Birding Tour USA: Alaska – Vast Beauty, Nome, Denali, Seward
Alaska: Vast Beauty – Nome, Denali, Seward
Alaska birding tours offer one of the world’s most amazing combinations of stellar birds, jaw-dropping mammals, and breathtaking scenery, which will leave any nature enthusiast ecstatic! The variety of habitats offer a constant scenic backdrop as we travel through the arctic tundra, along numerous pristine lakes and rivers, past an assortment of distant (and some near) glaciers, and of course through sections of the mighty boreal forest. A stunning mountain view is never too far away, with the mightiest coming from Denali itself, North America’s highest peak. Do not forget the incredible experience of near 24-hour days with the sun almost never truly setting. The list of large-mammal possibilities is an impressive one, ranging from the tundra of Denali National Park to the waters of Resurrection Bay with Grizzly Bear, Moose, Orca (Killer Whale), Humpback Whale, Sea Otter, Reindeer (Caribou), and Thinhorn Sheep (Dall’s Sheep) all on the list, as well as many others.
Then of course there is the wide array of fantastic birds that use these bountiful summer arctic habitats for their nesting and breeding season. Birds include Bald Eagle, Horned and Tufted Puffins, Ancient and Kittlitz’s Murrelets, Long-tailed and Harlequin Ducks, Aleutian Tern, all four amazing Eider species (Steller’s, Spectacled, King, and Common), all three Jaeger species (Parasitic, Long-tailed, and Pomarine), Bristle-thighed Curlew, Emperor Goose, and many others which can be found on or above the waters and bays, not to mention true stunners like Snowy Owl, Arctic Warbler, Gyrfalcon, Bluethroat, American Dipper, and Willow and Rock Ptarmigans in the tundra and alpine areas. There are indeed very few places that could challenge the scenery, birds, and other wildlife found in the majesty of Alaska.
We will visit a large colony of Horned Puffins while in Seward.
This trip can be combined with our extension tour Utqiagvik (Barrow): Top of the World, which immediately follows this one.
Itinerary (13 days/12 nights)
Day 1. Arrival in Anchorage
You arrive at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport by 6 p.m., where you will use the shuttle to the hotel. There will be introductions and an orientation about our upcoming trip during our first dinner together.
The striking Willow Ptarmigan is one of the top targets on this trip.
Days 2 – 4. Birding the wonders of Nome
Using the hotel shuttle we will arrive at the Anchorage airport and catch our flight to the amazing birding destination that is Nome. Some of the best birding in all of Alaska can be found here during the tail end of migration, with breeding birds setting up territories and the potential of a stray species still high. Species such as Arctic Loon, Bristle-thighed Curlew, Aleutian Tern, Parasitic and Long-tailed Jaegers, Bluethroat, and Red Phalarope are a few of the top targets for our time here. There are three main roads that extend from the central town, and we will spend each of our days exploring these 60-plus-mile (97-plus-kilometer) roads that stretch through the beautiful arctic tundra. The evenings will be spent around the town with time for some birding. There is so much birding potential here in Nome with additional species like Alder Flycatcher, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Pacific Golden Plover, Common Eider, Bar-tailed Godwit, and Northern Wheatear, plus a shot at Muskox. During our three-plus days in Nome we will be able to fully explore everything that this amazing location has to offer.
The large and bulky Pomarine Jaeger
Day 5. Back to Anchorage
We’ll spend the morning birding around Nome for the final time, targeting any potential species we might be missing. From there we will take an afternoon flight back to Anchorage and pick up our rental vehicle, when we will likely see a few species near the airport and in town like Black-billed Magpie and Northern Raven. The remainder of the evening will be spent on dinner and getting comfortable in the hotel for a good night’s rest and recovery after a great time in Nome.
Day 6. Kenai Peninsula
Today we will be traveling a few hours south to Seward with plenty of birding stops planned along the way. First is a morning of birding around the Anchorage area at Westchester Lagoon. A few pairs of Red-necked Grebes nest on this good-sized lake, with the possibility of other waterfowl and shorebird species like Hudsonian Godwit, Northern Shoveler, and Greater Scaup. Next we will head to another local park for a relaxing stroll that should produce Boreal Chickadee, Two-barred (White-winged) Crossbill, Golden-crowned Sparrow, and many others. From here we will continue working south toward Seward with a brief stop in the small town of Whittier. In order to access the town we must drive through America’s longest tunnel, just over 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) long, where we will be treated to views of Prince William Sound. We will scan the waters for species like Pigeon Guillemot, Glaucous-winged Gull, Harlequin Duck, and Harbor Seal, while enjoying American (Northwestern) Crows scattered around town. We’ll then make the rest of the drive to Seward, where we will eat dinner and settle into the hotel for the evening.
Day 7. Seward Pelagic trip and Resurrection Bay
Today is very exciting as we spend most of it on the waters of Resurrection Bay, looking for loads of amazing seabirds and the potential for incredible marine mammals as well. The scenery of the bay is simply stunning, with large rock outcroppings scattered throughout and various glaciers in the surrounding mountains. We will visit colonies of both Tufted and Horned Puffins as well as Thick-billed and Common Murres. In addition a few other alcids are likely, like Ancient Murrelet, Marbled Murrelet, and even the rare Kittlitz’s Murrelet spends time in these waters during the summer. Thousands of Black-legged Kittiwakes enjoy the bay and are always a treat to see in their various plumage states. The chance at amazing marine mammals keeps the excitement alive, with Steller Sea Lion and Sea Otter as likely species with the chance at Dall’s Porpoise, Humpback Whale, and even the incredible Orca (Killer Whale)! After our time on the boat we will check out a few areas nearby before having dinner in town and settling in for the evening. This is also a good time to catch up on rest if needed or do a bit of laundry.
Marine mammals, like Sea Otter, can be seen in Resurrection Bay.
Day 8. From Seward back to Anchorage
We start the day birding around the town of Seward, exploring the airport mudflats for species like Mew Gull, Semipalmated Sandpiper, and other shorebirds. We’ll also check out the areas surrounding Lowell Point, which hold a small population of Chestnut-backed Chickadee as well as other species like Varied Thrush, Pacific Wren, and Steller’s Jay. There is also the chance for a Sea Otter being close to shore or some auk species hanging close to nearby rocks. On our way back to Anchorage we’ll make several stops along the famous Potter Marsh Bird Sanctuary as we scan for nesting Arctic Terns, Green-winged Teal, Wilson’s Snipe, and others plus some amazing scenic views. We will have dinner in Anchorage before making our way to Wasilla for the night to help give us a head start for the next day.
Day 9. Hatcher Pass to Healy
Today we’ll make the long, but scenic, drive toward Denali via Hatcher Pass. We’ll pass through a variety of habitats and elevations on this drive through the south-east Talkeetna Mountains. Fast-flowing streams along the roadside are common, with nesting American Dippers taking residence. Eventually we will reach some large open areas of tundra, where we will stop along the road when we spot something like perhaps a flock of Grey-crowned Rosy Finches or a Willow Ptarmigan strutting along. Once we are back on the main road we will stop again briefly at Byer’s Lake in Denali State Park for a brief hike, hoping for the likes of Northern Goshawk to bust through the forest and for a scan of the lake, where Trumpeter Swan and Common Loon should be nesting. Finally we’ll arrive in the small town of Healy for dinner and check into the hotel for the evening.
This tour will feature some stunning Alaskan scenery.
Day 10. Denali National Park
On one of the most exciting days of the trip today we will travel into the pristine Denali National Park. There is only a single, 90-plus-mile (150-plus-kilometer) road into and out of the park, and standard vehicles are not allowed past mile number 15. We will instead take one of the park’s tour buses, with our final destination of the day being at mile 66. Denali is best-known for its large-mammal sightings, spectacular tundra views, and of course Mount Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley) itself. The odds are good of seeing incredible wildlife like Grizzly Bear, Moose, Reindeer (Caribou), and Thinhorn Sheep (Dall’s Sheep) with the off chance at a rare mammal sighting as well. Views of Denali can be hit-or-miss, since it is so tall (20,000-plus feet/7000 meters) that it regularly creates its own weather conditions, often obstructing views with clouds and only occasionally peeking out. Then of course there are chances for some great birds like Golden Eagle and Gyrfalcon soaring in the thermals or a Willow Ptarmigan hopping through the scrub. Overall this national park is certainly a memorable one. After our bus returns, we will explore the nature center a bit and then head for dinner.
Day 11. Birding the Denali Highway
We’ll spend the day cruising along the 135 miles/216 kilometers of scenic alpine tundra on the Denali Highway. This mostly dirt road offers some amazing opportunities to experience some of Alaska’s nesting species in a peaceful solitude. We will make stops in a variety of habitat zones. Trumpeter Swan, Tundra Swan, and Harlequin Duck are found on the multitude of lakes and ponds along with various nesting shorebirds such as American Golden Plover, Whimbrel, and Wandering Tattler. We will become weary of Long-tailed-Jaeger nests while we search carefully for nesting Smith’s Longspur. Throughout the drive we should see and hear recently arrived Arctic Warblers as well as the chance for a ptarmigan or grouse crossing, with numerous species possible. Eventually we will arrive in the Paxson area for the evening and dinner.
Day 12. Back to Anchorage
We will return to Anchorage today via the Richardson and Glenn Highways. Today we will target and focus on any tundra/alpine species we may have missed on previous days. The drive takes us through some beautiful sections of the boreal forest, giving us a chance for a Northern Hawk-Owl perched up high or a Spruce Grouse on the edge of the road. There are a few campgrounds to wander through that host all the typical boreal species, like Boreal Chickadee, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Canada Jay, and Pine Grosbeak. We will finally make it back to Anchorage for our final dinner of what was surely an amazing trip.
The cute Canada Jay is one of our many boreal targets.
Day 13. Tour concludes, extension begins
The main Alaska tour concludes this morning with transport to the Anchorage airport. Some of the participants may fly back home, while others may board the flight to Utqiagvik for the tour extension.
Please note that the itinerary cannot be guaranteed as it is only a rough guide and can be changed (usually slightly) due to factors such as availability of accommodation, updated information on the state of accommodation, roads, or birding sites, the discretion of the guides and other factors. In addition, we sometimes have to use a different international guide from the one advertised due to tour scheduling.Download Itinerary
Mainland Alaska Scouting Trip Report, September 2019
06 – 14 SEPTEMBER 2019
By Jacob Roalef
DOWNLOAD TRIP REPORT
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.
A typical fall scene across the gorgeous Alaskan landscape.
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 America 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. This is a sample trip report. Please email us ([email protected]) for more trip reports from this destination.