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Birding Southeast Alaska – Juneau to Whittier

Until Sunday, August 9th I had never birded in Juneau before, nor on the Gulf of Alaska. It’s a whole new Alaskan birding world down there, with many species that do not reach Anchorage or anywhere in Alaska that I have birded so far. From August 9-13 I was part of a very good Wilderness Birding Adventures tour that began in Juneau. The trip was led by two Aarons – Lang and Bowman – both excellent Alaska birders. We were very lucky on the weather and our birding was never totally rained out, although we did get a bit wet periodically especially on the ferry trip that went to Whittier via the little village of Yakutat.

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After arrival in Juneau, a few of us were lucky enough to be able to join the leaders for their pre-tour scouting. It was a beautiful day as we sought and found a Stilt Sandpiper that the local birders had located in the Mendenhall wetlands near the airport, a difficult bird to find in the state. In addition, we had a skulking MacGillivray’s Warbler and a distant California Gull (both new for my state list; a couple more of the gulls were seen the next day also), as well as Lincoln’s and Song Sparrows and other more common birds. Near a nearby horse barn a couple of Barn Swallows added to the trip and my Alaska list. We ended the day with dinner with the whole tour group.

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On August 10th, we repeated much of Sunday’s itinerary, with similar bird results, with the addition of two Great Blue Herons and a few more shorebird species (the picture below is of a Great Blue Heron that was found in Anchorage on August 24th, a much closer view than in Juneau). We then went on an easy walk by Brotherhood Bridge that goes through fields and by small wooded areas. The highlight of this walk was a Red-breasted Sapsucker, as well as a scolding Pacific Wren. On a drive through a Juneau neighborhood, a Sharp-shinned Hawk over the vans caused us to slow down and realize that it was a very birdy neighborhood. Robins, Townsend’s and Wilson’s Warblers, Eurasian Collared-Dove and Brown Creeper were found and then there was the sighting of one, or possibly two, hummingbirds. While we were not able to see either of them well, a quick visit the next morning before we boarded the ferry allowed us to identify a Rufous Hummingbird at a feeder in one of the yards. (I was hoping for an Anna’s and maybe I’ll find one later this year, as I understand that one or more periodically winter in the area.)

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At Eagle Beach we pored over the hundreds of gulls, finally seeing a couple of California Gulls and a Ring-billed Gull among the many, many Herring, Mew, Glaucous-winged and Bonaparte’s Gulls. Our final walk in Juneau on the morning of the 11th was again at Brotherhood Bridge where I finally got to see a Pacific-slope Flycatcher (one had possibly been spotted by a few folks the day before but had then disappeared).

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Then it was time to board the ferry for my first formal birding trip done on a ferry. Birding on a large, stable ferry is great because unlike pelagic trips on smaller boats, telescopes and tripods can actually be used, and there are a restaurant and quite comfortable sleeping facilities for those who did not feel like sleeping on a cot in the solarium. Unlike dedicated pelagic boats, however, the itinerary cannot be varied to chase potentially interesting birds that fly by and the ferry just keeps zooming along. Still, lots of interesting birds did fly by and could be identified, including many Common Murres, Marbled Murrelets, and Sooty Shearwaters, as well as fewer Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, Cassin’s Auklets, Tufted Puffins, Northern Fulmars, Pelagic and Parasitic Jaegers, and a couple of Rhinoceros Auklets.

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We went ashore and explored early the next morning (the 12th), the ferry having reached Yakutat as we slept. After a couple of hours, we reboarded the ferry and continued to our destination of Whittier (another 20-plus hours later) past spectacular mountain views, including Mt. St. Elias, the second highest peak in North America. On this second day on the ferry we were able to see multiple Black-footed Albatrosses and a couple of Pink-footed Shearwaters, both species only seen quickly as the ferry moved rapidly past, as well as many of the species seen the day before.

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After arrival in Whittier, we boarded vans that awaited us there, and drove inland to Girdwood for breakfast and then birding along a woodland road to find Varied Thrushes. After this we drove north to Anchorage, birding along the way, finding various ducks, shorebirds, Sandhill Cranes, and Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk.

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An excellent trip, and I hope to do it again next year!

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