26 May - 14 June 1996
by Martin Meyers
I just got back from a three week birding trip to Alaska. I observed 176 species, of which 27 were life sightings for the ABA checklist area. (In this narrative, any bird I refer to as a "life sighting" refers to my first sighting in the ABA area. I had been fortunate enough to have seen some of these birds in Europe some years ago.) The trip included three days at Denali National Park, then three days around Homer. Next I joined a tour for a week at Gambell, St. Lawrence Island and three days in and around Nome. Finally, I returned to the Kenai Peninsula for three more days.
For the following report(s), I will generally only report on the first sighting of a species for the trip, although I may make exceptions to that when I think it would be of interest. If I am reporting on a first sighting for the trip, I will capitalize the entire common name. Any further mention of the same species will be in lower case. In part one, I will describe the first week, birding on my own before joining the group.
The trip started in Anchorage on 5/26. My first stop was Nancy Lake State Park, on the Parks Highway. Species seen were COMMON SNIPE, ARCTIC TERN, BLACK-BILLED MAGPIE, COMMON RAVEN, SWAINSON'S THRUSH, AMERICAN ROBIN, VARIED THRUSH, ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER (LUTESCENS), YELLOW WARBLER, YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER (MYRTLE), BLACKPOLL WARBLER, WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW (GAMBEL'S), and FOX SPARROW (ZABORIA). Most of these birds were common throughout the south coastal and interior portions of the state.
As I continued up the Parks Highway toward Denali, I saw MEW GULL (all Mews were of the American subspecies, and were by far the commonest gulls in the interior), OLIVE-SIDED FLYCATCHER, BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEE, RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET, VIOLET GREEN SWALLOW, NORTHERN PINTAIL, AMERICAN WIGEON, RING-NECKED DUCK (the only ones I saw all trip), LESSER SCAUP, OLDSQUAW, WHITE-WINGED SCOTER, COMMON GOLDENEYE, COMMON MERGANSER, AND NORTHERN HARRIER. I saw a few N. Harriers on the trip, but in general, the number of raptors was remarkably low, except for Bald Eagles, which were everywhere along the coast.
Some of you who have been birdchatters for a long time may recall that I have a special relationship with Spruce Grouse. I have chased these mythical creatures from Alaska (a previous trip in the 80's) to Nova Scotia, and all points in between. I have written some birdchat stories about my amazingly bad luck with this species, like the day in New Hampshire when I finally spotted a small grouse on the side of a highway. By the time I stopped the car and got out, a violent hail storm had begun, and I saw nothing but tail feathers disappearing into the woods. Well, here's another story, and I swear it is absolutely true.
When I arrived in Denali N.P., I was not sure exactly how to deal with the campgrounds, so I just pulled into the Riley Creek campground and found a vacant site, site 66. I set up my tent and then headed to the visitor center to pay fees, etc. There I was told that site 66 was reserved, but I could use site 12. I paid and returned to the campground, picked up my tent and moved to site 12. I had about an hour and a half before a bus trip into the park (if you've never been to Denali, you may not realize that the easiest way to see the park is on their $12.00 bus tours. Private vehicles are not allowed except in special situations.) So I sat down at the picnic table in my campsite and looked over a few bird books. Then off to the visitor center and onto the bus.
On the bus, I met a couple from Florida, and we struck up a conversation. They had seen a wolf the day before, on one of the bus tours. I desperately wanted to see one, but I'll spare you the suspense on that -- I never did. Well, I said to this couple, in addition to a wolf, the thing I most wanted to see was a Spruce Grouse. They said something like "Oh, we just saw a male displaying in the Riley Creek campground about an hour ago!" I asked where -- you guessed it, site 66!!!
When I called home and told my girlfriend this story, she said that it was such a great story that I should make a point of not finding a Spruce Grouse for the rest of the trip, to avoid an anticlimax. More later.
Other sightings on the first day in Denali included MALLARD, GOLDEN EAGLE, MERLIN, WILLOW PTARMIGAN, SEMIPALMATED PLOVER, and BOREAL CHICKADEE.
My second day in Denali included another bus ride (these only went as far as the Toklat River -- the rest of the road was still too wet. A round-trip to Toklat is about six hours.)
The bus trips are not great for birds -- the rest of the passengers want Grizzly Bears and Moose (of which we saw several of each, as well as Red Fox, Caribou, Dall Sheep, and a variety of smaller mammals.) However, I did see GREEN-WINGED TEAL (CAROLINENSIS), GRAY JAY, WILSON'S WARBLER, AMERICAN TREE SPARROW, and DARK-EYED JUNCO (SLATE-COLORED). I got off the bus at Primrose Ridge to hike up to the dry tundra in search of my first potential life bird for the trip, ROCK PTARMIGAN. I found a male Rock Ptarm still almost entirely in white winter plumage, with just a little brown showing on the back of the neck. Got some nice pictures. I also found a pair of SURFBIRDS up there looking much neater than the ones I see in winter in California.
As I started down from the ridge, a female Grizzly with a cub crossed in front of me, about 100 yards away. She was immediately aware of me, and turned to look me over. I backed slowly away, hoping she would not consider me a threat. The nearest climbable tree was about twenty miles away. Fortunately, I must have looked pretty insignificant. She walked on, looking back at me occasionally but never "woofing". On very shaky knees, I took an alternate route down the mountain.
That evening, I took a walk in a thick Spruce forest looking again for Spruce Grouse, my Holy Grail. This time, I encountered a female moose with a calf only a few days old. They were walking on a trail in the woods directly toward me, so I backed off the trail and into the deep woods. When she saw me, she made a very short bluff charge, presumably thinking of the grizzlies and wolves that had been taking quite a few calves. I circled around through the woods to re-emerge on the trail about 150 yards further on (the moose were going in the other direction.) Alas, Ms Moose must have decided to turn around. When I rejoined the trail, she was facing me about 75 yards away. She charged immediately, and this time she was serious. I ran into the deepest section of the largest Spruces I could find. She came straight at me, breaking small Spruces as she ran. But the area I got to was pretty thick, and she gave up about 20 yards away! I headed for the campground at a brisk clip.
In the campground, at about 11:00 p.m., I walked about 100 yards back from good old site 66, and there found my life SPRUCE GROUSE! Joy, relief, and a strange sadness accompanied the sighting -- the end of a 15 year quest. Ah, but I still have wolf..
The next day, I drove the magnificent Denali Highway. This is a gravel road of about 120 miles that heads east from the Parks Highway to the Glenn Highway. It is not in the park. The last thirty or fourty miles are about the prettiest road in the interior. And it is great for birds and other wildlife. Smith's Longspurs are found here, but I was too early -- they usually don't arrive until June. But I did find BARROW'S GOLDENEYE, RED-THROATED LOON, COMMON LOON, HORNED GREBE, TUNDRA SWAN, and a bird I am pretty sure was a TRUMPETER SWAN, but it was too far away to be absolutely sure. NORTHERN SHOVELER, SURF SCOTER, BUFFLEHEAD, RED-BREASTED MERGANSER, GREATER SCAUP, LESSER YELLOWLEGS, RED-NECKED PHALAROPE, BONAPARTE'S GULL, TREE SWALLOW, BANK SWALLOW, CLIFF SWALLOW, AMERICAN PIPPIT, SAVANNAH SPARROW, and COMMON REDPOLL were also seen. Had a flat tire about halfway over the highway (which is composed of sharp rock), and drove the last fifty miles on one of those "temporary" spares, desperately hoping I didn't blow another tire.
After reaching the Glenn Highway, I took that back to Anchorage, picking up BELTED KINGFISHER and HERMIT THRUSH along the way.
The next day (5/29), I added EUROPEAN STARLING and ROCK DOVE to the trip list (hurray!). South of Anchorage, I stopped at Potter's Marsh, where I found my first HUDSONIAN GODWITS of the trip, as well as RED-NECKED GREBES, CANADA GEESE, and GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS. Then I headed south toward the Kenai Peninsula and Homer. Along the Turnagin Arm, I saw the first of hundreds of BALD EAGLES.
My main target bird in Homer was Kittlitz's Murrelet, a bird I had missed in Glacier Bay a dozen years ago. I had read that they can be seen from the tip of the Homer Spit. Bad advice! Apparently it was true last year, though. But even though I missed Kittlitz on this visit to Homer (stay tuned), I did find GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE, COMMON EIDER, HARLEQUIN DUCK, GREATER YELLOWLEGS, SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER, BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE, and my life sighting of ALEUTIAN TERN (there is a small breeding colony there.) Also COMMON MURRE, THREE-TOED WOODPECKER, NORTHWESTERN CROW, RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH, TOWNSEND'S WARBLER, and RUSTY BLACKBIRD.
On the following day, I found a male EURASIAN WIGEON along with KILLDEER, SPOTTED SANDPIPER, LEAST SANDPIPER, a few late LAPLAND LONGSPURS, PINE SISKIN, and AMERICAN GOLDEN PLOVER. Then I took a short boat trip to the nesting colonies on Gull Island, where I had nice looks at RED-FACED CORMORANT (one of my "better view desired" birds), as well as PELAGIC CORMORANT, PIGEON GUILLEMOT, TUFTED PUFFIN, and HORNED PUFFIN.
After leaving Homer, I drove to the town of Kenai, hoping to see the Belugas that are occasionally in the river mouth. Alas, not this time. But I did find a very nice dark morph PARASITIC JAEGER harassing Arctic Terns, and my first HERRING GULL of the trip.
On the 31st, I returned to Anchorage to join the WINGS group. The first night of the tour included lodging at a nice motel in Anchorage and a much-needed shower. That evening, the group, led by Jon Dunn, met Bob Kittridge to go out to Ft. Richardson, where they maintain nest boxes for owls. On the way, we saw one of the most unusual birds of the trip, a LIGHT MORPH HARLAN'S RED-TAILED HAWK. I had seen a few dark morph Harlans in the past, but never even knew there was such a bird as a light Harlans. But it had the characteristic white tail with dark terminal band of Harlans, a very light head and breast with a fairly light belly band. Quite a bird!
We did see BOREAL OWL and SAW-WHET OWL in the nest boxes. The Boreal was a life bird -- not the way I would have liked my first sighting, but I'll take it. We also saw a pair of HAIRY WOODPECKERS feeding young at a nest, WESTERN WOOD PEEWEES, and a SANDHILL CRANE.
On June 1st, we flew to Nome. We hung out at the Nome airport for an hour or two waiting for our flight to Gambell. Near the airport, I saw two more life birds, GREY-CHEEKED THRUSH and HOARY REDPOLL. We also saw several GLAUCOUS GULLS, LONG-TAILED JAEGERS, and several "BLACK" BRANT.
The flight to Gambell was interesting -- a nine-passenger, two-prop plane flying into an uninstrumented airstrip in the fog. The ceiling was high enough that the pilot just went under it, flew over the town and set down nicely on the strip. We were met there by the advance group from WINGS, consisting of Gary Rosenberg (co-leader), Guy McCaskie, and others. They had been out there for a few days, and had seen Common Cuckoo the day before, but we did not find it again. There was a Little Ringed Plover at the Airport Pond when we arrived, but the activity surrounding the landing caused it to fly, and it was not seen again, so we missed it at that time. There were several GREY-TAILED TATTLERS present, my first life bird at Gambell. And the numerous SNOW BUNTINGS were another life sighting for me. Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings were our constant companions for the rest of the stay.
The next story is one I shouldn't tell, as it is easily one of the stupidest things I've done while birding. But maybe it will save someone else from making the same mistake.
I really didn't know quite what to expect at Gambell -- I sort of had it pictured as a lot of our common shorebirds, with the occasional rarity mixed in. So when I saw a bird that looked like a Greater Yellowlegs fly over, I looked quickly, made my identification, and looked away. That's when the bird turned to show its long white V rump and several people shouted COMMON GREENSHANK. Alas, I could not get on the bird again quickly enough, as it flew on by. Dumb, dumb, dumb!
But at least I had learned a lesson. The next flyover looked like a Solitary Sandpiper, but I looked carefully to see the light underwings and white rump patch. My life WOOD SANDPIPER. (This was one of two life birds on the trip that I really did not get a satisfying look at -- the rest of the birds allowed long studies. Fortunately, I had seen a number of Wood Sandpipers on a trip to Europe a few years ago, so I wasn't too disappointed.)
St. Lawrence Island is about 120 miles long, and has two permanent towns, Gambell and Savunga. Both are Eskimo villages with around 300 to 400 inhabitants each. Gambell is on a gravel bar that stretches a couple of miles north from the mountains. The birding is entirely on the gravel bar (which contains some wetlands and one large but pretty sterile lake.) In good weather, people typically make one day trip up the nearby mountain to look for Dotterel, but good weather was not a part of our trip. The village consists of small houses, some pretty run down, but most seemed comfortable. There is a dump near the point, but since the winds blow almost constantly, trash is pretty much strewn over the entire area. (This provides for interesting bird locating -- when someone sees an interesting bird and tries to point it out, it usually sounds like "Look at the large white plastic bag. Okay, just to the right is some orange trash. Now look behind that to where the rusting metal thing is. The bird is just left of that, sitting in front of the bone that looks like a boomerang.....")
After putting our gear in the lodging (a quite comfortable house with showers and flush toilets, a far cry from earlier Gambell trips, I've been told,) we headed out to the Far Boneyards. (These really are boneyards, the remains of a thousand years of Walrus hunting. The Eskimos have learned recently that tourists will pay a lot of money for figures carved from old ivory, so the boneyards are now riddled with holes where the natives have dug for old ivory. These boneyards provide "habitat" for many of Gambell's avian visitors.) A COMMON SANDPIPER (another lifer) and a TEREK SANDPIPER were present. Both remained for several days. A YELLOW WAGTAIL (TSCHUKCHUENSIS) stopped by for a moment (another lifer), and a WHITE WAGTAIL flew by. Yellow Wagtails were seen frequently here and at Nome, but Whites were harder to come by. A RED-THROATED PIPIT presented nice views, the first I've seen in breeding plumage. (That's something I can say about many of the birds on this trip.) One of only a few NORTHERN WHEATEARS gave us nice looks also. Jon Dunn's most exciting bird seemed to be the White-Crowned Sparrow he found. This is possibly a first for the island. Forgive me, but I didn't get too excited. Several DUNLIN were also present.
Heading out to the "Point", we looked out to sea and found lots of RED PHALAROPES. Red-Necked Phalaropes were usually inland. Glaucous Gulls and Black-legged Kittiwakes were the most common gulls. NORTHERN FULMARS were seen frequently -- all that I saw were fairly light. Puffins and Murres were flying by, with the majority of the Murres being THICK-BILLED MURRES. We had lots of opportunity to compare Common and Thick-billed. A couple of Common Eiders went by, but in general, this was a poor year for Eiders. The ice pack was far out to sea, over a hundred miles away. This is probably what accounted for the low number of Eiders and two big "misses", Ivory Gull and Snowy Owl. We did see some of all four Eider species before the trip was over, but the numbers were very low. Same for loons. A very interesting bird was the COMMON TERN (LONGIPENNIS), with dark bill and dark legs. We saw a half dozen or so. Pelagic Cormorants were the only cormorants. POMARINE JAEGERS came by occasionally. A non-breeding BLACK-HEADED GULL bobbed in the surf.
June 2nd was freezing cold, windy (30 m.p.h. from the southwest, and very foggy.) (Have I mentioned that it was cold? For the entire stay at Gambell, I was dressed in two pairs of long johns under wool pants, and, except when making a mad dash through the gravel, I was never overdressed.) We couldn't do much of a sea watch, but we did find some great birds. Life sightings of LEAST AUKLET and CRESTED AUKLET at the nest cliffs were nice. We saw literally thousands of each during our stay. A PACIFIC GOLDEN PLOVER gave us the opportunity for a nice study. I've seen a lot of these in winter along the California coast, but getting to see them in breeding plumage is a real treat. While we were watching birds at the nest cliffs, an odd gull flew in. I immediately recognized it as a first year very odd gull! I certainly needed to do some research on this one, but then Jon yelled "BLACK-TAILED GULL!" And so it was. The bill was long, thin, pointed, and colored like a first year Glaucous. The front of the head was white, but the back of the head was grey-brown, forming sort of a half-hood. The same grey-brown coloration washed the breast and flanks. Blackish primaries, and a black band on the tail. Looking in a Japanese bird book, the identification was obvious. Surely one of the least expected of my life birds for the trip.
While we were enjoying this bird, a call came on the radio. (There were three different birding groups at Gambell, and all kept in contact by radio.) Someone had found a TEMMINCK'S STINT back at the Airport Pond. This is a distance of about a mile or so, but at Gambell, a mile is not the same as anywhere else. As I said earlier, Gambell is a gravel bar. The walking is on loose gravel at almost all times. And that stuff is murder to walk on. A hundred yard dash takes about two minutes -- perhaps I am exaggerating a bit, but I'm not sure. But we all huffed and puffed our way back to the Airport Pond, and the bird was still there. Another lifer, and one that stayed around several days, permitting careful study. (So did the Black-tailed Gull, by the way.) The hike for the Stint was the only time I considered using the Eskimo taxi service -- young Eskimos on four-wheel ATVs were constantly offering rides for $5.00. Of course, none were around that one time.
After lunch, someone found another truly magnificent bird. SIBERIAN RUBYTHROAT. Expected at Attu, I've been told, but quite unexpected at Gambell. There were several anxious minutes as we tried to relocate this bird, but eventually we all had great looks. (Obviously a life bird.) Later in the day, we found four Green-winged Teal near the Far Boneyard. Two males were the American race (Carolinensis) and two were CRECCA. This was my first look at the Eurasian race, and I very much enjoyed seeing them.
On the third of June, we started the day with a sea watch, and it was great. Freezing cold, but the fog was not quite as bad as it would be for much of the stay. Still windy. Ocean spray covering the binoculars and scopes,requiring drying every half a minute or so. But we saw the main bird I wanted to see, a SPECTACLED EIDER. There was one male with two females. It was just a fly-by, identified by the dark breast. Less than thoroughly satisfying, but a great life bird anyway. Later on, a woman who monitored the Walrus hunting for the federal government released a rehabilitated male Spectacled right in front of us, and we got to watch and photograph it at close range.
We also had several STELLER'S EIDERS, a few KING EIDERS, and PACIFIC, ARCTIC, and YELLOW-BILLED LOONS. All of these were fly-bys, but at close range and for a fairly extended look as they moved along the coastline. We only had a couple of Yellow-bills during our stay, but they were spectacular. Pacifics were certainly the most common, but there were at least enough Arctics to get very comfortable with the identification. I also identified my life PARAKEET AUKLET at this time.
BLACK GUILLEMOTS and Pigeon Guillemots flew by from time to time. I never realized how easy they were to tell apart -- white underwings for Blacks, dark underwings for Pigeon. I don't know that this skill will be much use in California, but it was another of the enormous number of fabulous learning experiences that this trip provided. Nearly every time we found a new bird, Jon would launch into a detailed discussion of interesting facts of identification, subspecies, life histories, distributions, etc. It amounted to a ten day birding clinic by one of the great clinicians. I'd still rather find my own birds, but having Jon and Gary there created a great learning environment, and my birding skills improved considerably. Having Guy McCaskie and some other fine birders along as participants didn't hurt either.
When we returned from the beach, we found a COMMON RINGED PLOVER at the Airport Pond. The white over the eye was really quite noticeable, and we were fortunate enough to have a Semipalmated Plover right next to it for comparison. Both were males. The lack of any eye-ring on the Ringed, and the very different looking bill (longer, with about two-thirds of the bill orange, compared to half or less for Semi) clinched the identification. Some observers heard the diagnostic call, but I didn't. (I did get to hear a different individual later in the week, though.) Another lifer.
Next, a RED-NECKED STINT put in an appearance. Another lifer. This was an easy identification, unlike the ones that occasionally show up in California in winter. It was nice to have some breeding plumage WESTERN SANDPIPERS close by. We got even better looks (and some photos) of another Red-necked Stint later in the week.
Later in the day, a return to the beach brought us another nice gull, a SABINE'S GULL. And several people were seeing a second-year Slaty-backed Gull, but I held off on that one until I could get a better look.
By June 4th, things were slowing down. The fog continued without letup, and few new birds dropped in. In the early morning, the fog was up a bit, so we did an early sea watch. Huge numbers of Crested and Least Auklets, numerous Parakeet Auklets, and lots of Puffins and Murres flew by. We checked the flocks for Dovekie, a few of which appear on occasion, according to legend. After about an hour on the beach, someone yelled that there was a Dovekie in a flock. Alas, I got onto the wrong flock, studied each bird carefully as the flock flew by, and missed the Dovekie (which would have been a life bird.) A RUDDY TURNSTONE flew along the beach for consolation.
Later in the day, we found our first BAIRD'S SANDPIPER of the trip, in one of the boneyards. Then word came down about a Ross's Gull that flew by near the point. Several of us headed for the point. The fog was thick, but after about a half hour, I caught sight of an incredible pink figure. I managed to get a couple of others onto the bird before it disappeared into the fog. My life ROSS'S GULL, and surely the most beautiful bird of the trip. (Siberian Rubythroat not excepted.) More anxious moments, and then the bird came by again, giving everyone long, thrilling views. It turned out to be a harbinger of things to come. There was some sort of Ross's Gull invasion. We had a total of at least four different birds at Gambell, and at least four more near Nome. All but one were in first year plumage. Some were very pink and outrageously beautiful. Others were fairly white, and at least one had a pretty ratty looking tail. At one time, there were three sitting on the water in front of us, all immatures. I never saw the one adult that others saw.
Throughout the first couple of days, there had been fleeting or distant glimpses of a second year Slaty-backed Gull, but no views that I was satisfied with for a life sighting. But as we stood on the shore, an adult SLATY-BACKED GULL flew right by us. And later in the day, that bird showed up at the dump (where else?) and I was able to study it at leisure. The second year bird flew in next to it, giving nice comparisons. (The second year bird is instantly identifiable by a dark mantle contrasting strongly with white wings.) We saw the second year bird throughout the stay (and another at Nome), but this was the only day we had the adult. Incidentally, there were a couple of first year birds that were probably Slaty-backed, too. But the Herring Gulls at Gambell were all of the Asian VEGA subspecies, with fairly dark mantles and wings. And Jon Dunn felt that he did not know enough about first year plumage of Vega Herrings to differentiate them from Slaty-backs. As the trip progressed, we had several opportunities to study the first year birds at close range and compare them to obvious Herrings. It was very interesting, and I think we all agreed on a couple of first year Slaty-backs before we were done, mostly based on bill shape.
I must admit that being from California, it is a remarkable experience to look through a large flock of gorgeous Glacous Gulls to try to find something different.
While we were eating dinner, eleven Sandhill Cranes flew over the village.
On June 5th, we headed down to the far end of the lake for the first and only time. There is some very nice looking habitat down there, but frankly, there really wasn't much around. We did get nice looks at a ROCK SANDPIPER, another of those birds I see occasionally in winter plumage in California. Breeding plumage is better! And we saw our first PECTORAL SANDPIPERS and LONG-BILLED DOWITCHERS of the trip. And a Grey-cheeked Thrush in the Far Boneyards gave me my first really good opportunity to study the plumage.
A BLACK SCOTER flew by as we looked out to sea.
Toward the end of the day, it began to rain, and the wind shifted toward the south. We were hopeful that this would mean an end to the fog, and we planned to arise at 4:30 a.m. the next morning for a sea watch.
Alas, the next morning, you could barely see the next building! The mountain outside town, perhaps a mile and a half away, was sort of our weather gauge. If we could see the mountain base, it was worth going to the point. This morning, no chance.
But I was still hopeful of seeing a Dovekie, and so I trudged out to the point alone in the early morning and carefully scrutinized every flock of Crested and Least Auklets that flew close enough to shore to be seen in the fog. And my persistence was rewarded with a sharply black and white, tiny bird, my life DOVEKIE. As it flew by, I kept shifting my view back and forth between it and the other birds in the flock to be sure of the identification. Way too small for Parakeet Auklet (of which there were a couple in the flock.) As the Leasts flew, they would occasionally show their white bellies, but the opportunity to compare directly to the Dovekie was wonderful, and there was no doubt about the identification. If anything, the Dovekie looked like a tiny Thick-billed Murre, and really nothing like the dull grey and white Leasts.
I returned happily to the lodging for a hot cup of coffee. The rest of the day was rather anticlimactic.
The next day, June 7th, was the day we were supposed to fly back to Nome. We hung around fairly near the town. Several of us headed out to the Airport Pond (this is only about 5 minutes from the lodging, and it provided many of the great sightings of the week.) As we stood huddled behind a building shielded from the wind, a shorebird flew overhead and showed its rich chestnut underside, then a bright white rump. CURLEW SANDPIPER. It flew twice around the pond and departed. I was glad that this was not my first view of Curlew Sandpiper. It was certainly identifiable, but not a quality sighting.
As the day progressed, some people became a bit anxious. No planes had been able to get in for a few days (did I mention that it was foggy?). There were about fifty people waiting to leave the island by this time. Fortunately, our schedule for Nome had a one-day buffer built in, so we weren't all that upset when the word came down that there would be no flights that day. But by late afternoon, the wind shifted again, and, lo and behold, the fog went away. We could see Siberia. Even more amazingly, we could actually see shadows! Still, Bering Air had made their decision, and we just kept on birding. (We were all pretty confident that tomorrow would be a good flying day.)
A REEVE showed up in the Far Boneyards and provided nice views. This was also the day we saw the three Ross's Gulls together in the surf, and we found another Common Ringed Plover and got to hear its diagnostic "minor key" call.
And then, early in the evening, an OLIVE-BACKED PIPIT! We all had long, luxurious views of this bird, a lifer for most of the people on the trip (of course, including me.) If we had been able to fly on schedule, we'd have missed this great bird.
The next morning, the sun was shining and the planes were coming. We spent some time at the beach (oddly enough, noone went for a swim) enjoying a few loons, last looks at Grey-tailed Tattlers and the Terek Sandpiper, and the wonderful show of seabirds flying by in the sun. And then, off to Nome.
By the time all of our group had gotten back to Nome and checked in at the hotel, it was late afternoon. We took a short trip to the mouth of the Nome River, where we had wonderful looks at BAR-TAILED GODWITS and a really aggressive SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPER. A SHORT-EARED OWL hunted nearby. And then we went to bed early, in anticipation of the trip out Kougarok Road the next day.
June 9th was cold, with snow squalls in the mountains. But it was a wonderful day. As we headed out the Kougarok Road, we saw Willow and Rock Ptarmigan. Harlequin Ducks swam in the white water of a stream. We stopped at a known Gyrfalcon nesting site, but no Gyrs to be seen at that time. A HORNED LARK was a surprise. We stopped around mile 20 and found an ARCTIC WARBLER along with the drab, CELATA race of Orange-crowned Warbler (the ones in south-coastal Alaska were Lutescens.) Wilson's and Yellow Warblers and NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH were also present, as were GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS and White-crowned Sparrows.
At mile 73, we began the search for Bristle-Thighed Curlew. A mile or so of very difficult walking on bowling-ball sized tussocks with ankle deep water in between them was really amusing. We saw and heard a few WHIMBREL as we walked. Then, a few minutes after reaching the top of the hill, we heard a BRISTLE-THIGHED CURLEW. Soon we saw it displaying, gliding slowly, wings pointing down, and calling. Even at a considerable distance, we could make out a pale buff rump and tail coloration, much lighter than the field guides showed, but, combined with the call, which we had memorized from a tape on the ride out, the identification was unmistakeable. Another life bird. We walked toward where the bird had set down, and soon found it on the ground. Through the scope, we could see large buffy patches on the back and wings. Then it displayed again, and this time, when it landed, it landed near a second bird, the female. This bird had the rusty-orange rump and tail that the books showed. Sexual dimorphism or just individual variation?
The female seemed uncomfortable with our proximity, and Jon ordered a hasty retreat. For many in our party, this was the most exciting bird of the trip -- the combination of location, rarity, and display made it truly unforgettable.
Not far from where we found the Curlew, we managed to find a singing BLUETHROAT and had fair looks. Another one later, near the road, provided spectacular views. And the first ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK of the trip showed up at about the same time.
On the way back to Nome, we stopped at another Gyr aerie. Through a scope, Guy McCaskie saw a single feather moving around. It proved to be the tip of the wing of a female GYRFALCON on the nest. Occasionally it would shift position, and we could make out a head. Hardly a great sighting. But then the male flew by and provided us with a breathtaking view until it eventually disappeared behind the ridge. Two Golden Eagles were also visible from this location, and a massive Grizzly Bear walked along a ridge, providing nice views through binoculars and scopes.
The final day of the WINGS tour (for me, many of the others went on to the Pribiloffs), we visited Safety Sound near Nome. This is a fabulous birding spot, filled with waterfowl and shorebirds. The first new bird for the trip was RED KNOT, and there were great numbers of peeps (including another Red-Necked Stint), L.B. Dowitchers, Dunlins, Brant, Oldsquaw, Greater Scaup, Common Eiders, Pintails, Shovelers, American Wigeon, Harlequin Ducks, Black and White-winged Scoter, incredibly photo-cooperative Red and Red-necked Phalaropes, Pacific and Red-Throated Loons, Red-breasted Mergansers, all three Jaegers, four very close Sabine's Gulls, more Ross's Gulls, Aleutian Terns, and a very distant view of a few EMPEROR GEESE, a bird that two of the people had seen on Gambell but most missed.
Nearer Nome, at Cape Nome, we had probably the strangest sighting of the trip. Miles from the nearest tree, a single very lost Grey Jay fluttered about.
We returned to Nome and flew off to Anchorage that night.
June 11th, I bid farewell to the rest of the group and headed back to Homer in pursuit of Kittlitz's Murrelet. On the way down, I stopped near Portage Glacier and found some LINCOLN'S SPARROWS. Then I drove the Skilak Lake Road and found my first ALDER FLYCATCHER of the trip. These arrive quite late, so I had not found any prior to leaving for the Gambell/Nome portion of the trip.
The next day, in Homer, I took a boat trip that included another look at Gull Island and then a ride to Seldovia. The captain (with Alaska Maritime Tours) was a serious birder, but was unable to locate any Kittlitz's. He had seen a few regularly up until about the last week or so. We did see BLACK OYSTERCATCHER, DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT, and numerous MARBLED MURRELETS along with the breeding seabirds mentioned earlier. In Seldovia, I saw my first STELLER'S JAY for Alaska, and, later that evening, on East End Road in Homer, saw a SHARP-SHINNED HAWK.
On the 13th, two other birders and I hired a water taxi (Bay Excursions, Karl Stoltzfus as captain) and headed from Homer toward Glacier Spit, where Kittlitz's Murrelets had been seen recently. Four hours and numerous interesting Marbled Murrelets passed. Many of the murrelets were just coming into breeding plumage, showing a mix of summer and winter, and hence looking a lot like the color pattern of Kittlitz's. But close observation ruled out Kittlitz each time. An interesting phenomena was that nearly every pair of Marbled Murrelets had one bird in mixed summer/winter plumage and one in full breeding plumage. Is there a sexual difference in the timing of molt? As each bird flew, we observed dark outer tail feathers on the flared tail.
Then, finally, a pair of murrelets that looked right for KITTLITZ'S MURRELET. Both identical, showing a dark crown, but that darkness covering only the very top of the head. Dark eye in a lighter face, "salt and pepper" plumage on back, and a distinctly shorter bill (obvious based on all of the Marbleds we'd been seeing.) A couple of other observations -- these birds stayed underwater much longer than the Marbleds had, and they sort of jumped off the surface as they began their dives. Neither of these last two pieces of information seemed particularly "diagnostic", but we thought they were interesting. We were finally satisfied with a life sighting. I only wish that when the birds flew, we had seen white outer tail feathers. We did not. But we all noticed that these birds flew without fanning their tails, so we assumed that the white tail feathers were hidden. Somewhat discouraging, but fortunately, any possible lingering doubt was erased the next day on another trip.
That next day, my last in Alaska, was at Seward. A SONG SPARROW started the day, and then I boarded a boat for a nine-hour Kenai Fjords trip. The weather was awful (what else is new?), rainy, cold, but it was a neat trip. Sea otters, Humpback whales, Steller's Sea Lions, and Orcas were seen, and the bird cliffs were quite impressive, and included Thick-billed Murres, which had not been present in Homer. New birds for the trip included three nice ANCIENT MURRELETS and some RHINOCEROS AUKLETS. And at the foot of a tidewater glacier, right in the iceflows, were seven Kittlitz's Murrelets, which did show obvious white outer tail feathers when they flew. (I had been told that Homer and surroundings were much better for Kittlitz's, and that I had little chance in Seward. Had I only known, I could have cut out two days in Homer which were essentially Kittlitz chases -- a total of six days in Homer was more than enough time there.)
That night, I started on a drive toward Denali to try again for wolves. I even had a possible contact up there through birdchat. But as I approached Anchorage, I realized that I was thoroughly exhausted. Most nights on Gambell and in Nome allowed about five hours sleep, and the constant cold and shivering had taken its toll. My money was running low, and I was running low. I got to Anchorage around 9:00, found that a flight was leaving at midnight (I was flying standby, so it didn't really matter when I left). I returned the rental car a few days early, got on the plane, and headed home.
* Martin Meyers *
* Truckee Meadows Community College *
* Reno, NV *
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