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06 – 14 SEPTEMBER 2019
By Jacob Roalef
We enjoyed an impressive flock of 111 Emperor Geese on their wintering grounds.
Alaska is the perfect combination of amazing birds, large mammals, quiet wilderness, and breathtaking landscapes and scenery. On this scouting trip, Jacob and his four brilliant clients (Mike, Barry, Bob, and Grace) covered sections of mainland Alaska and Kodiak Island to learn as much as possible about the area for our future tours. This trip was faster-paced than a standard tour and covered a tremendous amount of ground in a short time, scouting out places such as Anchorage, Denali National Park, Seward, Homer, and Kodiak Island.
The tour managed an impressive number of fall bird species plus some amazing mammal encounters and spectacular scenic views. Bird highlights for the group included Emperor Goose, Horned Puffin, Tufted Puffin, Marbled Murrelet, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Willow Ptarmigan, Spruce Grouse, Surfbird, Varied Thrush, Pacific Wren, Slaty-backed Gull, Tundra Swan, Trumpeter Swan, Northwestern Crow, Wandering Tattler, and Pigeon Guillemot. In addition to birds this trip was packed full of amazing mammal sightings, including Grizzly and Kodiak Bears (two subspecies of Brown Bear), Moose, Orca, Sea Otter, and even a rare Canada Lynx!
A total of 99 species of birds were seen during the trip (a great number for the fall in this region) as well as an impressive 17 different mammals and amazing scenes including a fantastic view of Mount Denali. Full species lists can be found at the end of the report.
Gorgeous sunsets were almost a nightly occurrence over the beautiful desert and canyons of the region.
Day 1, 6 September 2019. Anchorage – Tour Begins
The tour began around 8:00 a.m. with just Mike and Barry, who had arrived the evening before. We started with breakfast and then headed for a few local Anchorage parks while we waited for the rest of the group to arrive. Our first stop was at the MLK fire area, which held a few nice boreal species like American Three-toed Woodpecker, Two-barred Crossbill, and Boreal Chickadee. From here we went to Potter Marsh in southern Anchorage. What a beautiful scene of pristine wetlands with a mountain landscape in the background! A few nice birds were hiding inside, like Wilson’s Snipe and Green-winged Teal. We also caught up with a distant Harlan’s Hawk, a northern subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk that has a white tail. We had a quick stop back at the hotel for lunch and a short break before heading back out to pick up Bob and Grace. Now we finally had the whole group together, so we headed to Westchester Lagoon for a quick evening scan, which provided scores of ducks and other waterbirds, including both Common and Barrow’s Goldeneyes, Red-necked Grebe, Horned Grebe, Black-legged Kittiwake, Lesser Scaup, and many others. A great finish to a pleasant first day in Alaska!
Day 2, 7 September 2019. Anchorage area and drive to Denali National Park
We started the day with some quick checks at MLK fire area and Westchester Lagoon again and found many of the same species from the previous day like Black-billed Magpie, Steller’s Jay and Trumpeter Swan. We did manage a few new species, including Cackling Goose. After a brief stop for groceries we were off for the long drive north toward Denali National Park. We stopped at the Eagle River Nature Center for lunch and a small hike around this beautiful wilderness. Things were quiet as far as the birds went, but we did manage to see some incredibly distant Thinhorn Sheep (Dall Sheep) on the mountainside. The afternoon brought a lot of rain, so we spent most of the time just finishing the drive to Healy, where we would stay in cabins for the night.
Day 3, 8 September 2019. Denali National Park
We were up early to catch our bus into Denali National Park. Luck was on our side today with clear, perfect weather conditions and amazing large mammal sightings. As soon as the bus started down the road Barry spotted a Northern Hawk-Owl perched on a spruce in the early-morning hours. Not long after that we scored our first mammals sighting of a Moose casually walking through the tundra landscape. Things didn’t slow down much as highlights just kept coming. A Grizzly Bear was still peacefully sleeping under a tree from the night before. A gorgeous Golden Eagle was soaring on the warm thermals, while a group of Thinhorn Sheep were trekking along the mountain in the background. Suddenly a Canada Lynx appeared in the middle of the road and walked back and forth across it for several minutes before finally disappearing into the brush. Wow is all that can be said! Other highlights from the day included an incredibly accommodating Willow Ptarmigan, a pair of Caribou (Reindeer), and incredibly clear views of Mount Denali. This mountain peak is the largest in North American and is so large that it normally creates its own weather conditions and is often surrounded by clouds, so having a clear view the entire day was an amazing experience. We decided to have an earlier dinner and visit a few local shops to relax after an incredible day inside the amazing Denali National Park.
This Willow Ptarmigan along the side of the road in Denali even gave us a little call!
Day 4, 9 September 2019. Drive to Anchorage and Hatcher’s Pass
After a quick stop at a local café for breakfast we headed to Byers Lake for a morning hike while attempting to avoid the rain. We were treated right away to a nice pocket of birds including Varied Thrush, Dark-eyed Junco and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. A few Common Loons were out on the lake along with a family of Trumpeter Swans. As we made it back to the car to start preparing lunch a Spruce Grouse was quietly sitting in the middle of the trail, pecking at seeds in the rocks. The remainder of the day was spent along Hatcher Pass, a long scenic drive through a wide variety of habitats. In addition to the amazing scenery we were treated to a few breeding-plumaged Pacific Loons, a fly-over Western Osprey, and an American Dipper foraging in the rushing waters of a cold glacial stream. We finally made it back to Anchorage for dinner and then to the hotel for the evening. Another awe-inspiring day in Alaska!
Day 5, 10 September 2019. Whittier and Seward
Today we started toward Seward with a brief stop in the small town of Whittier. In order to get to Whittier we had to travel through the longest tunnel in America (2.6 miles according to the car odometer). This tiny port town was loaded with seabirds like Glaucous-winged Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake, Harlequin Duck, Marbled Murrelet, Pelagic Cormorant, and more. We enjoyed lunch with some Northwestern Crows while watching a few local fishermen catch Coho Salmon. Then we continued to Seward, another small town sitting on the shore of Resurrection Bay. A bit of evening birding produced some goodies like a small local population of Chestnut-backed Chickadees and our first Sea Otters of the tour. After a tasty dinner it was time to call it a night before our fun-filled boat trip coming up tomorrow.
Day 6, 11 September 2019. Seward Pelagic Trip
We had more luck with the weather today, as we had perfect conditions for our boat trip on Resurrection Bay, one of the top highlights of the trip! We started with a few Marbled Murrelets close to shore, but it wasn’t long before some excitement came through on the radio. Another boat out on the water came across a pod of Orcas (Killer Whales), so we turned in that direction and hit the gas, hoping to make it in time before they moved on. Luckily we managed to arrive quickly and enjoyed about six to eight of these amazing animals for over 20 minutes. Next we made our way over to Holgate Glacier, which stands over 400 feet (122 meters) tall and created a maze of ice chunks floating as we approached. Every so often we could hear a large chunk of ice crack, break, and crash into the water below. To wrap up the trip we caught up with a bait ball feeding frenzy that was loaded with birds, both Horned and Tufted Puffins, Pelagic Cormorants, Black-legged Kittiwakes, and a lone Red-necked Grebe. After this we made our way back to shore to conclude an amazing day out on the water. We then started the long drive to Homer, where we would spend the evening and were greeted by some fly-over Sandhill Cranes at the hotel.
An Orca breached the water for a moment, a true highlight of the tour.
Day 7, 12 September 2019. Homer and Anchor Point
Today we were unfortunately greeted by rain and wind for most of the day from an incoming storm front. Despite the poor weather we made the most out of the day and added several new species to our trip list. Some sea watching and scanning from the Homer Spit area scored us White-winged Scoter, Wandering Tattler, and several more Sea Otters, which are always a treat to see. From here we continued to Anchor Point, where we had a close encounter with a mother Moose with three young. What an experience! After a nice lunch we had to make the long drive back to Anchorage, where we would turn in early before our flights the next day.
Day 8, 13 September 2019. Kodiak Island
We were up at 3:00 a.m. this morning to catch our flight to Kodiak Island, the second-largest island in the United States. We were hopeful that the maritime climate here would produce some new interesting species for us. Our first stop was the end of Womens Bay, the first of three bays on Kodiak Island. It wasn’t long before we spotted the top target of this island excursion, Emperor Goose, not just one but 111 of them, as the first flocks were arriving here to spend the winter! We added Black Oystercatcher and several singing Pacific Wrens to our trip list as well. From here we traveled back into town to explore the marinas and break walls. There was a large group of Surfbirds with several Black Turnstones scattered among them, camouflaged along the dark rocks of the wall. After lunch we explored the rest of the island and the other two bays. Highlights included Tundra Swan, Slaty-backed Gull, and Pectoral Sandpiper – several good birds to finish our last full day of the trip.
Day 9, 14 September 2019. Tour conclusion
On the final morning of the trip we had to drop off Mike and Grace at the airport for their earlier flights home. The rest of us were lucky enough to tour around the marina with a local and his boat, getting close-up views of Surfbird, Sea Otter, and a whole colony of smelly Steller Sea Lions! Afterwards we decided to head back to see the flock of Emperor Geese one last time before catching our afternoon flights back to Anchorage and then home. We also lucked into an amazing surprise encounter with a Kodiak Bear, the largest bear in the world! We watched as it raced through tall wetland grasses, crossed the road, and vanished into the wilderness. What an amazing way to conclude such a fantastic trip!
This young Kodiak Bear was the cherry on top of an amazing tour.
Please see the downloadable PDF above with the full species lists included.