This is a Birding with a Camera (BwC) tour, but that does not mean that we do not target specialties; this tour is a targeted birding tour chasing after the many specialties of the region, but just so happens to be excellent too for birders carrying cameras, as many of the birds seen will also be easily photographed too. This tour does not exclude people from coming who do not carry cameras, as we will be targeting all of the regular specialties that any other birding tour would.
‘The Last Frontier’ is a perennial favorite destination for birders and nature lovers and it is easy to understand why. The scenery throughout the state on this tour beggars belief at times; achingly beautiful landscapes are an everyday experience. With wonderful landscapes come superb birds, rare or impossible in other parts of the US, and an exciting series of mammals too; Polar and Brown Bears, Muskox, Caribou, Moose, Arctic Ground Squirrel, Hoary Marmot, Dall’s Sheep, Arctic Fox, Sea Otter, Dall’s Porpoise, Orca, Humpback Whale, and Steller’s Sea-Lion are all possible on this tour. The ‘Land of the Midnight Sun’ is also rich in photo opportunities of its wildlife at this time of year, with plentiful daylight hours, open country birding for the most part, and often-confiding birds and other animals, making this a natural ‘Birding with a Camera‘ tour.
This classic itinerary for specialties launches from the state capital, Anchorage, first driving south to Seward, on the Kenai Peninsula. Our southward journey will bring us into the northernmost tip of the Pacific boreal forest belt, and Chugach National Forest, which offers us forest species like Red Crossbill, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Varied Thrush and American Three-toed Woodpecker. However, the likely centerpiece of this first leg of the main tour will be a day’s cruise into Kenaij Fjords National Park, which is brimming with pelagic birds and marine life. We’ll be on the lookout for the rare Kittlitz’s Murrelet, as well as Tufted Puffin, Marbled Murrelet, Rhinoceros Auklet, Pigeon Guillemot, and spectacular marine mammals for a superb all round natural history experience.
After returning to the Alaskan capital, we will fly to Nome, the site of a late 19th Century Gold Rush, and now a rush for birders each spring seeking rare North American breeders, with a distinct Asian flavor like Bluethroat, Arctic Warbler, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, and Northern Wheatear, and perhaps a “regular” rarity too, like Red-necked Stint or the odd breeding White Wagtail. Other specialties around Nome include the elusive Bristle-thighed Curlew, rusty Bar-tailed Godwit, brick Red Knot, rock-like Surfbird and Rock Sandpiper; and elegant Aleutian Tern.
The final leg of the main tour is to Barrow, deep inside the Arctic Circle at the “Top of the World”, where Steller’s, King, and Spectacled Eiders are the main features, as well as a swathe of breeding shorebirds, including impressive Pectoral Sandpipers making low, “booming” display flights above the Arctic tundra. Snowy Owls are also on the agenda too. The main tour wraps up after another night in Anchorage.
A pre-tour extension to St. Paul can be arranged too for people who cannot leave without close up encounters and photos of puffins, auklets, cormorants, and rosy-finches; Tufted and Horned Puffins, Least, Parakeet, and Crested Auklets, and Red-faced Cormorants all breed there in the hundreds of thousands in some years, along with Red-legged Kittiwake, and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch. In spring too, St. Paul is famed for vagrants from Asia, so there is also a chance of something truly unexpected in this season. While the island only has 20 or so breeding birds (and thousands of fur-seals), the bird list tops out near 250 species, bolstered by a long list of North American rarities amassed over the falls and springs of decades of observation, which have highlighted its value as a vagrant trap.
Day 1: Arrival in Anchorage. After arriving in Alaska’s largest city, a shuttle will transfer you to our local hotel for the night.
Day 2: Anchorage to Seward. After breakfast, we will head south for the 127mile (205km) drive to the small town of Seward, situated at the head of Resurrection Bay on the Kenai Peninsula. The journey will not be an uneventful one, as it passes through the dramatic Chugach Mountain Range, so several stops will be made, ensuring we will not reach Seward until lunchtime. Along the way, mammals may feature like ivory-colored Dall’s Sheep at the intriguingly-named Beluga Point, and Hoary Marmot at the Lilly-laden Turnagain Pass, the latter of which may have recently emerged from hibernation. Once in Seward, we will drop into some local yard feeders, which can host Red Crossbill in some years, as well as Red-breasted Nuthatch, Pine Grosbeak, Pine Siskin, ‘Sooty’ Fox Sparrow, and the continent’s northernmost breeding hummingbird, the Rufous Hummingbird. By the end of the day we will make sure we drop in on the resident Sea Otters in the harbor that characteristically use their stomachs as ‘dinner tables’ when ripping apart mollusks taken from the seabed. Two nights will be spent in the scenic town of Seward, where the harbor is dramatically backed by a chain of snow-dusted peaks, part of the Kenai Mountain Chain.
Day 3: Kenaij Fjords Cruise. Much of the day will be spent on a large boat traveling through Resurrection Bay, and taking in three different glaciers, including the furthest of these from Seward, the magical Northwestern Glacier, the stronghold for the rare and local Kittlitz’s Murrelet. This cruise is likely to provide one of the standout days of the tour early on, for it has everything; dramatic glaciers, large animals like Humpback Whales, Steller’s Sea-Lions and Sea Otters, and a fascinating set of pelagic and seabirds, like Harlequin Ducks, Surf Scoters, Black Oystercatcher, Marbled and Ancient Murrelets (the latter a scarcity), Pigeon Guillemot, Thick-billed and Common Murres, and Rhinoceros Auklet. We will have breakfast and lunch on board our comfortable, covered vessel, before returning to Seward Harbor in the afternoon. A second night will be spent in Seward.
Day 4: Seward to Anchorage. Much of the day will be spent in the boreal forests within Chugach National Forest and Lowell Point, searching for specialties, like Boreal and Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Gray and Steller’s Jays, Brown Creeper, Pacific Wren, Townsend’s Warbler, Varied Thrush, and (if we are lucky), maybe a White-winged Crossbill (erratic), an American Three-toed Woodpecker, or a Spruce Grouse. On the return journey to Anchorage we will make several stops too, at Potter Marsh just off the highway for breeding Arctic Terns, Mew Gulls, burnt-red Short-billed Dowitchers, singing Lincoln’s Sparrows, and perhaps the odd Moose. Also, we may find time to stop in at Westchester Lagoon, where Red-necked Grebes are usually photogenic as well as abundant, and also sometimes hosts Hudsonian Godwit too. We will spend another night in our Anchorage hotel.
Day 5: Anchorage to Nome. In the morning we will fly out of Anchorage, journeying northwest to Nome on the Seward Peninsula of western Alaska. Just three roads fan out from Nome (to Teller to the northwest, to the Kougarok River to the north, and to Council to the northeast); each around 70 miles long, which will be where our birding will be focused. We will arrive in time for our first exploration of the area, with plentiful daylight in the Land of the Midnight Sun after all! Four nights will be spent in Nome, searching for breeding or rare shorebirds, terns, and loons; watching sky-dancing jaegers, tracking down breeding Asian-influenced songbirds, and watching for nesting raptors.
Days 6-8: Nome. We will have three full days to explore this fascinating birding area, which is rightly a pilgrimage that nearly every North American birder should make, for the rare birds to be able to add to your ABA list. However, it also appeals to all other visitors to, as there is much more besides rare and local North American species.
The Council Road is arguably the most widely celebrated of the three roads that span out from town, which passes first the Nome River, often a site of breeding Aleutian Terns, then rapidly reaches Safety Sound, (which is flanked by Norton Sound on the seaward side). This is a hotspot for shorebirds, gulls and loons in particular. Of particular interest will be the seaward side for the chance at the scarce Arctic Loon (one of five species of loon possible on the trip, or simply put, all of the World’s species); while any coastal area and inland ponds are packed with shorebirds, which could include Surfbird and Black Turnstone, and is the site for regular (though not guaranteed) early summer sightings of Red-necked Stints, which are thought to breed in the area in very small numbers. Safety Sound is also a regular place for congregations of gulls, largely Glaucous Gulls and Black-legged Kittiwakes, but also a regular spot for stray Slaty-backed or Vega Gulls too. Western Sandpipers in gorgeous breeding plumage are also likely in this area.
Spots in the tundra off of this road can also produce a rare American breeder, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, as well as regular sightings of the graceful thief, the Long-tailed Jaeger, which robs local birds of their catch for a living. Moving further along the road, the ponds and inlets give way to tundra and picturesque rocky hills. At one of the highpoints, the scenic Skookum Pass, cryptically-patterned Surfbirds can be found breeding in some years, while the rocks themselves play host to singing male Northern Wheatears. Lapland Longspurs will be seen regularly proclaiming their piece of Arctic land, and we will be checking bridges and rock outcrops for bundles of sticks revealing any nesting raptors; Golden Eagles, Rough-legged Hawks and Gyrfalcons all breed in this area annually. Near the end of the road, it enters into patches of boreal forest, where Blackpoll, Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) and Orange-crowned Warblers, Boreal Chickadees, Varied Thrushes, and Ruby-crowned Kinglets all breed.
The Teller Road, that heads out westwards, terminates at Teller as the name betrays, where White Wagtails can be found breeding in some years, but cannot be expected every tour! Other specialties along this road include, rusted breeding Bar-tailed Godwits, Red Knots, and Rock Sandpipers. Black-bellied Plovers are stunning in full breeding dress and also breed in this area annually in small numbers. Other possibilities along there include American Golden-Plovers on the drier high ground (Pacific Golden-Plovers are also found around Nome, but in the wetter lower areas, and valleys between the high points), and Northern Wheatears breeding among the more sparsely grassed, rockier areas. This population comprises of the longest distance migrant songbird/passerine on the planet; following their breeding cycle in Alaska, the wheatears travel through Siberia and Asia and end up in Africa for the winter, a distance of some 8,700 miles (14,000km)!
Lastly, comes the Kougarok Road, which has one of the most revered sites on the itinerary, the ‘Coffee Dome’, which is home to small numbers of breeding Bristle-thighed Curlew, which requires both a hike and luck to see. The same site is also home to breeding ‘Hudsonian’ Whimbrel and American Golden-Plover. This road is also arguably the best of the three to track down other key target species like displaying Bluethroats, which toss themselves in the air off of the bushes in the early mornings, and Arctic Warblers, which can be abundant in the taller scrub along this dirt road. Other birds we will seek in the area will be Golden-crowned and ‘Red’ Fox Sparrows, while breeding Wilson’s Warblers are abundant in the area, as are both species of redpoll (Mealy and Hoary/Arctic).
These three nights will be spent at a birder-friendly hotel in Nome, with a bird log right at reception!
Day 9: Nome to Anchorage. After much of the day returning to where we need to, we will take an afternoon flight back to Anchorage, where we will return to our now familiar hotel for another single night.
Day 10: Anchorage to Barrow. On this morning we will take a long flight north, deep into the Arctic, to the unique town of Barrow (or ‘Utqiagvik’ in local language) right at the Top of the World. The wet tundra and icescapes around town are home to some special breeding species, so three nights will be spent in Barrow.
Days 11-12: Barrow. Two full days will be spent in Barrow, with plentiful extra time on both our arrival and departure days to make the most out of it. Among the most wanted birds in Barrow are ducks, and eiders in particular with Spectacled, Steller’s and King Eiders all key targets during our time there. There are plentiful breeding shorebirds here too, which are typically confiding and photogenic, as are many species in Alaska with persistence. Dunlin are numerous, as are Pectoral Sandpiper, perhaps the most impressive of them all. If you think you have seen a Pectoral Sandpiper already, you have probably not really seen one like this. In spring, their plumage is transformed, with bold arrows stitched tightly across their pumped chests, and the males make attention-grabbing, low display flights while uttering a low booming call, which is characteristic of the tundra around Barrow.
Phalaropes are also plentiful, with both Red-necked and Red Phalaropes both often seen in numbers of hundreds in a day, and so confiding you can sometimes get the tip of your boot in the same photo! We’ll also check for Snowy Owls along the Cake Eater Road, which also hosts Short-eared Owls too. Off of Point Barrow we will scope the sea ice, which stretches well into the distance, as occasionally a Polar Bear wanders nearer town, although we still need patience and a dose of good fortune to find one. Other birds we are likely to see around Barrow include Hoary Redpoll, large numbers of Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs, and breeding Pacific Loons, in their gorgeous velvety breeding plumage at this time of year. These two nights will also be spent in Barrow.
Day 13: Barrow to Anchorage. After a final morning, taking ever more photos of the many photogenic birds of Barrow, we will fly south back to Anchorage for a final night.
Day 14: Departure from Anchorage. A hotel shuttle will be provided to take you to the airport for whenever you need it for your flights out.
St. Paul Island (Pribilofs) Pre-tour Extension (4 days)
St. Paul is a small volcanic island in the chain of the Pribilofs, famed amongst birders and naturalists for three things; a huge population of breeding seabirds, a known hotspot for North American rarities during spring and fall, the largest single population of Northern Fur-Seals on the planet. The main one of these that is central to this extension being offered, are the seabirds. While just 500 people on an island just over 7 miles (11km) wide and 13 miles (21km) long, in some years estimates of above a quarter of a million seabirds come to cover the cliffs and nest there too. Among these is a stellar selection of pelagic birds, with key species including Red-legged Kittiwake (easy in the Pribilofs but nowhere else), Tufted and Horned Puffins, Crested, Parakeet and Least Auklets, Thick-billed and Common Murres, Northern Fulmars, and Red-faced Cormorants.
The most common bird species on St. Paul is the Rock Sandpiper, and just four songbirds nest on this rocky landmass that is covered in an attractive blanket of lilac-colored lupines in this season, the most interesting of which are a large, dark distinct race of Pacific Wren, and a similarly bulky version of the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch. The seabird species are not only attractive in terms of getting them on a life list, but the St. Paul experience is so much more than this; seeing these birds exceptionally well, time and again. So, for bird photographers it is one of those bucket list destinations, where full framers of birds like Tufted Puffin and Crested Auklet make this an extremely rewarding destination.
Day 1: Anchorage to St. Paul. A late morning/early afternoon flight (schedules are not yet known) will take us far to the west (750 air miles from Anchorage), 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. Three nights, two full days, will be spent on the island.
Days 2-3: St. Paul, Pribilofs.
Day 4: St. Paul to Anchorage. An afternoon flight will return you to Anchorage.
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.
PACE: Moderate. While we don’t tend to move large distances on any particular day in Alaska, the days are very long (in the Land of the Midnight Sun), and the best birding times are often quite early or late, making for shorter nights than on some tours. Start times often tend to be quite reasonable (around 7 to 8 AM), but we often stay out well past dinner, occasionally as late as 11 PM around Barrow. 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 birds. Lunches and dinners are usually in good local restaurants, though we will take a packed lunch for one of the days in the Nome area; and may take a field breakfast to get an early start for the optional hike up to try for the curlew at Nome too (those not wishing to climb the hill can bird along the road below during this time, which is home to Bluethroat and Arctic Warbler).
PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to Moderate. Mostly easy, but there are a couple of longer walks, mostly in the Nome area. The hardest of these is the attempt for Bristle-thighed Curlew, where we may walk up to 3 miles roundtrip over tundra that can have large grass hummocks. There is also the opportunity to walk into the tundra around Barrow, which while flat can often be quite wet (at the least rubber boots (or even waders) are suggested for those who wish to do this, which is often a good way to get better photos). Anyone not wishing to do these walks may bird on their own around the vehicle. Otherwise almost all of the birding is from roads or good, relatively flat trails. This is not a difficult tour, but longer optional walks may be undertaken at Nome or Barrow ‘on the fly’ in order to get closer to birds to photograph; some of these may be on high uneven ground with steep sections, but are short and optional.
CLIMATE: Variable. Alaska often experiences quite a range of conditions throughout late spring and summer, and temperatures can be at times quite warm (even up to a balmy 80°F/27°C in the Anchorage area in some years) 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. Good, winter clothing and good quality rain gear are essential on this tour as are rubber boots (waders can be useful too but not essential). Rain is also possible throughout the tour, and occasionally some light snow falls at Barrow or Nome. Normal daytime highs in this season are: Anchorage, lows of 40-48 °F and highs of 56-63°F (4.5-9°C and 13.5-17.5°C respectively ); Seward, varies between 36-76 °F (2.5-24.5°C), averaging around 51°F (10.5 °C). Please remember, in Seward, while on the cruise to the glaciers, the wind chill can make it feel much colder than the actual temperature. In Nome, temperatures vary between 55-70°F (13-21°C), and in Barrow between 40-50°F (4.5-10°C).
ACCOMMODATION: Good to excellent. All of the hotels and motels on the main tour have typical good amenities, including Wi-Fi, full-time electricity and en-suite facilities. On the St. Paul Extension, the bathrooms are shared between hotel guests, although the rooms are good and Wi-Fi works well there.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Alaska ranks as among the best photography destinations in the world, and chances for photos will be abundant. On this excellent birding and photography tour, the chances at all sites for getting good bird photos are high, with Seward providing opportunities to photograph not only seabirds but marine mammals on the boat trip out of there. Although the forest birding there will be challenging for photography, there is a set of feeders which attract song birds and hummingbirds close to town, which will provide some chances to photograph there. In Nome, the nesting shorebirds, jaegers, loons, and sometimes raptors too can provide good shots, while in Barrow the arctic nesting shorebirds like Pectoral Sandpiper, Dunlin and Western Sandpiper, may also be supported by some of the eiders for mini photo shoots, along with the plentiful tame long-tailed ducks and Greater White-fronted Geese. Both Barrow and Nome have ptarmigans (both Rock and Willow), and Lapland Longspurs, which are all typically tame. Aside from the birds, mammals like Muskox in Nome, and Sea Otters around Seward Harbor are often photographed too.
Arguably, the most exciting bird photography of the entire tour is on St. Paul, on the extension, where species like Tufted and Horned Puffins, Least and Parakeet Auklets, Red-faced Cormorants, both Black-legged and Red-legged Kittiwakes, in addition to Rock Sandpipers, and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches are all near assured on each visit to perform. There is also plentiful chances to photograph the abundant Arctic Foxes and Northern Fur-Seals on the island too.
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 should be applied for online IN ADVANCE OF THE TOUR. 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 extension, and for latest prices. We will book a full package including flights to and from St. Paul, accommodation and food while on the island, and a local bird guide for your stay. Note: there is a full day and night between the end of the extension and the start of the main tour in Anchorage, which is scheduled due to both the flight schedules to and from the island necessitating this, but also to ensure if there are delays to flight coming off St. Paul that there is a buffer to ensure that you do not miss the start of the main tour. The costs of food and one night’s stay in Anchorage are not included within the main tour price or the extension price, although our office can help arrange this for you. The guide will not be present for the extension, as a local guide will be provided on St. Paul, and there are no birding activities planned on the ‘buffer’ day between the St. Paul extension and main tour. Day tours can be arranged through the hotel we stay at in Anchorage, and we can also assist with booking something in advance if desired. Please contact our office for further information on all of this.
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); 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 Kenaij 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; no flights, including to and from Anchorage for the start and end of the tour AND internal flights between Anchorage and Nome, and Anchorage and Barrow (PLEASE NO NOT BOOK THESE BEFORE SPEAKING TO THE TROPICAL BIRDING OFFICE, WHO WILL ADVISE-AND CAN HELP-ON BOOKING THE SPECIFIC FLIGHTS REQUIRED); 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.