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Diane and I headed to Kenai after a couple of wonderful days in Homer.  This area is the heart of salmon fishing country.  At a couple of river crossings, the fishermen were standing shoulder to shoulder in the river in their hip waders.  We took a short detour through Anchor Point SRA on our way to Kenai and we found these gulls on the river beside Slidehole Campground.  In Alaska, Glaucous-winged x Herring Gull hybrids are common and I suspect that at least one of these birds is a hybrid.  Regardless of their identity, the birds were beautiful on their nest on the rock in the middle of the river.

Nesting gulls at Anchor Point SRA

Nesting gulls at Anchor Point SRA

We found this Northwestern Crow when we stopped for gas.  It looks just like an American Crow, but it’s a different species, so it adds to a birder’s life list.

Northwestern Crow

Northwestern Crow

We also had time that afternoon for a stop at Kenai NWR and a walk on the trail behind the headquarters in Soldotna.  This part of the state was quite different from Homer and we found the wooded trail just beautiful.  There was much lush mossy vegetation like that in the photo below.

Along the Kenai NWR headquarters trail

Along the Kenai NWR headquarters trail

Early the nest morning, July 1, we met our guide for the day, Ken Tarbox.  Ken and his wife Connie are largely responsible for the Kenai Peninsula Wildlife Viewing Trail Guide.  Ken is also one of the friendliest and most generous people we have met.  He told us that he likes to go out with visiting birders whenever his schedule allows.  Ken took us to all the birding hot spots around Kenai and Soldotna – the river flats, viewing platforms, the landfill, and even his yard and a friend’s yard.  We felt like we’d made a new friend and hope to go birding with Ken again.

Bonaparte’s Gulls were one of my favorites that day.  We watched this adult swimming and foraging by plunging into a little stream.  Here it is with the little fish that it caught.

Bonaparte's Gull

Bonaparte’s Gull

And, I saw my first juvenile Bonaparte’s Gull.

Juvenile Bonaparte's Gull

Juvenile Bonaparte’s Gull

One of our target birds for this part of the state was Spruce Grouse.  On our way to Seward the next morning, Diane and I drove Skilak Lake Road and enjoyed Pine Grosbeaks on the side of the road and Common Loons and Common Goldeneyes on the lakes, but we failed to find a grouse.  We decided that this was another good reason to go birding again in Alaska.

Ken had given us several tips on where to find American Dipper.  We did not find any at Tern Lake, but we found this cooperative bird at the next location we tried, Ptarmigan Creek Campground.

American Dipper

American Dipper

Diane had found the adorable and comfy Abode Well Cabins for our stay in Seward.  In addition to being clean and cute, birds were literally right outside our door.

Our Abode Well cabin near Seward

Our Abode Well cabin near Seward

Just a couple of blocks away was a yard with juvenile Varied Thrushes.  They were fairly easy to see with our binoculars, but they hid in the grass just well enough to make getting a photo a challenge.

Juvenile Varied Thrush

Juvenile Varied Thrush

There were also beautiful butterflies and wildflowers near our cabin.  This is an Arctic White butterfly on fireweed.

Arctic White butterfly on fireweed

Arctic White butterfly on fireweed

On July 3, after a little birding near our cabin neighborhood, we ventured into town.  Seward’s population of 2,500 swells to about 30,000 for the Independence Day festivities.  Main Street is completely blocked off to traffic and the streets fill with people.  Most come to run in or watch the Mt. Marathon Race, which has quite an interesting history.  According to legend, it began with two old guys arguing about whether it was possible to run up and down the rather steep Mount Marathon in less than an hour.  The first official race was in 1915 and it has since become an important part of the July 4th celebration in Seward.

Seward Harbor

Seward Harbor

We drove Lowell Point Road, which runs along the edge of the harbor, where we enjoyed dozens of gulls, a couple of Harlequin Ducks, and Pigeon Guillemots.  We drove the road a couple of times, hoping to get close enough to the Marbled Murrelet to get a photo.  We had stopped at the end of the road closest to town and were watching the gulls.  And, then things started happening so fast that I’m not entirely certain exactly what happened, but here’s how I think it went.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

A group of about eight young people were standing about 20 feet from where we were, also watching the birds.  Suddenly there were two Bald Eagles right in front of us.  One of the eagles caught a fish, the other tried to steal it, and the fish was dropped.  One eagle flew away.  One of the young men picked up the fish and threw it for the eagle.  The eagle swooped in to within 10-20 feet from all of us, but missed the fish.  This happened several times, the young man throwing the fish and the eagle attempting to catch it.  Excitement and enthusiastic shouts filled the air.  With one throw, the eagle came in especially close and the young man shouted “Hello America!”  And, we couldn’t imagine a more American place in the county than Seward, Alaska, on that gorgeous sunny Independence Day eve.

Shelley and Diane enjoying a seafood dinner

Shelley and Diane enjoying a seafood dinner

After a delicious dinner with a view of Seward Harbor at Ray’s Waterfront Restaurant, we ended the day with a drive on Nash Road to see the family of Trumpeter Swans that are regulars there.

Trumpter Swan family

Trumpter Swan family

The next morning it was time to head to the Anchorage Airport again, this time to fly home.  I will forever be grateful for 28 summer days in Alaska, truly the “trip of a lifetime.”  And, I’m especially grateful for the last week with Diane on the Kenai Peninsula.

Bald Eagle in tree

Bald Eagle

This is the sixth and last post about my trip to Alaska.  The other posts are:

Alaska 2015: There’s no place like Nome
Alaska 2015: The Pit Stop is Cancelled
Alaska 2015: Kenai Fjords and Denali National Park
Alaska 2015: To the Top of the World
Alaska 2015: Bird Nest Habitat

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The birding trip with Bill Drummond and Dave Hursh was great, but it was rigorous with early starts and no down time.  I found myself looking forward more and more to the relaxing week with Diane on the Kenai Peninsula.  I didn’t expect to get any additional life birds, but it would be wonderful to spend time with a friend and we wouldn’t have to get up at 5:00 AM every morning.  After Diane and I both arrived at the Anchorage airport on June 27, she from Minneapolis and me from Barrow, we spent the afternoon birding close to the hotel.

To Homer and Seward

The next morning we set out for Homer.  It was only a little over four hours, but we had all day.  Our first stop was at Potter’s Marsh just outside of Anchorage, where the highlight was a Greater White-fronted Goose, a life bird for Diane.

Greater White-fronted Goose

Greater White-fronted Goose

We could have stayed there all day, but after a few hours, we got back on the road and continued on to the Kenai Peninsula.

Kenai Peninsula

The drive to Homer was breathtaking and ended with a warm welcome at Paula’s Place, our bed-and-breakfast home for the next two days.  We had the entire beautiful and comfortable lower floor to ourselves.  Paula’s warmth and hospitality made us want to stay forever.

Paula's Place, Homer, Alaska

Paula’s Place, Homer, Alaska

The following morning, June 29, was one of the best of the entire trip.  We spent the morning at Mossy Kilcher’s Seaside Farm.  It’s a real working farm with a hostel and guest cabins.  The place had a hippie atmosphere which made it feel a little like magically stepping back into the 1960’s.  Underlying it all was an incredible respect and love for all the animals who call the farm home.  We were especially touched by a very old horse who was given a large enclosure, food, and loving care even though he was too old to ride.

Seaside Farm

Seaside Farm

Mossy spent some time with us and we enjoyed meeting her as much as seeing her farm and birds.

Mossy and Shelley

Mossy Kilcher and me

She amazed us by knowing every bird and it’s history.  She pointed out one singing Fox Sparrow and told us where his nest was last year as well as this year.  She recognizes each individual bird by subtle differences in his song.  Mossy protects these birds by not allowing free-roaming cats or dogs on her property.

Bird Nest Habitat at Seaside Farm

Seaside Farm

We were delighted by baby birds everywhere.  Mossy told us that many Alaskans think of wild celery as a weed and cut it down, but she lets it grow because it’s good bird habitat.  We caught this pretty fledgling Hermit Thrush flitting around under wild celery.

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush

We were also treated to our best looks ever at Golden-crowned Sparrows.  Below is a cute baby followed by a photo of it with a parent.

Golden-crowned juvie

Juvenile Golden-crowned Sparrow

Golden-crowned Sparrows

Golden-crowned Sparrows

After spending the entire morning at Mossy’s Seaside Farm, we tore ourselves away to check out some other birding spots near Homer.  After lunch, we went to Beluga Slough where we enjoyed a pair of Sandhill Cranes with their young colt.

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

Song Sparrows are common across North America, but the sub-species in Alaska is much darker than those in other parts of the county.

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

We finished the day with dinner and a drive down the 4-mile Homer Spit, a world-famous birding hot spot.  The shorebirds for which it’s best known had passed through in May, but in June there were still many birds including thousands of gulls.  The photo below shows a flock of Black-legged Kittiwakes, a species we saw all over Alaska.

Black-legged Kittiwakes

Black-legged Kittiwakes

The Glaucous-winged Gulls in Homer were very accommodating photographic subjects.

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull

Diane and I fell into bed that night tired and happy after an amazing first day in Homer.  We were up early the next morning for our boat trip with Karl Stoltzfus, owner and operator of Bay Excursions.  Karl is a serious birder and the local expert on Kachemak Bay wildlife. His small yellow boat was perfect for getting close to the birds. 

The Surfbird’s golden highlights glowed in the sun.

Surfbird

Surfbird

Sea otters were so cute floating on their backs.

Sea Otter

Sea Otter

It was great to get an up-close look at a pretty Black Guillemot.

Black Guillemot

Black Guillemot

And, while I’d seen many Common Murres in Alaska, we got closest to them on Karl’s boat trip.

Common Murres

Common Murres

The three-hour Kachemak Bay trip was perfect.  Karl stayed close enough to land that the seas were smooth, a blessing for those of us who get seasick.  And, it was long enough to visit Gull Island and other highlights of the bay.  Most exciting for me was getting a good look at Kittlitz’s Murrelet, my last life bird in Alaska.  I had missed this bird on the Northwestern Fjord trip out of Seward, but with his small boat and excellent skills Karl got much closer to the birds.  Karl is very knowledgeable about the local wildlife and he shows respect for them by stopping his engine at a good distance and letting the boat drift towards the birds, and sea otters, so as not to endanger or alarm them.

Diane and Karl

Diane and Karl aboard the Torega.

Our time in Homer had been wonderful, but we had more places on the Kenai Peninsula to visit, so we packed up and headed on towards our next destination after lunch.  On the drive to Kenai, Diane and I both talked about our dreams of visiting Homer again.

Next story about my trip – Alaska 2015: Hello America!

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Our days in Alaska were going quickly and it was soon time for the last segment of the trip – Barrow, the northernmost city in the US.  Barrow is about 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle and roughly 1,300 miles south of the North Pole.  As you might expect, it was cold, and windy too, so we were often chilly even in our warmest winter wear.  Barrow is small with a population of about 4,400; approximately 61 percent are Iñupiat Eskimo.  Like Nome, no roads connect it to any other city in Alaska.

Anchorage to Barrow

Anchorage to Barrow

Our flight from Anchorage on June 25 arrived in the early afternoon and we checked into the Airport Inn hotel.  We started seeing birds before we even got on the bus to go birding.  A Snowy Owl was perched on a tall pole just down the street from the hotel.  Snow Buntings were nesting in a box attached to the side of the house across the street.  We learned that these nest boxes are common because Snow Buntings are thought to bring good luck.

To the Top of the World

Our main targets in Barrow were eiders (sea ducks) with all four of the world’s eider species breeding there.  For many birders, Spectacled Eider is the holy grail of waterfowl.  And, we did see them, although we had only distant scope views.  I did not get a photo, but here is Cindy Shults’ postcard.  More about Cindy later in this story.

Spectacled Eiders

Spectacled Eiders

The most beautiful duck turned out to be Steller’s Eider and we did get good looks at several pair of this species.

Steller's Eiders

Steller’s Eiders

On all of Bill Drummond’s trips, he has everyone vote for their top five birds using whatever criteria they choose.  Steller’s Eider was voted the top bird for our Alaska trip with Spectacled Eider coming in second.

We also saw our first Red Phalaropes of the trip, life birds for me.  Just like the Red-necked Phalaropes that we saw earlier in the trip, the females are more brightly colored than the males.

Red Phalarope

Red Phalarope

After seeing our target birds on the first day, we were free to just enjoy Barrow and more birds for the next day and a half.  During the days leading up to Barrow, trip co-leader Dave Hursh had enthusiastically talked about the booming of Pectoral Sandpipers and how special it would be to hear it.  I didn’t anticipate that it would be all that special.  But I loved the call when I heard it.  I failed to get a recording, but I found a good description of the call in the September 1898 issue of the periodical “Birds and All Nature.”

“The note is deep, hollow, and resonant, but at the same time liquid and musical, and may be represented by a repetition of the syllables too-u, too-u, too-u, too-u, too-u.”  The full text of this short article can be found here Pectoral Sandpiper.

Pectoral Sandpiper

Pectoral Sandpiper

Another bird that I really enjoyed seeing in Barrow was Long-billed Dowitcher.  While most of the others were scoping distant birds on the water, I enjoyed some quality time with the phalaropes and this bird.  I had never seen a Long-billed Dowitcher at such close range and I usually see dowitchers in winter plumage rather than breeding plumage.  Additionally, there was no chance of mistaken identification because the very similar Short-billed Dowitcher does not range as far north as Barrow.

Long-billed Dowitcher

Long-billed Dowitcher

The Barrow community is traditionally known as Ukpeagvik, “place where snowy owls are hunted.”  This words on this sign surprised me a little, but it was a stark reminder of the challenges of life in the far north.  Everyone is just trying to find enough food to survive.

Where we hunt Snowy Owls

I enjoyed more quality time with a few special birds again on our second day.  In Barrow, these birds were as common as robins and chickadees are at home, but I had no idea when or if I would ever see them again.  The two birds below were seen from a long boardwalk out over the tundra along with a Semipalmated Sandpiper on her nest and a female Pectoral Sandpiper.

Lapland Longspur (female)

Lapland Longspur (female)

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting

A sea watch was the plan for our last morning and I almost didn’t go thinking that all the birds would be out so far that I couldn’t see them.  But, this morning turned out to be a wonderful end to our stay in Barrow.  On our way to the ocean we stumbled into Cindy Shults’ yard, the only one that we saw in Barrow with bird feeders.  The yard itself was interesting and we enjoyed the birds including several Hoary Redpolls, a just fledged Snow Bunting, and an unexpected Pine Siskin, which is rare that far north.

Hoary Redpoll

Hoary Redpoll

Cindy came out to talk with us and we thoroughly enjoyed meeting her and talking about life in Barrow.  Cindy is a freelance photographer who owns Windows to the World Photography.  She was also the manager of the Barrow Job Center until recently when the job center was closed.

Cindy Shults

Cindy Shults in her yard

After visiting with Cindy and her birds, we tore ourselves away and went to watch for sea birds.  That turned out to be more fun than I’d expected.  I did see birds and I learned how to identify White-winged Scoter and Black Guillemot at a great distance.  We also had fun talking with a young man who had recently graduated from high school.  We think that his friends dared him to come talk to us, but he seemed genuinely interested in what we were doing.  He was very personable and smart and he shared his dreams of going to college elsewhere and then returning to Barrow.

Soon, it was time to catch our plane back to Anchorage. We packed up and said goodbye to our new friends, Andrew and Nancy, managers of the Airport Inn.  They hope to buy the hotel and we joked about how it would help business if we returned in February and brought friends with us.

Andrew and Nancy in the Airport Inn breakfast room with their daughter, Ellie

Andrew and Nancy in the Airport Inn breakfast room with their daughter, Ellie

Dave Hursh had left the night before with a few members of our group for Dutch Harbor.  Once the rest of us arrived back in Anchorage, everyone would go different directions, most heading home.  But, my adventure in Alaska was not yet over.  My friend, Diane, would fly from Minneapolis to meet me at the Anchorage airport and we would spend a week on the Kenai Peninsula.  That story is next – Alaska 2015: Bird Nest Habitat

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After returning from St. Paul Island, we stayed within driving distance of Anchorage for the next week.  On June 18, most of our group drove 175 miles up Glenn Highway to the Tolsona Wilderness Campground where a family of Great Gray Owls had been observed for several weeks.  I would have liked to see the owls, but I opted to go with my roommate, Ellen, to retrieve her car from a friend’s house in Wasilla.  Ellen’s car would be part of the caravan transporting our 22 birders for this part of the trip.

Seward to Denali 2

We got the car and then headed on up the highway to meet the others.  Ellen and I found the only Northern Flickers of the trip while searching for a Northern Hawk Owl.  The flickers were the yellow-shafted sub-species rather than the red-shafted form of Northern Flicker found in the west.  The photo below was shot by wildlife photographer Michael Quinton in Alaska.  For more of Michael’s beautiful work, see his blog, Journal of a Wildlife Photographer.

Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker

Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker

I was surprised to see the yellow-shafted form of the Flicker, but trip co-leader, Dave Hursh, explained that many birds in Alaska are the eastern sub-species. The eBird map below for Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker shows how the range sweeps west and north.  The red-shafted form occurs in the west and does not go as far north as Alaska.  Yellow-rumped Warblers show similar range patterns with our eastern “Myrtle” warblers common in Alaska and their western “Audubon’s” counterparts staying farther south.

Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted) eBird range map

Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted) eBird range map

We met the rest of our group a little later just after they had found the Northern Hawk Owl sitting on a telephone wire and everyone got great looks.  The day ended with a delicious dinner at Sheep Mountain Lodge and the drive back to Anchorage.

The next day we drove to Seward, birding along the way.  One of my favorite stops was just outside of Seward at Ava’s Place, a yard with numerous feeders and an owner who welcomes birders.  There was constant activity in the yard with an estimated 30 Pine Siskins and about a dozen other species.  I especially enjoyed the Pine Grosbeaks – males, females, and juveniles.

Pine Grosbeak (male)

Pine Grosbeak (male)

Pine Grosbeak (female)

Pine Grosbeak (female)

The reason for our visit to Seward was to take the 9-hour Northwestern Fjord tour.  It was a wonderful cruise, 150 miles round trip that went deep into Kenai Fjords National Park.  I have to confess, though, that the Northwestern Glacier itself was underwhelming, even downright disappointing.  I think that I had expected it to look like it did 100 years ago, but the glacier has retreated over 6 miles in the last century.  The photos below show the view in 1909 and again in 2005.  Most other glaciers in Alaska and elsewhere are also rapidly melting, evidence of global warming accelerated by human activities.

Northwestern Glacier in 1909 and 2005

Northwestern Glacier in 1909 and 2005

The day was very overcast and I had visual difficulty with my transitions lenses that darkened too much.  But, I couldn’t see well without them either because they had the prisms that corrected my double vision.  Even so, I enjoyed the wildlife and beautiful landscape.

The highlight for me was a Humpback Whale that we observed “pec slapping.”  We speculated about the behavior, but back home a little research suggests that it’s a form of communication.  The whale swam on the surface of the water slowly and repeatedly lifting and slapping it’s massive 15-foot pectoral fin on the surface of the water.  It was quite impressive!  We also observed the whale breech, almost completely clearing the water, for a thrilling finale.

Unfortunately, I did not get a photo of the whale, but I did get a photo of the Steller’s Sea Lions below.

Steller's Sea Lions

Steller’s Sea Lions

After Seward we made the long drive to Healy, our base for exploring Denali National Park for two full days.

Denali National Park

Denali National Park

Wolves in Denali National Park

Wolves in Denali National Park

We saw birds in Denali, but the highlights there were mammals.  We saw all of the “Big 5” – grizzly bear, caribou, moose, Dall sheep, and wolf.  Four of the five are pretty reliable, but we were very lucky that most of us saw two wolves right on the road.  The wolf population has declined in Denali in recent years.  Numbers reached a record low this spring with an estimated population of just 48 in the park’s 18,820 square kilometers of wolf population area.

We saw several caribou, most scruffy like the one in the photo below.

Caribou

Caribou

Arctic Ground Squirrel

Arctic Ground Squirrel

I also enjoyed seeing smaller mammals like the Arctic Ground Squirrel.  I asked the bus driver to stop so that I could get this photo.  He seemed to think that I was the only one who was interested, but I saw several other cameras come out for this cute little rodent.

Wildflowers in Nome and the Pribolof Islands had been mostly small tundra species except for the lupine and wild celery.  Larger showier flowers were common around Denali and on the Kenai Peninsula.  I loved the beautiful Fireweed.

Flower Fly on Fireweed

Flower Fly on Fireweed

I never got tired of Ptarmigans.  We watched this female Willow Ptarmigan scramble up a hill followed by several small chicks.

Willow Ptarmigan (female)

Willow Ptarmigan (female)

Mew Gulls were very cooperative photographic subjects.  This one perched atop a car in a parking lot and I was able to walk right up to it.

Mew Gull

Mew Gull

And, here is a female Mew Gull on her nest by the side of a river.

Mew Gull

Mew Gull

Black-billed Magpies were big bold subjects for the camera.  This one was in a parking lot.  They were rather common, but they were always fun to see.

Black-billed Magpie

Black-billed Magpie

Gray Jays were bold, too, and we enjoyed several near a picnic area at one of the stops on our all-day bus ride in Denali National Park.  It is illegal to feed the birds, but based upon the way they were looking for handouts, I’m sure that they had previous experience with snack-sharing law-breaking visitors.

Gray Jay

Gray Jay

As in every part of the trip, it was over all too soon and we drove back to Anchorage.  In the photo below, taken on that drive, you can see the ubiquitous wild celery in the foreground.

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This is the third of six posts about my month in Alaska.  Next – Alaska 2015: To the Top of the World

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The Pribilof Islands host more than 2.5 million nesting seabirds each year, mostly on St. George, which has the largest seabird colony in the Northern Hemisphere. But fog makes travel to St. George unpredictable with frequent delays and cancelled flights. So, after our return from Nome, we flew to St. Paul Island on June 14th.  The island has a human population of about 500 and an avian population of nearly 200,000 in late spring. The regular breeding seabirds of St. Paul include about a dozen species of murres, auklets, kittiwakes, puffins, Red-faced Cormorant, and Northern Fulmar. Close-up views of these birds are enough to delight any birder. In addition, Siberian vagrants predictably show up on St. Paul. Predictable does not mean that you have any idea which rare birds will show up; just that it is very likely that something unusual will appear on the island during any week in spring.

Anchorage to St Paul

The birding routine on St. Paul is the same for everyone. You fly from Anchorage on Pen Air, the only airline that serves St. Paul and St. George Islands. You stay at the King Eider Hotel, the only hotel on the island, and eat at the Trident Seafoods cafeteria, where the folks from The Deadliest Catch also eat. The hotel is basic, but comfortable. Each room has a double bed or two twin beds and the bathrooms are down the hall. The food at the cafeteria is very good. The Alaska Native corporation, TDX, owns over 95% of St. Paul Island, including St. Paul Island Tours, which employs the birding guides. The three birding guides rotate the job of shuttling birders around the island in a bus to the cliffs, lakes, and various birding areas.  In the photo below is Ridge Wall – one of the best places to view nesting seabirds.

Come in a little closer and you can see that all those white dots on the edges of the cliff are birds.  Those below are mostly Thick-billed Murres.

On our second full day, Scott Schuette had taken us to several birding spots around the island. Mid-afternoon, we were on our way back to the hotel for a bathroom break when Scott announced “The pit stop is cancelled. Alison just found a Hawfinch.” Hawfinch is a rare Asian visitor to the Pribilofs and it would be a life bird for most of us including Bill. We drove as fast as the dirt roads would allow to the Tim’s Pond area in hopes of seeing this rarity. Scott stopped on the road closest to the area where Alison had seen the bird and we starting trekking over the tundra. Most of the birders in our group saw the Hawfinch as it flew overhead several times. I did not; I just couldn’t get on it in flight. But, we were lucky and finally got it in the scope when it landed on the ground. It wasn’t a great look, but one that I could count. Alison tells a very interesting story about this day in her blog post, A Lifer for Bill.

I was not able to get a photo of the Hawfinch, but I did get photos of some nesting seabirds.  What could be cuter than this pair of Tufted Puffins?

Tufted Puffins

Tufted Puffins

Least Auklets are pretty cute, too.

Least Auklets

Two other species of auklets nest on the island, the Parakeet Auklets shown in the photo below and Crested Auklets.  We saw all three species.

Parakeet Auklets

Parakeet Auklets

And, here are those Thick-billed Murres again, really close-up.  This is the most common nesting seabird on St. Paul Island.

Thick-billed Murres

Thick-billed Murres

St. Paul is the largest of the Pribilof Islands with a total area of 43 square miles. The typical temperature in June is in the low 40s and the high wind and humidity give the summer air a raw chilliness.

Arctic LupineAmazingly, three small songbirds are year-round residents in this harsh climate of St. Paul Island – Winter Wren, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, and Snow Bunting. One additional songbird joins them for the breeding season – Lapland Longspur. The other avian life on the island consists of mostly seabirds, ducks, and shorebirds.

The landscape is marine tundra; there are no trees. Arctic Lupine and Wild Celery grow all over the island. Despite its name, the Wild Celery in Alaska bears no resemblance to the edible vegetable celery, although it is a valuable food for wildlife. The image to the left is a postcard that depicts the lupine exactly like it looked most mornings on St. Paul.

The Rosy-Finches were one of my favorite species of the entire trip.

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch

And, how their looks change with just a little puffing up and a different perspectve!

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch

The Rock Sandpipers were another of my favorite St. Paul Island breeding birds.

Rock Sandpiper

Rock Sandpiper

One afternoon, I enjoyed some time with Red-necked Phalaropes at a little pond while the others trekked further out over the tundra.  Phalaropes are fascinating birds.  They are known for spinning in circles to flush small aquatic prey to the water’s surface where they can easily pluck it with their bills.  Also, phalaropes exhibit what scientists call “reverse sexual dimorphism” which simply means that the girls are prettier than the boys.  The typical courtship and parental roles are also reversed in phalaropes.  Females fight ferociously over males.  After they are paired up, the male builds a simple nest in which the female lays four eggs.  And, then she flies away leaving the male to incubate the eggs and tend to the chicks after they hatch.

Red-necked Phalarope (female)

Red-necked Phalarope (female)

Several other birds bounced around the edges of the little pond with the phalaropes, including Semipalmated Plovers.  This species is familiar to most birders due to its wide wintering range, including the southern part the U.S. mainland coasts, but it breeds in Alaska and northern Canada.

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Plover

Our four day/three night stay on St. Paul Island was over all too quickly.  All three of our birding guides, Scott Schuette, Cory Gregory, and Alison Vilag, were excellent birders and took great efforts to ensure that we saw all the birds on the island and had good looks at everything.  We couldn’t have asked for more, except maybe to go back again!

Heading to lunch at the Trident cafeteria

Heading to lunch at the Trident Seafoods cafeteria

Next in my adventure – Alaska 2015: Kenai Fjords and Denali National Park

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I don’t remember a time that I didn’t want to visit Alaska. It’s a big expensive trip, though, so it had not risen to top of my travel plans until Bill Drummond wrote last year inviting me to go on his 23rd and last trip to Alaska. I wanted to go with Bill because of his extensive experience in Alaska, so I signed up for the 3-week birding trip. And, I would have a bonus. My friend, Diane, wanted to go on the trip, but could not get the time off from work, so we decided that I would stay another week after Bill’s trip and she would fly out to meet me. The two of us would spend a week on the Kenai Peninsula. Nearly a year after committing to the trip, I flew to Anchorage on June 7. The next morning I flew to Nome to meet Bill, co-leader Dave Hursh, and the rest of our group. Nome was much smaller than I’d expected with a population under 4,000. It seemed that all the visitors to the town were birders, some with organized groups and some on their own. There are three main roads leading out from Nome, each about 75 miles long, but no roads or railways connect Nome to other major Alaskan cities. Birding in Nome consists of driving these three roads. Birds are spread out in breeding season, with large groups only along the coast of the Bering Sea. The appeal to birders isn’t numbers, though, but birds that are found nowhere else.

Male Willow Ptarmigan on the Kougarok Road

Male Willow Ptarmigan on the Kougarok Road

The avian star of Nome is the Bristle-thighed Curlew (click link for fantastic photo and info), a shorebird that looks a lot like a Whimbrel.  This rare bird with a population well under 10,000 is known to breed only on inland tundra in the steep hills of western Alaska.  Nests are frequently placed directly beneath dwarf willow shrubs. Two sites near Nome are the only places where birders can see the curlew on its breeding grounds. On our first full day in Nome, June 9, our goal was to see this bird, Bill’s favorite. We choose the easier site, at mile 72 on Kougarok Road, as most birders do, but it still took several hours to climb the hill on the spongy and uneven tundra. There were interesting sights on our way up the hill, though – tiny tundra flowers, nesting Long-tailed Jaegers, Willow Ptarmigan. I did not get the close look at the curlews that I’d hoped for, but just as exciting was a bird that flew directly overhead uttering its distinctive call.

A female Willow Ptarmigan, part way up the hill to the curlews.

A female Willow Ptarmigan, part way up the hill to the curlews.

On June 10, we spent the day closer to Nome where we found Musk Oxen not far from town. As rough looking as they are, underneath that tangled mess is an undercoat of fine wool that is eight times warmer than sheep wool and softer than cashmere. Musk Ox are not sheared; the fine wool is collected by hand combing or picking from bushes the animals rub against during molt. As you can guess, it is highly prized and very expensive.

Musk Oxen

Musk Oxen

Lapland Longspurs are common breeding birds in Alaska. We saw them everywhere except around Anchorage and on the Kenai Peninsula.

Lapland Longspur

Lapland Longspur

We drove to Teller on June 11. One of our target birds was Arctic Warbler, a regular breeder near Nome. Our caravan of cars carrying our 22 birders stayed in close contact via 2-way radios. This day, I was riding in the same car with Bill.  When we reached an area with willows where we expected to find the warblers, the others started down a side road. Bill said, “We usually see them right here,” so our car stopped and we got out. Immediately, I heard Pete say “I’m on it” and my binoculars were soon on it, too.  Everyone else came to where we were and all had good views.

Arctic Warbler

Arctic Warbler

Another pleasant stop that day was at the bridge over the Sinuk River. It was a gorgeous day and some beautiful birds cooperated for photographs. I had seen Red-throated Loons before – in winter.  Seeing their glowing red throats in breeding plumage was almost like getting a life bird.

Red-throated Loon

Red-throated Loon

The lovely and amazing Arctic Terns really were life birds. They have the longest annual migration of any animal on earth. Recent studies that placed geolocators on Arctic Terns discovered that their zigzag flights between their tundra breeding grounds and their wintering grounds off of Antarctica average 44,000 miles annually!

Arctic Tern

Arctic Tern

We spent most of June 12th birding the first 20 miles of the Council Road between Nome and Safety Sound. We were lucky to see another of our targets, Arctic Loon.  We found two birds close to shore and I was able to get a photo before we watched them swim farther out into the sea.

Arctic Loons

Arctic Loons

As expected, we saw lots of gulls along the coast. Glaucous Gulls were common in Nome.

Glaucous Gull

Glaucous Gull (first summer/2nd cycle?)

Another fun sighting was not a bird, but a female Moose who had just given birth on the opposite side of the river along the road. The first group to arrive saw the baby stand on wobbly legs and nurse. By the time that I got there, the baby had lain down close to mom. Moose with calf The next day we flew back to Anchorage, but not before a little more birding along the coast. We had good looks at a first summer Slaty-backed Gull feeding with other gulls on the washed-up carcass of a walrus.

Slaty-backed Gull

Slaty-backed Gull (2nd cycle)

Back in Anchorage that afternoon, we had time to check out Lake Hood right behind the Coast International Hotel where we were staying. Lake Hood is the busiest seaplane base in the world, so I was surprised to see birds there at all. But, apparently they love this lake, so much so that they have been a continuous problem there.  In an effort to reduce Lake Hood’s bird population in the early 1990s, officials released three female pigs named Larry, Curly, and Moe on the island that separates the takeoff and taxi lanes. The plan was for the pigs to rototill nest spots and eat eggs that the birds managed to lay. The pigs were effective for a while, but the effort ultimately failed. There are no longer pigs at Lake Hood, but birds remain, including beautiful Red-necked Grebes.

Red-necked Grebe

Red-necked Grebe on Lake Hood

This is just part one of my month-long Alaska adventure. Stay tuned for more!

Next story in this series of six – Alaska 2015: The Pit Stop is Cancelled

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