Birding The Great Land (in style)
Alaska is the largest state in the United States, known as The Great Land. It is in the northwest extremity of the North American continent, with Canada to the east, the Arctic Ocean to the north, and the Pacific Ocean to the west and south, with Russia further west across the Bering Strait. It is the 49th State purchased from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million. It is wonderful for wildlife and birding and has long been on our bucket list.
We were doing it in style, for the first week at least, cruising from Vancouver in Canada to Whittier in Alaska aboard the 16-storey ‘Coral Princess’. It was something we had never done before but I thought seawatching would be guaranteed at least. The service and food aboard the ship was wonderful. We had a stateroom with a balcony, there were 700 such rooms on board. We had stopovers in Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway where we had organised some trips ahead of visiting. Bridgette’s mum came along, which worked out well as I could disappear off birding without feeling guilty at all, they probably didn’t even notice I had gone.
We travelled down to Heathrow by coach on the afternoon of Saturday 9th and overnighted in a B&B near to the airport. Three Red Kites beside the M4 just after junction 15 brightened the journey.
Day 1 – Su 10th June 2012
London to Vancouver, Canada
Sunny and warm
Whilst waiting outside the B&B for our taxi to the airport three Ring-necked Parakeets flew over and a Skylark was singing nearby. Our flight with Air Canada was about 45 minutes late leaving, and although it was about nine hours we took off at 11:15am and landed in Vancouver at midday. If only it really was a 45 minute trip! Air Canada were really good, second only to Virgin Atlantic, in my opinion. Much of North America along our route in was surprisingly still swathed in snow. We cleared Customs very quickly and found a taxi to take us to the Westin Hotel. The first birds were three Barn Swallows at the airport and my first lifer was NORTHWESTERN CROW, a ubiquitous corvid seen everywhere. On arriving at the hotel we found that our rooms wouldn’t be ready until about 4pm so we walked towards Stanley Park, just 10 minutes from the hotel, and a haven for wildlife.
There were plenty of birds to be seen including 128+ real Canada Geese, six Great Blue Herons, four Double-crested Cormorants, 30+ Glaucous-winged Gulls, three American Robins, two Tree Swallows, a VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOW, a male Red-winged Blackbird, a singing male Song Sparrow, a male Wood Duck, a Bald Eagle, four White-crowned Sparrows and three American Bushtits. Other wildlife included a HARBOUR SEAL, 12 Red-eared Terrapins and a Large White butterfly.
We returned to the hotel, checked into our rooms and decided to sleep for a couple of hours to try and drag our body clocks onto Canadian time. We got up at 7pm and Bridge and I walked back to the park. New for the trip was a Northern Flicker, three PELAGIC CORMORANTS, two Cedar Waxwings and two Western Grey Squirrels, both of which were jet black. Also a Great Blue Heron and an American Robin posed for photos. We got to bed at 9:30pm, which was 5:30am GMT.
Great Blue Heron
Western Grey Squirrel
Day 2 – M 11th June 2012
Vancouver to Seymour Narrows
Sunny and warm
I was up at first light and went back out to Stanley Park. A BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEE just outside the hotel was a lifer. An Anna’s Hummingbird was at the entrance to the park. A Raccoon was strolling through the park as I walked towards Beaver Lake. Here I saw the first of five Spotted Towhees, 10+ Wood Ducks, a Pied-billed Grebe and a Swainson’s Thrush. I also saw a DOUGLAS’S SQUIRREL. I met Bridge and Mum for breakfast and then we wandered back out to the park, the only new bird was a solitary Turkey Vulture.
We returned to the hotel and checked out of the hotel and in with the cruise ship. The coach transfer was at 11am and I was astounded when I saw the size of the ‘Coral Princess’ up close. I’m not sure what I was expecting, an upmarket ‘Scillonian’ I guess, but this was something else. It was 964 feet long and 16 storeys high with a gross tonnage of 91,627 tons, it had 700 staterooms with balconies, 930 crew and 2368 passengers. Registered in Hamilton, Bermuda in 2002 it was in essence a floating city.
We were marshalled aboard seamlessly and shown to our stateroom, which was like a decent-sized hotel room with a bedroom/living room, bathroom, a storage area and a balcony. We were invited to take lunch before we set sail at 4:30pm. It was a help yourself buffet with many different choices and all good. Then it was a compulsory safety drill for all passengers where we had to go to assembly points and put on lifejackets.
After that I did a bit of birding from our balcony and added two American Herring Gulls and a Ring-billed Gull to the holiday list, and also saw a Harbour Seal and a Harbour Porpoise. Glaucous-winged Gulls were the common species with always 20+ in view. Then we took to the upper deck for the sailing party. We set off on time and passed under the Lion’s Gate Bridge and into the Strait of Georgia.
We dined in a very nice restaurant that evening and after exploring the ship for an hour we had an early night, whilst the ship entered the Seymour Narrows at 11:30pm on a flat calm sea.
Day 3 – T 12th June 2012
At Sea – Seymour Narrows to Seal Rock
Overcast with showers
Today was to be a day at sea so what better way to pass the day than with some seawatching. In Queen Charlotte Strait I had five PIGEON GUILLEMOTS, very like our Black Guillemots, and a Pacific Diver (Pacific Loon). Bridge and her mum went off to look at shops (or something like that). In Queen Charlotte Sound the weather become more inclement and overcast but the birding improved.
Two DALL’S PORPOISES ran with the ship for a while. Then Sooty Shearwaters started to appear, I saw well over a 100 of these long distance sea wanderers. A little group of five MARBLED MURRELETS were a welcome lifer, and although my third species of Murrelet they were the first I’d seen outside of the UK! Then I had ten Common Guillemots (Common Murres) and a Brandt’s Cormorant.
During the afternoon I went to find tea and cookies in the restaurant and sat in the window where I could seawatch in comfort. I was able to get a lifer in absolute style, out of the front window I saw my first FORK-TAILED STORM PETREL, the first of 15. A beautiful silver-grey Stormie, the most attractive I’d ever seen. I was pointing out seabirds to an interested audience when an adult summer-plumaged Sabine’s Gull flew in front of the ship and finally another four MARBLED MURRELETS showed well.
In the evening we had a formal dinner, which was very enjoyable, followed by watching the sun set from the Crooners bar.
Day 4 – W 13th June 2012
Overcast but mild and dry
At 2am the ships clocks went back by one hour and at 6am we docked at Ketchikan, Alaska’s first city and known as the “Salmon Capital of the World”, our first American port of call. Bridgette and I breakfasted at 5:30am, a ridiculously early hour, but rewarded with nice views of a pod of six KILLER WHALES as we entered Ketchikan harbour. Bridgette had inexplicably booked to go snorkelling, I planned on climbing Deer Mountain and Mum was going to take a leisurely turn around the shops later. I was amongst the first off the ship and headed out through the town, along historic Creek Street, a boardwalk road built over Ketchikan Creek on pilings and up along the delightfully named Married Man’s Trail towards the base of Deer Mountain. Bald Eagles were common, I saw at least a dozen during the morning. Ravens were new for the holiday, and on the stiff walk up to the base of the Deer Mountain trail of note were two Swainson’s Thrushes, a couple of American Robins and three Townsend’s Warblers.
Arriving at the Information Board at the base of the trail, it warned that the trail was closed two miles up because of deep snow and to watch out for bears, rock falls, landslides and several other possible life threatening things, but it didn’t put me off. The very first bird I saw on the trail was a WINTER WREN, a lifer and very like Eurasian Wren, which it was once lumped with until it was discovered that they hadn’t shared a common ancestor for c.4.3 million years. It seemed to be much darker than British Wrens. Then I found a little group of 4+ Townsend’s Warblers, which were almost impossible to photograph in the darkness of the forest trail but I did get one shot.
A little higher I found a RED-BREASTED SAPSUCKER’S nesthole in a massive dead tree. I stood on a bridge over a creek and watched the parents coming and going for 15 minutes whilst I gathered my breath, this at the ¾ mile mark at 1240 feet elevation. Just after here I started to hear a two-tone whistle, I couldn’t find the bird and it was driving me mad, I went through all the grouse on iBirdPro on my iPhone but I was way off the mark. When I reached the 1 mile marker at 1500 feet elevation the whistles started again. This time I was in an open area and I finally realised it was coming from the treetops. Then I saw it, it was a male VARIED THRUSH, an absolute stunner and one of my Top 10 Most Wanted. As an afterthought I fumbled for the camera and managed one shot, it was poor but I didn’t care.
The view was stunning from up here and I could see the ‘Coral Princess’ way down below. We had to be back on board at 12:30pm for a 2pm sailing. I decided I had already given my newly mended Achilles tendon a serious work-out, had three lifers and breathing was hard work so I started the descent in the town. It was way more difficult than going up and quite treacherous underfoot, with mud, wet leaves, roots and numerous streams. However I safely negotiated my way down, passing some of the ship’s passengers still heading up.
I stopped for a drink in the car park and had a singing male Dark-eyed Junco (Oregon type). I was first back on board and was showered and sat out on the balcony as the girls came home. Bridgette tried to convince me that snorkelling in the freezing cold ocean was worthwhile. She had seen some huge starfish and sea urchins, but I’d had VARIED THRUSH, I wouldn’t swap.
We sailed on time heading past Channel Island and Guard Island, through Snow Passage and Sumner Strait, towards Cape Decision and on to the Chatham Strait late evening.
The seawatching/wildlife after lunch was good, I had a Marbled Murrelet, a Pigeon Guillemot, six Mew Gulls, two Pacific Divers (Pacific Loons), a STELLER’S SEALION, another KILLER WHALE, six HUMPBACK WHALES and two Dall’s Porpoises.
A really good day with three lifers and three new mammals, including three Megas, HUMPBACK and KILLER WHALES and VARIED THRUSH.
The Coral Princess docked at Ketchikan
Day 5 – Th 14th June 2012
Overcast with steady rain from late am onwards
Today we docked in Juneau, Alaska’s capital, at around 7:30am. There were 50+ Bonaparte’s Gulls and six Pigeon Guillemots in the harbour when we arrived. We were booked on Gastineau Guiding’s Whale Watching & Mendenhall Glacier Photo Tour a half day boat trip and hike to the glacier. Our guide was Adriane Honerbrink, who was keen, friendly and very knowledgeable. We were picked up at quayside and bussed about 25 miles to Auke Bay where we got on the boat.
Steller’s Sealions & Bald Eagle
We had a good couple of hours watching Humpback Whales, seeing two females both with calves and another single whale. Other wildlife included three Harbour Seals, five Steller’s Sealions, 20+ Pigeon Guillemots, five Marbled Murrelets, nine Bald Eagles and new birds for the trip was a Great Northern Diver (Common Loon), 10+ Arctic Terns and a male Goosander (Common Merganser). A distant Scoter flock went unidentified.
When we got off the boat and back onto the coach for the short transfer to the Mendenhall Glacier it started raining steadily and continued for the rest of the day. We were issued blue rain ponchos and were given basic bear safety tips and Adriane led us off into the forest towards the glacier. A Varied Thrush was calling unseen nearby. Frankly the rain spoiled it a little for photography and wildlife. It would have been far more impressive with the benefit of blue skies but I guess that would be a rarity here.
A Ruby-crowned Kinglet was new for the holiday, as were two adult spotty Spotted Sandpipers. We spent a while taking photos of the glacier before heading back to the bus for the return to Juneau.
When we had said our goodbyes we headed for the town. A male Orange-crowned Warbler was valiantly singing in the rain from a roadside bush. Bridgette and her Mum went shopping and we arranged to meet at 3pm at the cable car.
First I went to Juneau’s only photographic shop recommended by Adriane. I had rather brilliantly left the quick release plate for my scope in my sock drawer in England. I had a good chat about the local wildlife with Art Such, the owner. He had two plates and I bought the larger of the two. I found out later it was the wrong one, so I was reduced to connecting my scope to the tripod with a bungee rope. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! I should have bought both! I headed out of town to an area of the harbour where I had seen a small flock of distant seaducks from the ‘Princess’ earlier. I had my suspicions about what they were and when I got close I could see I was right. They were HARLEQUIN DUCKS. A much-lusted after lifer, there were 14 gorgeous males and two females. Also a female Goosander (Common Merganser) was with them. It was raining very hard and photography wasn’t really possible.
I met Bridgette at the cable car at 3pm, Mum had returned to the ship, and we bought a ticket up to the top of Mount Roberts. This could have been much better but again because of the late spring, snow was closing much of the trail system around the peak, therefore we were very limited as to where we could walk.
Also a party of Sooty Grouse, which had been showing for a good while had moved away and became the first dip of the holiday. However there were birds to be seen but it was hard work. We saw 4+ American Robins, two Fox Sparrows, new for the trip, a male Dark-eyed Junco (Oregon), eventually tracked down a singing male Varied Thrush (a record shot below in poor conditions), a PINE SISKIN was a lifer and a Hermit Thrush was a holiday tick. There was no problem at all seeing HOARY MARMOT, which obligingly grubbed for food just a few feet from the trail.
We returned to the ship, which sailed at 9pm back down the Gastineau Channel and into Sheep Creek.
Day 6 – F 15th June 2012
Mostly sunny and warm after early showers
We docked at Skagway at 7am and after breakfast we left the ship to be met by our guide, Larry, for the morning drive by bus to Carcross in Canada. Here we would board a train for a scenic journey back to Skagway. This was a trip on the White Pass railway through the Yukon, which we had pre-booked from England before we travelled.
Larry was a very entertaining guide, full of stories to entertain us, as you would expect. We had barely left Skagway city limits, when a BLACK BEAR ran across the road and climbed the bank opposite giving us all a great view of our first wild bear.
Larry said there was a large density of bears in Skagway and they could be problematic. He referred to cyclists here as Meals on Wheels, motorcyclists as Fast Food and a group of cyclists as a Smorgasbord. He was only half joking and said you needed to be bear-smart in Alaska. We made a few photo stops on the way up to the Canadian customs point at Fraser. The Customs Officers made only a cursory check of our passports here. Whilst we were stopped for the rest rooms I saw a few birds although the lake held none at all. There were a couple of Barn Swallows, 4+ Cliff Swallows, the only other I had ever seen was in Dorset, England, and a singing male Golden-crowned Sparrow.
We got underway again but stopped at obvious tourist pull-ins for photographs. At Lake Tutshi, where the large Yukon sign was, there was a SNOWSHOE HARE and a singing male Yellow Warbler. At Carcross Desert there was an ARCTIC GROUND SQUIRREL and a Dark-eyed Junco (Slate-coloured). Carcross Desert is one of the smallest deserts in the world with an area of just one square mile, although it is really an area of northern sand dunes.
After a short wait we boarded the White Pass Railway at Carcross, originally known as Caribou Crossing. The White Pass Railway is a narrow gauge railroad linking the port of Skagway, Alaska, with Whitehorse, the capital of Yukon. The line was born of the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897. Between Carcross and our mid-point lunch stop at Bennett we saw a few birds on the lakes besides the railway. There was a pair of Canada Geese, a pair of Pacific Divers (Pacific Loons), two Great Northern Divers (Common Loons), seven Spotted Sandpipers and 30+ Glaucous-winged Gulls.
As we arrived at Bennett a male Harlequin Duck flew alongside the train. At Bennett we were served lunch in a communal hall where we ate Mulligan stew and Apple Pie. We then had about an hour to explore what was left of this once booming gold rush town, once home to 30,000 people but now only about 30 remain in the summer months. I found two AMERICAN TREE SPARROWS near the shore of the lake, which were a lifer.
Then it was back on the train for the second half of the scenic journey across the U.S. border back into Skagway. The best sighting was a pale-morph PORCUPINE, which ran from the edge of the track into the undergrowth. Also of note was a pair of American Wigeon, new for the trip and six Goosanders (Common Mergansers), then after we crossed back into the U.S., no customs this time, 12+ Pine Siskins.
White Pass Railway
When we arrived back at Skagway Bridgette and her Mum hit the shops and I headed for the Dewey Lake Trail for an hours birding. A raucous call at the head of a trail led me to a STELLER’S JAY, a lifer, and a really nice looking one it was too. Unfortunately after hours of scenic photography I had killed both camera batteries. I headed up the trail but it was tough going and I stopped in a group of pines where the trail levelled out. Two more lifers were here at very close range, a GOLDEN-CROWNED KINGLET and a RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRD. I was struggling a bit with my leg and felt I needed to get back to the ship as it was very warm and a shower and a beer beckoned. Back at ground level a Lincoln’s Sparrow was new for the trip and my camera managed a photo. As I approached the ship’s security point an Australian woman was watching the inland channel beside the ship intently. She told me that there was some sort of mammal in the water. It reappeared quickly, it was a NORTH AMERICAN RIVER OTTER. I watched it for a while, rang Bridge to tell her it was there (she always wanted to see an Otter, but it had gone when she got back), then boarded the ship. We set sail again at around 8:30pm.
Day 7 – S 16th June 2012
Glacier Bay, U.S.A.
Overcast with showers
We spent the day at sea today visiting Margerie and Lamplugh Glaciers. The birding and wildlife watching was great today although the weather was a little inclement. The seabird count around the glaciers was really good, highlights were two lifers, TUFTED PUFFIN and WHITE-WINGED SCOTER. The full count was 15 Pacific Divers (Pacific Loons), 34 Marbled Murrelets, 12 TUFTED PUFFINS, two Guillemots (Common Murres), ten Pigeon Guillemots, a Brandt’s Cormorant, 29 Glaucous-winged Gulls, six American Herring Gulls, 31 Black-legged Kittiwakes, ten Arctic Terns, a WHITE-WINGED SCOTER, 18 Black Brants (17 in one flock, a US tick), 28 Goosanders (Common Mergansers), a Bald Eagle and a Black Oystercatcher.
Mammals were equally as good with three lifers, GRIZZLY BEAR, WOLF and SEA OTTER. The full count was four Harbour Seals, a GRIZZLY BEAR on a beach with two WOLVES, 38 SEA OTTERS, seven Steller’s Sealions, 6+ Harbour Porpoises and six Humpback Whales including one which breached almost clear of the water ten times.
The Margerie Glacier was pretty cool too. We sat and watched and listened from a stationary ship as it calved into the sea. This means huge blocks of ice breaking off and falling into the sea. Distance meant we lost perspective of size but the commentary from the bridge explained that some of these blocks were the size of a bus. The noise was impressive too as it grumbled and groaned, like a belly after curry night.
Margerie Glacier (note the splash in the middle as a berg hit the sea)
A really good day, with a lovely formal dinner in the evening, as we sailed on into the Gulf of Alaska.
Day 8 – Su 17th June 2012
College Fjord, U.S.A.
Sunny and warm
Today we cruised into Prince William Sound and onto College Fjord before moving on overnight to our final destination, Whittier. The seawatching was good again and divided into three watches. In the Gulf of Alaska there were two new species for the trip, three immature Glaucous Gulls and an Arctic Skua (Parasitic Jaeger). Other notable sightings here included a Humpback Whale, four Dall’s Porpoises, four Tufted Puffins, two Marbled Murrelets, two Sooty Shearwaters and a Great Northern Diver (Common Loon). I seemed to have gathered a little group throughout the week, who liked to stand and bird with me so I could i/d stuff for them and give them a bit of a running commentary. Having Groupies at my age made me smile, they’d just say to me around the ship “You’re The Birder aren’t you?”.
In Prince William Sound there were no new species, but we had another two Humpback Whales, 28 Dall’s Porpoises, 13 Marbled Murrelets and a Brandt’s Cormorant amongst the commoner species.
Finally in College Fjord ten Goldeneyes and a Minke Whale were new for the trip. We also saw 50+ Sea Otters, a Harbour Seal, six Marbled Murrelets, three Pacific Divers (Pacific Loons) and five Black Bears on the beach.
Again the scenery was spectacular and made better today by the beautiful sunny weather. We packed up, did some final shopping and had a final evening out onboard before retiring to our cabin for the last time. The ship docked in Whittier at 12:30am, not long after we went to bed.
Day 9 – M 18th June 2012
Whittier to Anchorage, U.S.A.
Sunny and warm
We awoke to find ourselves alongside the quay in Whittier. Our cases had been whisked away as if by magic overnight, so we took a leisurely breakfast and a last wander around the ship, before we were disembarked at 9:30am. We were booked on the 26 Glacier Cruise with Phillips Cruises, but not until midday, so we left our cases with them and set off to explore Whittier, not that it took long.
I headed off alone for the end of the bay where I could see a flock of ducks, whilst Bridge and Mum headed into “town”. A Northwestern Crow posed nicely on a fence for a photo, but the ducks were out of range for anything beyond record shots as my scope was packed at this point. I had good views though of a mixed flock that would’ve looked nice off of Saul Warth at home. There were 30 Harlequin Ducks (14m, 16f), 16 American Wigeons (12m, 4f), 12 Northern Shovelers (9m, 3f) and a pair of Lesser Scaup. Also in the bay was a Black Oystercatcher, three American Herring Gulls and best of the lot a KITTLITZ’S MURRELET. This was a bird that I probably should’ve got at sea (and almost certainly did see) but you really need to nail the white undertail to clinch it, which Marbled doesn’t have and that was easy in the harbour. A male Orange-crowned Warbler was singing from a roadside bush near here. I met the girls and we sat with a coffee whilst being serenaded by a Song Sparrow.
We joined the Glacier Cruise boat and soon after sailing were served with a fish and chip lunch. The wildlife watching was good but there were no new species for the trip. We amassed a good trip list however including two Humpback Whales, 4+ Dall’s Porpoises, 45+ Sea Otters, a female Black Bear with a cub, an Arctic Skua (Parasitic Jaeger), seven Pigeon Guillemots, six Marbled Murrelets, two Guillemots (Common Murres), a Pacific Diver (Pacific Loon), a colony of c1000 Black-legged Kittiwakes and a pair of Bald Eagles at a nest. Of course all 26 Glaciers were delivered up as promised.
Our glacier trip included coach transfer to Anchorage afterwards. Our driver said he would drop us off at our hotel but we had some amusing language difficulties first. We said “We’re staying at Duke’s (Jooks)”, never heard of it he said, then we showed him the booking form, “Oh, you mean Duke’s (Dooks)” he replied. “Yes please take us to Dooks”.
On the journey a Raven and five Bald Eagles were at Skookum. At Bird Creek a BLACK-BILLED MAGPIE flew over the road, it was a lifer, but I had trouble seeing why it was different to Eurasian Magpie. Two adults and a juvenile were in the hotel car park in Anchorage. We checked into Duke’s on 8th Street, it was unlike a usual hotel as rather than rooms it had small self-contained flats, and we had booked a two-bed. It was spacious and an ideal base for the week we would spend in Anchorage.
Day 10 – T 19th June 2012
Sunny and warm
I headed out early but of course it was already sunny and warm as Anchorage was currently experiencing 19 hours of daylight, and not only that it was in a period of unprecedented warm, sunny weather for Alaska.
I had no idea where I was going, I was that under-prepared, so I asked the first person I met to point me towards Westchester Lagoon. The most common species were Mew Gulls and Black-billed Magpies. I had a Common Redpoll (Mealy) flyover, the first of four and new for the trip. Looking out over Bootlegger Cove I saw two HUDSONIAN GODWITS, a lifer, but a little distant. Then I heard a new call which sounded like “Free Beer”, now that’s my kind of bird, soon after I found the bird. It was an ALDER FLYCATCHER, a bird I had horribly dipped in Britain years earlier.
Arriving at Westchester Lagoon there was a good selection of birds on show, seven Arctic Terns, 50+ Greater Scaups, 30+ American Wigeons, a Cackling Goose, nine Red-necked Grebes, 14 Short-billed Dowitchers, a Tree Swallow and a Belted Kingfisher. A party of birders were here so I exchanged pleasantries with them, as I started to walk off a Canadian voice called out “Are you Mike King?” That stopped me in my tracks, it happened in New Zealand, Texas and now Alaska. Nigel Milbourne of Blagdon Birds had put his guide up to it. Nowhere to hide anymore!
I walked with them along Tony Knowles Coastal Trail for a short way. Out in Bootlegger Cove eight Green-winged Teals, a pair of Gadwalls and three Greater Yellowlegs were new for the trip and 35 Bonaparte’s Gulls were notable.
I went home for breakfast then the three of us went to the Alaskan Native Heritage Center on a courtesy bus from city centre. Whilst Bridgette and her Mum immersed themselves in culture I birded the grounds around the man-made Lake Tuilana. The best bird was a PACIFIC SLOPE FLYCATCHER, which I would have struggled to i/d without having the call on iBird Pro on my iPhone. Also notable were two beautiful CANADIAN TIGER SWALLOWTAILS.
In the evening we dined out in Orso Restaurant in Anchorage, which we can thoroughly recommend.
Canadian Tiger Swallowtail
Day 11 – W 20th June 2012
Cloudy and cold with some sunshine in Seward, Sunny and warm in Anchorage
Bridgette and I left Anchorage early for the 2½ hour drive to Seward where we were booked on a 6 hour wildlife cruise with Kenai Fjords Tours. They also do a 9 hour birding tour, which I thought could be uncomfortable for Bridgette if the weather was rough as she is not a good sailor, so I opted for the shorter tour. In the event it was fine and taking the shorter cruise probably cost a couple of species, but the captain and crew were very good helping the few birders onboard to get onto some prize species. We saw a few species on the drive down to Seward the most notable being our first MOOSE at Victor Creek.
Arriving a Seward we checked in with the ticket office and parked the car finding we had an hour or so to kill. Around the car park notable birds included a Chestnut-backed Chickadee, new for the trip, two Pine Siskins, two Steller’s Jays and two adult Bald Eagles on a nest. We took the courtesy bus back to the harbour and went for a wander, which was quite appropriate as the first bird we found was a WANDERING TATTLER, a lifer. There were also seven Harlequin Ducks (five males) and two immature and an adult Glaucous Gull along with the commoner Glaucous-winged Gulls. A video of the WANDERING TATTLER is here Wandering Tattler at Seward
We boarded the boat in good time and sat on the prow watching a Bald Eagle perched on a nearby mast. We set sail on time and were straight into seeing wildlife within about a mile of the harbour. First up was a MOUNTAIN GOAT on a near sheer cliff, then we saw our first HORNED PUFFINS, the first of over 100.
We sailed through rafts of seabirds mainly Kittiwakes and Guillemots, there were over 1000 of each. My photographic efforts weren’t always rewarding from a pitching boat, where I couldn’t digiscope, so many of the pics included are record shots. Then we came upon a rock with a group of Steller’s Sealions on it, with a huge bull in the midst of his harem.
Then we started to see Tufted Puffins, the first of over 200, each new rock seemed to have a new species. 10+ Dall’s Porpoises rode the waves under the prow of the boat. Then we came upon a small group of six Humpback Whales, which showed well but a little distant, but we were to return to them later. The captain eased the boat alongside a huge cliff where an auk colony was in full swing. Then the crew ensured that all the birders were able to connect with BRÜNNICH’S GUILLEMOTS (Thick-billed Murres), which were there in small numbers. I saw 6+ and was able to get this record shot, the American name is much better as the thick bill with the white line is the most noticeable feature.
Brünnich’s Guillemot (LH two birds)
Three Black Oystercatchers were perched on a shoreline rock, five Pigeon Guillemots, two Marbled Murrelets, 10+ Pelagic Cormorants, 20+ Double-crested Cormorants, five Bald Eagles and two Harbour Seals were seen. 2+ RED-FACED CORMORANTS were lifers and needed careful separation from Pelagic. Then the shout went up that four FIN WHALES were approaching the port side of the boat. The captain said the big male was 64 feet long. FIN WHALES are the second largest whale in the world after Blue Whale.
We returned to the six Humpback Whales, which were now engaged in co-operative bubble feeding, and gave some amazing close views. It was an awesome wildlife encounter which we will always remember.
Finally on the way back to the harbour we stopped for views of another MOUNTAIN GOAT with a kid and a couple of SEA OTTERS which came really close to the boat.
It was an amazing trip and hopefully if we get back there next year, I’ll take the 9 hour trip.
We stopped on the outskirts of Seward and bought some food, really good fried chicken, before heading north back to Anchorage. I spotted another MOOSE at Meridian and Long Lakes but by the time we had stopped the car it had vanished into the trees.
We didn’t stop again until we reached Girdwood, which had looked really promising as we passed it in the morning. Here you can still see the results of the 9.2 magnitude Good Friday earthquake in 1964 that caused the land to drop by up to 12 feet, flooding the area with saltwater creating a “ghost forest” of dead trees which line the water’s edge. Birds here included 50+ Northern Shovelers, 6+ American Wigeons, two Cackling Geese, a pair of Northern Pintails, new for the trip and two Savannah Sparrows also first of the trip. A red wader dropped into one of the channels, it was either a Red Knot or a Grey Phalarope (Red Phalarope). I crept up to the edge of the channel but it had vanished completely never to be seen again. Can any locals advise of status here please? The other less welcome wildlife here was the first appearance of thousands of mozzies and midges, so I didn’t linger here for long.
Our last stop was at Potter Marsh. When I got out of the car I could hear a whirring noise but I just couldn’t work out where it was coming from. Eventually I looked up and high above a Wilson’s Snipe was displaying, the source of the noise. From the new walkways I could see a good selection of birds including a tree festooned with birds and looking like a decorated Christmas tree, they were all Tree Swallows. Also here amongst the commoner species were 16 Cackling Geese, a pair of Sandhill Cranes, two Greater Yellowlegs and an Arctic Skua flew over at a great height.
Day 12 – Th 21st June 2012
Sunny and very warm
It was our last full day in Alaska so as ever I got up early and headed out to Westchester Lagoon. I wanted to take a few photos with my Heath Robinson scope and tripod. I easily relocated the Alder Flycatcher in the same tree as where I’d first seen it and it posed beautifully, all the time offering “Free Beer”.
Westchester Lagoon had many of the same birds but two drake Redheads were the first of the holiday. Mew Gulls were present in good numbers and I counted five Red-necked Grebes today and 32 Short-billed Dowitchers were roosting.
Out in Bootlegger Cove a Lesser Yellowlegs was new for the trip, also there were c100 Hudsonian Godwits distant at the waters edge, 20+ Green-winged Teals, 50+ American Wigeons and four Bonaparte’s Gulls. Back at the lake a cycling birder stopped and pointed out a pair of White-winged Scoters, which I hadn’t seen earlier. This was much better views than the one I had seen from the cruise ship. On the walk back a small Douglas’s Squirrel was being chased by a juvenile Black-billed Magpie near the hotel.
After breakfast the three of us set out for the Alaskan Wildlife Conservation Center at Girdwood. Here they kept Alaskan mammals in near natural surroundings in huge enclosures, but it enabled us to see Musk Ox, Grizzly Bear and Wood Bison and much more at close quarters. We also had very close encounters with more mozzies, which seemed to be a Girdwood problem, having not been troubled anywhere else. Between Anchorage and Girdwood we made several stops to look for birds and wildlife and take photos. At Beluga Point, there were sadly no Belugas as they pass here in August, but a DALL’S SHEEP was high above on a mountainous slope. At Bird Point a Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle Warbler) was a trip tick, a male Yellow Warbler and a Fox Sparrow were both singing.
At the Conservation Center the mozzies were biting so we decided to head inland from Girdwood up towards Mount Alyeska. A cable car ran from Hotel Alyeska at the base of the mountain up to a complex near the summit. We parked up and headed for the hotel, as we neared the entrance a loud voice shouted “Sir, Stand still!” and as an afterthought “Bear!” The staff were chasing a young Black Bear out of the car park because it had taken to scavenging and jumping on car roofs. However they had succeeded in chasing it towards us. We stood still but kept the camera going as it approached and at the last minute it ran off into the undergrowth.
We took the cable car to the top and I hoped for a mountain species or two but at the complex there were just two Violet Green Swallows. Bridge and I followed the track up to the upper chair lift station in the Glacier Bowl just below the summit. The view was stunning but there were no birds or other wildlife apart from an Australian couple who arrived, which enabled us to take mutual photos. The descent was very dodgy across the snowfield, we didn’t notice how steep it was on the ascent. A couple of broken ski marker poles were very handy for the descent with only one fall for Bridgette on the way down. Good fun but birdless up there. We found Mum who opted out of the climb, wisely, and headed back to Anchorage. On our last night here we dined again in Orso Restaurant, this time having a bar meal and a couple of pints of Alaskan Amber for me.
Day 13 – Fri 22nd June 2012
Sunny and very warm
The final chance to look around my adopted patch before the mammoth journey home to England. Walking down to the lagoon I heard the “tinny trumpet” call of a pair of Red-breasted Nuthatches and shortly after I found them and had really good views. I had only seen one before in San Francisco, and had brilliantly dipped the Holkham bird in Norfolk three days running!
Not much had changed at the lagoon, the two drake Redheads were still present, eight Red-necked Grebes were there along with all the other regulars. A Sand Martin (Bank Swallow) was a new trip bird. Then I checked Bootlegger Cove but only found three Greater Yellowlegs and 50+ American Wigeons, but no sign of any Godwits. As I came back past the lake a noisy wader flock arrived. There were roughly 100 Short-billed Dowitchers and 100 Hudsonian Godwits. They landed on the small island very obligingly.
Hudsonian Godwit (r)
Then it was back to the hotel to load up and say our goodbyes. We went to the Alaskan Botanical Gardens on the way to the Airport but there were few birds here and clouds of mozzies, so we gave it up as a bad job and went to the Airport.
We took off from Anchorage at 5:30pm and flew to Seattle. It took about 3½ hours and it was dark and raining when we arrived so we had no views of it at all, but it did make a change to see a dark night. We had about an hour wait until our next flight to Newark, New Jersey. This flight was about six hours. Then we had a couple of hours wait until our flight to London. After leaving Anchorage at 5:30pm on Friday we finally got home at 1am Sunday, having crossed three time zones.
It had been a fabulous holiday with many new birds and animals. We can certainly recommend Alaska and hope to return there soon, but next time without the cruise first.
If you would like further info feel free to contact me.
Mike & Bridgette King © 2012