We had tackled the gentle slope and took a break on the rocky, dun colored tundra. The gravel road and our vehicles had disappeared from view below us and rugged wilderness stretched in all directions without a hint of humanity. This time of year, the tundra was a mosaic of snow, grey rock, and yellowed grass with traces of spring green. A few miles to the south stretched the low, but still snow bound, Kugluaik Mountains, which we had crossed at a pass to get here. In all other directions, we could see undulating hills and valleys dotted with lakes and ponds. The nearest town, Nome, lies 115 kilometers to the south, beyond the mountains. The early afternoon was sunny and bright, not the norm, but also not too unusual on the Seward Peninsula. The stillness was complete as even the Savannah Sparrow we had heard during the walk up had gone quiet. Suddenly, the peace was broken by the distinctive whistle of a curlew. We could see the bird, as it rose at a distance from the tundra, flutter above the horizon before turning into our direction. As the bird banked, we could see the buffy color and cinnamon rump almost glowing in the bright sunlight. This was the reason we had climbed this ridge, to see the rare Bristle-thighed Curlew on its remote nesting grounds. The bird flew a long loop before gliding back down, blending back into the tundra on landing. We were all smiles with some of us hiking further to get closer views. The bird had settled down, preening contently on the tundra and even revealed its namesake feathers.
Our Alaska tours abound with these special moments — unspoilt wilderness, solitude, and incredible birds. Alaska is a big place, about the same size as South Africa and twice as expansive as Texas, with vast stretches of untouched boreal forest, roadless tundra, and inaccessible mountains. With so much ground to cover, our Alaska tours focus on the Arctic specialty birds, impressive mammals, breathtaking scenery, and the best locations in the state where it all comes together. From the far western reaches in the temperamental Bering Sea to the rugged interior around Denali, North America’s highest peak, through the spectacular fjords of the Kenai Peninsula, and the stark high arctic tundra of Barrow our tours offer a comprehensive coverage of all unique birding areas. Below is a short summary of some of the places we visit.
Outside of Nome, we of course visit the famous Coffee Dome area where we search for Bristle-thighed Curlews as described above, but there are plenty of other birds to see. The city of Nome provides a perfect base with comfortable lodging and an extensive road system, totalling 450 kilometers, offers access to subarctic tundra, lakes and rivers, slivers of boreal forest, lagoons, and endless shoreline. In other words, a bird and birder’s paradise. The excellent roads let us travel quickly between diverse habitats, allowing a quality of arctic birding unmatched anywhere in the world. A plethora of breeding and migrating shorebirds can be easily observed and photographed, including Red Knot, Black Turnstone, Rock Sandpiper, Surfbird, Red-necked Stint, and Pacific and American Golden Plovers. The lagoons and bays support large numbers of waterfowl with all four eiders being possible. Nome is also one of the few places in Alaska where Black-throated Divers breed and Yellow-billed Divers are regular — on some tours we have seen all of the world’s species of divers within an hour! Away from the coast, rugged cliffs harbor Gyrfalcon eyries, low shrubs support breeding populations of Bluethroats and Eastern Yellow Wagtails, and willow thickets hold Arctic Warblers — all range restricted species in North America. During our sping-time visits, the tundra resounds with warblers, thrushes, and sparrows, singing literally all day and night. There is no place like Nome.
Further south and west lies the vast wilderness around Denali protected within an enormous national park. Our tour here takes us close to the mountain for spectacular scenery and the healthy populations of large mammals thriving in the park. A full day excursion here on one of the park’s buses usually produces excellent sightings of Brown Bears, Thinhorn Sheep, Caribou, and Moose, while Wolf, Lynx, and Wolverine are occasionally spotted. The birdlife here seems to be dominated by raptors, including Golden Eagles and often Northern Hawk Owls. The open tundra holds elegant Long-tailed Jaegers and two species of ptarmigans. The route continues along the remote Denali Highway, which parallels the spellbinding Alaska Range for 220 kilometres. The two days here are filled to the brim with specialty species and we seek stately Trumpeter Swans, impressive American Dippers, rare Smith’s Longspur, nomadic Bohemian Waxwing, wandering White-winged Crossbills, and a plethora of other breeding species of the interior.
The Kenai Peninsula southwest of Anchorage harbors fjords, glaciers pouring from the Harding Icefield, and temperate rain forest with several species occurring at their northern range limits here. In the forests and at a busy feeder setup we seek sleek Northwestern Crows, bold Chestnut-backed Chickadees, and colorful Pine Grosbeaks. In the moss draped hemlock forest the ethereal songs of Varied Thrushes haunt the shadows, while the sprightly notes of a Pacific Wren ring from a sunlit patch. The main attraction here is the Kenai Fjords National Park and its numerous glaciers that spill out of the mountains, calving into the sea in dramatic icefalls. A full day by boat allows for an unrivalled exploration of fjords and small islands teeming with nesting seabirds. One of the avian highlights here is the little known Kittlitz’s Murrelet, which can be found close to the glaciers where they feed among chunks of ice. During the journey, the sea is full of Tufted and Horned Puffins, Rhinoceros Auklets, Pigeon Guillemots, and Marbled Murrelets. Among the numerous Pelagic Cormorants a few striking Red-faced Cormorants can usually be found. Humpback Whales and Orcas commonly forage in the bays, while Steller’s Sea Lions have rookeries on offshore rocks. The nesting islands and cliffs are crowded with Common and Thick-billed Murres, plus throngs of Black-legged Kittiwakes. One particularly busy island can only be described as a puffin hive as hundreds of these comical birds swarm the nearby airspace. This boat trip is one of the most memorable days of the tour and is filled with a nearly overwhelming display of life.
The northernmost leg of the tour takes us to Barrow, also known as Utqiaġvik. This small city sits at a latitude of 71.2906° N, or about 565 kilometres north of the Arctic circle, and abuts the Arctic ocean, which during our visits is still partially frozen. The roads around town, although not extensive, lead into flat, soggy, and untrammelled high arctic tundra that supports staggering numbers of nesting waterfowl and shorebirds. One of the main drawcards for birders to the north slope are the eiders and here it is possible to get up close and personal with all of the world’s eider species, particularly the rare Spectacled and beautiful Steller’s Eiders. This far north the tundra is patrolled by three species of jaegers and of course the white owl of the north, Snowy Owl, which nests around Barrow and can be particularly abundant during good lemming years. On the Arctic ocean the leads in the pack ice are frequented by migrating loons and gulls, including possible Ivory and Ross’s Gull.
The frozen shoreline also teems with seals, which occasionally attract Polar Bears. Yet, the most abundant birds in Barrow are shorebirds and while many birders arrive with dreams of eiders and owls, many leave with a renewed appreciation for these long distance champions of the avian world. The ponds, slews, marshy edges, and gravel bars are a haven for nesting sandpipers and beneath the midnight sun the displays, calls, territorial bouts, and frantic feeding never cease. Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers hover in the air, uttering their songs, while the strange Pectoral Sandpiper hoots with an inflated air sac as it flies semicircles across the tundra. Long-billed Dowitchers chase each other through the air and dapper American Golden Plovers survey their territories from raised tussocks while a Wilson’s Snipe calls incessantly from a telephone post. In every puddle and patch of open water colorful Red and Red-necked Phalaropes try to outspin each other and in a few corners of the tundra the uncommon White-rumped and Barid’s Sandpipers set up territories. The most spectacular display happens in an unassuming patch of drier tundra where the uncommon Buff-breasted Sandpipers lek with chests puffed out and wings raised with the white underside fluttering like little white flags on the tundra. The distinct possibility of a rare shorebird wandering to the area from Asia always adds another layer of excitement to a Barrow visit and on previous tours we have found Red-necked and Little Stints, Ruff, and Curlew Sandpiper.
Beyond the mainland, several island chains and groups harbor a spectacle quite different from the tundra, boreal forest, and mountains. Here, the tempestuous and rich Bering Sea harbors millions of seabirds that flock to remote islands to nest. We visit St. Paul in the far flung Pribilofs Islands, which has been called the Galapagos of the North. Rightly so, with half a million Northern Fur Seals breeding in rookeries here and 15 species of seabirds visiting the cliffs. Most famously, the Pribilofs are home to nearly all of the world’s Red-legged Kittiwakes and these endearing gulls can easily be observed alongside their more widespread cousins, Black-legged Kittiwakes. Puffins and murres crowd onto ledges on steep cliffs and the noisy Crested and Parakeet Auklets can be found among them. The tiny Least Auklets favor boulder beaches where hundreds will sit out, chirping right in front of the observer. St. Paul Island’s location, almost in the middle of the Bering Sea, makes it an ideal vagrant trap and spring tours usually record mouthwatering lists of rarities, including Common Pochard, White-tailed Eagle, many Asiatic shorebirds, Siberian Rubythroat, Hawfinch, Grey Wagtail, and many more. The island is also home to a large population of Arctic Foxes, here mainly brown in color, which are unafraid of visitors and readily photographed.
Alaska is a wildlife photographer’s paradise and on all our tours opportunities abound from fearless seabirds, to stunning waterfowl, displaying shorebirds, colorful warblers, and big mammals. The long hours of daylight,grouse tireless birds, and unmatched scenery will leave visitors with a bag full of memories and a strong desire to return. Join us for an Alaskan sized adventure.