Saturday 28 May 2016

Alaska - 28th May (Day 1)

Alaska has been high on my list of must visit birding areas for a long time so when Ian and Martin mentioned they were planning a trip during our recent trip to India for the Lesser Florican I jumped at the chance. This American state is about spectacular birds in spectacular scenery - its not a trip that will produce hundreds of species and a bulging bag of ticks. But with species such as Spectacled Eider, Steller's Eider, Bristle-thighed Curlew, Aleutian Tern, Tufted Puffin and Crested Auklet and with a supporting cast of breeding seabirds, waders and skuas a memorable trip is certain.

This was a self planned trip with Ian Merrill and Martin Kennewell working on the itinerary and myself booking most of the accommodation and car hire with the exception of the St. Paul leg which Ian booked through St. Paul Island Tours (website here, email Scott Schuette Scott arranged guides/drivers, vehicle, accommodation and food for the entire three day trip at a cost of $2,800 per person, all inclusive, expensive? Yes. Worthwhile? Definitely, we would not have wanted to miss the spectacle of the auk cliffs.

I booked the accommodation in October/November 2015 and even then many of our chosen hotels were booked so I did a great deal of phoning around to find places to stay. Accommodation was particularly hard to come by in Denali, Nome and Barrow at this time with, it seemed, much of the accommodation booked by tour companies. In Cantwell (for Denali National Park), the only accommodation we could find that was available was through Alaska Travel (website here), I found this out by speaking to various hotels. The following accommodation was booked, all was of a good standard and we generally went for lower to mid-range accommodation:

  • Anchorage - Motel 6 but lots of options available;
  • Seward - Harbour View Inn, website here;
  • Denali - Denali Cabins, website here;
  • Paxson - Denali Highway Cabins, website here;
  • Nome - We booked the Polaris Hotel but on arrival were advised not to stay there. The hotel of choice is the Aurora Inn which was fully booked when I called in October/November. However, we also hired a car from the hotel and when we went to the hotel to collect the car we enquired about availability and three rooms had become available. I would advise to book the Aurora Hotel early, the website can be found here;
  • Barrow - Generally the hotel recommended is the King Eider Hotel but when i called in October/November this was fully booked. We stayed in the Airport Inn which was great, even this though was fully booked when I called and could only accommodate three of us but they were very accommodating and offered us rollaway beds for the two without beds. When we arrived a further room had become available and so we did not need the rollaways in the end. Their website can be found here.

Our car hire in the Anchorage area was booked via Avis and in Barrow through UIC (website here), I believe UIC is the only company in Barrow for car hire. In Nome car hire is available through the Stampede Car Rentals at the Aurora Inn, website here. As there were five of us, in all sites we hired a larger 4x4 and in Barrow had a 4x4 van. While 4x4 is not essential it is certainly useful for the rougher roads although none we drove would be impassable using a normal car.

Finally, for the Kenai Fjords we chartered a boat through Jim Barkley at Alaska Saltwater Lodge (website here). Jim knows the birds and mammals well and we would definitely recommend him. There are larger tourist boats that can be joined but these do not necessarily target the birds and species such as Kittlitz's Murrelet, while seen from these boats, are of lesser interest to the average punter who joins them for views of cetaceans and the glaciers and thus as a birder your views may be fleeting (or stringy!!). We paid $1,298 (divided between the five of us) for the trip which lasted from 06:00-14:00 but the timing can be tailored to suit your needs. Jim is also able to offer accommodation at the Saltwater Lodge but again when I booked in October/November his rooms were all taken.

This is an outline of our day to day itinerary:

  • 28th May (Day 1) – International flight London Heathrow to Anchorage via Seatle (09:45-16:00). Birding Potter Marsh and Westchester Lagoon, Anchorage 16:30-20:30.
  • 29th May (Day 2) – Birded Hillside Park, Anchorage 06:00-09:00 then flight to St. Paul (Pribilof Islands) 12:15-15:10 via Dillingham. Afternoon spent birding St. Paul.
  • 30th May (Day 3) – All day birding St. Paul.
  • 31st May (Day 4) – All day birding St. Paul.
  • 1st June (Day 5) – Morning birding on St.Paul then PM flight back to Anchorage (16:30-19:30 with 30 minute stop over on St. George Island).
  • 2nd June (Day 6) - Drive from Anchorage to Seward (125 miles), birding en-route and in Seward.
  • 3rd June (Day 7) - Kenai Fjords boat trip (06:00-14:00) then drive to Cantwell PM (335 miles).
  • 4th June (Day 8) - Denali National Park then drive along Denali Highway birding en-route to Paxson (135 miles).
  • 5th June (Day 9) - Birding Denali Highway from Paxson.
  • 6th June (Day 10) - Drive from Paxson to Anchorage birding en-route.
  • 7th June (Day 11) - Fly Anchorage to Nome (07:25-08:45) then birding along Council Road to Mile 48.
  • 8th June (Day 12) - Birding Nome area including Coffee Dome and Council Road.
  • 9th June (Day 13) - Birding Nome area mainly along Council Road to Mile Post 53.
  • 10th June (Day 14) - Seawatching at Cape Nome then fly Nome to Anchorage (12:05-13:30) then Anchorage to Barrow (17:15-19:05). PM Birding Barrow along Gas Pipe Road
  • 11th June (Day 15) - Barrow birding all day.
  • 12th June (Day 16) - Barrow birding all day.
  • 13th June (Day 17) - Birding Barrow Point early AM then fly Barrow to Anchorage (11:30-14:45). The a couple of hours birding at Westchester Lagoon, Anchorage.
  • 14th June (Day 18) - International flight departing Anchorage at 11:10 via Seattle and landing at London Heathrow at 12:30 on 15th June, journey time of around 15 hours.

The weather during our trip was remarkable being generally dry and sunny with some cloud and light overcast. On 6th June it rained for much of the day but this was a driving day and so did not cause any significant impacts to our birding. In the afternoon of 12th June we experienced some heavy rain for 2-3 hours. On 15th June it was a remarkable 21C in Barrow which is within the Arctic Circle!

28th May - Day 1
I was up at 04:00 and after randomly dashing around the house completing various household duties, downing coffee and throwing some additional, probably unwanted items into my bag, I was off. It was a murky May morning on a Bank Holiday weekend and there was little traffic on the road this early. I was at Heathrow T5 by 06:15 and the atmosphere changed from one of tranquillity to one of stressed out drivers and blaring horns in a multi-storey car park.  I parked car, was in lift, checked in, through security and in Club Lounge with a coffee and a bacon sandwich and my new copy of Sibley’s Western Birds studying pictures of Spectacled Eider and Alcid’s and looking forward to vast landscapes and birds. I picked a seat with a view over security and the airport concourse and watched the throngs below – it truly is a mad world of dashing and micro-technology. Time passed, as did a couple of glasses of Champagne and my gate was called, I entered the throngs below, and made my way to gate B46. The flight was 15 minutes late and I boarded the 09:45 flight to Seattle at 10:00, we took off at 10:15.

Our flight took us just to the north of the Hebrides and skirting the south-west of Iceland and then over the centre of Greenland to the north of Isortoq over Tasiilaq. Through the centre of Baffin Island and onwards over the northern areas of Canada including Fort McMurray, Calgary and to Seattle a total flight time of 8 hours 45 minutes. I had a two hour wait at Seattle and then was off again at around 13:00 landing in Anchorage to a warm sunny day at 16:00.

Martin Kennewell collected me from the airport at 16:30 and we headed out through Anchorage to Potter's Marsh where we birded from the board walk seeing our first Bald Eagle, Downy Woodpecker, American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, Violet-green Swallow, Tree Swallow, Orange-crowned Warbler, Canada Goose and Savanna Sparrow. It was hot and sunny and I felt distinctly overdressed in a long sleeved shirt and jeans – not how I expected Alaska to be. The site was dominated by Alder woodland with an extensive area of open marsh and watercourses.

Bald Eagle - A pair was nesting at Potter's Marsh, Anchorage

American Wigeon - Potter's Marsh, Anchorage

Green-winged Teal - Potter's Marsh, Anchorage

Musk Rat - Potter's Marsh, Anchorage

Tree Swallow - Potter's Marsh, Anchorage

Common Redpoll (race flammea) - Potter's Marsh, Anchorage

Orange-crowned Warbler - Potter's Marsh, Anchorage

Canada Goose (of race occidentalis or Dusky Canada Goose) - Potter's Marsh, Anchorage

Canada Goose (of race occidentalis or Dusky Canada Goose) - Potter's Marsh, Anchorage

Savanna Sparrow (of race sandwichensis) - Potter's Marsh, Anchorage

Green-winged Teal - Potter's Marsh, Anchorage

American Wigeon - Potter's Marsh, Anchorage

Potter's Marsh, Anchorage

After a few hours birding we headed to the airport and collected Barry Wright, Andy Bunting and Ian Merrill we then headed to Westchester Lagoon where we birded the lake and foreshore from 20:00 until 21:00 seeing American Wigeon (4), Lesser Yellowlegs (3), Short-billed Dowitcher (3), Hudsonian Godwit (20), Greater Scaup (50+), Lesser Scaup (4), Red-necked Grebe (20), Goldeneye (1) and Arctic Tern (30). On the mudflats of the Knik Arm was my first tick of the trip, Sandhill Crane (7), albeit a little distant. They were clearly enjoying the spring and were in full dancing mood dashing and jumping around the mudflats. Otherwise the mudflats were a little devoid of bird life with only Bonaparte's Gull (5), Mew Gull (30) and Pectoral Sandpiper (8) present. It was getting late so we headed into town for dinner and found the Rustic Goat a bar and restaurant where we enjoyed pizza and beer before heading to the Hotel 6 for around 22:30 and crashed at around midnight.

Mew Gull (of race brachyrhynchus or Short-billed Gull) - Westchester Lagoon, Anchorage

American Wigeon - Westchester Lagoon, Anchorage

American Wigeon - Westchester Lagoon, Anchorage

Greater Scaup with two Lesser Scaup (male and female in background) - Westchester Lagoon, Anchorage

Short-billed Dowitcher (of race caurinus) - Westchester Lagoon, Anchorage

Red-necked Grebe (of race holbollii) - Westchester Lagoon, Anchorage

Links to the other days of the trip (click to view)