Anchorage, Barrow, & Kenai Fjords, AK: June 12-20, 2010

On June 12, 2010, I flew into Anchorage and spent the day looking around there first visiting Kincaid Park. It was windy with more people than birds. I saw only Savannah Sparrow, Common Redpoll, Orange-crowned Warbler, and American Robin. Next I went to Hillside Park but it was devoid of birds entirely. Then I tried Potter Marsh where I saw a Tundra Swan very close to the road, a Muskrat in the marsh and a Moose near the parking lot. There were also Lesser Yellowlegs, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Green-winged Teal, Mallard, American Wigeon, Arctic Tern, Mew Gull, and Glaucous-winged Gull. My last stop was West Chester Lagoon where there were nesting Red-necked Grebes, Alder Flycatcher, and Hudsonian Godwit.

June 13 my sister and I hiked up Wolverine Peak in Chugach State Park. It was a glorious day for Anchorage reaching 70 degrees and hordes of people were out on the trail with their dogs. It was awful and I will never go back. We didn’t see very many species of birds though there were many of each species including Alder Flycatcher, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Wilson’s Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Hermit Thrush, and Bald Eagle. We also saw two Moose.

After our hike we went back to Hillside Park as I was very interested in finding a White-winged Crossbill but we only saw Golden-crowned Kinglet and Gray Jay. We then returned to West Chester Lagoon and there were several Hudsonian Godwits, American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser yellowlegs, Bonaparte’s Gull, and Long-billed Dowitcher. There was plenty of light left but we returned to our hotel since we had an early flight the next day.

June 14 we met our group from Wilderness Birding Adventures at the Anchorage Airport and flew from there to the northernmost city in North America, Barrow, AK at 71 degrees latitude. After landing we checked into the King Eider Inn and then put on all the clothes we owned and headed out in a van to look for birds. The wind was blowing viciously and keeping the temperatures in the low 30s the entire visit. The town itself was hideous, depressing and trash filled and filthy. Barrow is owned by the Inupiat Indians and every visitor must pay the tribe $50 just to land there. The Eskimos own the gas wells there which supply the entire town with gas heat. Despite the ramshackle surroundings the town has excellent internet service. Other than that I can’t recommend it unless you enjoy visiting a trash dump because that’s what it is. Once we got out of town things improved when we got out on the open tundra which despite its barrenness in mid-June when the rest of North America was bursting with spring blooms, was full of the many birds that nest in the tundra. There were many sightings of Northern Pintail, Snow Bunting, and Lapland Longspurs. Long-tailed Ducks were everywhere along with numerous Semi-palmated Sandpipers and a few Baird’s Sandpipers. We saw a lot of Red Phalaropes and Red-necked Phalaropes and several Snowy Owls. We also came across a few American Golden Plovers looking very dapper in their breeding plumage. Every day we saw dozens of Pectoral Sandpipers many of them males in display flight with their chests bursting forward. Toward dinner time we finally saw what I made such a long trek to see, the endangered and rare, Steller’s Eider. I was so excited to see it I nearly cried either from the incessant wind or from the knowledge that this bird may go extinct in my life time. The owner of WBA, Bob, had joined us and asked our driver and bird guide, Dave to pull over and there in a melt pond about as far away from the van as possible was my other target bird, the Spectacled Eider. Dave’s scope, a 62 mm Swarovski was small and inferior to Bob’s 77 mm Leica. Bob showed me the Spectacled Eider through his scope and I was very happy to see it. I remember the first time years ago I was thumbing through National Geographic’s Field Guide to North American Birds and saw a picture of the Spectacled Eider. Oh I wanted to see one but in reviewing the range map determined it would be impossible and I would never see one. Their range is confined to the tundra of far northern Alaska which seemed remote and out of the question at the time. In my mind’s eye though as my trip to Barrow approached and the dream became more of a possibility I imagined seeing it as I had seen it in NGFG– up close and detailed, not this little spec in the spotting scope. On the other hand at least I was able to see it. The most exciting bird for Dave and Bob was an extremely lost Yellow-rumped Warbler of the subspecies, Audubon, a first for Barrow. After a while we stopped and drove into town for dinner which was bizarre. All food in Barrow besides the whales the Inupiat’s slaughter is shipped in. We ate at a “Mexican” Restaurant where one guest, John from Florida, ordered a milkshake. I ordered something that was merely a tortilla with a can of refried beans dumped into it and some iceberg lettuce.
After dinner we went back out for a while looking for more birds and I spotted another Steller’s Eider, this one much closer and I was even more content.
June 15 we had breakfast in Dave and Bob’s room and then met Nathaniel a local Inupiat who for $85 a person drove us out to the northernmost point in North American, Point Barrow to look for polar bears. As we drove out along the beach Nathaniel explained that the Inupiats still enjoyed hunting and shot eiders. He claimed they shot all three species found there but I hope he is wrong and they are not shooting the endangered Steller’s Eider which would be a sin in my opinion. The Inupiat are allowed to legally kill whales for subsistence. Nathaniel said that this spring they had killed 14 whales. He drove us to the place on the point where the Indians dump the whale carcasses to look for the bears. We saw fresh polar bear tracks near the carcasses but no bears. The carcasses were only partially decomposed but you couldn’t smell anything due to the intense wind. Nathaniel was nice enough but I found the whole concept of living in Barrow off of slaughtered whales insane and offensive. It seemed to me the Indians were clinging to a past way of life that can no longer be sustained. They all had snow mobiles and cars (where were they driving to?) and piped in gas heat from their gas wells and a pricey fully stocked grocery store. (Peaches were $5.49 a pound!) And the way they discarded their broken down cars and snow mobiles and other trash in heaps in their “yards” was grotesque and appalling. At the point we stopped to take photos, touch the Arctic Ocean which was still very frozen, and while there a Sabine’s Gull flew by. We had a lengthy discussion about how to pronounce this bird named after Irish Scientist, Sir Edward Sabine. After our trip to Point Barrow we had lunch at the grocery store and then headed back out in our own van to look some more. We found more Snowy Owls and a Long-tailed Jaeger and a King Eider that was preening just feet from the van in a large melt pond. King Eider’s have gorgeous powder blue heads and orange bills and it was fantastic to get so close and see all the beautiful colors. After a while it finally swam away and we continued on. We came upon a thrush beside the road that turned out to be a female Varied Thrush, another bird far off course. We had dinner at a nasty restaurant that allegedly was serving Japanese food. I ordered the bento box and it was terrible.
On the last day we drove around until lunch time when we had to catch our flight back to Anchorage. We saw more Snowy Owls, one lonely Brandt, and two out of place Rock Ptarmigans, a male and female. We drove toward the dump and found a Ruff in breeding plumage and we spent a long time at a melt pond that held a nesting Spectacled Eider that let me get very close video, a beautiful breeding American Golden Plover, and a Parasitic Jaeger, all tundra nesters. We didn’t get back to Anchorage until very late and even though it was as bright as midday we went to bed.
June 17 we drove first to Connor’s Lake in Anchorage where we walked around the lake. We came across a moose with a calf and then an Arctic Tern attacked me because I guess I was too close to her nest. She dive bombed my head and in raising my tripod to protect my head my already fragile viewfinder on my camera became even looser. Toward the back of the lake we got as close as possible to a nesting Pacific Loon. Then we drove the scenic and beautiful Seward highway all the way from Anchorage to Seward 126 miles south. First we drove down Crow Pass Road just outside of Anchorage to the end and hiked the incredibly beautiful Crow Pass Trail. I did not have enough clothes on and nearly died of hypothermia at the pass so I could not thoroughly look for the White-tailed Ptarmigan. But the scenery along the way was outstanding and we were able to walk right up to Raven Glacier at the pass. The pass was so windy we didn’t tarry long and returned back the way we came back to the car. Next we stopped at beautiful Tern Lake along the Seward Highway where there was a nesting Common Loon and many terns. Upon arrival at the fishing town of Seward we checked into the very overpriced Marina Hotel and went to bed.
June 18, it was raining and continued to rain all day putting a damper on our planned boat ride to Kenai Fjords National Park. During the trip my viewfinder fell completely off and I was reduced to filming solely through the LCD which was very challenging with so many tourists and with the rain and mist. We travelled on a large boat with two decks both covered with a full restaurant and bar. The boat left from the harbor where a Bald Eagle was perched on a pole nearby and into Resurrection Bay bounded on both sides by gorgeous sitka spruce forested mountains and into the Harding Gateway. There were lots of birds in the water, mostly Common Murres and Thick-billed Murres but an occasional Rhinoceros Auklet and a very accommodating Sea Otter. Not long into our trip we came across a large pod of Orcas which excited our fellow travelers greatly. The boat spent a long time with the Orcas one of which breached in a dramatic fashion. But we had lots more things to see so we eventually moved on. As we sped along we passed one Red-faced Cormorant, one Parakeet Auklet and one Leach’s Storm-Petrel. We also found one Humpback Whale. We stopped at the Chiswell Islands to see nesting Stellers Sea Lions many of which are larger than a black bear, a moose, and a caribou combined. There were hordes of Tufted and Horned Puffins nesting on the rocks and in the water near the boat. Next we left the island and approached the Holgate Glacier. The boat turned sideways to give everyone a good view and soon sure enough the glacier calved (part of it broke off and slid into the sea) before our very eyes. Afterwards we were treated to a delicious all you can eat buffet of wild Alaska King Salmon. I went back for seconds, yum. And all you can eat dessert too. After admiring the glacier the boat turned around and headed back but I still had not seen what I came to see. I stood under the eaves of the upper deck scanning and scanning and wiping my binoculars from rain and spray until finally I saw two tiny Kittzlitz’s Murrelets one on the water and one flying past the boat. The ranger had no clue; she was too busy reading her script and of course nobody on the boat cared enough for the boat to stop but I had seen my third life bird of the trip. It never stopped raining but after our boat trip we drove out to Exit Glacier and despite the lateness of the hour there were many people hiking with us on the short trail to the glacier. Markers along the road and the trail mark the glaciers incredible retreat from when it was first discovered in 1900. The only birds were a few Hermit Thrushes, Varied thrush, and Orange-crowned Warbler.
June 19 was our last day. We left Seward and started our drive back to Anchorage. We stopped at Tern Lake and took a short walk. A Bald Eagle was very close on a tree vocalizing. There was also a Northern Waterthrush, Townsend’s Warbler, Black-billed Magpie, Adler flycatcher, and some Tree Swallows. On the way to Anchorage we stopped at Chugach National Forest and drove the road to Palmer Creek. It was very snowy and eventually we had to stop. We got out and just started hiking up a very steep slope looking for White-tailed Ptarmigans. It took two hours of struggling up the steep hillside past thick willows and snow patches and finally up moss covered strands til we finally got above tree line. The wind was howling and the summit was wind swept and barren but beautiful. However, it was devoid of birds except a lonely Spotted Sandpiper that flew over. It took only 30 minutes to get down as we slid most of the way over a snow field on our butts. We stopped at Crow Pass Road one last time looking for that doggone White-winged Crossbill with no luck then returned to Anchorage. My flight stopped in Minneapolis where I had a three hour layover. So I rented a car and drove to a nearby park. It was 80 degrees and the sun was out–a great respite from the foul weather of Alaska.
The weather is atrocious in Alaska but if you can tolerate it the rewards are great.

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