29 June - 21 July 1997
By Steve Moore
Barbara and I participated in the Bill Drummond 1997 Alaska trip which lasted from June 29 to July 21 for us. We left Bill and a few others near the Kenai Peninsula when we left for home. We birded the following areas: Juneau, Anchorage, Nome, Denali, St Paul Island in the Pribilofs and Dutch Harbor/Unalaska Islands. The trip had in excess of 175 species although not everyone saw the same birds. There were between 24 and 12 people along with some just dropping in for certain "legs" of the trip. Not having been to Alaska before, Barbara and I saw 25 and 24 lifebirds respectively to move our ABA area numbers to 672 and 701.
We started the trip with several days in Juneau. We had signed up for this leg in hopes that the Steller's Sea-Eagle would reappear for the 5th or 6th straight summer, but it was not to be. The Eagle did not make an appearance in 1997, so we did general birding in the Juneau- Douglas area. Highlights of this leg included the Mendenhall Glacier, a Black Bear on a path at Sheep Creek State Park, lots of Bald Eagles, Marbled Murrelets, Northwest Crows, Common Ravens, Mew Gulls, Glaucous and Glaucous-winged Gulls, and Blue Grouse at the upper end of Sheep Creek. Also appreciated were the virtual lack of House Sparrows, Mourning Doves, E. Starlings and Blackbirds. The flight into and out of Juneau Airport is fabulous with great mountain, marsh and ocean scenery.
On July 2 we flew up to Anchorage for the night and a quick trip to the Elmensdorf State Fish Hatchery (near the corner of Post and Reeve Roads) where a female Steller's Eider has decided to spend the summer (we saw no other Steller's on the trip as they are all up around the Beaufort Sea far north of our itinerary). The Eider was cooperative in a large pond just off of Post Road. Nice blue speculum with white lines at the edge. The Potter and Westchester Marshes in Anchorage are worth a visit although pretty much void of Alaska specialities at this time of year. We did see a Marbled Godwit at the Westchester Marsh area which had caused quite a stir up there, but it was not an accidental that an East Coast birder would be hoping for in Alaska (more on this later).
On July 3 we flew to Nome. Air travel in Alaska can be uncertain due to weather and we were initially unable to land at Nome due to fog. They diverted us to Kotzebue which had the added benefit of passing over the Arctic Circle and we all got an Arctic Circle Club certificate from Alaska Airlines! After some ad hoc birding at Kotzebue (12 species, including a quick look at a Yellow Wagtail on the runway), we circled Nome for an hour and finally landed at 10am. The weather was foggy and overcast, but we were on the ground where lifebirds were at hand. Our accommodations at Nome were modern and nice. We stayed at the Aurora Executive Suites run by one of the native corporations with separate bedrooms and about 6 to a bathroom. Lunch at Fat Freddies in the center of Nome was the first order of business (is there anywhere else to eat in Nome?). While the slow eaters were finishing dessert a Slaty-backed Gull flew onto the jetty for a great life look. We saw it there most of the days during our stay. Not sure if all the desserts got eaten, but some can say they got their life Slaty-back from the restaurant table while eating tapioca (this cannot be said however for the Bristle-thighed Curlew). After lunch we drove to the mouth of the Nome River for good looks at Pacific Golden-plover in breeding plumage, Long-tailed Jaegers, Arctic Terns and our first well-seen Yellow Wagtail. We then drove 22 miles on the dirt road toward Council to Safety Sound. Along the road we saw Lapland Longspur, Northern Pintail, Greater Scaup, Red-breasted Mergansers, a few Parasitic Jaegers, Oldsquaw, Common Ravens, Pacific Loons, etc. At Safety Sound we saw Aleutian Terns with the ever present Arctic Terns, Brant, Common Eider and another Slaty-backed Gull. Later trips to Safety Sound found Red-necked Grebes, Tundra Swan, Western Sandpipers, Harlequin Ducks, a non-breeding Red-necked Stint (yes, there are no webs between the toes!) and a Peregrine Falcon at Cape Nome. One of the interesting fieldmarks of the Aleutian Tern in flight is the dark trailing edge of the secondaries which is absent in the Arctic Terns. It can be tough to identify the 2 species at a distance, but the dark trailing edge (as pointed out by George Wheaton of Virginia) is conclusive (IMHO).
Much of the rest of the Nome experience was devoted to the exploration of Kougarok Road (a dirt road that runs to the Kougarok Bridge for some 86 miles). Although not as rough as the road to California Gulch, it is alot more dusty. Over 3 days along the road we saw a Gyrfalcon, Golden Eagles, lots of Willow Ptarmigan with young, some Rock Ptarmigan with young, Yellow Wagtails, Arctic Warblers, Bluethroat (both male and female - mostly in the area near the bridge), lots of Long-tailed Jaegers, families of Northern Wheatears, Bar-tailed Godwits, White and Golden-crowned Sparrows, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Whimbrel, N. Harriers, Common and Hoary Redpolls, Yellow and Orange-crowned Warblers, Pacific and Red- throated Loons, 2 Trumpeter Swans, Oldsquaw, Black Scoters and American Tree Sparrows. At the Kougarok Bridge we walked up river (to the left as you drive up to the bridge) to just beyond the obvious drainage swale between the hills and then up the hill on the left. The "hill" is a never ending ridge that always seems about a 15 minute walk ahead (false ridges is what Bill calls them). It is tundra with tussocks everywhere with 6 to 24 inch holes beside every tussock. It was dry this year which helped alot, but it is still very difficult walking. As you walk up the hill, you pass by sparrows in various plumages, Laplands and Whimbrel (always praying that one of them would sing the Bristle-thighed song - none did). The jack-rabbits among us got to the Curlew grounds in about 2 hours and wore the rest of us out trying to keep pace. I lost track of the lead group and missed the bird the first hike and had to repeat it a second day (a severe penalty for not paying attention!). On the second hike 4 of us went very slowly and it took us 3 hours one way (about 2 hours on the way down as we had shed the weight of uncertainty). We got to the top of the hill, rested a bit, and a little way beyond enjoyed the flight and song ("see my tail" is what the song sounded like to me) of the Curlew for a half hour before returning to the bridge. What an other-worldly sight - the sight and sound of the curlews and the breath- taking scenery of miles of hills and mountains in the distance. On the second trip for the curlew, we also had the good luck to see and hear a Muskox on the other side of the river. Hiking boots are sufficient if it's dry, but Wellingtons also work well - sneakers would not work for this hike. I'd rate it slightly less exhausting than the hike for the Colima Warbler, especially if you do it slowly and try to follow the drainage swales where there are less tussocks. Look out for bears. As we returned to the bridge, Alan and Barbara Delorey were holding on to a male Bluethroat which soon became Barbara Volkle's life Bluethroat. A nice end to a long hike.
We spent time at the Port of Nome which is very close to Fat Freddies. We saw Walrus on the rocks, our life Rock Sandpiper, our life White Wagtail, Surfbirds, Wandering Tattler, Slaty-backed Gull, Harlequin Ducks, and the Vega race of the Herring Gull (it really looks nothing like the Slaty-backed, but many fieldguides raise the question). The White Wagtail has been nesting at the bridge at the Port of Nome for years, but can be hard to find as it seems to stay out of sight alot.
We also took a trip to Teller about 70 miles west of Nome. We saw Gyrfalcons again, Black-legged Kittiwakes in the harbor, a White Wagtail at the sewerage lagoon behind the school, Northern Shrikes, Rough-legged Hawks, Common Snipe, and many of the birds commonly seen in the area.
The only other place we birded in Nome was the top of Anvil Mountain which is 10 minutes out of town. We saw lots of American Pipits, but did not locate any of the Red-throated Pipits that had been reported on the Mountain. Great views of Nome and World War II bunkers.
Our only real miss in Nome was Arctic Loon. We examined alot of Pacific Loons, but to no avail. Windy conditions probably contributed to this miss.
On July 9 we flew back to Anchorage and on the 10th drove up to the Denali area. Driving up Route 3 near Willow we spotted a female Spruce Grouse with 2 young on a fence by the road and most of the people in the 6 cars got a good look. Also saw Bohemian Waxwings and Black- billed Magpies near the road. Saw a coyote and our only ground view of Mt. McKinley from Route 3. The best view of McKinley was from the left side of the plane on the return flight from Nome to Anchorage where it stuck up above the clouds. We lunched at Cantwell and then took the Denali Road east for 27.8 miles to a spot for Smith's Longspur. After gearing up for a mile hike in the tundra and getting provisioned for 6 months on Mir, we walked about 150 yards into the tundra and had a breeding plumaged male sing and display itself for 30 minutes. A great relief for those that had the B.T. Curlew experience! Along the Denali Road we also saw Blackpoll Warbler, Arctic Warbler, Tundra and Trumpeter Swans, Bald Eagles, Gray Jays, and the ever present Orange-crowned Warblers, Mew and Glaucous-winged Gulls.
We spent 4 days in Denali visiting the park and surrounding areas and saw great scenery and animals, but not that many birds. We did catch up to a pair of Three-toed Woodpeckers near Cantwell, White-winged Crossbills, Boreal Chickadees, Willow Ptarmigans, Merlins, a Golden Eagle on a nest, Northern Flickers, Cliff Swallows, Say's Phoebe, and White and Golden-crowned Sparrows. The mammals were impressive. >From the tour buses we saw Grizzly Bears, Moose, Caribou, Pica, Dall's Sheep, Arctic Ground Squirrel, Hoary Marmots, Arctic Fox and 1 person saw a Wolf. We saw a Grizzly chase a Moose and calf down a hill into a river and watched fishermen vacate the scene quickly by running into a Ranger check-in station. Mt. McKinley is hard to see in the Summer as it is hidden in the clouds 75% of the time. We were invited to come up in the Winter when -50 degrees F keeps the humidity down. Winter transportation is quite limited. Most of the year-rounders have a pick-up truck for everyday needs, a 60's style car for sunny days, a brand-new snowmobile for most winter trips and 50 to 100 sled-dogs for serious winter travel. We did not get any ground views of the Mountain while at Denali and probably will pass on the winter view.
On July 15 we flew out of Anchorage to St Paul Island in the Pribilofs for a wonderful visit. Upon arrival we were informed that an Eurasian Hobby had been found on the 14th about a mile from the King Eider Hotel, but it was not relocated on the 15th. Rich Hoyer (a frequent contributor to Birdchat) was our guide and before dinner showed us a Prince Eider (immature male), an extremely rare accidental (a Black-headed Gull) which was not the accidental we were hoping for, the Pribilofs race of the Rock Sandpiper, Wandering Tattler, Black-legged Kittiwake, our life Red-legged Kittiwake and the local Gulls. In the harbor near the Hotel, I found my life Least Auklet and Red-faced Cormorant. After dinner at the airport eatery, we went out to some of the bird nesting cliffs and observed an incredible flight of gulls and alcids to and from the cliffs with food. Easily seen were Horned and Tufted Puffins, Red- faced Cormorants, Black and Red-legged Kittiwakes, Least, Crested and Parakeet Auklets, Northern Fulmars and Common and Thick-billed Murres. Also spent some time at the Fur Seal Rookery where thousands of the Seals live in terror of each other. The only bird that nested in the seal colony was the diminutive Winter Wren. On the second day we toured the birding hotspots of the island and added Red Phalarope, the island's only Common Raven, Ruddy Turnstones and Snow Buntings to the list. Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches were abudant with a pair nesting next door to the Hotel and easily observable from our room's window.
At noon on the 16th we were headed back to the hotel when Bill decided to have a group tour the Crabpots where the Hobby had been seen on the 14th. Six joined Bill for the search and the remaining 14 (or was it 15?) returned to the hotel. After an hour Ron Haaseth refound the Hobby and Bill and Mary Kay Sullivan ran back to the hotel to spread the news. The hotel emptied within 60 seconds and a stream of hopeful birders were seen hiking the road to the airport at double-step pace. Happily Rich Hoyer showed up with the bus and picked up all the stragglers. The Hobby had moved closer to the hotel and was perched on the edge of a crabpot in the first set of crabpots on the left as you head from the hotel to the airport. At first we had frustrating views through a set of crabpots while waiting for all the birders on the island to assemble. All of the tour guides on the island are birders and only after they all showed up did the group of 40 move forward for an unobstructed view of the Hobby. The bird tolerated relatively close looks and only flew a few yards at a time once or twice. The Hobby has huge feet and more dark stripes on the side of the head than the larger Peregrine. We spent a few hours observing this bird over the next few days. It was still there on the 21st when we left Alaska.
The next day we visited the northeast end of the island and saw a flock(!) of Red Phalaropes offshore that had to contain 10,000 or more birds! We stopped back at the hotel to check out and I saw our guide for that day come in and tell Bill that he had to talk with him privately. What offense had we committed? After a few minutes Bill came out to tell us that a Common Sandpiper had been found by Rich Hoyer that morning on the road near Antone Lake, but was probably impossible to relocate. Our choice was: look for the Sandpiper or lunch! Choice was unanimous and we were soon on the bus to the Lake. Miraculously the bird was still on the road and we all got looks from the bus (not a good time to be seated in the back of the bus but that is where I got my life Common Sandpiper). We backed the bus up and all got out. The bird hid in the grass and only came out for quick looks. A car then drove by and flushed the bird but the flight showed the longer white stripes in the wing (compared with the Spotted Sandpiper which it resembles in winter plumage). The offending car at least saved lunch as the bird had gone too far away for further looks. A great ending to 48 hours on St Paul with 3 accidentals (remember the Black-headed Gull?) and all the great looks at the alcids, kittiwakes and cormorants. The St. Paul Tour is well run and the hotel is a delightful place to share some time with fellow birders. Food service for lunch and dinner is at the airport hanger and is cafeteria style. I look upon this leg of the trip as the highlight of the trip.
After a return to Anchorage we headed out for Dutch Harbor on Penn Air (Alaska Airlines runs jets out to Dutch and they get there in less than 2 hours rather than 3+ hours on the Penn Air planes). After a refueling stop in Dillingham (the other of the 2 planes stopped to refuel in King Salmon), we landed on a very short runway at Dutch. We had extremely mild weather while we were at Dutch which is rare. The fog stayed at a distance, there was virtually no wind and while it was cloudy, it did not rain much. The group took 4 pelagic trips and all were in flat calm or very slight seas. The boats take only 6 paying passengers at a time so our group of 18 needed to take 3 trips to the Baby Islands where the Whiskered Auklet spends the summer. We were on the first trip and after about an hour we arrived at the channel where the Auklets are expected. The captain knew where he was going and steamed by a few obvious Auklets before slowing down in an area where there were thousands of the Auklets. They surface near the boat and immediately fly away giving good looks at the rump and feet. It takes a while to get a good look at the crest (which is usually flattened when they surface) and the white whiskers on the face, but there was plenty of time to get good looks as some are less quick on the getaway than most. After spending time with the Auklets, we noticed a large (10,000 to 20,000) flock of Shearwaters and motored over to where they were on the water. Most were Short-tailed, but many were Sootys. Surprisingly, the size difference noted in fieldguides is not obvious in the field as many Sootys were actually smaller than some of the Short-tails. The best field mark is the amount of silver in the under wing linings (Sootys are much brighter) and the Short-tails wing is much thinner between the body and the wrist. A neat identification problem for my 700th ABA bird. We then went around an island and into another channel where Ancient Murrelets hang out. We saw several hundred and found some still in breeding plumage with the white feathers on the head. The white side of the head was obvious at a distance. There were thousands of Tufted Puffins, a few Horned Puffins, 1 Least Auklet, 2 Red Phalaropes, 12 Northern Fulmers (most in dark plumage), Marbled Murrelets, Pigeon Guillemots, and the usual gulls. The other 2 groups went out on the following day in the afternoon as the morning trip experienced motor problems about 45 minutes out and had to be towed back to Dutch. On July 20 six of us hired a boat and went out into the Bering Sea to look for petrels and albatross. It was calm and we saw a great variety of seabirds, including 1 Black-footed Albatross (30 feet from the boat), thousands of Northern Fulmars (mostly dark phase, but some which were as white as a Snowy Owl), 40 Fork-tailed Storm-petrel, several Leach's Storm-petrel, Ancient Murrelets, 6 Sabine's Gulls, 2 Cassin's Auklet, all 3 Jaegers, 1 Red-legged Kittiwake, lots of Tufted Puffins, a few Horned Puffins, both Shearwaters and Red Phalarope. We also had 4 Orcas go by the boat showing their tall dorsal fins and the white spot behind the head.
Birding on the land is slow (John Shipley who led this portion of the trip stated that there were only 8 passerines on the islands). We did add Dipper, saw more Rock Ptarmigans, more Gray-crowned Rosy- Finches, and lots of Bald Eagles. Eagles are like crows on the East Coast! Mammals seen in the area included Steller's Sea Lions, Pacific White-sided Dolphins, Red Fox and some Sea Otters.
Flew home from Dutch to Boston on July 21 without any real problems, except getting back onto Eastern Daylight Time. All of Alaska is on the same time zone (1 Hour after Pacific time) except for the Western Aleutian Islands.
Observations: There are no Kittlitz's Murrelets as far south as Juneau or as far west as Dutch Harbor - go to the Homer Spit or the Glacier Bay area. Gotta have something to go back for! Christmas Count anyone? Yellow-billed Loon, Steller's and Spectacled Eider and Arctic Loon are much further north than anywhere we went. Mew Gulls are everywhere. Flat tires in the Nome area average one a day. Nome is a native word for dust! Weather will impact your trip so plan extra time everywhere and take pictures when the sun is out (even if it is midnight). May your accidentals be one's that do not hang out where you live! Dream up a way to walk through bear country yelling at the top of your lungs and not scare away the Bluethroat.
Finally, a special thanks to Bill Drummond who put up with all the unexpected problems that a group of 20+ generate and congratulations to Bill on 2 lifebirds (the Hobby and Whiskered Auklet).