18 - 27 June 1995
by Lloyd and Sandy Spitalnik
On 6/18/95 we left NYC for our second trip to Alaska. We had been to Homer, Seward and Denali in 1992. Our main goal on this trip was to see the birds of the Pribilofs. We also wanted to take a boat trip to the Barren Islands and to bird the Tangle Lakes area. Two days before we left, we called Steve Zimmerman, an ABA member in Juneau. He said he had just gotten back from Tangle Lakes and told us where he had seen Smith's Longspur and Rock Ptarmigan. He also said there were many singing Arctic Warblers in the area. We then spoke to George West, author of the Birder's Guide to the Kenai Peninsula. He said a BLACK-TAILED GULL had been on the Homer Spit for the past two days and that when we got to Homer to call him and he'd take us to a Three-toed Woodpecker nest. At this point we were elated.
When we landed in Anchorage on 6/18 it was sunny and 67 degrees. We only had time that day to bird around Potter Marsh where Lesser Yellowlegs and Short-billed Dowitchers posed on the railing not more than 6 feet away and Arctic Terns sat in the parking lot. The next morning was perfectly clear again. We had one full day to bird before leaving for the Pribilofs.We first went to Kincaid Park where we saw two Pacific Loons, Common Redpolls, Pine Siskens, Fox, Savannah and White-crowned Sparrows, many Alder Flycatchers and a Moose and calf.
We then decided to go to Girdwood/Aleyeska and stopped at Beluga Point on the way down. This turned out to be lucky indeed as we met the VENT group with leaders Rick Bowers and Barry Zimmer. Rick drew us a map of where to find aThree-toed Woodpecker nest in Kincaid Park and they also told us where they had seen Spruce Grouse. We immediately returned to Kincaid and had no trouble finding the nest. The incessant cheeping of the nestlings and the little yellow forehead sticking out of the nest hole, left no doubt this was the right spot. We waited thirty minutes before the adult female came in. We decided to go back the next morning before our flight to the Pribilofs. As soon as we got thru the first gate a female Spruce Grouse flew from the side of the road into a nearby tree. We watched her for about thirty seconds before she flew into the woods. Granted the male would have been nicer, but we sure weren't complaining. Prior to this sighting we doubted Spruce Grouse actually existed :-).
We then went went to the woodpecker's nest and this time, at 7:30 AM the female was actively feeding the chicks and the male flew into the next tree giving us excellent views. We were then off to Westchester Lagoon where there were Greater Scaup, American Wigeon, Red-necked Grebe, Short-billed Dowitchers, Hudsonian Godwits, Mew Gulls etc. At the north end of the lagoon were two gulls-a Bonaparte's in alternate plumage and a first year Common Black-headed Gull. We met Dave Delap there and he said it was only the second time he had seen CBHG in Anchorage. He also said he had seen the Black-tailed Gull in Homer on 6/18, so we hoped it would stay for at least a few more days.
Things were going too well up to this point. We returned our rental car and checked in for the flight to the Pribilofs. The Reeve Airlines employees said the weather there was "marginal" and to keep our fingers crossed. After waiting an hour the flight was cancelled. WE then spent the next twenty minutes deciding if we should try to go the next day or the following Tuesday 6/27. We decided on 6/27 and that we would run down to Homer for the Black-tailed Gull.
After getting our luggage, we went to every rental car counter to find that there were no cars available, We then changed the Pribilof tour to 6/21 and got a room in Anchorage.
The 6/21 flight to St Paul was scheduled for 10:05 continuing on to Dutch Harbor,Unalaska. The Reeve clerk said the weather was still marginal, but at 9:45 they boarded the plane and we were off- thinking of Red-Legged Kittiwakes, Crested and Least Auklets, and all the photographs we would take.
After 2 ½ hours the pilot announced we were cleared for landing on St Paul. He then said a few garbled unintelligible sentences and the only word we understood was FOG. After 10 minutes of flying thru dense fog we actually saw land for 2 seconds- and immediately after we flew above the clouds. When we saw the landing gear retract we knew we were on our way to Dutch Harbor.
When planning our trip we had considered going to Unalaska to see the WhiskeredAuklet, and now here we were, faced with another decision- should we fly back to Anchorage 1 hour later or stay in Dutch Harbor and try to charter a boat. Reeve informed us that if we stayed overnight we'd have to pay our own airfare back-$430 each for the one way trip. We called the Grand Aleutian Hotel and were told the Whiskered Auklet tour was $189 per person, even tho Steve Zimmerman's recent letter in Birding said boats could be chartered for $250.With 5 minutes left we decided to stay in Dutch Harbor.
We checked into the Grand Aleutian-a beautiful modern hotel for $150.When we spoke to the tour desk we were told their boat was chartered for fishing on 6/22 and they gave us the name of 2 other charter companies.After 1 1/2 hours we were able to reserve a boat with North Winds for 9:AM on 6/22 for $500-they originally wanted $600 but after hearing ourt hard luck story gave us a "bargain" price.
We awoke the next morning with great anticipation. Although it was gray and overcast, it wasn't raining and the winds were calm. About 45 minutes out of port however, the winds started to kick up and the seas became very rough. We continued on 1/2 hour when the captain said the seas were so rough that if we continued all the way out to the Whiskered Auklet area, we might not be able to get back to Dutch Harbor til about 8:pm and there was even a chance we wouldn't make it back at all that day and have to sleep on the 28' boat. At this point we said - lets just go back.
We saw hundreds of shearwaters and several N. Fulmars but we couldn't even use binoculars since the boat was bouncing so much. At least neither os us get seasick, the boat owner agreed to accept $350, and we made it back in time for the 1:40 flight to Anchorage.
On the plane back we decided to try for the Pribilofs 6/27 and were still hopeful about the rest of the trip.That hope was dashed when the Reeve employee told us the 27th was fully booked. Since we had to return to NY by 7/1 the Pribilofs were now an impossibility. Needless to say we were not happy when we checked into the Alyeska Resort-a beautiful new hotel south of Anchorage in the rain.
On 6/23 we drove the 4 hours to Homer in a steady rain. We arrived one hour before high tide and immediately went to the spit to look for the Black-tailed Gull. Altho it was high tide and that's when the bird was being seen, it wasn't a "high" high tide and hundreds of Glaucous-winged, Black-legged Kittiwakes, and Mew Gulls were fairly far from shore. Two hours and 4 vantage points later we finally located the bird. We watched it for 20 minutes and saw it fly. Our moods improved a lot after that.
We birded around Homer that evening in a steady drizzle, and saw Townsend's, Orange-crowned, and Yellow-rumped Warblers, Boreal Chickadees, Solitary Sandpiper, Belted Kingfisher, and a Red-necked Grebe with 2 just hatched chicks on her back.
After the Whiskered Auklet fiasco we had decided to forego the Barren Islands trip. Instead we opted for a Gull Is protography boat trip where we had excellent views of Red-faced and Pelagic Cormorants, Pigeon Guillemots, Tufted Puffins, C. Murres, B/L Kittiwakes, Harlequin ducks, Common Eiders, Bald Eagles, Surfbirds and Black Turnstones. We also saw Marbled Murrelets ane one Kittlitz's Murrelet.Night in Anchorage.
On 6/25 we awoke to a gloomy gray sky. We left Anchorage and drove to Tangle Lakes Lodge. Toward the E end of the Glenn Hwy we saw 3 Hawk Owls and one Short-eared Owl, and near Paxson 6 Bohemian Waxwings flew across the road.
We stayed at a lodge in Paxson, but if you don't mind roughing it, Tangle Lakes Lodge is a great spot. We birded a 5 mile stretch of road (about 45 degrees and raining) and saw Arctic Warbler, several Wilson"s and Yellow Warblers, Savannah, American-tree and White-crowned Sparrows, and nesting Long-tailed Jaegers. The tundra ponds had Goldeneyes, Oldsquaws,Trumpeter Swans, Red-necked Phalaropes, Horned Grebes etc.
Rich Holmstrom, owner of TLL said there had been 3 pairs of Smith's Longspurs but that they hadn't been seen in 4 days and he's afraid they may have abandoned the site due to human disturbance(birders). We wanted to go back the next AM-however we awoke to that ugly gray sky and a miserable steady rain. We drove straight back to Anchorage-no Hawk Owls this time, just a porcupine crossing the road.
We called Reeve when we got back but there were no cancellations for the 6/27 tour and by then we just wanted to go home.The AM of our flight we went to Kincaid Park again and this time, by the wooden bridge a beautiful male Spruce Grouse was by the side of the road. We walked along with him for 10 minutes until a car came by and frightened him off.
We switched our plane tickets and started to talk about a date for
June. The birds of the Pribilofs will still be there and
so will we.