Trip report: Alaska: Birding the Top of America (June 2018) by Tropical Birding

Guided by Iain Campbelland Nick Athanas. This was a set-departure birding tour with an itinerary extremely similar to that of our BwC tour.

Alaska in June is a magical place. While the “midnight sun” is only up in the far northern part of the state, even in the south it never gets really gets dark at night in mid-summer. Birds and the birders alike make the most of this endless light, and we were often up late into the “night” and sleeping well into the “day”, taking advantage of times when the birds tend to display more or when the light was better. Our trip had three distinct sections. We started off in Barrow (whose official Iñupiat name is now Utqiaġvik), where snow was still piled high and winter was only reluctantly giving up its grip. Birds packed themselves into the few unfrozen lakes, feeding hungrily as they waited for the tundra to thaw and for the breeding frenzy to begin. Each day the landscape changed as the slow thaw proceeded, and every day offered new surprises. We’ll not soon forget stalking Spectacled Eiders through knee-deep water at midnight, scoping a distant Polar Bear walking over the still-frozen Arctic Ocean, or the stunning and sometimes hilarious displays of Buff-breasted Sandpipers in the tundra. We continued onto Nome, where the snow was mostly restricted to the distant scenic mountaintops, with verdant rolling hills blanketing the landscape in front of them. There were many more birds compared to Barrow, but they were far less concentrated, so we drove several long roads out of town looking for them. We found more shorebirds decked out in breeding finery like Bar-tailed Godwit and Black Turnstone, a Gyrfalcon nesting under a bridge, throngs of coastal birds including Red-throated Loon and Aleutian Tern, and herds of the bizarre Muskox. We even had a chance to chase some major rarities such as White Wagtail and Common Cuckoo. We finished off with a couple of days out of Anchorage, where we added a number of landbirds to our list like Varied Thrush and American Dipper, and took a boat tour of Kenai Fjords National Park for a dose of seabirds including hundreds of Horned and Tufted Puffins along with marine mammals like Sea Otter and Humpback Whale. Diversity in most of Alaska is not high compared to most other destinations, so we usually had lots of time to spend observing each species, giving plenty of opportunities to photograph, yet still having time to chase rarities. In the future we are going to include this trip with our “Birding with a Camera” line of tours. Click the link below to read more.

Alaska: Birding the Top of America Trip Report (5 MB PDF file).