Alaska: Birding the Top of America

There’s something about the Arctic that has an irresistible draw to birders. It’s hard to define – there aren’t tons of species in the Arctic, and it can be cold, windy, and wet. But when you consider the quality of the birds that call the Arctic home, and then combine it with avian spectacles that are among the best on the planet, easily seen charismatic mammals, and some of North America’s best scenery, and the allure becomes more apparent.


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Our tour to Alaska is timed to take advantage of as many of the avian highlights as possible. From the enormous nesting colonies of the Pribilof Islands to the the true Arctic in Nome and Barrow we will sample the best of Alaska for a truly unforgettable trip!

Day 1: Arrival in Anchorage. After arriving in Alaska’s largest city, you will transfer to our hotel for the night.

Days 2: Anchorage to Nome. We’ll take the first available morning flight to the outpost town of Nome, where we’ll spend four nights. A legendary birding location, and rightfully so, the mix of limited range Asiatic species that barely make it into the US, along with highly sought after arctic breeders gives Nome some truly spectacular birding!

A handsome female Red Phalarope
A handsome female Red Phalarope (Andrew Spencer)

Days 3-5: Nome area. One of our days in the Nome area will be spent driving inland along the Kougarok Road. Famous as the most accessible place to search for nesting Bristle-thighed Curlews in the world, we will spend a good deal of time searching for this elusive bird. There are also a number of other mouth-watering possibilities to keep us occupied, including (if we are lucky) nesting Gyrfalcon, Rough-legged Hawk, the gorgeous Bluethroat, and Hoary Redpoll.

For the remainder of our time in Nome we’ll explore the other two roads out of town. With anything from breeding plumaged Red Knots and Rock Sandpipers singing practically at our feet to the hilarious antics of Rock and Willow Ptarmigans to large flocks of seaducks and loons, there is no shortage of superb birding to keep us occupied. You know something is going right when one of the most common birds is Long-tailed Jaegers, which soar delightfully close overhead. Species we’ll keep a special eye out for include Aleutian Tern, Arctic Loon (the Nome area being one of the best in the US to look for this species), royalty in the form of Emperor Goose and King Eider, and Eastern Yellow Wagtail.

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

Aside from all the birdlife, Nome also doesn’t slack off in the mammal department. Nowhere else will we have as good a chance for the bizarre Muskox, looking like something out of the ice age, and herds of Caribou or the off chance of a Grizzly Bear will keep us on our toes. We’ll spend these three nights in Nome again.

Day 6: Nome to Anchorage .
After a final morning in Nome, we’ll take an afternoon flight to Anchorage, where we’ll spend the next two nights.

Four stunning eiders are on the cards for this tour
Four stunning eiders are on the cards for this tour (Cameron Cox)

Day 7: Around Anchorage. The day will be spent around Anchorage surveying wetlands surrounding Alaska’s largest city for resplendent Red-necked Grebes and gorgeous Barrow’s Goldeneyes; while the tall boreal forests on the edge of the city play host to photogenic birds like Steller’s Jays and Wilson’s Warblers. A second night will be spent in Anchorage.

Day 8: Anchorage to Barrow. An early morning flight will take us north from Anchorage – far to the north – to the last frontier of the Last Frontier. Barrow is famous not only as the northernmost point in the United States, but also as an excellent location to truly experience the arctic. We’ll have plenty of time to look for some of the most charismatic species on the continent. Headlining these will be Spectacled and Steller’s Eiders, and we’ve timed our visit here to give us the best opportunity of seeing these rare ducks in their full breeding regalia. Three nights will be spent in Barrow.

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)

Days 9-10: Barrow. There is a lot more besides, to birding in Barrow, and we could also see such sought-after species as nesting Snowy Owls, all three species of Jaegers, Yellow-billed Loon, and Hoary Redpoll. By virtue of its high-arctic location Barrow also gives us our best shot at a number of breeding shorebirds, from gaudy Red Phalaropes to more subtly patterned Pectoral and Baird’s Sandpipers and an outside shot at Buff-breasted Sandpiper.

Depending on the sea ice conditions we may also have a chance at seeing one of the most charismatic mammals in the world, the gigantic Polar Bear. And even if the conditions aren’t ideal for the bear we have a good shot at seeing Bearded and Ringed Seals, and maybe an Arctic Fox or some lemmings. These nights will be spent in Barrow.

The scenery on the Kenai Peninsula is among the best on the continent!
The scenery on the Kenai Peninsula is among the best on the continent! (Andrew Spencer)

Day 11: Barrow to Anchorage. After a final morning in Barrow, we’ll take an afternoon flight to Anchorage, where we’ll overnight.

Day 12: Anchorage to Seward. We’ll spend most of the day taking a leisurely drive along the scenic Turnagain Arm and Kenai Peninsula to the town of Seward, birding roadside marshes, waterfront, and coastal humid forest along the way. The northernmost extension of the Pacific Northwest rainforest, this habitat will be in stark contrast to most of the others on the tour. This translates into quite a few species that won’t be seen elsewhere, including colorful Townsend’s Warblers and Steller’s Jays, erratic Red Crossbills, “Sooty” Fox Sparrow, tiny Rufous Hummingbirds, and if we’re lucky the Beluga Whales that sometimes cruise the Turnagain Arm. The night will be spent in Seward.

Day 13: Kenai Fjords National Park to Anchorage. Imagine a wall of ice 700 feet high, just off a boat bobbing in impossibly blue water. No, you aren’t in Antarctica, you’re sitting next to a monstrous glacier not far from Seward, Alaska! Glacier viewing won’t be the only highlight of the day’s foray into Kenai Fjords National Park, though – impressive seabird colonies that can include up to eight or more species of alcids, thousands of Black-legged Kittiwakes, the rare and local Kittlitz’s Murrelet, and potentially several species of whales are all on tap as well! Both the scenery and birding in the Fjords will be among the best of the entire tour. After returning to port we’ll head back to Anchorage for the final night.

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches are one of the few passerines on St. Paul, but are a rather handsome bird nonetheless.
Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches are one of the few passerines on St. Paul, but are a rather handsome bird nonetheless. (Andrew Spencer)

Day 14: Departure. The tour ends this morning in Anchorage. The hotel provides a shuttle bus to the airport.

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EXTENSION OPTIONS

For these extensions, we are essentially making the bookings for our clients as a service after the main tour. Please note that these extensions are 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.

Pribilofs extension (6 days)

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 birder is a mere few feet away; the island is green and covered in flowers that typify the summer here.

A Tufted Puffin failing to get the hang of hide-and-seek
A Tufted Puffin failing to get the hang of hide-and-seek (Cameron Cox)

During the days you spend on the island you should be able to see 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. And for those interested in landscapes, the green, flower-covered hillsides of St. Paul offer a truly sublime backdrop.

Incredible views of puffins on the Pribilofs
Incredible views of puffins on the Pribilofs (Cameron Cox)

Day 1: Fly to St. Paul. A late 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 three nights.

Days 2-4: St. Paul Island. You’ll spend three full days on St. Paul, which should give 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 can 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 you may well be lucky enough to stumble across some Asian vagrants – you never know what could show up on the Pribilofs!

Day 5: St. Paul Island to Anchorage. In the afternoon of this day you will take a flight back to Anchorage for one final night.

Day 6: Departure from Anchorage. The hotel has a shuttle for transfers out on this day.

Brooks Falls extension (2 days)

This add-on can be done on request only for those wanting to see Brown Bears. As this excursion is costly and also mainly for mammal viewing and photography, we do not include it as a standard option for birding tours. Please contact us for details.

Bears and Salmon is what the Brooks Falls Extension is all about
Bears and Salmon is what the Brooks Falls Extension is all about (Cameron Cox)

Day 1: Brooks Falls Today will start off with a scenic float-plane flight through the mountains on your way to the mighty Katmai National Park, where salmon run scared, and giant Brown Bears abound. After your “Bear Etiquette” course on arrival, you make your 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 behavior. In the afternoon you fly back to Anchorage and spend the night. The hotel has a free shuttle.

Day 2: Departure. The hotel has a free shuttle bus you can catch to the airport to meet your departing flight.

A Grizzly contemplates its next Salmon run
A Grizzly contemplates its next Salmon run (Iain Campbell)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. While we don’t tend to move large distances on any particular day in Alaska, the days are very long and the best birding times are often quite early or late, making for short nights. 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 restaurants, though we will take a packed lunch for one of the days in the Nome area.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: 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. Anyone not wishing to do these walks may bird on their own around the vehicle. Otherwise almost all the birding is from roads or good, relatively flat trails.

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.

PHOTOGRAPHY: While this is a birding tour, Alaska ranks as among the best photography destinations in the world, and chances for photos will be abundant. These can vary from comical ptarmigan around Nome to the many different stunningly patterned shorebirds and waterfowl around Barrow to the incredible scenery in the Kenai Fjords. The extensions are both especially good for photography, especially St. Paul Island.

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; 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); 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; 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; 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.