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Alaska in June - Trip Report

Early June in Alaska

This account is a short record of just a few of the special birds, animals, places, and observations of the Norita's World© birding tour to Alaska in 2001. It would be impossible to make a comprehensive report that fully captured the flavor and enormous scale of Alaska and our feelings of delight in the birds we observed. But this narrative attempts to convey some of the beauty and excitement we experienced.

Trip Bird Award : The award goes to a gorgeous Bluethroat, the bird of the trip. Outside of Nome, a most cooperative

male made its appearance near the front of the van where everyone caught a glimpse (or better) of it. Then this beautiful bird proceeded to take its time, as it flitted completely around the vehicle, pausing in a shrub beside almost every window then fluttering a bit before moving on to the next window-side willow. We were all in awe and thrilled by the looks we got of this highly sought after bird.

Now, the daily journal.

May 31 - Everyone arrived in Anchorage after having been treated to spectacular views of the mountains that frame the airline's flight path from the Pacific Ocean coastline into Anchorage's Cook Inlet. Beyond Anchorage it was possible to view approximately 200 miles away to massive Mt. McKinley, looming enormous even at that distance. Those who arrived early enough enjoyed the first of several delightful meals together at our hotel's restaurant. We had the same server for most meals, a pleasant person who liked to anticipate what each of our group was going to order. I believe he was the first one who told us (when someone asked if they served orange juice in smaller glasses), "If you want small, go to Texas!"

June 1 - Following a late breakfast, we began the drive to Seward, after checking out a reported Black-backed Woodpecker nest and finding?  apparent nesting Three-toed Woodpeckers!  About every 10-15 minutes it poked its head out of the nest hole, just long enough to show a yellow "cap" that wasn't very solid.  Was it really a "Black-back" as reported?  Somehow it just didn't look right.  And it wasn't.  It finally flew out and landed where we could observe the white on its back. 

From there we circled Potter Marsh where we began to see the first of our trip's many nesting species such as Red-necked Grebe, Mew Gull, Arctic Tern, Ring-necked Duck and Rusty Blackbird. There we first heard the sweet tones of the Golden-crowned Sparrow whose pattern of notes is varied at different locations throughout the places we visited in Alaska, but not in tone quality. We also noted how common Black-billed Magpies are in Alaska, superseding even the Northwestern Crow in numbers.

We continued on to Portage Glacier which calves into beautiful Portage Lake where turquoise icebergs drift in the currents and the wind. There we saw our first Harlequin Duck and Pacific Loon, as well as a most cooperative singing Fox Sparrow and several of the numerous Hermit Thrushes we observed in Alaska. On Tern Lake we watched large numbers of Arctic Terns and noted a nesting pair of Common Loons, along with our first Black-legged Kittiwakes.

During our fabulous Welcome Dinner in Seward, with its incredibly fresh seafood and picturesque view of the marina and Resurrection Bay, we watched many Black-legged Kittiwakes feeding outside the window. When they "dive" into the water, they totally submerge! How about some of the food at the restaurant? Alaskan King Crab, fresh halibut, and salmon served on alder plank. What meals!

June 2 : It was a gorgeous day for a boat trip to Kenai Fjords National Park and among the Chiswell Islands. Alcids were abundant and included Horned and Tufted Puffins, Pigeon Guillemot, Rhinoceros Auklet and Common Murre. We easily observed the 4 species of cormorant - the small white-flanked Pelagic; brilliant Red-faced, also with white flanks; the Double-crested, here sporting a white-feathered double crest; and Brandt's with its yellow and blue chin and more random white plumes. Also noteworthy were the Black Oystercatcher on a remote gravel shore and several flocks of "Black" Brant.

Besides birds, on this trip we reveled in up-close sightings of Orcas; a Humpback whale rolling along nearby until with picture-perfect form, flukes held high out of the water, it made its powerful dive deep into the ocean; Steller's Sea Lion, Harbor Seal, and the winsome Sea Otter. On a steep hillside we observed 2 Mountain Goats easily traversing their landscape.

June 3 - Driving the perimeter of Resurrection Bay, we got good looks at several Marbled Murrelet pairs, Barrow's Goldeneye, and the first of several Wandering Tattlers. By now in evergreen and mixed forests around Seward we had seen and/or heard numerous Ruby-crowned Kinglets singing the most elaborate songs, songs that were extended beyond any most of us had ever heard. By now, we had tallied Yellow-rumped "Myrtle", Orange-crowned, Yellow, Wilson's, and Townsend's Warblers, the first of our sightings of all possible warblers for the trip. In the woods we had heard several Varied Thrushes with their haunting calls and had seen the now-quiet probably nesting Steller's Jay.

June 4 - Departing Seward, we stopped at the prior-scouted location for incredible views of an American Dipper and its nest where a pair was returning for the 2nd nesting of the season. We stopped again at Tern Lake where there were reports of a nesting pair of Trumpeter Swans. However, true to form, these shy birds kept their heads down and we did not see them there.

Later we stopped at a high alpine lake that hosted some of our favorite ducks -- pairs of Barrow’s Goldeneye, Ring-necked Duck, and Red-breasted Merganser along with various other birds such as Common Loon and the melodious Golden-crowned and Lincoln’s Sparrows. Returning to the Portage Glacier, we enjoyed our lunch at the Inn where we watched Rufous Hummingbirds at the several feeders hung by the windows. The shop there was filled with beautiful quality gifts and delicious fresh fudge of different varieties as well. We did our best to help them reduce their inventory!

Approaching Anchorage, we stopped at Beluga Point (unfortunately, we didn’t see any Belugas!) where we saw our first Dall Sheep and 2 Rock Ptarmigan (just little pinpoints!) on the steep slopes on the other side of the highway. At Westchester Lagoon we wished the nearby Short-billed Dowitchers were Hudsonian Godwits (which were ‘way out on the mud flats). They would have to be seen later. There were several Lesser Yellowlegs, Bonaparte’s Gulls, and Bank Swallows.

June 5 - First order of business was to get decent looks at the Hudsonian Godwits at Winchester Lagoon. We were successful and everyone was able to have very close views of these lovely shorebirds, watching as long as desired through scopes and binoculars both. From there we drove up above treeline to Glen Alps where we walked paved pathways, observing beautiful flowers such as Alpine Azalea, Wooly Lousewort, Anemone and Oxytrope (a kind of wild “sweet pea”).

Down in the valley below us were a moose cow and her shaky-legged calf. We heard Willow Ptarmigan but since there was still a considerable amount of snow, they were able to hide successfully. White-crowned Sparrows sang sweetly and several Common Snipe winnowed, flying incredibly high then swooping down into the valleys, low enough for us to get somewhat satisfactory looks at them. They were never long enough to afford a really, really good look.

In the afternoon we began our flight to beautiful and wild Nome, crossing the Arctic Circle as our plane headed for its first stop at Kotzebue. From there we flew to Nome, acquired our van and drove to the village’s charming new hotel. On the way we were tantalized by the scenery and by good looks at what were to be common birds for us, Long-tailed Duck and Glaucous Gull. Our appetites were whetted for the days ahead.

It was exhilarating to awaken in the night and notice through the drapes that it was very, very light outside. The children in Nome seemed to play outdoors day and night, no doubt making up for the hours of darkness they tolerate during the winter. Do they store something during these months of never-ending light to offset what they might be “losing” during the long darkness?

June 6 - On the drive toward Safety Lagoon we found it hard to pass by the scores of ponds formed by fresh snow melt in shallow tundra basins. So we didn’t ignore them! From the blind provided by the van, as well as getting out of the van and peering through the scopes, we got good looks at many birds, watching their behaviors and studying their plumages. On this day we added to our list such birds as (mostly in order observed) Red-throated Loon, Red-necked and Red Phalarope, Lapland Longspur, Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Yellow Wagtail (really quite plentiful throughout our travels around Nome), Bar-tailed Godwit, Greater White-fronted Goose, Tundra Swan, Long-tailed and Parasitic Jaegers (back to the “Long-tails” later), Willow Ptarmigan, countless Hoary Redpoll, Short-eared Owl, Whimbrel, Common Eider, Aleutian Tern, and the first Snow Bunting.

The Long-tailed Jaegers were everywhere, their nests built wherever they took fancy -- on the tundra ground itself, of course, but also on buildings and other assorted structures from beach level up onto the higher-elevation tundra. It was a never-to-be-forgotten sight after experiencing fleeting views of these striking jaegers on various pelagic trips to have them appear out of nowhere here in Alaska, gliding alongside the vehicle, or to observe one nesting on a building and simply surveying the territory it had claimed.

June 7 – The aforementioned Bluethroat was the bird of the day, as well as bird of the trip. None of us will ever forget the views of that beautiful bird as it shimmered on buoyant wings from willow to willow so we could all see it well. Binoculars were not necessary since the bird was within 5 feet of the van. Well, were we happy to see Arctic Warblers? Of course, even if they were everywhere. After just a few sightings, everyone who could hear these plain but special birds could easily identify their distinctive trill. A most curious sight was that of the plentiful Northern Waterthrushes singing lustily from wires, utility poles or the tops of the highest willows instead of bobbing alongside a stream or lake somewhere as we are accustomed to seeing them.

We had almost side-by-side comparisons of American and Pacific Golden-Plovers, and marveled at the Semipalmated Plovers out of the context where we usually see them, as they zipped around on or near melting snowfields. Gray-cheeked Thrush was common on this day, and we observed a Golden Eagle nest, occasionally glimpsing the head and a protective wing of the parent above the nest’s rim. Both Willow and Rock Ptarmigan were common both on the road itself and alongside. The Willow Ptarmigan were white bodied with dark heads, and the Rock Ptarmigan were in beautiful white plumage, their eyes made up with a black line and red “eyebrows”.

The moose around Nome looked different to me than those further south. They were actually quite “furry” looking, being somewhat “silver-tipped”. The animals themselves seemed bulkier and less gangly. We observed 3 herds of caribou, with the largest consisting of at least 150 “reindeer”. One small group of 3 caribou spread itself out over several acres in a more solitary fashion, much like “Woodland” Caribou seen around Churchill, Manitoba.

Most fascinating were 3 muskoxen. We speculated that a couple of brave souls in our group might have dared to get closer for better pictures if there hadn’t been a rather significant ditch between the curious beasts and the road. We were so intrigued by these creatures that we made a special point of stopping to bid them “adieu” on our way back to Nome.

Along the road were low growing willow shrubs, then a taller variety reaching perhaps 6 feet in height (providing the promontory for Northern Waterthrush performances). Anemone, probably parviflora (“Windflower”) with only a small leaf whorl below the sepals, sprang out of the tundra, about the only flower we noted on this day.

June 8 - The Teller Highway wends its way to stark high tundra before dropping back down to the sea. The area through which the road passes is wild and pristine, appealing to those who crave wilderness. In this setting in places where tundra “islands” punctuate steep talus rock slopes, Northern Wheatears and American Pipits make their homes. After locating one such perfect spot, we were rewarded with fairly good looks at two different wheatears as they flitted from one rock to another in their territory. We had plenty of time to see the birds, but they were busy and kept on the move. So we spent the time we needed until everyone had had a chance to get the best looks possible. These birds were another highlight of our trip.

The Nome and other rivers were filled with huge pieces of ice and several of our group expressed an inclination to hear what it must sound like when the ice breaks up in the rivers and bays. We returned to Nome with time to spend our tourist dollars in the gift stores before boarding the plane for the flight back to Anchorage. As they say in Nome, “There’s no place like Nome”.

June 9 - It was quite a drive from Anchorage to Gakona, but we enjoyed several stops along the way. Matanuska Glacier is another of the thousands of glaciers left over from the last great ice age. Like other glaciers it has been in a pattern of receding for several thousand years as Earth has warmed. This warming trend will no doubt continue until events trigger another cooling period. These cycles have obviously been part of our planet’s patterns for millions of years. In Alaska these recurring trends are impossible not to see because of the rugged terrain carved out in so many places by glacial action. Elsewhere the results are rounded scoured valleys and heaps of huge rock deposits, or moraines, dropped by the glaciers that passed by.

We enjoyed lunch at a wonderful inn where the food was outstanding. And behind the inn were mountains where at least one large flock of Dall Sheep was grazing. Pictures don’t quite prepare you for the sight of those unwieldy looking curled horns. Amazing looking animals! The rams seemed to stay off to the side while the ewes and lambs slowly grazed their way across the high meadows.

On a side road off the highway in the higher country, we found a “textbook” Hammond’s Flycatcher in the nearby evergreens. Unfortunately, he didn’t stay around long, but enough for us to hear him and note a couple field marks. On that little road we also found the last possible warbler, the Blackpoll, and a pair of Trumpeter Swans nesting ‘way out in a grassy pond.

When we arrived at our pleasant lodge in the evening, we were tantalized by the prospects of what we might see in the morning as we looked at the bird feeders and around the grounds.

June 10 - Before and after a breakfast prepared to order and served by our delightful hosts, we began studying the feeder areas. We could sit in any of the well-placed lawn chairs, stand or sit on the deck, or walk around to see what might be discovered. In a short period of time, we were fortunate to see and/or hear many forest species. These included Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, Common Redpoll, Pine Grosbeak, Black-capped and Boreal Chickadees, Gray Jay, Swainson’s Thrush, Western Wood-Pewee, Blackpoll and Yellow-rumped “Myrtle” Warblers.

Reluctantly we began our trek back to Anchorage. Now came the icing on the cake. As we passed through miles of spruce forest, right beside our vehicle “appeared” a Northern Hawk-Owl, doing just what he was supposed to do - sit on the top of a spruce snag. After allowing us to observe him from one side, he flew to the other side of the car and landed on another snag so everyone on that side could see him from our mobile blind. We backed up slowly (there aren’t many cars there), but each time we reached his comfort zone, he dropped down and swooped up to the top of another nearby snag. So we simply stopped and watched him for awhile before he dropped down without any external influence from us and flew out of sight for the last time. Wow!

We again enjoyed lunch at the lodge where we had eaten the day before. Yes, it was as good as the day before! Did I mention that they make wonderful deserts? Like three-berry pie ala mode.

When we arrived in Anchorage, we enjoyed our Farewell Dinner, again savoring seafood just hours out of the water, exquisitely prepared and served. The trip was over too soon. However, Alaska is a HUGE state, and there are many more places we want to go. We hope you will join us.