Alaska: Fall on the Frontier

This is a birding tour, which has been designed to see the many specialties of the region in this season.

Alaska is a massive state, and therefore justifies multiple visits to take in all it has to offer. In the fall, migration is impressive, and mixed in with regular fall birds, are often eastern rarities from Asia. St. Paul island in the Pribilofs is one of the best places to stumble on to out of place Asian species, and fall is the major season for this. We have added a short extension to Barrow, where our focus on fall migration will continue, and home in on one of Barrow’s most-wanted birds, Ross’s Gulls. This tiny Arctic gull is hard to find worldwide, and October around Point Barrow is arguably the most reliable place to find it.


Day 1: Arrival in Anchorage. After arrival in Alaska’s main hub, Anchorage, we will settle in to a local hotel or the night. The tour starts in earnest with a welcome dinner at our Anchorage base that night.

Day 2: Anchorage to St. Paul (Pribilof Islands). In the morning we will make the short transfer to the airport, and fly over 700 miles southwest to the Pribilof Islands. Once there, we will connect with one of the experienced local guides and find out what rarities are around, prioritizing them before all else. Four nights will be spent on St. Paul.

Welcome indeed!
Welcome indeed! (Sam Woods)

An extreme close up of Red-legged Kittiwake on St. Paul
An extreme close up of Red-legged Kittiwake on St. Paul (Phil Chaon)

Days 3-5: St. Paul. We will have three full days, plus the end of day 2 and start of day 6, in which to scour this island for migrant birds, both on shore and offshore. In this season, eastern birds like Rustic and Little Buntings, Eurasian Bullfinch, Brambling, Hawfinch, Red-throated and Olive-backed Pipits, Eurasian Skylark, Pallas’s and Common Rosefinches, Siberian Accentor, Red-flanked Bluetail, Siberian Rubythroat, Gray-streaked Flycatcher, Dusky and Eyebrowed Thrushes, Willow and Yellow-browed Warblers, Common House-Martin, and White-tailed Sea-Eagle have all been recorded among others, making this a mouthwatering proposition. Other landbirds of interest, include the large Pribilofs version of Pacific Wren, McKay’s and Snow Buntings, Lapland Longspur Hoary Redpoll, Golden-crowned Sparrow, and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch. Seabirds and waterbirds are another major highlight of the Pribilofs in fall with regularly occurring species including Emperor Goose, Red-legged and Black-legged Kittiwakes, Tundra Swan, multiple eider species, Pacific Golden-Plover, Wood, Rock and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, Jack and Common Snipe, Gray-tailed and Wandering Tattlers, Parakeet and Least Auklets, Horned and Tufted Puffins, Slaty-backed Gull, Red-faced Cormorant, and five species of loon. Seawatching will be key to picking up rarer species passing by – Short-tailed Shearwater often pass by in the thousands and stormy days are known to bring large movements of Mottled Petrel, Laysan and Short-tailed Albatrosses are rarely seen as well, arriving to forage on the scraps of hunting Orcas. Hopefully you can see, that by beating the valleys, and scouring the seas, we will see a host of regular migration species, but also peppered with a few eastern species too, of particular interest to those looking to build a large ABA list. All of these nights will be spent at the same place on St. Paul.

The resident chunky Pribilof version of the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch
The resident chunky Pribilof version of the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (Sam Woods)

Phil Chaon looks in to the Bering Sea from St. Paul
Phil Chaon looks in to the Bering Sea from St. Paul (Sam Woods)

Day 6: St. Paul to Anchorage. After a domestic flight out of the Pribilofs we will return to Anchorage. Everyone will spend the night in Anchorage.

Day 7: Anchorage area/DEPARTURES. This day has been added in case of delayed flights out of St. Paul, due to weather conditions. Thus, in the event of a delay, this day will be used to fly us back to Anchorage for departures. If the flight schedules are unchanged, we will use this day to bird around Anchorage, which has a host of nearby birding areas. For those who are not joining the extension, you can plan to fly out in the evening. For those joining the extension, we shall spend the night in Anchorage.

Three species if wagtail are possible in the fall - White, Eastern Yellow and Gray!
Three species if wagtail are possible in the fall - White, Eastern Yellow and Gray! (Sam Woods)

A Northern Fulmar drifts passed a headland on the Pribilofs
A Northern Fulmar drifts passed a headland on the Pribilofs (Sam Woods)

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ROSS’S GULL EXTENSION (4 days)

Day 1 (Day 8 with main tour): Anchorage to Utqiaġvik. In the morning we will take a flight north to Utqiaġvik or Barrow, to give its old name, site of the northerly most point in North America. Three nights will be spent in Utqiaġvik (Barrow).

Snowy Owls live on the tundra surrounding Barrow
Snowy Owls live on the tundra surrounding Barrow (Keith Barnes)

Days 2-3 (Days 9-10 with main tour) Utqiaġvik: Barrow in fall is the most reliable place to find the revered Ross’s Gulls. In some years, on the right weather, thousands of these pass by Barrow, and when they do small pockets of them stop by. This will be our primary focus, a difficult species to get both in North America, but worldwide too, as it lives in remote places. However, while we are in Barrow, we are likely to run into plenty of other birds, such as skeins of migrating geese, such as Brant and Greater White-fronted Geese, gulls loafing by the shore, like Sabine’s Gulls or Glaucous Gulls, but maybe too an extreme rarity, like Ivory Gull. Loons are often around too, including Pacific and Yellow-billed Loons, while Snowy Owls occur right on the edge of town, and wetland areas hold ducks, flocking up for winter. These nights will be spent in the town of Utqiaġvik or Barrow.

Snow and McKay's Buntings are both on offer in the fall
Snow and McKay's Buntings are both on offer in the fall (Keith Barnes)

Day 4 (Day 11 with main tour): Utqiaġvik to Anchorage for DEPARTURES. After a morning flight out of Barrow, the tour ends at the airport in Achorage. We will be ready for flights home after experiencing dramatic fall migration in the Arctic, hopefully finding a handful of Asian rarities in doing so, and seeing specialties like Red-legged Kittiwake and Ross’s Gull.

Whale bones stand tall in Barrow
Whale bones stand tall in Barrow (Sam Woods)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. This is not a physically-demanding tour (see Physical Difficulty section below), but the days will be pretty long. Sunrise in this season is at 8am in Anchorage, and 9am in St. Paul and Barrow, with sunset at 7:30pm or a little later. Therefore, there are no early rises! However, there may be some later finishes. On St. Paul and in Barrow, we will take all our meals at a central location, so hot meals will be available to break up the day.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate. Some of the walking on St. Paul will be on dirt roads, although we will also take some through valleys in search of rarer species. This will be on uneven ground, with small steeper sections. It is not physically of a high difficulty, but is more strenuous than our time around Barrow, which is almost always along roads. There are no long drives on this tour, the drives on St. Paul being up to 30 minutes away from our base, and at Barrow about the same too. However, there are flights involved. On the main tour the flight to and from Anchorage is 4 hours each way. The flight to and from Barrow is around 2 hours each way. There are no elevation issues on this tour, with all of the places being coastal.

CLIMATE: Alaska is cold in the fall, with average lows and highs in Anchorage of 29-40F (-1.5-4.5C), on St. Paul Island of 35-42F (2-6C), and Barrow of -12-23F(-11—5C). Cold weather gear is essential, including good gloves, hat and waterproof jacket, and good, warm boots. A few days of rain are to be expected too, with St. Paul experiences rain every other day in this month.

ACCOMMODATION: Good to excellent. All of the hotels and motels on the main tour have typical good amenities, including Wi-Fi, and full-time electricity. On St. Paul, the bathrooms are shared between hotel guests, although the rooms are good and Wi-Fi works well there. We use the only hotel on the island. In Anchorage and Barrow there are en-suite facilities.

WHEN TO GO:This tour is specifically designed for a fall-time schedule, in particular to observe fall migration in the Arctic, which is also a peak tie for Asian rarities to occur. This is also timed for when the greatest numbers of Ross’s Gulls pass through Barrow for the extension. Alaska is also amazing in spring, and we have other tours that focus there in that spring, which you can find here:
Alaska SPRING Tours

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but cameras are welcome, and there are sure to be some opportunities both on St. Paul and in Barrow. However, there are no specific photo sites visited (i.e. there are no feeders).

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: For US citizens, there are no special travel requirements. For all foreign citizens, please check the ever-changing restrictions as a result of COVID-19. Tropical Birding cannot be responsible for changes in entrance policy or restriction levied by the US government. 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), 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. Those who need to apply for an ESTA or Visa should do so long in advance of the tour, as these can take days weeks to be issued.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Accommodations from the night of day 1 through the night of day 5 (main tour only), through to the night of day 9 (with extension);

; meals from the night of day 1 through to lunch on day 6 (main tour only), to lunch on day 10 (with extension); all park fees to sites stated in the itinerary; one airport transfer per person/couple (by hotel shuttle) at the start of the tour; Tropical Birding tour leader from the night of day 1 through to the lunchtime on day 6 (main tour only), to lunch on day 10 (with extension); ground transport for the group on St. Paul (official vehicle of the local guide there, no rentals on the island); and on the extension in Barrow on days 7 to 10 in a modern rental vehicle with the Tropical Birding tour leader as the driver. One domestic return flight to and from St. Paul Island for the main tour, and also one return flight to and from Barrow on the extension.

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Any extra nights you wish to stay in the area; flights to and from Anchorage to start and end the tour; optional tips to the tour leader; tips to any baggage handlers if used anywhere; any passport or visa fees; excess baggage fees; snacks; any drinks other than drinkable water; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, internet, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.