7 - 10 June 1995
by Tom Arny
Some time ago I posted a request for info about searching for Spectacled Eider at Barrow, Alaska. I've just returned from a brief but successful trip there with two friends (who may post a more detailed report later).
June 7th, 1995 - Flew from Hartford CT to Detroit and on to Anchorage. Scenery west of Michigan was spectacular. Crossed the immensity of Lake Winnipeg and then many smaller lakes before reaching mountains of British Columbia and southern Alaska. (What creatures live down there in that road-less wilderness?) The snowy summits glowed pink in the setting sun, and then disappeared under clouds as we approached Anchorage. Landed about 10:30 PM local time. Sky still bright, despite overcast.
Went to pick up reserved rent-a-car at Avis, but line was so slow that I tried Dollar-rent-a-car. They offered similar car at half the price (about $30/day with unlimited mileage). Got car and headed to the B and B I'd booked on Blackberry Road, near airport. Very nice room; breakfast fixings left in kitchen if I wanted an earlier start than the usual 8 AM prepared breakfast. Collapsed into bed, but the combination of light outside and adrenalin made falling asleep tough. I ended up staring at ceiling for at least an hour before falling asleep. Eventually dozed off but woke about 5 AM and grabbed a quiet breakfast of cold cereal before heading out.
My plan was to drive to Homer to look for Kittlitz Murrelet from Homer Spit. I'd missed the murrelet on earlier trips to Alaska and had been told it was pretty easy to find at Homer.
Homer is about 200 miles south of Anchorage via the Seward and Sterling Highways, good but mostly narrow 2 lane roads. Leaving Anchorage, the highway runs along Turnagain Arm, a narrow bay hemmed in by steep mountains. Now, they were still streaked with snow on their upper slopes. The morning clouds had thinned and sunlight and clouds made picture postcard views for most of the drive.
Just south of Anchorage, the highway runs along the edge of Potter Marsh. I made a quick stop to ogle a pair of Red-necked Grebes 10 feet from shore. Glaucous-winged Gulls and a few Arctic Terns quartered the low grass. A family of Canada Geese with 4 goslings crossed the highway in front of me, showing unexpected street sense. On the bay side, two Bald Eagles tore at separate fish carcasses.
A few miles past the marsh, I saw a young Dall Sheep feeding at the highway edge. It was a bad place to stop as the road is narrow and traffic moves at about 60 mph, so I had to continue past. A little further along, a herd of recreational vehicles at a pull off indicated other sheep, and sure enough, a small family group of Dall Sheep peered over the top of the cliff, 80 feet above the road.
About an hour south of Anchorage, the highway swung inland through spruce forest and climbed over grass and alder-thicket covered passes. Rushing streams from the snow melt fed into lakes. At highway speed, the only birds I saw were the occasional Robin and Magpie. Gigantic dandelion clumps colored the road edge a bright yellow and here and there lupine added some blue.
Highway construction slowed me some. A few stretches of road were being widened, and the trees along the road 30 feet on either side had been felled and/or shredded. Pilot cars led the backed-up traffic through the single lane stretches. At one place where I waited, my rent-a-car had real trouble re-starting. This made me very reluctant to stop elsewhere on the drive except in towns or for gas.
It took me about 4.5 hours to reach Homer where I headed immediately for the spit, an obvious long neck of land that points into the bay. The road along the spit was lined with small shops and restaurants and the road edge was packed with parked cars of visitors. At the tip of the spit I parked in a lot near one of the state ferries and walked about 100 yds along a rough shingle beach to the tip and began scanning with binocs. Saw several Bald Eagles, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Glaucous-wing Gull, and within 5 minutes, two tiny birds low in the water - murrelets. In the scope they were obviously Kittlitz.
I watched for about 10 minutes, noting field marks. But meanwhile they drifted further away around the point. Heavy boat traffic seemed to push them along. I eventually lost sight of them and decided to grab some lunch at one of the many seafood places. A customer at a nearby table was ordering and asked for fresh fish, but the waitress said, that all their fish was frozen and then thawed (this despite the fishing boats tied up at the dock outside). Seems that the fish is frozen almost as soon as it comes out of the water.
After lunch, I returned to look at the Kittlitz Murrelets again. This time I spotted them far out, but they obligingly drifted toward me, allowing excellent scope views. While scoping them, I also noticed four sea otters, lying on their backs and eating in standard sea-otter pose.
Satisfied, I decided to head back to Anchorage because I was a little worried about the car. I got back to the city about 6 PM having driven over 400 miles. On the return trip the car gave no more problems, so I figured it was just a glitch. Went to bed about 10PM with the sky still bright.
Next morning slept til 7 and after a breakfast at the motel drove south again to Potter Marsh. Took a few pictures of the cooperative birds and then headed further south to Portage glacier. I'd been there in 1974 just as I was beginning to bird again seriously after a long lapse from childhood.
At the glacier, the lake was choked with ice, so the boat trip wasn't running. Instead, I walked a couple of paths seeing Wilson and Orange-crown Warblers (singing loudly), Hermit Thrushes, and Fox and Golden-crowned Sparrows (also singing). As an easterner, I was struck by the dark olive drab colors of the thrush and Fox Sparrow compared to the much warmer hues of their eastern cousins. Also turned up Chestnut-backed and Black-capped Chickadees. While I was watching the chickadees, a little girl on roller skates drifted by pulled by her dog.
On one path, I saw fresh moose scat, browsed twigs, and hoof prints. The only moose I saw was one beside the road about an hour north of Homer. I'd hoped to walk along the glacier, but it had receded considerably since 1974 and was a longer hike than I wanted. The weather was also a little drizzly and not terribly inviting. Heard an Alder Flycatcher, but didn't feel like getting soaked working my way through the scrubby tangles to see it.
I grabbed an early lunch at the cafeteria at the glacier (snack bar would be a better term) and then drove north to Alyeska Resort area, where a trail was supposed to run though some good spruce forest. By now the sun was out and the day was lovely and warm. Eventually found the trail and spent a pleasant two hours along it. Most was thick woods, but occasionally, the trail crossed small clearings. One clearing was obviously an old avalanche scar with standing trees broken off about 15 feet up. Townsend's Warblers were abundant along the path - I'd guess a singing male every 100 feet. Saw a few red squirrels and heard a Varied Thrush, but couldn't spot it.
Left the resort about 4 PM and drove back to Anchorage to pack for Barrow and drop off the car.
June 10 After breakfast in the room, caught the shuttle to the airport about 6AM and the flight to Barrow about 7:15. The flight stopped at Fairbanks where my friends Roger and Brenda got on. We got a sandwich on the last leg of the flight, which was very full of people flying to Barrow for the day to get a certificate that they'd crossed the arctic circle. We were over clouds until about half an hour out of Barrow. Then the ground appeared, studded with frozen ponds and looking flat as a pancake. The ice had splashes of mossy green, presumably algae.
Stepping off the plane, it was cold, windy, and only a pale sun shone through the high clouds. The area near the airport was incredibly flat and barren with only sparse grass.
After the usual fuss of getting off the plane and picking up luggage, we found our rent-a-car (an Isuzu Trooper) with the keys in it parked outside the small building that served as a terminal. A short two block drive got us to our hotel, The Airport Inn. Rooms were very nice and it had a small lounge with coffee. Rate was $110/night. Giving ourselves 15 minutes to get cold weather gear out of our luggage, we headed off southwest past the airport toward Fresh Water Lake where a pair of Spectacled eiders had been reported the previous day.
We couldn't help but stop on our way to watch Snowy Owls, Steller's Eiders, Pomarine Jaegers (both dark and light phase birds), and breeding plumage Red Phalaropes, Baird's and Semi-palmated Sandpipers, and Dunlin, all only a stone's throw from the road.
The phalaropes fed in shallow melt water pools, whirling madly, almost at our feet. Near the first batch of these very common birds, a pair of Parasitic Jaegers sat on the ground 100 feet from the road, and a Snowy Owl at similar range crouched on what we thought was a nest, but we didn't pry No scope was needed for these birds!
We soon encountered another van of birders who said the Spectacled Eiders were no longer at the lake. However, others had been seen today out the Gas Well road on the other side of town. So, with a quick reversal and stop for King Eider and Pacific Loons we headed east. By now it was about 5 PM (and notice no mention of lunch...such crude physical necessities have no place when life birds are in the balance). We headed to where the Spec's had been reported, but our info was garbled, so we had no luck in finding the spot where the birds had been. However, more Steller's Eiders, displaying Pectoral sandpipers with their inflated chests, Snowy Owls, and hunting Pomarine Jaegers compensated.
Driving the road was somewhat unnerving as the shoulders were very squishy and oncoming traffic drove much faster than we felt comfortable. At one point while we were scoping something, three young native men asked what we were doing. We told them "birdwatching." They said they were hunting birds for dinner, although we saw no signs of guns. We wished them success, which I think surprised them. Anyhow they drove away smiling and when we saw them later in the day they smiled at us and waved. They may not have been hunting, but others were, because we heard a fair amount of gunfire.
We made a quick drive back to town to look for some Hoary redpolls that were nesting near an ARCO facility. But now the car was making horrible grinding noises and we felt we had to turn it in or run the risk of ruining it. A new car was provided with the warning not to worry about the oil pressure light being on all the time. We also grabbed some dinner and then headed out the Gas Well road once more.
Barrow looks like the frontier town that it is. The motel had a sign on the inside of each room door saying that noisy drunks would be removed by the public safety officers. House were covered with tarps and loose sheets of plastic to give a little extra protection from what must be numbing wind and cold during the long black winter. Yards are cluttered with old cars, snow mobiles and AT vehicles (brought in new by barge in the summer and probably quickly battered into wrecks by the roads and weather. Sadly, trash is scattered all over. I was told that about half the houses flushed their sewage right on to the ground. Sewers serve only part of the town and underground piping is extremely difficult in the permafrost. Most of the houses are on stilts so that their heat doesn't melt the ice below them.
While in town, we got better info from some other birders on where to look for the Spectacled Eiders. Unfortunately, by now the sun was a little lower in the sky and fog was forming as the air cooled, limiting visibility to about 100 yards and making it impossible to scan distant ponds. Moreover, it was 10 PM and we were exhausted. So, after a few more stops and attempts at scanning, we gave up for the day, agreeing to meet for breakfast at 8 AM the next day when we would try again.
Falling asleep was easy, but my body was still on eastern time so I popped awake at 3:30. Looking out the window it was brilliant sunshine and blue sky. I was tempted to wake the others, but sanity prevailed and so I cleaned my binocs and wrote up notes and eventually fell back asleep until 7 AM. A cup of tea, and a bowl of cereal later, we were off again in search of what we now called the 4-eyed ducks.
We made a stop at the recommended location on Gas Well road: a blue building about 7 miles from where the road turned off in town and about 100 yards off the road to the left (north). However, we had no luck. We then tried the next spot, roughly a quarter mile farther down the main road where a short spur road ran south past a big blue building with a sloping roof. Here, a flat area flooded with melt water was well populated with pintails.
Although only about half the ground had snow cover and that was only a few inches deep and hard packed, along the road and adjacent pipe-line it had drifted to a depth of several feet. (Barrow gets far less snow than New England. The air in winter is too cold to hold much water. Average winter snowfall totals only about 5 inches. It just never melts.) This made getting off the road a little hard, and one had to climb around snow banks to see across country (the snow banks also had to serve as field toilets - no trees or bushes to hide in). These banks hid another large flooded area, and crossing the banks Roger spotted the Spectacled Eiders.........which immediately flew!! ARGGGH! We all got identifiable looks as they went by, and followed them with binocs and saw them set down back near the first place we'd looked. We raced back to the car and made the short drive back to the first blue building.
Scanning the flat, nearly snow free ground, we saw a small pond (a big puddle might be a better description) in which sat two Oldsquaw and two Spectacled Eiders. This time the birds posed, and allowed us excellent looks. Wheew. A long trip climaxed satisfactorily. The birds were so obliging that we walked a short distance off the road to get better looks. On the way I spotted a lemming (owl and jaeger chow). The lemming looked like a scurrying brown earmuff as it disappeared under a snow patch.
We were all three elated, and drove back to Barrow unconcerned about the replacement car which was now acting up and not starting. In fact, we'd taken to leaving it running when we stopped for fear it wouldn't start again and strand us. On the return trip we stopped more often and in a more relaxed way to admire a breeding plumaged Stilt Sandpiper and other birds that we'd looked at only briefly the day before. We also attended to the car, discovering that the reason the oil light was on all the time was that it was 4 quarts of oil low. With some oil in the crankcase it ran much better.
We'd allotted three days to look for the Spec's, so after seeing it on the first day, we weren't quite sure what to do in the remaining time. Roger and Brenda wanted to hike out to Point Barrow, the most northerly tip of the US. I opted not to because of a) 4-5 miles of gravelly beach and b) the advice of the public safety folks at Barrow who warned of the possibility (albeit low) of encountering polar bears. The officials recommended carrying a shot gun or finding someone who'd take us out in a hum-vee. I'd love to see a polar bear, but the idea of being on foot and dissuading a charging polar bear with a can of anti-bear pepper spray didn't appeal. Beside, maybe polar bears like their humans with salsa flavor.
So, what to do. I could stay around to take pictures and just enjoy the wild landscape or leave. The weather was beginning to change with high clouds moving in. Moreover, the man at the gas station who was much amused when I made my fourth trip back from the gas pumps for another quart of oil was making ominous noises about a big storm. (On returning home I discovered the weather had worsened and that rain, snow, and fog had replaced our cool but pleasant weather. I therefore made a dash to the airport; changed my ticket; raced to the hotel; packed, and caught a 3:15 flight back to Anchorage. There, I changed my flight to the states, and flew home.
The flight from Anchorage left at 8 PM and from there until dark, some place over British Columbia, I followed the plane's path on a map. The view of the wild landscape below was itself almost worth the price of the flight. We crossed the Columbia ice fields, numerous smaller glaciers, and Mt Logan (the highest peak in Canada). From the plane, the sky to the north never got really dark. To the south, I could see a few stars and the full Moon in conjunction with Jupiter. It made a lovely end to a short but exciting and enjoyable trip.
Astro Program, Univ. Massachusetts
Amherst, MA 01003 (Arny@donald.phast.umass.edu)