Alaska Photo Journey

Alaska – the very name conjures up images of limitless wilderness, tall mountains, expansive tundra, and boundless wildlife. And all for very good reason – the Last Frontier has something to offer everyone. That is especially true for photographers, with everything from dapper ocean ducks to crowded seabird cliffs to shorebirds as you’ve never seen them before, in their breeding finery and singing on the wing. While the 49th state has more than you could ever fit into one trip, on this tour we focus on two main locations: Barrow and Nome. Barrow, the furthest northern point in the United States, gives us the quintessential North Slope tundra experience. Gorgeous Eiders abound on the melt ponds, jaegers fly overhead looking for a quick meal, and all those shorebirds that are distant brown dots on mudflats in the lower 48 are in full breeding regalia and fearlessly displaying on the tundra.


To the south, Nome has less tundra but more than makes up for it in habitat variety. Comical ptarmigan are a common sight along the roads out of town, and a wide variety of breeding ducks, shorebirds, and more passerine variety than further north offer some spice to the mix. At the end of the tour we’ll make a quick stop at the spectacular Kenai Fjords National Park, where in addition to the hoped for seabird breeding cliffs we’ll enjoy some of the finest scenery in the world on a boat sitting in aquamarine water just below towering glaciers.

PLEASE NOTE: The itinerary for 2017 may change slightly, once final domestic flight schedules for this period are published.

Day 1: Arrival in Anchorage. After arriving in Alaska’s largest city, we’ll transfer to a nearby hotel for the night.

Wonderful portraits of almost everything you see is what this journey is all about
Wonderful portraits of almost everything you see is what this journey is all about (Cameron Cox)

Day 2: Anchorage to Barrow. After a flight out of Anchorage to Barrow, we’ll check into our Barrow hotel (home for four nights), pick up our rental vans, and make the first foray into the tundra to scope things out before having an afternoon nap to rest up for the evening photography. In the land of the midnight sun the best activity is during the “night”, from about 8 PM to 6 AM. Luckily the wee hours of the day also provide the best light for photography, so our sleep schedules will be a bit out of whack as we spend the nights out photographing and the daylight hours in more leisurely pursuits. The first of four nights will be spent in Barrow.

Days 3-5: Barrow. It’s hard to pick a favorite subject in Barrow. We’ve timed the tour to pick up male eiders before they leave for their staging grounds in the Bering Sea, and we’ll be sure to spend a good deal of time trying for the perfect photo of drake Spectacled, Steller’s, and King Eiders. But a good deal of time will also be spent on the most common birdlife in Barrow, shorebirds. These vary from the colorful Red Phalarope (delightfully common and approachable here) to the charismatic Pectoral Sandpiper with its unique ruffled chest feathers flared to the beautifully patterned Long-billed Dowitchers and Ruddy Turnstones to immaculate Dunlin that dot the tundra.

There are some stellar ducks on this trip, none more so than the Steller's Eider
There are some stellar ducks on this trip, none more so than the Steller's Eider (Iain Campbell)

Depending on how the year is for lemmings we may also have the chance to stalk the elusive Snowy Owl. While difficult to photograph here, the prize of a spotless white male with an expanse of tundra as a backdrop is a lure we won’t be able to resist. Numerous other photo ops dot the tundra, from Pacific and Red-throated Loons to Snow Buntings that hop through town like sparrows to the super-common but stunningly attired Long-tailed Ducks that float in nearly every pond.

Red Phalarope
Red Phalarope (Keith Barnes)

Also dependent on the year, we may be able to take a trip out to the tip of Pt. Barrow, where the locals dump any carcasses from that year’s whale hunt in the hopes of keeping Polar Bears out of town and on the point. If we’re lucky enough to visit during a year when the sea ice has melted and there are bears on the point we’ll be sure to check them out! All these nights will be spent within the same Barrow hotel.

The tundra around Barrow is Snowy Owl country
The tundra around Barrow is Snowy Owl country (Keith Barnes)

Day 6: Barrow to Anchorage. After much of the day in Barrow, we shall take an afternoon flight back to Anchorage, where we’ll overnight again.

Day 7: Anchorage to Nome. we’ll take a morning flight from Anchorage to Nome. Nome offers something of a contrast to Barrow that comes later on the tour. While aspects of it are similar (there is still quite a bit of tundra here), the addition of significant terrain allow for a much wider variety of habitats. Located just south of the Arctic Circle, the timing for photography is a bit less out of whack with a normal sleep schedule, but we’ll still plan on being out past midnight and taking rests during the slow periods after lunch. Four nights will be spent in Nome.

Long-tailed Jaeger
Long-tailed Jaeger (Keith Barnes)

Days 8-10: Nome area. Much of our time around Nome will be spent driving the Teller Road west out of town. Traversing different elevational ranges, this road gives us a good transect of willow-studded hillsides (where the delightful Willow Ptarmigan is often ridiculously common) to drier tundra with its attendant Long-tailed Jaegers and American Golden-Plovers to rockier hilltops, where we hope to find the local Rock Sandpiper and Red Knot.

American Golden-Plovers are both common and gorgeous photo subjects in Nome and Barrow.
American Golden-Plovers are both common and gorgeous photo subjects in Nome and Barrow. (Andrew Spencer)

Heading east from town we’ll also spend some time scouring coastal wetlands and tundra. Here the focus will be on more oceanic species, including both Arctic and (if we’re lucky), Aleutian Tern, Red-throated Loons at point blank range on their breeding pools, Pacific Golden-Plovers, and various stripes of waterfowl. These three nights will again be spent in Nome.

Musk Ox is one of the top Alaskan mammals
Musk Ox is one of the top Alaskan mammals (Keith Barnes)

At least one day will also be spent heading inland, where the denser willows and a smattering of taller trees give us chances at a larger passerine diversity than on the coast. Sparrow variety is excellent, with White-crowned, Fox, American Tree, and the gorgeous Golden-crowned Sparrows all common. Bluethroat, typically one of the most sought after birds in the Nome area, is best found here, and Rough-legged Hawk can often be found at various points. Finally, if we’re really lucky there is sometimes a Gyrfalcon nest located right along one of the roads out of town – we’ll keep our fingers crossed that in the year we visit it’ll be occupied!

Nome is also a good spot to photograph mammals. Nowhere in the US are you more likely to run into Muskoxen, and in addition to those bizarre ice-age relics we often see Moose, Caribou, and with some luck, Grizzly Bear. These nights will be spent within the same hotel in Nome.

To call a Pacific Loon gorgeous is to do it a disservice
To call a Pacific Loon gorgeous is to do it a disservice (Andrew Spencer)

Day 11: Nome to Anchorage. A late flight will be taken out of Nome, to ensure we have much of the day left to shoot around Nome, before we return to Anchorage for the final night of the main tour.

Day 12: Departure from Anchorage. The main tour ends this morning in Anchorage. If you are joining one or both of the extensions offered for this tour, then your journey descriptions continue on Day 1 of the first extension below.

Some Harlequin Ducks loafing on the sea ice.
Some Harlequin Ducks loafing on the sea ice. (Andrew Spencer)

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EXTENSION OPTIONS

Brooks Falls extension (2 days)

Brooks Falls offers the chance to photograph Brown Bears like nowhere else. Tropical Birding will arrange an unforgettable day trip from Anchorage to one of the best bear photography sites in the World. There is no Tropical Birding guide on this trip, but the return flight from Anchorage, lunch on site, and around 6 hours with the bears is all included. A local ranger will also meet for an orientation, before moving to the bear viewing areas. You will get back to Anchorage in the early-mid evening (depending on final flight schedules), in time to join the extension to the Pribilofs, starting the next day…

A bad day for salmon, but a great day for bears and their photographers
A bad day for salmon, but a great day for bears and their photographers (Cameron Cox)

Day 1: Brooks Falls Today will start off with a scenic float-plane flight through the mountains on our way to the mighty Katmai National Park, where salmon run scared, and giant Brown Bears abound. After our “Bear Etiquette” course on arrival we make our way to the Famous Brooks falls. It is at these falls where the world’s largest Sockeye Salmon collide with the world’s largest population of Brown Bears. We can watch one of nature’s most amazing spectacles, Bears catching Salmon in mid-air, at close range, from a large platform. As many as 15 Bears can be seen hunting at any one time, allowing for incredible photographic opportunities as well as a chance to see some amazing Bear behavior. In the afternoon we fly back to Anchorage for another night.

There is no better place in the world to photograph Grizzlies than Brooks Falls
There is no better place in the world to photograph Grizzlies than Brooks Falls (Cameron Cox)

Day 2: Departure from Anchorage. The tour ends this morning in Anchorage. The hotel provides a shuttle bus to the airport.

Pribilofs extension (6 days)

Situated smack in the middle of the Bering Sea, miles from the nearest mainland, the Pribilof Islands offer one of the premier bird photographic meccas in the US. Towering sea cliffs are absolutely covered with birds, and what more not only are these birds both charismatic and stunning, they’re amazingly cooperative.

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The extension is timed to take advantage of the best of what St. Paul offers. The birds are at the height of the breeding cycle, and care very little that a camera lens is pointed at them from mere feet away, and the island is green and covered in flowers that typify the summer here.

Tufted Puffins are readying to breed at this time
Tufted Puffins are readying to breed at this time (Cameron Cox)

During the days we spend on the island you should be able to fill the camera card with frame-filling images of both Horned and the amazingly classy Tufted Puffins, comical Crested, diminutive least, and dapper Parakeet Auklets, well-dressed murres of both species, and much more. Arctic Foxes are tamer here than anywhere on the mainland, and the Northern Fur Seal colonies will be entering their birthing time, allowing many shots of mothers and young. And for those interested in landscapes, the green, flower-covered hillsides of St. Paul offer a truly sublime backdrop.

St. Paul allows such great photos and angles on a variety of cool birds, like this Crested Auklet
St. Paul allows such great photos and angles on a variety of cool birds, like this Crested Auklet (Cameron Cox)

For this extension we are essentially making the bookings for our clients as a service after the main tour. Please note that this extension is not regarded as part of a TB tour, and it is not priced as such; TB is not responsible for flight cancellations, delays and the like. Depending on the tour group size, we may send a Tropical Birding guide to the islands with you though normally you will have the local guide from the island, and not a TB guide.

Day 1: Anchorage to St. Paul Island. A morning flight will take us far to the west, out into the Bering Sea and onto some of the most famous islands in all of American birding. Our base will be the tiny island of St. Paul, home to some of the largest seabird nesting colonies on the planet, where we’ll spend four nights.

Horned Puffin poses in
Horned Puffin poses in "the Pribs" (Cameron Cox)

Days 2-4: St. Paul Island. We’ll spend three full days on St. Paul, which should give us ample time to search through the colonies for all of the myriad of alcid species that nest here, including Least, Parakeet, and Crested Auklets, Thick-billed and Common Murres, and Tufted and Horned Puffins. The cliffs on St. Paul also play host to one of the only nesting areas for Red-legged Kittiwakes in the world, and this is easily the most accessible place to see them. Some time will also be spent looking for birds on land – depending on the year there may be a pair or two McKay’s Buntings present among the much more common Snow Buntings, and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches (here an especially large and dark subspecies) are easily found on the island. Shorebirds often feature prominently on the island as well – it’s hard to get away from the beautiful endemic subspecies of Rock Sandpiper, and often a few other species are present. Finally, depending on the year we may well be lucky enough to stumble across some Asian vagrant – you never know what could show up on the Pribilofs!

Head shots, full body shots, sea backgrounds, cliff backdrops; Tufted Puffins and St. Paul, offer this all
Head shots, full body shots, sea backgrounds, cliff backdrops; Tufted Puffins and St. Paul, offer this all (Cameron Cox)

Day 5: St. Paul Island to Anchorage. In the afternoon, after grabbing some final images on the islands, we’ll board a plane back to Anchorage for a final night.

Day 6: Departure from Anchorage. The tour ends this morning in Anchorage. The hotel provides a shuttle bus to the airport.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. While we don’t tend to move long distances on any particular day in Alaska, the days are very long and the best photography times are often quite early or late, making for short nights. The best light tends to be late in the day or early in the morning, and around Nome this can involve being out until near midnight and/or from 4 AM. In Barrow we will usually stay out “overnight”, from about 10 PM to 3 AM. However, on most days there is an opportunity for a mid-day break, as the middle of the day tends to be the least productive time for photography. Lunches and dinners are usually in good restaurants, though we will take a packed lunch for one of the days in the Nome area. Both of the extensions are easy going, at a leisurely pace.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Mostly easy, though walking out onto the tundra can sometimes be a bit challenging. Depending on the location, this can involve walking in water to just below the knee or walking over drier land with grassy hummocks. We will be sure to take it slow, since that helps us get closer to the birds. The walking on both of the extension options is easy.

CLIMATE: Potentially quite variable. Alaska often experiences quite a range of conditions throughout late spring and summer, and temperatures can be at times quite warm (upwards of 80°F/27°C in the Anchorage area) to downright cold around Barrow (at times below freezing). Wind is also a prominent feature in coastal Alaska, especially around Barrow, and can make the apparent temperature seem much colder. Rain is possible throughout the tour, but usually isn’t common, and occasionally some light snow falls at Barrow. Normal daytime highs around Nome are between 55-70°F, and in Barrow between 40-50°F.

ACCOMMODATION: Good to excellent. All of the hotels and motels have typical amenities, including Wi-Fi, though the Wi-Fi can be sporadic in Barrow.

PHOTO PHILOSOPHY: This tour targets varied photographic opportunities, but in general we will be on foot in open habitats. We will often be moving slowly and carefully to try to sneak up on birds, or observing their behavior and choosing a spot to wait for them to pose themselves in the perfect position. Photography in Alaska this time of year is unique in that the best light tends to be very early in the morning or very late at “night”; this is especially true in Barrow where we will often be out in the field from 10 PM to 3 AM or even later, and then take time off in the middle of the day when the light is harsher and the birds harder to approach. There will be some opportunity for photography from the vehicle, especially in the Nome area, but this will be more limited on this tour.

For keen photographers, both extensions offer arguably some of the best nature photography in North America.

GEAR: For the best results, we recommend bringing a larger telephoto lens (500 or 600mm), as in the open tundra this will allow you to get the most out of the photo ops. On the other hand, if going on the St. Paul extension a smaller lens (300 or 400mm) is recommended in addition to the larger lens; this will allow you maximum flexibility at the alcid colonies, where birds can sometimes be too close to focus on! The light conditions tend to be quite good, and while you may not need a tripod for sharpness, it can be helpful to hold your heavy gear so you don’t have to.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: For US citizens, no special requirements are necessary to visit Alaska. Citizens of Canada may enter the US with a valid passport, and do not need to obtain a visa. For citizens of the 38 countries on the visa waiver list (including the UK, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and Japan – click here for the full list), you can enter the US with a valid passport and a completed Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which can be applied for online. For all passports, the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Citizens of all other countries will need to apply for a US visa. Travel requirements are subject to change; please double check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff if you are unsure.

The inclusions and exclusions below are for the main tour; please contact our office about what is included and excluded for the extensions

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 11; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 12; reasonable non-alcoholic beverages with meals; safe drinking water only between meals (tap water is safe to drink in the US, and you are encouraged to fill your water bottles when able); photo tour leader with audio playback gear from the evening of day 1 to the evening of day 11; ground transport for the group in a suitable vehicle driven by the tour leader from the evening of day 1 to the afternoon of day 11; airport shuttle bus on day 1 and day 12; tips for included meals; entrance fees to the sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of what you have seen and photographed (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader; tips to baggage carriers if you require their services; domestic (main tour only) and international flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; excess baggage fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.