North Slope birding


Snow Bunting were in view almost constantly both in the town of Barrow and in the surrounding tundra.

With my wife and fellow Auburn professor, Wendy Hood, I traveled to Anchorage, Alaska to attend the American Ornithology Society meeting. The first four days of the trip was spent from morning to late evening inside dark rooms in the Anchorage Convention Center listening to the latest findings from ornithologists from all over North America. It was fun and stimulating for a professional ornithologist, but it was certainly was not conducive to building big bird list (or any bird list at all—Anchorage is not a birdy city). The one exception to the non-birding start to my Alaska trip was that on our first morning in Anchorage, we made a short drive south to see one of the star vagrants of 2019—a Falcated Duck that has been at the same spot in Potter Marsh for two months. The duck was an easy and satisfying life bird; it is a species that is not recorded in North America every year and for which you typically have to get lucky to see during migration in the Aleutians. I would include a photo of the bird, but we only got to view it at a distance through my scope.

In planning this visit to Alaska, I tried to book a tour to St. Paul through the conference travel web page, but after two months of trying to get the tour operator to respond to numerous emails or phone calls, I gave up and decided to just do my own trip. For the first day after the conference, Wendy and I went on a group halibut fishing trip out of Whittier, an hour south of Anchorage. Even though that boat trip was set up strictly for fishing--not for wildlife viewing--we saw some great birds (and caught our limit of halibut) and I may write a blog about that-one day trip in the future. This blog is about the next two days (June 30 and July 1, 2019), which we spent in Barrow (Utqiagvik). Over recent years, when contemplating future birding trips, Barrow was never high on my list. I knew it mostly as the place to see Ross’ Gulls in the fall. But I also had a vague notion that there were not many roads around Barrow, so it would be pretty easy to see the place in two days without needing a guide. So only 6 weeks before it was time to head to Alaska, I found a room in a bed and breakfast in Barrow, and I booked a rental car in this northern most city in the U.S.

I found the town of Barrow to be ugly and depressing, but it was surrounded by tundra teaming with wildllife.

We arrived in Barrow at about 1030 on Sunday June 30 and were greeted with a 20 mph wind driving a steady drizzle. The temperature was about 37F, and it didn’t deviate much from that during our 36-hour visit. The Alaska Air terminal that served as our gateway to Barrow was tiny, chaotic, and dilapidated. The exit from the terminal opened immediately onto an uneven gravel track lined with what looked like garages and warehouses and with nothing remotely like a sidewalk—it turns out this was one of the nicest streets in Barrow. It is a gray and gritty town. In mid-winter it must be a place that challenges the soul. I can’t recommend the town of Barrow as a tourist destination unless you are into self-flagellation. As dreary and depressing as I found the town of Barrow, however, the tundra around Barrow was beautiful, uplifting, and engaging. The Snow Buntings that sing everywhere in town makes the gray cityscape a bit more palatable, at least in the summer.

American Golden Plovers, Dunlin, and Red-necked Phalaropes were part of the parade of colorful birds on the tundra around Barrow.

Given that we had only parts of two days to see some tundra animals, we wasted no time getting started. We dragged our suitcases through a quarter mile of dirty gravel to the car rental place, picked up our Ford Escape, and headed south out of town. We started on the road south of the airport labeled on ebird as “freshwater lake” and immediately we were in a tundra wonderland. Jaegers whizzed past. These fantastic birds were in sight practically every second we were out on the tundra and very often even flying over town. Most of the jaegers that we spotted around Barrow were Pomerine, but we also saw Parasitic and Long-tailed on several occasions. In the first 100 yards after passing the airport, we were treated to an American Golden Plover next to the road, and near the plover were several of the ubiquitous Pectoral Sandpiper along with Dunlin, Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers, and both Red and Red-necked Phalaropes—all in magnificent breeding plumage. These birds were not on a mudflat, which is the only habitat where I’ve seen these species previously. These birds were in the tundra grass and feeding at the edge of a snowbank.

During our brief visit to the Barrow area, Steller's Eiders were easy to find and observe.

Just past this first group of shorebirds, a pair of Steller’s Eiders fed in a small tundra pool. This was one of the birds that I most wanted to see and photograph around Barrow. The male was striking with its white head and what seemed to be a huge black eye. The appearance of the giant eye was created with a black skin and feathers around a black eye on a white face. In front of the giant eye was a spot of green. As bold and interesting as was the plumage of the male, the female was a featureless dark brown. This is one of the most sexually dichromatic birds in North America. It was not a life bird for me, but I had only seen one bird as a flyby on St Lawrence Island twenty years earlier, so for all intents and purposes, it was a new bird for me. During our two-day visit, we saw Steller’s Eiders both along the beach and in the tundra on at least six different occasions. In contrast, we saw Spectacled Eider, another bird I wanted to get good looks at, only once, flying out over the Arctic Ocean. Given my experience, I would say that Steller’s Eider is easy but Spectacled Eider is hard at Barrow.

We found a Sabine's Gull in our first hour of birding and never recorded the species again during our two-day visit.

At the end of the road, the freshwater lake was mostly frozen, but there were still birds flying around including the second of my primary targets—Sabine’s Gull. As we started down the road, I had told Wendy to look for a bird composed of white, gray, and black triangles and with a black bill with a yellow tip, and that is the bird that swooped in front of me. I was viewing the gull while standing on the road (not in the cover of the car) and the wind was driving rain into my face. Still, I managed to get great looks and to take some decent photos. This Sabine’s gull sighting was less than an hour after we got in our rental car, but it turns out it was the only Sabine’s Gull that we saw in our two, half days of birding. Sabine’s Gull was another near life bird—I had only seen one bird, briefly and poorly, on a pelagic trip in the 1980s. And it is another bird that I would rate as tough and missable at Barrow. Besides the one Sabine’s Gull, the only gull species that we saw around Barrow were Glaucous Gulls, which were common.

The road to Freshwater Lake, south of the airport, like all of the roads around Barrow, was gravel and except for a few flooded spots, was easily traversable in our rented Ford Escape.

After a couple of hours slowly working the couple of miles of gravel road to Freshwater Lake, we checked into our bed and breakfast so we could put on some warmer clothes and then we ate lunch at a Chinese place. The food in Barrow is what you’d expect—not great and very expensive. But we weren’t there to eat. We were there to see birds and mammals and to experience the arctic in the summer. So, we headed out toward Point Barrow, the northernmost land in the United States, and a great place to look for birds in the Arctic Ocean. The road out is little more than a path through dark loose gravel, but being very careful to never let our wheels get into the loosest stuff, we made the drive with no problems. On the way out, in the surf near shore, we spotted another of my prime targets—King Eider. I had never before gotten good looks at a male King Eider in breeding plumage, and there he was, less than 100 feet away. Male King Eiders are one of the gaudiest birds in North America, with a bright red bill that transitions into a ridiculous orange knob, a gray head, and a striking black and white body. Like the other eiders, King Eiders also have green feathers in their face. This green plumage is produced with a green pigment that has yet to be fully characterized. It is one of several mystery pigments found in birds.

Point Barrow at the very tip top of Alaska was a bleak and barren place, even in mid-summer, but it hosted great birds including flocks of Glaucous Gulls and a few Yellow-billed Loons and King Eiders.

Point Barrow is the northern most point of land in the U.S., only about 1000 miles from the North Pole. It is a bleak spot. On the bay side, slabs of ice were piled haphazardly two and even three meters high while on the ocean side there was nothing but cold gray water. In many previous years there would have been substantial ice on both sides, but in recent years the Arctic Ocean has been retaining less and less ice through the summer. It is humbling to think that only a few weeks earlier, Polar Bears had been a common sight from this turn around point. We didn’t see any Polar Bears, but Wendy spotted a largha seal—an arctic endemic—in the surf. We also spotted another bird that I really wanted to see—Yellow-billed Loon. This is another bird that I had seen only once, as a flyby on St. Lawrence Island. We never got very close to a Yellow-billed Loon on the water during this trip, but I was able to study swimming birds in the scope and we had half a dozen fly-bys.

Some of the common birds on the Tundra were Pomerine Jeager, hunting lemmings everywhere, Snowy Owls, and Tundra Swans.

The rest of our time birding around Barrow was spent alternating between drives across the Tundra and drives to Point Barrow. Other birders had reported interesting birds at the mouth of Nunavak Bay, south of town, but the road to the bay mouth (which was very birdy) was posted as closed before we reached the bay mouth and we decided not to push our luck with our little SUV. On Monday, a few hours before we were due back at the airport, we took a long drive east of Barrow along Gas Pipeline Road, which is the longest public road from Barrow. Gas Pipeline Road is more than 10 miles long and it cuts through some great tundra habitat. Along with a fine mix of tundra birds, we spotted a herd of Caribou moving across the tundra in the distance and we watched an Arctic Fox hunting for lemmings. We also saw Snowy Owls at three different spots. We didn’t see any other birders on this route, but two days later after we were back in Auburn, I saw from an ebird alert that an Olive-backed Pipit had been found on the road about a mile beyond where we turned around just 2 hours before our drive. Oh well, you can’t cry over the birds that you miss—you have to enjoy the birds that you see.

It was an amazing trip, and we were only on the ground in Barrow for 36 hours. I got no life birds, thanks to my trip to Nome and St. Lawrence Island twenty years earlier, but I got fantastic views of birds that I had barely ever seen before. Some of my lists: American Golden Plover, Dunlin, Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plover, White-rumped and Pectoral Sandpiper could have been from a mudflat in August in Alabama, but on the North Slope, all of the birds were in full breeding plumage, which we rarely see in the southeast. If I had come just to photograph birds, I may not have ever left the road to freshwater lake—there are fantastic photo opportunities everywhere around Barrow.

All and all, Barrow provides easy access to tundra. Large planes fly in and out many times per day from Anchorage and Fairbanks. Rental cars are easily available and we had little trouble booking a room, even when I put off looking for a place until 6 weeks before our trip. For a birder who mostly stalks the steaming forests of Gulf Coast, two days on the tundra was a fun adventure.

© 2015 Geoffrey Hill

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