Birding the Americas Trip
Report and Planning Repository
Return to the Main
Return to the North
Return to the U.S.A.
Return to the Alaska
U.S.A. - ALASKA
May 19 - June 5 2004
by Mike Mulligan
I always look forward to returning to Alaska, but I'm not really sure
why. Certainly not because of wonderful offshore weather, or
five-star hotels, or a big bird list (I've yet to hit 250 for the
state). But something attracts me. Part of it has to do
with the community of Gambell---its geography, its inhabitants, their
way of life close to subsistence living. And Nome also, with
(this year) musk oxen grazing on the edge of town. Nome is an
anomaly, a rough-and-ready seaport without a harbor, an artificial town
created by gold fever. Alaska is an exciting mix of can-do and
potential, of Natives and residents and Outsiders, of fishing and
mining and petroleum. It's an visceral experience.
And, of course, I go for the birds.
We are eight excited birders: Audrey Evers (Minnesota) has been to
Costa Rica and Panama with me. I first met Jay Grover
(California) when I co-led a Sierra Club birding tour several years ago
in Arizona. Frank Sturges (California) and I spent some time in
Kenya and Tanzania. He brought along his friend Mary Lou
Early. Chris and Ken Havard are Calgary birding chums. And
Kim Risen (Wild Horizons, Minnesota), organizer and guide, put it all
together. Kim and I have shared birding experiences in Alaska,
Costa Rica, Mexico, Ecuador, South Africa and other neat locations.
Here is a brief story of our time together. (Please note that
birds are usually mentioned only the first time they are seen.)
May 19, 20
I fly from Anchorage to St. aul Island (Pribilofs) to get in a
couple extra days of birding. I'm lucky to see several species
(Tufted Duck, Common Snipe, Snowy Owl) which were not found later by
Mary Lou and Frank, Chris and Ken and Kim arrive late afternoon and
settle in at the comfortable and elderly King Eider Hotel. I'd
met our resident guides, Gavin Bieber and Rick Knight, here a couple
years ago; they immediately show us some terrific birds. At
Weather Bureau Lake near the airstrip we watch both Black-legged and
Red-legged Kittiwakes and study how to separate them. The sea
cliffs provide wonderful close-up views of Parakeet, Least, Crested and
Rhinoceros Auklets, both Tufted and Horned Puffins and Northern
Fulmar. Several Red-faced Cormorants perch nearby.
Pumphouse Lake and Antone Marsh provide both races of Green-winged
Teal, Northern Pintail, Harlequin Duck, Common Greenshank, a couple
Wood Sandpipers, Least and Rock Sandpipers, Red-necked Phalarope and
Glaucous-winged Gull. We break for dinner at the Trident Fish
Plant "Gallery" and head out again, finally quitting about
9:30pm. Other birds seen today: Short-eared Owl, Lapland
Longspur, Snow Bunting and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch.
Buckets of rain do not deter this group. We check Northeast
Point, Big Lake, Webster Lake and Salt Lagoon. After lunch in
heavy-duty wind and downpour we visit Reef Point, Dump Lake, and the
crab pots. We're joined by Tim Leahy, an old friend of Kim's and
mine, and new friends Judy Scheig and Kent Nelson. We add
Red-necked Grebe, Northern Shoveler, Eurasian Wigeon, Greater Scaup,
King Eider, Long-tailed Duck, Bufflehead, Bald Eagle, Pacific
Golden-Plover, a trio of Wandering Tattlers, Bar-tailed Godwit, Ruddy
Turnstone, Dunlin and a stunning female Red Phalarope. Seabirds
include Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot and Ancient Murrelet. And
we're delighted to find one male McKay's Bunting.
Polovina Hill, Webster Lake, Reef Overlook, Southwest Point, Blubber
Dump, Antone Marsh, Weather Bureau Lake. The landmarks are
becoming familiar. Better weather today, but not good enough for
our plane to land. It's one more night at the King Eider.
We do find Long-tailed Jaeger and Thick-billed Murre---and finally spot
one of the local outsized Winter Wrens (a possible future split).
Back to Anchorage, meet up with Audrey and Jay, overnight at the Puffin
Inn near the airport.
Fly to Nome, with a stop at Kotzebue just above the Arctic
Circle. Kim collects our rental van, we drop our stuff at the
Aurora Inn and head east along the coast to Safety Lagoon. It's
cool here, about 10C/50F, but no rain---nice. Lots of new birds:
Red-throated and Pacific Loons, Pelagic Cormorant, Tundra Swan, Brant,
Canada Goose, American Wigeon, Common Eider, Black Scoter, Red-breasted
Merganser, Northern Harrier, Peregrine Falcon, Sandhill Crane, American
Golden-Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Whimbrel, an estimated 60
Bar-tailed Godwits, Black Turnstone; Semipalmated, Western and Pectoral
Sandpipers, Red-necked Stint, Long-billed Dowitcher, Parasitic Jaeger;
Mew, Glaucous and Sabine's Gulls, Arctic Tern, Horned Lark, Common
Raven, American Robin, many Yellow Wagtails, Wilson's Warbler; American
Tree, Fox and White-crowned Sparrows and Common Redpoll.
In the morning we check part of Kougarok Road plus the sewage lagoon
and waterfront dock area. Lunch at Fat Freddie's (a Nome
tradition), then back to Safety Lagoon with a stop at the Nome River
bridge. Noted are Canvasback, Redhead, Common Merganser,
Rough-legged Hawk, Golden Eagle, Gyrfalcon, Willow and Rock Ptarmigan,
Red Knot, Wilson's Snipe, Pomarine Jaeger, our only Aleutian Terns,
Orange-crowned Warbler, Savannah and Golden-crowned Sparrows and a
bright Hoary Redpoll. We also spot moose, caribou, arctic fox,
musk ox and harbor seal.
The Polar Café feeds us a fine breakfast. Then Cape Smythe
Air wings us to the Native village of Gambell on the western tip of
St. Lawrence Island. On approach we enjoy a terrific view
of the Siberian cliffs. We manage to get settled in Joni and
Eddie Ungott's house, along with a bunch of Ungotts. Kim prepares
a tasty lunch and we tour the near boneyard, the boatyard and
seawatch. After supper it's the far boneyard and cliff
face. We quit shortly after 10pm. It's easy to get carried
away here as good light persists well past midnight. New: "vegae"
Herring Gull, Slaty-backed Gull, Northern Wheatear, White Wagtail,
American Pipit (japonicus race). I sleep surprisingly well on the
living room couch.
In the morning we repeat yesterday's route. After lunch and a nap
we catch rides on ATVs to the south end of Troutman Lake and bird the
wetlands and sloughs. We pick up Steller's Eider, Common Ringed
Plover, another Wood Sandpiper (a Gambell first for me), and Jay finds
us a Townsend 's Warbler in the old village. We also see minke
and gray whales plus collared lemmings in the boneyards.
On our way to the near boneyard we stop at the airport ponds and admire
a Red-necked Stint---a much better view than we had at Safety Sound
several days ago. We make the usual rounds and climb the rocks a
bit at the cliff face. Tens of thousands of nesting alcids race
off the cliff rocks in search of food. An occasional Black
Guillemot bobs in the sea nearby. Seawatch provides a
never-ending spectacle of passing loons, murres, puffins, sea
ducks. In the boatyard several Red-throated Pipits pose for us
and we're able to recognize their call notes. A reported Pechora
Pipit is never found. At chez Ungott Kim continues to create
excellent cuisine in unusual conditions.
This is not Costa Rica---no worries about hundred-species days.
Learning to ID the ten resident alcids is challenge enough. At
seawatch Audrey picks out an Arctic Loon. Ken finds a
Dovekie. White-winged Scoters cruise by. We all examine a
Black-backed Wagtail at the airstrip pond. Many birds seen here
we noted at St. Paul: Northern Fulmar, "crecca" Green-winged
Teal, King Eider, Harlequin and Long-tailed Ducks, Wandering Tattler,
Rock Sandpiper, Dunlin, Red-necked Phalarope, Long-tailed Jaeger,
Black-legged Kittiwake, Lapland Longspur, Snow Bunting.
Seawatch really pays off this morning. Two Arctic Loons wing by
(one nicely close), a Yellow-billed Loon gives us excellent views, a
single Emperor Goose, a half dozen Steller's Eiders (great looks), Red
Phalarope, and a Dovekie for all. And we score a female Brambling
near the boatyard. Then it's time to pack up and fly back to Nome
with our friendly Cape Smythe crew. After dinner we drive to the
Solomon Bridge for a Ruff search. Lots of shorebirds on the tidal
flats there, but no target bird. We do find several Short-eared
Owls on the way.
Early we're up Kougarok Road to the famed Bristle-thighed Curlew
nesting site, almost 80 miles north of Nome. Two years ago the
gravel roadbed was impassable, but today we make it. Sighting
many ptarmigan (both species) along the way livens the drive, and we
also find Gray-cheeked Thrush and Northern Waterthrush. Frank
spots a Cliff Swallow. The hike up through the tussocks is
difficult, slow work---it's easy to lose your balance on this
slope. A bright sun warms us, and we're rewarded with a distant
view and sounds of the calling rare curlew. Our field lunch back
on the road is well-earned. Along the return drive we watch a
singing male Bluethroat. Lovely! Following dinner a final
trip to Solomon Bridge yields Surf Scoter, Sanderling and Tree Swallow.
We sleep in just a bit, breakfast late at the Polar Café, and
head for Anvil Mountain. At this unusual rock formation just
outside town we walk up on a group of musk oxen, as close as I've ever
approached them. They appear to be more designed for the Ice Age
than for a mild morning in Nome. We've time to check the Penny
River on Teller Road before returning to pack and transfer to the air
terminal. Spotted are Yellow Warbler, Mallard, Greater Yellowlegs
and Violet-green Swallow. In Anchorage we pick up our rental
vehicles, drive to Seward and overnight at the waterfront Breeze Inn
Motel. Also seen: Black-billed Magpie, Black-capped Chickadee,
Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warblers.
Steller's Jay, Northwestern Crow, Hermit and Varied Thrushes, Song and
Lincoln's Sparrows are found during our morning walk. We board
our boat for the Kenai Fjords National Park trip. Mountain goat,
black bear, orca, Steller sea lion, minke and hump-backed whales, sea
otter, Dall's porpoise are all seen. We visit Holgate Glacier and
feast on a salmon dinner at a private island. New "boat" birds
are Double-crested Cormorant and target species Marbled Murrelet, plus
up-close views of Red-faced Cormorants on nesting cliffs. We add
Barrow's Goldeneye somewhere.
Kim leads us along a nearby road where we spot Rufous Hummingbird, Gray
Jay, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, both kinglets
and Pine Siskin. At a seaside marsh we find Red-winged Blackbird
and an unusual Swamp Sparrow. It's time to head for
Anchorage. We visit the east side of Resurrection Bay and the
Exit Glacier unit of Kenai Fjords NP. A stop along the highway
gives us Common Loon and Trumpeter Swan. We enjoy a longish final
dinner at the Millennium Hotel.
It's fly-home day, but some of us have time to bird Hillside Park on
the outskirts of Anchorage. Trip birds added are Northern
Flicker, Swainson's Thrush, Dark-eyed Junco and White-winged