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At the Top of Alaska

155From June 29th to July 3rd, I was birding way up north in Barrow, Alaska. It was my third trip to Barrow. The other two trips were during my 2008 ABA big year when I was on a mission each time to see migrants and rarities. This time I went to Barrow after spring migration with the goal of spending some time with nesting tundra birds, and I was not disappointed. While I was able to photograph many of these birds, many of the photos were taken of birds that were far away because I did not want to disturb them. It may seem like this blog post has a lot of photos, but they are only a small fraction of the over 1300 photos that I took on this trip.

Before I even had a chance to see what birds were hanging out on the tundra, I was greeted by a small loud flock of loud Sandhill Cranes flying over me near the airport when I first headed out in my rental car. After the cranes were out of sight (never to be seen again on this trip), I found that there were nesting birds and baby birds all around me.

029aSome of the most common birds were Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs, all of which seemed to be feeding young ones. Out my hotel window, a Snow Bunting serenaded me nearly all of the time, except in the middle of the very sunny nights, and I often saw it feeding its fledged babies on nearby woodpiles and rooftops. Other passerines included Savannah Sparrows and Redpolls, some of the latter of which looked very much like Hoary Redpolls (assuming one believes that there are two species of redpolls, does anyone have any comments on whether this photo is of a Hoary?).

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Although I rarely saw any shorebirds on the ocean shores of Barrow (only a lone Sanderling), shorebirds were everywhere on the tundra around Barrow. At the beginning of the trip Pectoral Sandpipers were scolding me from every little rise along the roads. By the second day, I was seeing baby Pectoral Sandpipers scurrying through the grass, and by the end of the trip, I was starting to see small flocks of adult Pectoral Sandpipers. Things move rapidly in the far north.

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Other shorebirds that were seen included scattered Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, with a few Western and Baird’s Sandpipers, Dunlin, a handful of Long-billed Dowitchers and American Golden-Plovers, as well as two flyover Whimbrels.

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There were also many Red-necked and Red Phalaropes. Although I never saw any newly hatched young phalaropes on this trip, every little pond and puddle had a rotating phalarope, usually Red, usually a female sometimes an apparent juvenile Red-necked. Presumably most of the males were still on nests. Or possibly little phalaropes were hidden as they wandered about in the vegetation. One unanswered question on this trip was “can baby phalaropes swim right away, as ducks can, or do they need to get feathers?” Maybe someone knows the answer to that.

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I was delighted to find, after much searching, all of the eider species. Mostly I saw female and young eiders. There were a few pairs of Steller’s Eiders, but the only other male eiders that I saw were offshore flights of King Eiders and one flock of Common Eiders. Onshore, for a while I could not find any but the Steller’s Eiders. Because most of the vegetation was very short, I figured that if there were any eiders around I should be able to see at least their heads above the grass or see them in one of the ponds. It wasn’t until my third day in Barrow, however, when I was driving along one of the most outlying roads that I finally saw a distant brown eider that turned out to be a female Spectacled Eider swimming in a distant grassy pond. She kept disappearing into the pond edge, but eventually emerged with at least four ducklings trailing behind her. Another female Spectacled Eider then appeared out on a little rise. I was able to see one of these adult females every other time that I drove that road, but I did not see the young ones again.

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At the very end of this same road (Cakeeater Road that turns into Gas Well Road) on my fourth day in Barrow, I saw another brown eider head, which was joined by three more eider heads. This area looked less full of soggy boggy areas than along much of the road so I walked out on the tundra to get a better look (note: one needs to buy a permit from the Native corporation that owns the land so one can legally walk out on the tundra). I was then able to see that these were all female-plumaged King Eiders, presumably at least some of which were grown young.

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Long-tailed Ducks were everywhere there was water – on ponds and puddles and flying by the coast in huge flocks. On two different tundra walks I surprise myself and a Long-tailed Duck by nearly stepping on the bird and its eggs. Other ducks that were scattered across the tundra included many, many Northern Pintails, a sprinkling of Northern Shovelers, and two Mallards, a surprise found at the end of the trip. True to their name, Tundra Swans dotted the tundra, either sitting out in the grass, grazing on one of the bright green grassy areas, or floating out on a shallow pond. The only geese that I saw on the trip were Greater White-fronted Geese, which were hardly seen at all until the third day of the trip when all-of-a-sudden there were pairs of them everywhere near water, each pair trailed by half a dozen or so ducklings.

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Loons, usually Red-throated or Pacific, were constantly flying by out over the ocean, as were White-winged Scoters and other distant unidentified ducks. Sometimes the loons landed out on the water. From the roads around Barrow I was able to see a couple of Pacific Loons that appeared to be on nests in wetland areas.

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In addition to common sightings of Glaucous and Glaucous-winged Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwakes and a single Sabine’s Gull were seen. It was also common when driving any of the roads outside the town of Barrow to see jaegers. Although all three species were regularly seen, the Pomarine Jaegers appeared to be most common. They were often seen sitting out on the grass, which I learned on one tundra stroll did not necessarily mean that they were on nests, but were just resting. They also were often chasing other birds or being chased by other birds.

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Raptors (in addition to the raptor-like jaegers) were a couple of Peregrine Falcons and at least four Snowy Owls in the immediate Barrow vicinity. Mostly the owls were white lumps way out on the tundra. Since my tundra-access permit specifically stated that were NOT to approach the owls, it wasn’t until one flew into town and landed on a light post near me that I finally got close-up pictures.

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For me, as I am sure is the case with many birders, some of the most cold, remote, mountain-less Alaskan non-tourist areas, such as Barrow, the Pribilofs and St. Lawrence Island, are beautiful because of their fascinating and ever-changing birdlife. It is so hard to leave each of these places – it always seems that something new and unexpected will be seen if we just take one more drive, one more walk, one more trip. I’ll be back.

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