7 - 10 June 1998
by Jeff Bouton
I had the good fortune to go to Barrow, Alaska from 7 - 10 June this year. We had a remarkable trip with excellent weather and a bit of luck to boot. The fog that had been reported when we left Fairbanks had cleared and we could see mile after endless mile of ice sheet with very few open leads. This left me a bit concerned about our prospects with some species, but as always I didn't worry too much. I had already heard reports that Barrow had been snow covered only the week before, so I was happy to see so much open ground south of town. Besides, 'tis the nature of the beast. There is no use fretting over what we can't control. As with any trip, I was excited about the prospects and hoped to make the best of it.
We circled wide over the ice pack, and made a long approach into the runway. The fog lay just off shore and was obviously heading out. We landed under a warm sunny sky, which surprised me greatly. By the time we got checked in it was nearly T-shirt weather. What a day!
We met up with local birders Ernie Whitney, and David Norton to check on recent sightings. By this time, it was nearly noon and we finally began birding in earnest.
The pools near the dump along Gas Well road held a few shorebirds. We picked out a Semipalmated Plover, a Ruddy Turnstone, a Baird's Sandpiper, and numerous Red and Red-necked Phalaropes. Semipalmated Sandpipers were hovering everywhere along the back of the pond and across the tundra at other pond edges, singing their little machine-gun songs (similar to bank swallow in quality). This was the high arctic tundra. The Arctic Ocean coastal plain marked the end of the road for these hearty little migrants. Here, there was only one thing on their mind! We would take our time and thoroughly enjoy the birds at each stop. We made slow progress here at first, and I felt bad for Ernie as he opted to join us and take a break from work. Fortunately, he's a good sport and took it in stride.
For what the coastal plain lacks in bird diversity, it more than makes up for in studies in behavior. Birds we know well in migration and on their wintering grounds do things much differently here on their breeding territories! A bit further down the road, we would see a distant Parasitic Jaeger and 3 Pomarines. Ernie had told us that this was a bad lemming year, but we would still see 8 Snowy Owls and a single Short-eared along the ~10 mile long road. The biggest surprise though would be a Varied Thrush a top a snow pile. Here it was miles from the nearest bush, let alone a tree! It seemed very out of place.
After only a couple of miles we would stop for a late lunch at the site of an old lake bed that still held some shallow water. Ernie would leave us here to run some errands. I thanked him for his help and promised to make up for it with a good bird!
The sun still shone brightly under a warm blue sky, and we would watch the many Pectoral Sandpipers performing their unique displays as we ate. Flying upward to a height of 20' and descending rapidly to a level glide with chest inflated to nearly twice its original size, emitting their low "hooting" calls (generally five notes given in succession). The high raspy complaints of Red Phalaropes as a number of males would chase after a female were heard as well. (The females being brighter may well lay eggs in nests of two or three of these males and then leave them to raise the young!) American Golden Plovers were also singing and performing their "sky dance" with moth-like stiff-winged flight. Common Snipe could be heard winnowing here too. A common sound throughout Alaska it seeMs. Dunlin were also performing, and in the distance we could see the sillhouettes of 3 Snowy Owls taking in the show from their elevated platforMs. In this case the far bank of the lake rose some 4' above the surrounding terrain.
Further along the road we would stop to look at some distant Greater White-fronted Geese standing in the marshes. There were also Pintail, and Oldsquaw, and Tundra Swans, and....Yes here was a female Spectacled Eider! How odd that our first eider species would be the rarest. Near the end of the road we would see a male "Eurasian" Green-winged Teal (A. c. crecca).
We would return to town and check the only open lead visible along the sea of ice. It contained nearly 200 eiders (all Common and Kings) and a handful of Black Guillemots to boot. We decided the light would be more favorable for morning viewing though, and vowed to return the following day. We retired after a bite at Arctic Pizza!
As promised, first stop (after driving the wrong way for a bit.....Hey it was pre-coffee!!) was at our open lead. A brisk wind made up for the lack of coffee, and in the morning light we were able to see a group of beautiful Spectacled Eiders (2 full adult male, 2 female, 1 young male) in with the Kings and Commons. Quite a treat, but still not enough to make me miss morning coffee. Especially after we found the Polar Haven Coffee Company! A marvelous little spot with courteous staff and excellent goods! This would become our daily ritual: a fresh baked goodie and a grand latte and I was good to go!,
We worked our way NE along the coast into a thick fog. We were hoping to find more open leads, but there were none to be found. We did manage to see and photograph Barrow's only "Palm" tree though (a drift wood log placed upright with baleen fronds draping off the top!) We also stopped for a quick picture where the road ended and the gravel beach to Point Barrow began. The sign here warned no vehicles beyond this point, and mentioned to beware of Polar Bears. We were undaunted as we stepped out in the fog, stepped over an old seal carcass, and made our way around the 12' high snow piles to get a picture around the sign.......OK I went out first and gave it the all clear first (I'll never understand why they made me leave the keys though!)
By now it was near 9:30 and we stopped to see if Dave Norton had heard any good news from some of the other birders in town. He hadn't heard of anything, but had seen the only Short-eared of the season the evening before. I thanked him, and was happy in the knowledge that we hadn't missed anything new. Back to Gas well road, following the same path as before I stated, "We'll have to find our own good birds".
At the dump we would see many of the same birds as before, adding an American Wigeon. Then two shorebirds would fly past in a rapid tail chase giving a nasal little "yank" call. A quick glance showed that they were Red-necked Stints! They would swing around with another small flock of shorebirds and land on a flat just 20 feet away. What luck!
Since we were still close we swung back and left a message with David Norton. Then we continued on. Half way down Gas well we would stop and hike out to the spoils around a large open pit on a slightly higher (and drier looking) tundra ridge. My hopes were that we might find an odd Buff-breasted Sand or something different. We had no luck, though. We were rewarded for our efforts by another male Spectacled Eider and a few King Eiders in tundra melt ponds. We had a minor mishap with one of our group being temporarily stuck in the mud after losing a boot near the pit, and then a heavy mist blew in getting us quite wet.
We would return to town to enjoy an earlier dinner at Pepe's Mexican Restaurant. Here we would run into another couple of birders and compare notes on the Red-necked Stints!
Again to the open lead, but the Spectacleds had pulled out. The rest of the mix was about the same, despite some traffic with one group replacing another. The Guillemots sat proudly on the ice watching the eider parade. Next stop, Polar Haven for a jump start. Fog was lingering near the coast, so we again opted to head inland on Gas well Road. the dump pond was beginning to look more like the dump puddles, having dropped over a foot, exposing many more flats. We added yet another new duck, a pair of Gadwall here, but despite our searching we saw no other new shorebirds. We continued down the road checking out each small group of gulls (I was determined to find a species other than Glaucous, but never did) and would glass the closer shorebirds. An adult male snowy was perched close to the road along the shore of the frozen middle lagoon.
At the outlet, along the south end of the lagoon we stopped to glass the waterfowl. There were Greater Scaup, and Oldsquaw. Hovering everywhere on the horizon were displaying Semipalmated Sandpipers, Dunlin, and ocassional Baird's Sandpipers, gliding Pectorals, and floating American Golden Plovers. Then there was another. One that didn't fit the mental pictures I had stored. I was sure it was a common bird doing something I hadn't seen, but that alone was enough to make me want to put a name to it (thereby adding another mental image to the files). I was not expecting a rare bird, this was obvious from my tone and my demeanor. I explained I was going to take a walk down the small dirt track that sloped down to the outlet along a powerline ( we were still very close to town) and would be right back. If folks wanted to stay in the car that was fine. I would be right back. So I strolled down the track with coffee in one hand, with my scope slung over the other, and still wearing my sandals (no use to put on the boots I would be right back).
I could still see the strange bird in the distance, flying slowly into the wind with its wings held high above its back in a steep dihedral. It was on a track directly for us so I stopped and cocked my ear to try to catch its song. When I heard it, my heart began to pump a bit quicker and I could feel the familiar rush of adrenaline starting to surge through me. The song was clear and melodic, not buzzy like most shorebirds. It was a high-pitched rhythmic ringing, sounding like someone ringing a small glass bell. I didn't know the song, but I had heard a call very reminiscent. I quickly set down my coffee and set up the scope with out losing sight of the bird (as a result, half a latte would fall victim to the uneven tundra). I wanted to shout out a name, but held my tongue. I managed to get out a short, "Get on this bird!!!" as I brought up me glasses to see the tail. The bird would continue on its track flying directly over at about 20 feet up. Even under a gray sky, the light would shine through the spread rectrices showing that they were indeed white. I unleashed my tongue, "Temminck's Stint!!!!!!......Look at the all white tail, listen to the clear song, the back is plain gray-brown, and notice howo the wing profile accentuates the pot-bellied look." The bird continued on for another 50 feet before settling in. I began frantically motioning for the others to come down and I trapsed uphill across the wet (and very cold) tundra to set up the scope for a clear view. The bird was intent on displaying and would have to share views between flights. Fortunately, though the bird also favored the area where we were standing so we would get incredible views ofo the bird over the next 30 minutes.
Our friends from the restaurant (fellow Chatters from Alabama as it turns out) the eve before were driving by, and responded to my excited arm waving. What a great, unexpected treat. Once again I felt it necessary to contact other birders so raced to David Norton's office. We would run into another couple of birders just stopping by for an update, David was in, and I would leave a message for Ernie at his office. Then we would race back to the site where we had left the bird still displaying. Some in the group suggested I put on boots, but there was no time, we needed to help these others (it's amazing how a bit of adrenaline can make some birders lose all sense of common sense........guilty as charged!) We would look everywhere, but the bird was gone. After ten minutes more, the tingling in my toes was beginning to register in my head so I retreated to the van where I changed socks and put the boots on. I had a new appreciation for these small wading birds now! We decided to back track a half mile to the dump flats, where we would see (the same/another?) Red-necked Stint that looked very much like the female from the day before, but little else.
We headed back across town and drove down Fresh-water Lake road. This was new territory for us and we hoped that the lake would offer some other variety. Unfortunately, like most of the other larger lakes it was all frozen except for a little area along the edge. Here we would add a couple Arctic Terns before the threatening sky finally gave way to a cold damp drizzle. We ate lunch in the van at the lake.
Late in the afternoon, the skies would clear and we would drive the length of Gas well once again. Near the end we would walk a nice stretch of tundra, and would surprise Dave (one of the participants) with a birthday cake and hats. We celebrated his birthday on the high arctic tundra of Barrow with song, and a dark Parasitic Jaeger would swing around us at very close range. I was certain it was another gift! Upon continuing we would find a group of 7 Steller's Eiders in a puddle just off the road (4 male, 3 female). The only eider species we hadn't seen!
Then we would return for an early dinner. I was pleased to see the Temminck's had returned to its favorite haunt and that two of the newly arrived birders we'd met were standing underneath it recording its song (apparently the bird would remain through at least 20 June and many others would be treated to views of the bird!) We had to hurry though. We needed to eat, make a quick stop at the hotel, and make it back out to be driven via hum-v to Pt. Barrow. The northern most point in N. America.
We would drive past the signs we had seen earlier and drive up the beaches toward the point. En route, we would pass Bowhead whale skulls that had been harvested by the locals over the years. I was unimpressed again by the lack of open water here. I had hoped we would add some loons and other water birds here. Nothing but ice. There were a few Bearded Seals on the ice as we drove south to Plover Point. Here I would scan the horizon seeing only flying Arctic Terns and Glaucous Gulls while the others did some beach combing. Then we would move north toward Point Barrow. I was thrilled to see another large open lead materialize from behind a pressure ridge on our right. A Red-throated Loon would fly over, and a Thick-billed Murre would join the eiders that were coming into view as we drove north. A little bit more and I would get out and scan for some new birds.......or so I thought.
Just then Ethel, would stammer something excitedly from the back seat. I was stunned at first to hear the normally eloquent retired judge and lawyer at a loss for words and then by the context of the message, "A b..bb....b...b Polar Bear!!" I looked out to the left where the Ivory-colored giant had risen from behind a whale carcass, and was now curiously looking at us through squinted eyes, on its hind legs. Our driver and owner Fred Zegarac, was mad at himself for not seeing the bear sooner and getting so close. He explained that he likes to give them a wide berth and not harrass them, but there was no way we could have seen him given the terrain here. The animal then dropeed back out of sight and headed back to the ice in a slow lope. He would swim across one edge of the lead and deftly spring out of the water on the other side. From here he would watch us some more. We would not be able to get out here, and Fred wanted to let the bear get back to the carcass, so we would enjoy our views for nearly 10 minutes more. I quickly glassed what I could see of the lead, finding no new species. I, then, looked across to the second vehicle where Dave sat grinning ear to ear. "Happy birthday!", I exclaimed.
With that we would end a wonderful day! We would have great views of great birds, have a birthday party on the high arctic tundra, and share the northern most point in North America with one of its most celebrated denizens! It would be a tough day to beat.
By now I don't have to describe the start of our day. What can I say I'm a creature of habit, and I fully believe that if a system works don't change it! We actually wouldn't try to improve on the preceding day. We only hoped to add a new species or two. We would take many pictures we had meant to take before, including pics of the Temminck's which we were now adept at spotting from the car at 30 m.p.h. We would track down some of the more cultural exhibits in town and even shop for a few souvenirs.We would see many of the same birds and add a distant group of Sandhill Cranes to our trip list. We would see our third Arctic Fox of the trip. Then we would hear of a Buff-breasted Sandpiper report from the week before on a small spur road near the airport. We had only an hour left before we needed to check in for our flight, but we had already packed and checked out earlier in the day. So we made a last ditch effort to search for the bird, but we had little time and had no luck. Besides, many had packed their boots and we wanted to stay together along the road. I spent too much time here (as always) and was now in a rush to get the car fueled, pack the last boxes, return the van, and still catch our flight. En route to the airport, a White-rumped Sandpiper would race across the road and continue away from us and behind us for as far as I could see. I glanced at my watch but there was no time. No time at all. (Damn!!) Oh well, you have to miss something, and besides we had probably pushed our luck the day before.
Red-throated Loon 6/9
Tundra Swan 6/7,9,10
Greater White-fronted Goose 6/7,8,9
"American" Green-winged Teal 6/7,8,9,10
"Eurasian" Green-winged Teal 6/7,8,9
Northern Pintail 6/7,8,9,10
Northern Shoveler 6/7,8,9,10
American Wigeon 6/8,9,10
Greater Scaup 6/7,9
Common Eider 6/7,8,9,10
King Eider 6/7,8,9,10
Spectacled Eider 6/7,8
Steller's Eider 6/9
Sandhill Crane 6/10
American Golden Plover 6/7,8,9,10
Semipalmated Plover 6/7,8,9,10
Godwit spp (Hudsonian/Bar-tailed) 6/7
Ruddy Turnstone 6/7,8,9,10
Semipalmated Sandpiper 6/7,8,9,10
Red-necked Stint 6/8,9
Temminck's Stint 6/9,10
White-rumped Sandpiper 6/10
Baird's Sandpiper 6/7,8,9,10
Pectoral Sandpiper 6/7,8,9,10
Long-billed Dowitcher 6/7,8,10
Common Snipe 6/7,8,9,10
Red-necked Phalarope 6/7,8,9,10
Pomarine Jaeger 6/7
Parasitic Jaeger 6/7,9,10
Glaucous Gull 6/7,8,9,10
Arctic Tern 6/8,9,10
Thick-billed Murre 6/9
Black Guillemot 6/7,8,9,10
Snowy Owl 6/7,8,9,10
Short-eared Owl 6/7
Horned Lark 6/7
Common Raven 6/7,9,10
Varied Thrush 6/7
Savannah Sparrow 6/7,8,9,10
Lapland Longspur 6/7,8,9,10
Snow Bunting 6/7,8,9,10
Common Redpoll (type) 6/10
Hoary Redpoll 6/7,8,9,10