Alaska Photo Tour

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 three main locations: Seward, Nome and Barrow.

Seward is a drive south of Anchorage, is especially famed for the comfortable day cruises into the glaciers of Kenaij Fjords National Park, where birds and animals are abundant within spectacular scenery. We could be training our cameras on Humpback Whales, Sea Otters, Dall’s Poprpoises, or Steller’s Sea-Lions in addition to birds like Black-legged Kittiwake, Marbled Murrelet, Pigeon Guillemot, and Rhinoceros Auklet. Local feeders in Seward are also worth an extended visit and where in some years species like Pine Grosbeak, Red Crossbill, Rufous Hummingbird, and ‘Sooty’ Fox Sparrow can be seen and photographed, while the surrounding forest can be good for tracking down Moose or packs of roaming Steller’s Jays.

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.

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.


A pre tour extension is offered for those who simply cannot leave Alaska without frame-filling shots of Horned and Tufted Puffins, Parakeet and Least Auklets, Red-legged Kittiwakes, and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches.

King Eider one of the high Arctic specialties in Barrow
King Eider one of the high Arctic specialties in Barrow (Iain Campbell)

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

Day 2: Anchorage to Seward. We’ll drive south from the Alaskan capital, passing through dramatic scenery offered by the Chugach Mountains and at sites like Beluga Point and Turnagain Pass, where in addition to birds we may find mammals like Dall’s Sheep or Hoary Marmot, and can even photograph impressive blooms of lupines and lilies at the pass. In the afternoon we will have two principal activities; to photograph boreal forest birds at the local feeders in Seward, which may include Red Crossbill, Pine Grosbeak or Rufous Hummingbird among the visitors, and secondly, we will walk into the harbor from our hotel, where the scenery will again be staggering, but where our focus will be on the tame Sea Otters that frequent the harbor, taking mollusks off the harbor floor in plain sight. The next two nights will be spent in the coastal town of Seward on the scenic Kenai Peninsula.

Sea Otters are typically very cooperative in Seward Harbor
Sea Otters are typically very cooperative in Seward Harbor (Nick Athanas)

Day 3: Northwestern Glacier Cruise: This day may well be the highlight of the tour, as we take a 9-hour cruise from the harbor in Seward out to the furthest of the accessible glaciers, the Northwestern Glacier. The particular cruise chosen is to ensure we have plentiful time on board to both see and photograph birds and marine mammals. The shorter cruises generally feel a little rushed for the bird photographer. Some of the animals and birds we will be seeking include Surf Scoter, Sooty Shearwater, Red-faced and Pelagic Cormorants, Common Murres, Pigeon Guillemot, Kittlitz’s and Marbled Murrelets, Rhinoceros Auklets, as well as Bald Eagles, and perhaps Humpack, Minke or Killer Whales too, along with Steller’s Sea-Lions and more Sea Otters. A second night will be spent in Seward.

Westchester Lagoon in Anchorage is a must for photographing Red-necked Grebes
Westchester Lagoon in Anchorage is a must for photographing Red-necked Grebes (Iain Campbell)

Day 4: Seward to Anchorage. Today we will blend a mix of boreal forest birding near Seward, seeking Chestnut-backed and Boreal Chickadees, Steller’s Jays, and Varied Thrush, and perhaps something rarer like Spruce Grouse or American Three-toed Woodpecker, if we are lucky. During the drive back to Anchorage, we will stop at various places to get up close to birds, like Potter Marsh near our Anchorage hotel, where species like Arctic Terns, Mew Gulls, Orange-crowned Warblers, and Lincoln’s Sparrows all breed, and can often be photographed too. It is also a good (but not guaranteed) place for Moose also. We will also stop off at Westchester Lagoon, where Red-necked Grebes are both abundant and usually photographable, and sometimes Short-billed Dowitcher too, among other more common species like Black-billed Magpie, American Wigeon and both scaups. The night will be spent again in Anchorage.

Red-throated Loons are often bathed in gorgeous light in Alaska
Red-throated Loons are often bathed in gorgeous light in Alaska (Iain Campbell)

Day 5: 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 late and taking rests during the slow periods after lunch. Four nights will be spent in Nome.

There's no place like Nome for Long-tailed Jaegers
There's no place like Nome for Long-tailed Jaegers (Keith Barnes)

Days 6-8: Nome area. There are only three principal roads out of Nome, and much of our time will be spent searching along these for birds and photo opps. Traversing different elevational ranges, these roads give us a good transect of willow-studded hillsides (where the delightful Willow Ptarmigan is often wonderfully tame) 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, Red Knot, and Rock Ptarmigan. At the end of one of these roads, we also enter into patches of boreal forest too. Other birds we will seek out around Nome include Red-throated Loon, Surfbird, breeding Black-bellied Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit, American Dipper, Golden-crowned Sparrow, ‘Red’ Fox Sparrow, Wilson’s Warbler, Lapland Longspur, and the scarce Bluethroat. In some years there are also close-nesting raptors like Golden Eagle, Rough-legged Hawk or the rare Gyrfalcon, although this varies from year to year.

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 could see Moose, Caribou, and with some luck, Grizzly Bear. These nights will be spent within the same hotel in Nome.

Bar-tailed Godwit is a local species that breeds near Nome
Bar-tailed Godwit is a local species that breeds near Nome (Iain Campbell)

Day 9: 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 another night in our now very familiar hotel.

Some days in Barrow we will encounter hundreds of Red Phalaropes
Some days in Barrow we will encounter hundreds of Red Phalaropes (Iain Campbell)

Day 10: Anchorage to Barrow. After a flight out of Anchorage to Barrow, we’ll check into our Barrow hotel (home for three nights), pick up our rental vans, and make the first foray into the wet and icy 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 often during the night! The first of three nights will be spent in Barrow.

One of the stellar birds of Alaska: Steller's Eider
One of the stellar birds of Alaska: Steller's Eider (Iain Campbell)

Days 11-12: 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 photos 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.

Barrow is eider country, with 4 species possible
Barrow is eider country, with 4 species possible (Nick Athanas)

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 typically offer themselves up, like Pacific Loons to abundant Snow Buntings that hop through town like sparrows to the super-common but stunningly attired Long-tailed Ducks that float in nearly every pond. There are also feeders in town that regularly attract redpolls of two species, and sometimes the off lemming too in a good year for them. These nights will be spent in a hotel at the ‘Top of the World’ in Barrow.

Willow Ptarmigans are known for being extremely confiding
Willow Ptarmigans are known for being extremely confiding (Nick Athanas)

Day 13: Barrow to Anchorage. After much of the day in Barrow, we shall take an afternoon flight back to Anchorage, where we’ll overnight for the final time on the main tour.

Day 14: Departure from Anchorage. The main tour ends this morning in Anchorage, with an airport shuttle provided by the hotel when you need one.

A Pectoral Sandpiper displays over the tundra beside Nome
A Pectoral Sandpiper displays over the tundra beside Nome (Iain Campbell)

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EXTENSION OPTIONS

St. Paul, Pribilofs extension (4 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’s more, not only are these birds both charismatic and stunning, they’re amazingly cooperative.

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 island holds the largest colony of Northern Fur Seals in the World.

A Crested Auklet showing off its
A Crested Auklet showing off its "Elvis hair" (Keith Barnes)

For this extension we are essentially making the bookings for our clients as a service before 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. We will book a good local based bird guide to take you around, the Tropical Birding guide will not be part of this section of the tour.

Day 1: Anchorage to St. Paul Island. A 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 three nights.

Tufted Puffin with the pensive over-shoulder look
Tufted Puffin with the pensive over-shoulder look (Keith Barnes)

Days 2-3: St. Paul Island. We’ll spend two 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 –Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches (here an especially large and dark subspecies) are easily found on the island, as are the extremely common Rock Sandpiper (often missed on the mainland part of the tour), 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!

There isn't a bird photographer alive who doesn't love puffins
There isn't a bird photographer alive who doesn't love puffins (Andrew Spencer)

Day 4: St. Paul Island to Anchorage. In the afternoon, after grabbing some final images on the islands, you’ll board a plane back to Anchorage for a final night.

PLEASE NOTE: A package to St. Paul will be booked by Tropical Birding, which will include the return tickets to and from Anchorage, accommodation on St. Paul at the King Eider Hotel, food while there, and a local guide for the group. We have deliberately scheduled this in a way that allows a day off between the day you will be due back in Anchorage from St. Paul, and the official arrival day (when there is no birding planned) of the main tour. This has been planned based on 2018 schedules, which are not yet confirmed for 2019, but are likely to remain the same. The extra day in between the pre-tour extension and the main tour has been inserted to ensure if there are any kind of delays in getting on and off of St. Paul, then you have buffer time between then and the main tour should you need it, and then are unlikely to miss the start of the main tour. This does mean that there is a full day, not included in the tour cost (e.g. not the extra hotel night and food for that single day, or transport should you decide on going somewhere), in Anchorage between the extension and start of the main tour, if flights run as planned. This is a good time to get downtime, or the hotels in Anchorage can often plan day trips and half day trips in the area, so you will have plenty of options and birding sites to fill this gap if you need to. Tropical Birding are happy to advise you with the various options available to you on this day, should you wish to go birding somewhere alone.

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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. However, on some 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. The extension is 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 the extension is easy.

CLIMATE: 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 on the main tour have typical amenities, including Wi-Fi, 24-hour electricity and en-suite bathrooms. However, on the extension on St. Paul the bathrooms are shared with other hotel guests, there are no en-suite options there at the only hotel on the island.

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. For keen photographers, the extension offers 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 day 13; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 14; 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); round-trip flight from Anchorage to Nome; round-trip flight from Anchorage to Barrow; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio playback gear from the evening of day 1 to the evening of day 13; ground transport for the group in a suitable vehicle driven by the guide from the morning of day 2 to the afternoon of day 13; airport shuttle bus on day 1 and day 14; tips for included meals; a day cruise to Kenai Fjords National Park on day 3 (9 hours with breakfast and lunch on board, arriving back midafternoon); entrance fees to the sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (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 tour leader; tips to baggage carriers if you require their services; flights from your home city to Anchorage; 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; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.