American Birding Podcast



Birding Barrow in October

There is one primary reason why birders go to Barrow in early October – to see Ross’s Gulls. Although they may have other birding goals (e.g., Ivory Gulls), these other goals are not so easily met so far north so late in the year, at least in my experience.

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This year I spent October 8-11 in Barrow. During my previous early October visit to Barrow in 2008 we had hundreds and hundreds of Ross’s Gulls (we called them “pinkies”) on the first day and over 1000 on the second day, so I expected when I planned my 2015 trip that similarly large numbers would also be the case this year. I was worried when I learned that others who were there this year just before my visit in October were reporting much lower numbers of Ross’s Gulls during their visits. On the first day and a half that I was in Barrow this year, the number of Ross’s Gulls continued to be low. But northeast winds were coming, I learned from John Puschock, who was there leading a small group of birders, and that would be likely to change things.


John was right. Saturday morning (October 10) had the forecast winds, and the Ross’s Gulls, adults and immatures, came pouring by uniformly heading into the wind just off the coast from where we watched at the base of the spit. Most of the small tern-like gulls streamed by in a steady stream low over the crashing waves in little groups of 5 to 10 to larger streams of 50 or 60, but others flew by higher in the air. Every now and then, the gulls would veer to their right and cross the narrow land area over our heads. The birds kept coming, although they did seem to dwindle by mid-afternoon. By the end of the day, estimates of the numbers of Ross’s Gulls for the day varied from about 1300 to 3100 depending of course on how intently and uninterruptedly the ocean was viewed and for how long. The next day the stream of Ross’s Gulls started up again at about 9:30 and continued until I had to leave in the afternoon to turn in my rental car and go to the airport.

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Although the spectacle of the Ross’s Gulls got most of my attention, there were other birds around. The highlight was a single Great Black-backed Gull discovered a few days before I arrived by Aaron Lang, who was leading a group there. As far as I know this was the third record for the state! It was seen each day that I was there, usually arriving midday to join the couple of hundred Glaucous Gulls that were gleaning blood and flesh off the packed snow from an earlier whale kill. Although all of the birders/photographers that were in Barrow (maybe 8 or so when I was there) were also looking for Ivory Gulls, none were seen during the time I was in Barrow this year (we did have a few in 2008).

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Each day I was in Barrow I took a break from gull-watching and photographing to wander the roads that lead southward out of Barrow. On each of these trips I encountered a few Snowy Owls, usually actively hunting, somehow subsisting on the barren snowy land. Once an Arctic fox was also seen out hunting a field near one of the Snowy Owls. A couple of Common Ravens were also periodically seen.

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Although most waterfowl had apparently left the area, eiders and Long-tailed Ducks were sometimes seen flying over land and out on and over the ocean.

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In town there was one place where birds could be found, a wonderful yard with birdfeeders and branches and various structures over and under which birdseed was scattered. This was the only place where I saw redpolls (Common and Hoary) and a single Pine Siskin. All other passerines appeared to have left the area.

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Barrow in October is worth a visit for the dedicated birder wanting to add another otherwise hard-to-find species to a lifelist, or who just wants to marvel at the sight of so many pinkies streaming by.

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