirmed versions of that species - this may become relevant if L.a.smithsonianus is ever split off the rest of Herring Gull). Along road the toward Safety Sound: Hoary Redpoll, Yellow Warbler, heard Gray-cheekd Thrush. At Safety Sound: Red-necked Phalarope, a distant heat-shimmer red blob that might have been Red Phalarope, Dunlin, Scaup, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Black Brant, Tundra Swan, Long-tailed Jaeger, Pacific and Red-throated Loon, Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers and a Hermit Thrush hunting on the roadside, perhaps another migrant. Hermit Thrush breed in only one small section of Nome, just west of the location we observed it. At the Safety Sound Bridge: Mew Gull, Sabines Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake, Common Murre, Aleutian and Arctic Terns, Greater Scaup, Lapland Longspur all over the place, and more Yellow Wagtails. At one point we got a stern-only look at two EMPEROR GOOSE (#664) flying by - straight off the life list and onto the Better-View-Desired list. Back at Nome River Bridge, a pair of Pacific Golden-Plovers provided a what was to be the best looks for the trip and there was a Ruddy Turnstone. Multiple Long-tailed Jaegers and one Parasitic Jaeger were hunting over the tundra on the ride back into Nome - it later emerged that a pair of Parasitics were at the Nome River bridge holding territory. Wilson's Snipe, Lapland Longspur and American Tree Sparrow were at the old gold dredge roadside display just outside Nome. There are still a few optimistic souls dredging for gold just offshore. They're only a century late for the gold rush.
While out along Safety Sound I did get to check out Venus in transit across the sun courtesy of some strong neutral density glasses brought by one trip leader - a surprisingly visible black dot in front of the attenuated sun. Probably easier this way than putting myself in cryo storage to await the next transit in 2117.
The Bristle-thighed Curlew hike necessitated a 4:30am departure. We traveled the Dexter Cutoff Road to Kougarok Rock, finding a nearly entirely white ROCK PTARMIGAN (#665) at roadside. Rock Ptarmigans molt later than Willow Ptarmigans so the former are still mostly white in early June while the latter have quite a lot of dark rufous-red-brown coloration on the head, neck and upper breast. Kougarok Rd follows the Nome River upstream for the first part of the journey through the low mountains north of Nome towards a taller range (Kigluaik Mountains) where the road tacks east across the front of the range and crests the drainage between the Kigluaik and Bendeleben Mountains. Further along Kougarok we found Willow Ptarmigan in increasing numbers (males). While listening for Arctic Warbler things started to get eventful. The second car ended up in a ditch with it grounded out on the suspension, inclined at 45 degrees, and generally looking intractible. With some coordinated effort, brute force and shoveling we finally got the SUV out but later the ditch event transpired to be a symptom of a problem with one trip leader who returned to Nome and ultimately to Anchorage. No long-term damage to car, trip leader or participants thankfully. We didn't snag either Arctic Warbler or Bluethroat along this stretch but given the circumstances the lead vehicle (van) also returned to Nome and the morning's jaunt was abandoned. Two (presumed) Taverner's Cackling Geese were seen along the Nome River along with Moose and Red Fox on the way back to Nome. In town we spotted Tundra Swan, Yellow Warbler, Common Redpoll (Hoaries are more common and widespread) and "Red" Fox Sparrow. After lunch and after contingency plans were made we birded the Nome River and Safety Sound - an almost exact repeat of the previous day for the two of us that had flown in from Anchorage on the 5th. Bar-tailed Godwit, Parasitic and Long-tailed Jaegers, Semipamated Plover and Ruddy Turnstone were at the Nome river mouth. Along the road to Cape Nome there were a distant pair of displaying Pacific Golden-Plovers and Whimbrel. A Bank Swallow colony was along this road near the quarry. More Eastern Yellow Wagtails were around, including one actually seen on the ground. A familiar set of ducks were at Safety Sound, less Brant. One of the things that might actually have been going on here is waterfowl migration now that the ice was rapidly receding - the Brant might have been moving through. I'd seen sea ice in Norton Sound on the flight from Anchorage, although the sea around Nome was clear, and there was still ice in Safety Sound. At Safety Sound bridge a pair of STELLER'S EIDER (#666) were up on the mud and there were Bufflehead and Common Murre in the inlet. Sadly I didn't get to stay on 666 for very long. Amongst the numerous immature Glaucous was a gull with the same heft but an all-black bill - likely a Glaucous X Glaucous-winged Gull and there was also an unusual 1st summer "Portlandica" Arctic Tern - these usually oversummer in the southern hemisphere but have also been putting in an appearance on Long Island (NY) in recent summers. The absence of Common/Forster's Tern species made this bird easier to pick out than at other locations, although I've got to say that I've no idea what a first summer (1 year-old) Aleutian Tern would look like. Further along the road were a pair of King Eider fly-by, many Common Eider, Sandhill Crane, Pomarine Jaeger and Black Scoter. Eventually a pair of ARCTIC LOONS (#667) flew into the lagoon just as the first vehicle pulled out, but I was able to gain diagnostic views of them and call that vehicle back for decent looks. Arctic Loon (or, Black-throated Diver) was conspecific with Pacific Loon until 1985, but around Nome it was very clear that the birds agreed with the splitting: pairs of loons were unequivocally Pacific:Pacific or Arctic:Arctic - the pale flank patches were pretty prominent in most cases (a little variable) as was the paler back of the head in breeding plumage. At no point did I get the faintest whisper of a green vs purple throat patch irridescence. At the turn-around point we found Canvasback (locally uncommon) in with the Scaup flock. One has to think that being on the Nome II trip benefits from the implicit scouting from the Nome I trip preceding it.
Allegedly this hike was difficult, with the tussock grass community offering good odds at a turned ankle (do not step on the tussocks, step around them). In the event it was moderately warm, not especially wet, and the going was tedious but not actually hard for the first several hundred yards up what was really a big hill or a small mountain. The slope was not steep and after a while the terrian dried and the tussocks disappeared making for a fairly straightforward hike to a fairly flat rounded mountain top. A few mosquitos buzzed around and being Alaskan mosquitos these were appropriately huge but were not too intrusive. Short-eared Owl, Long-tailed Jaeger and American Golden-Plover were seen on the hike up the hill. After a comparatively short while a BRISTLE-THIGHED CURLEW (#670) whistled and put in an appearance. There were - apparently atypically - no Whimbrel on the hill to compare it with but it's not the most difficult ID. We also saw the bird in display flight. I happened upon an American Golden-Plover nest - actually I'd been concerned about stepping on one up there - when I realized that a female was nervously approaching me. I've photographed enough shorebirds to realize that she wasn't happy I was there, while constantly approaching me. I backed off and got a couple of nearby birders to do the same and she settled back down on the nest. Later on I swear that the male American Golden-Plover was escorting me off the mountain as it kept a reasonably close but appropriately wary distance from me as I started the hike down. I was nowhere near the nest at that point.
A little further north along Kougarok beyond the curlew hill and we found another Bluethroat. Fractionally further down the road I saw a large mammal sprinting up the hill and found my first ever GRAY WOLF - if anything I enjoyed that as much as I did the Curlew although the views were brief. The Wolf probably gets shot at around there, because it went very quickly in the other direction up the ridge but we got scope views from a vantage point further down the hill when the wolf was much further away. Not bad for a morning's work, so we returned to the large bridge over the river. Just before the bridge the guide found two Bohemian Waxwings in the trees on the north side of the river - a pretty decent find. A little before that I'd spied an Osprey being attacked by a male Northern Harrier, Osprey being a pretty unusual bird for Nome too. We settled down to have lunch just south of the bridge, which had Common Ravens nesting on it and Cliff Swallows nesting under it. Two Moose were browsing a little upstream. Blackpoll Warblers were singing near the bridge, although the song was rather scratchier and less sibyllant than the eastern birds - could this be a western subspecies, bucking the trend of eastern subspecies being found in this area ? I'm pretty tuned to Blackpoll Warbler song after spring migration in Central Park. This, coincidentally, is discussed by Sibley but the species itself appears not to have a bona fide subspecies. Northern Waterthrush, Yellow Warbler and another E. Yellow Wagtail were also here. Muskox were on several of the nearby hillsides - apparently nearly hunted to extinction or perhaps just dying out due to climate change, they've been reintroduced to the Seward Peninsula (i.e. what Nome is on, not the Kenai Peninsula which contains Seward) with obviously some sucess since there were quite a few of them visible along Kougarok.
Upriver towards the low pass we picked up Taverner's Cackling Goose and Harlequin. To be honest I have a hard time telling the difference between Taverner's Cackling and Lesser Canada Geese, so this is mostly by range and on the guide's assertion. Taverner's are rather larger than the Richardson's Cackling that turn up in variable numbers on the East Coast and Richardson's aren't the greatest challenge to tell from the larger Canada ssp from eastern Arctic North America and Greenland. We turned onto a side road signed for hot springs and found a Northern Wheatear pair on the higher stony-grassy ground and more Bohemian Waxwings in roadside willows on the way back down to Kougarok. Elsewhere we made a surprise find of a GYRFALCON (#671) on nest and then watched another Gyrfalcon at the more traditional location along Kougarok and were treated to a fly-by by the male. After that we were pointed at a Golden Eagle nest - both of these locations clearly well-described set pieces for the day although I'm certainly not going to complain about any day in which I see three Gyrfalcons, a Wolf, and have four life birds.
Lunch at the bridge turned up a fly-by Sabine's Gull adult but in general activity was lower than previous days. We did find a shy single female SPECTACLED EIDER (#672), mostly seen flying away, a Tufted Puffin flying by a fair way out, and then Arctic Loons. First two offshore with two more deeper. Then two further down the shore, then when we stopped to change out a soft tire on the van and make the turn around yet another Arctic Loons, this one perhaps the best view of all of them. At the turn-around another Black Turnstone was harassing a Pomarine Jaeger - one of a triplet of Jaeger species we had within a few minutes. Common Goldeneye, many Tundra Swans, Scaup were at this location (same as the Canvasback location in previous days). On the way back we picked up Common Loon, Black and White-winged Scoters. After dinner and packing, practically the last birds in Nome were an adult male Bar-tailed Godwit and some Red-necked Phalaropes that we got in the same pond that we had the Stilt Sandpipers in on the day that we arrived. The late flight (9:06pm) arrived in Anchorage where all that remained was to check into the hotel and sleep. Or at least try to.
Westchester Lagoon, Anchorage
Finally I left Westchester Lagoon and headed for Potter Marsh. This was a short-lived trip since they were having a "spring fling", the parking lot was overflowing and the boardwalk full of people. Realizing I was still exhausted from the Nome segment I checked into my hotel for the evening (Puffin Inn) and crashed for a few hours before heading back out to Westchester Lagoon. More Godwits and the Franklin's Gull again but once more I failed to find Surfbird. Canvasback and Bufflehead were new for me for this location.
From here I skirted Palmer and Wasilla via the elegantly-named Trunk Road and went to the visitor center at the end of Eagle River Rd. The woodland seemed quiet here so I headed a a few miles back down river to the North Fork parking lot and here I found a few boreal species: Boreal Chickadee, Yellow-rumped Warbler, several heard and one Varied Thrush seen in flight, multiple Swainson's Thrushes heard but not seen. Mosquitos were more active than birds but nevertheless that site has potential in better weather earlier in the day. I checked Westchester Lagoon for the last time but nothing novel and bad light/drizzle made me pack it in for the trip and go get a pre-flight dinner.
United Airlines then proceeded to do its best to screw up. The inbound Chicago flight was late, so we left Anchorage about 45 minutes late. The rather cramped and crappy 737 was full so it was a very uncomfortable overnight flight. Despite a change in flight # and disembarking the plane I then took physically the same plane (different crew) to Newark. There I discovered for some irrational reason that United had taken my bag off the plane and sent it on via a later flight. Since the scheduled arrival of my bag was only 60 minutes later I hung around Newark airport to recover my bag from this especially moronic act (hint: don't take the bag off the plane if the passenger is still traveling on it). I wouldn't trust United for longer haul flights - both long legs (EWR-SEA and ANC-OHA) were overbooked and full, and seating with limited legroom. Alaska Air's flights to Seattle last year were superior so you may prefer them - I certainly will be leaning in that direction in future.
I didn't expect tours to be good for photo ops (I left the 500mm at home) and I expected a certain amount of taping. I'd been warned by friends in NYC that guided tours were likely to drive me in particular crazy although they had no specific observation about WBA. Given the nature of Nome I suspect that the average birder experience level was higher than you might encounter in easier territory in the Lower 48. For the most part the taping was restrained, with one case where the Bluethroat was aggressively over-taped. I've indirectly seen taping on "professional" tours in places where it is explicitly illegal (e.g. Everglades National Park) but it's certainly not illegal in Nome. This confirmed that I really don't want to go on any more of these organized trips than is absolutely necessary but I have full expectation that all the other birding groups are doing the same thing - they're in the business of people pleasing which sometimes runs in the face of more appropriate restraint. Interestingly our guide privately objected to another group whistling at a Bristle-thighed Curlew that was already giving good looks, so this suggests to me that he's not an inherently aggressive taper. Apart from the taping caveat WBA seem like a professional organization with a good birder as a guide (the guides vary by location) who is good at his job, so unless the taping aspect is a deal breaker for you, you could do worse than pick WBA. In fact in talking to other birders in Alaska, WBA seems to get generally high praise. I doubt their second vehicle ends up in a ditch that often, either, and besides being a bit of an adventure it didn't attentuate the net outcome of the trip for me, at least not excessively. At least one of the other birding groups habitually returned to Nome for lunch, while we ate lunch out on the road (pretty good food delivered buffet style of the tailgate of the SUV - and that translates to me eating better than if I was doing it all myself). Personally I prefer the latter - why waste all that time returning to base when you could be birding ? On the full Kougarok day I was eating smoked salmon and chocolate by the side of a river flanked by Cliff Swallows, Ravens and a periodic Yellow Wagtail with Muskox and Moose further out. What else am I going to want ? Silverware ? China ? From chatting to local birders in Anchorage while looking at the Franklin's Gull, and down in Anchor River, it turned out that our trip leader has a pretty good reputation within AK too. In fact I did not encounter anyone with anything bad to say about him. One younger man who queried me about Arctic Loons while we were eating dinner in Nome on the last day was clearly very enthusiastic to make his acquaintance. Reputations like that do not come easily.
Nevertheless I think I prefer solo trips or at most to hire a guide on a personal basis (as I might have to in order to mop up the AZ owls). In the Lower 48 I hope to continue to largely do my own trips. But as the AK license plate puts it - "The Last Frontier" - this is a more challenging place to bird, so I might actually make guide-led trips to places like Gambell or the Pribilofs as much as to get around the accommodation restraints as anything else.
|Red-throated Loon||Especially Nome, breeding in roadside ponds|
|Arctic Loon||Safety Sound in Nome, max. 7 (USA LIFE)|
|Common Loon||Homer and Nome|
|Yellow-billed Loon||One at base of Homer spit|
|Horned Grebe||Kenai peninsula|
|Red-necked Grebe||Various lakes|
|Double-crested Cormorant||Seward inshore pelagic|
|Red-faced Cormorant||Seward inshore pelagic (LIFE)|
|Pelagic Cormorant||Seward, Nome|
|Great Blue Heron||One immature, Anchorage|
|Emperor Goose||Two fly-bys at Safety Sound in Nome (LIFE)|
|Canada Goose||Lesser Canada Goose in Anchorage|
|Cackling Goose||Taverner's Cackling Goose in Nome|
|Trumpeter Swan||Kenai Peninsula|
|Tundra Swan||Large flock at Safety Sound in Nome|
|Mallard||Anchorage and Nome|
|Northern Pintail||especially common in Nome|
|Green-winged Teal||also one A.c.crecca in Nome|
|Ring-necked Duck||Potter Marsh in Anchorage|
|Lesser Scaup||Westchester Lagoon in Anchorage|
|Steller's Eider||Safety Sound in Nome (LIFE)|
|Spectacled Eider||Safety Sound in Nome (LIFE)|
|King Eider||Safety Sound in Nome|
|Common Eider||widespread in Nome|
|Bufflehead||Westchester Lagoon, Anchorage|
|Common Goldeneye||Safety Sound, Nome|
|Barrow's Goldeneye||Kenai Peninsula|
|Common Merganser||Anchor River|
|Osprey||Kougarok and Safety Sound in Nome|
|Bald Eagle||Kenai Peninsula (especially Anchor River) and Anchorage|
|Northern Harrier||Kougarok Rd in Nome|
|Golden Eagle||Kougarok Rd in Nome|
|Gyrfalcon||Kougarok Rd in Nome (LIFE)|
|Peregrine Falcon||Safety Sound in Nome|
|Ring-necked Pheasant||heard in Homer|
|Willow Ptarmigan||Nome and Anchorage (USA LIFE)|
|Rock Ptarmigan||Nome (LIFE)|
|Sandhill Crane||Nome and Anchorage|
|Black-bellied Plover||Anchor River|
|American Golden-Plover||Nome, upland|
|Pacific Golden-Plover||Nome, coastal|
|Greater Yellowlegs||Anchor River|
|Lesser Yellowlegs||Anchor River|
|Wandering Tattler||Seward, Kenai Penin. (LIFE)|
|Bristle-thighed Curlew||Nome (LIFE)|
|Bar-tailed Godwit||Anchor River and Nome (USA LIFE)|
|Least Sandpiper||Anchor River|
|Pomarine Jaeger||Nome, few|
|Parasitic Jaeger||Nome, uncommon|
|Long-tailed Jaeger||Nome, fairly common|
|Bonaparte's Gull||Kenai Penin, Nome|
|Herring Gull||Anchorage (poss GWGU hybrid), GWGUxHEGU in Anchor River|
|Glaucous-winged Gull||widespread, some hybrids, Seward birds were "good"|
|Glaucous Gull||widespread in Nome|
|Black-legged Kittiwake||Seward, Nome|
|Aleutian Tern||Kenai Penin and Nome (LIFE)|
|Common Murre||abundant on Seward inshore pelagic and Homer spit|
|Thick-billed Murre||Seward inshore pelagic (LIFE)|
|Pigeon Guillemot||Seward, Homer|
|Kittlitz's Murrelet||Seward inshore pelagic (Aialik glacier) (LIFE)|
|Ancient Murrelet||Seward inshore pelagic (LIFE)|
|Parakeet Auklet||Seward inshore pelagic (LIFE)|
|Horned Puffin||Seward inshore pelagic (LIFE)|
|Tufted Puffin||Seward inshore pelagic, Nome|
|Rock Pigeon||various - not even included on AK list for strange reasons|
|Northern Hawk-Owl||Kougarok Rd in Nome|
|Alder Flycatcher||Homer, Nome|
|Gray Jay||Anchor River area|
|American (ex-Northwestern) Crow||Seward, Kenai penin. - not in Anchorage or further north|
|Violet-green Swallow||Kenai Peninsula and Anchorage|
|Bank Swallow||Homer, Nome|
|Boreal Chickadee||Homer, Anchorage|
|Arctic Warbler||Kougarok Rd in Nome (LIFE)|
|Bluethroat||Kougarok Rd in Nome (LIFE)|
|Northern Wheatear||Kougarok Rd in Nome|
|Gray-cheeked Thrush||widespread in Nome|
|Swainson's Thrush||heard on Kenai peninsula and at Eagle River|
|Hermit Thrush||Homer, Nome|
|Varied Thrush||Eagle River, heard multiples in Kenai Peninsula|
|Eastern Yellow Wagtail||Nome (LIFE)|
|Yellow Warbler||widespread in willows|
|Blackpoll Warbler||Kougarok Rd in Nome|
|Yellow-rumped Warbler||Myrtle ssp.|
|Wilson's Warbler||higher elevation Alpine|
|American Tree Sparrow||Nome|
|Fox Sparrow||"Red" ssp in Nome, "Sooty" on Kenai Peninsula|
|White-crowned Sparrow||Anchorage, Nome|
|Golden-crowned Sparrow||Anchorage, Nome|
|Lapland Longspur||widepread in Nome|
|Common Redpoll||Kenai Peninsula, Anchorage, Nome|
|Hoary Redpoll||common in Nome|
|Pacific Loon||Arctic Loon||Yellow-billed Loon|
|Red-necked Grebe||Short-tailed Shearwater||Sooty Shearwater|
|Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel||Red-faced Cormorant||Emperor Goose|
|Trumpeter Swan||Steller's Eider||Spectacled Eider|
|Gyrfalcon||Ruffed Grouse||Spruce Grouse|
|Willow Ptarmigan/Red Grouse||Rock Ptarmigan||Pacific Golden-Plover|
|Wandering Tattler||Bristle-thighed Curlew||Bar-tailed Godwit|
|Surfbird||Red-necked Stint||Rock Sandpiper|
|Slaty-backed Gull||Thayer's Gull||Aleutian Tern|
|Thick-billed Murre||Kittlitz's Murrelet||Ancient Murrelet|
|Parakeet Auklet||Horned Puffin||Arctic Warbler|
|Bluethroat||Eastern Yellow Wagtail||White Wagtail|
Timing is also a factor. The commercial birding groups appear to target the first two weeks in June for Nome (a little earlier for Gambell etc) and this is probably around the better times for the trips. For Nome II the weather seemed to be a lot better and the snow cover reduced relative to Nome I, so if I were doing this independently I'd probably do it towards the end of the first week. No guarantees on weather, however, which tends to be a major variable. The winter of 20011/12 was an especially snowy one in Alaska, to extant snow levels may be lower in other years. The tundra mosquito load probably ratchets up quite quickly once the weather gets warmer, too, since the summer is so brief. For the Seward pelagic the first week in June may be a little early, with fewer alcids on the nest, so perhaps something a little later is advisable. However a lot of birds were already present at breeding grounds as of June 2nd 2012 if not all of them actively on nests.
Some iPhone apps did not work as well in Alaska as they do in the Lower 48. The mapping software often failed outright at providing directions between locations that it clearly would have been capable of doing in other states - it often could find the locations but apparently routes were a mystery to it. There was reception in the Anchorage area that was enough to use the default Google maps while on the move, however. Anchorage (pop:300K) is relatively small and traffic not onerous so that's not a very big issue. Anchorage is the biggest city in the state by considerable margin. In Nome, the data coverage is weak and the cell signal dies off quickly after crossing the Nome river on Council Rd or in the foothills along Kougarok/Dexter Cutoff Rd. There's no coverage in the interior around Nome whatsoever. There's pretty much no people there either. Rent a satellite phone if you want communications in that area. The BirdsEye app also failed quite a lot in finding hotspots, so it was less useful at finding target birds than it has been on other trips. Even eBird gets a little cranky in Alaska, but the eBird website was more reliable for finding birds and specifically I used it to track down that single Surfbird that was being seen in the mudflats off the coastal trail in Anchorage. Last life bird of the trip, and one that probably would have evaded casual birding attempts.
(Life birds in bold. Desired non-life birds are underlined)
|Yellow-billed Loon||Homer (second one ever)|
|Trumpeter Swan||Kenai Peninsula|
|Golden Eagle||One on nest in Nome|
|WILLOW PTARMIGAN||Anchorage, Nome|
|WANDERING TATTLER||Kenai Peninsula, Seward|
|BAR-TAILED GODWIT||Nome, Anchor Lake|
|Pomarine Jaeger||Nome (first ever adults)|
|Sabine's Gull||Nome (second one ever)|
|ALEUTIAN TERN||Nome, Homer, Soldotna|
|American (Northwestern) Crow||Kenai Peninsula (easy to find in Seward, Homer)|
|Boreal Chickadee||Homer, Kenai, Anchorage|
|EASTERN YELLOW WAGTAIL||Nome|
|Golden-crowned Sparrow||Anchorage, Nome|
|SHORT-TAILED SHEARWATER||have been reports off Anchor River - perhaps a Kodiak ferry ride ? Or a faster more widely-traveled inshore pelagic out of Seward.|
|Sooty Shearwater||Seward or Homer/Anchor River|
|Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel||Seward or Homer/Anchor River|
|Northern Goshawk||Boreal forest|
|Spruce Grouse||Kenai peninsula|
|ROCK SANDPIPER||large concentrations in Homer earlier in May, none lingered; one or two reports from Nome|
|Red Phalarope||one or two reports from Nome; the "red blob in the heat haze" on Safety Sound supposedly was one but I declined to count it|
|SLATY-BACKED GULL||unreliable in Nome|
|Rhinoceros Auklet||Seward inshore pelagic|
|American Three-toed Woodpecker||Boreal forest|
|Black-backed Woodpecker||Eagle River might have one|
|WHITE WAGTAIL||difficult to find in Nome|