MAY 30 – JUNE 12, 1999
WFO Conference Trip Report by Robbie Fischer
Photos contributed by Mike Rogers, Robbie Fischer, and Steve Stapp
Joe Morlan and I arrived at Anchorage airport about 11 PM on May 30. We took a taxi to our downtown hostel. The next morning we walked through residential areas to Westchester Lagoon. The weather was overcast, with heavy showers in the afternoon. Birds seen (or heard): Dark-eyed Junco, Tree Swallow, Violet-green Swallow, Bank Swallow, Black-billed Magpie, American Robin, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Common Raven, Canada Goose, beautiful Red-necked Grebes, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Green and Blue-winged Teal, Mallard, Northern Shoveler and American Wigeon. Mew Gulls were nesting in spruce trees. Other gulls included Glaucous-winged, Herring and Bonaparte’s. White-crowned Sparrows, Orange-crowned and the "Myrtle" form of Yellow-rumped Warblers were singing. We also heard, but could not locate, a Swainson’s Thrush. On the empty mudflats, through Joe’s scope, we were able to find Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs and Semipalmated Plovers. Finally, Joe found a small flock of larger shorebirds, which gave me my first look at Hudsonian Godwits.
On May 31 we flew to St. Paul Island in the Pribilof’s for a three-day pre-WFO conference birding tour. Other Californians who attended included Gene and Joanne Cardiff, Dori Myers, Steve Davis and Mike Rogers. We were met at the airport by the tour bus and immediately set off to visit some local birding spots. Unfortunately, my binoculars were still in my checked luggage but Mike Rogers graciously shared his and views of distant birds in his scope. A McKay’s Bunting had been reported at the northeastern corner of the island. Luckily, it lingered until we arrived and all had good looks at this bird being chased by a Snow Bunting. On the way back to register at the hotel, a walk along Salt Lagoon yielded Bar-tailed Godwits on a sand bar.
In town, Gray-crowned Rosy Finches filled the niche of House Finches and Arctic Blue Foxes hung around looking for scraps like stray dogs. After dinner at the TDX company-owned Trident cafeteria, we boarded the tour bus once again and stopped to check on a Wood Sandpiper Mike Rogers had found in a marshy area close to town, a life bird for some of us. Harlequin Ducks were common along the shore, as were Oldsquaws in various plumages. Lapland Longspurs sang in short flights on breeding territories and black-breasted Rock Sandpipers flew across the gravel road as we drove through the countryside. Our main target was a reported Bean Goose and it remained along the side of the road, in easy view. A life bird for all, the consensus was that it belonged to the race "middendorffii", largest of all the races. In a swampy area nearby, we had less satisfying views of a Long-toed Stint, hard to separate from a Least Sandpiper. We stopped on our return to town for a herd of reindeer, introduced on the island, and a flock of the threatened Aleutian subspecies of Canada Goose. Bufflehead flew across the road in the gloaming. It was almost 10 PM but in early June this area has close to 20 hours of daylight.
We awoke on June 1 to cold fog but it proved to be great weather for birds. Joe and I walked to breakfast and saw one of the three English members of our tour scouring the cliffs across from the Trident. We joined him and had three life birds before breakfast: Least, Parakeet and Crested Auklets! Our tour bus first stop was on the rocky coast west of the town, to view nesting seabirds. In a light rain we were rewarded with close views of nesting Black and Red-legged Kittiwakes, Northern Fulmars, Red-faced Cormorants and Thick-billed and Common Murres (our first copulating birds on the Pribilofs). I had hoped to see puffins on this trip and I wasn’t disappointed. Horned Puffins were common and Mike Rogers spied a Tufted Puffin in flight. Joe tracked it down and got his scope on it for me when it landed on the rocks. After a couple of hours, we moved on to Rocky Lake and added Red-necked Phalarope to our growing list.
After lunch, Ken Burton drove our group to Webster Lake. The visibility was improving. We saw Pacific-golden Plover, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Greater Scaup and Oldsquaws. A small group set out around the lake while others crossed the road to sea watch. All were rewarded by the spreading out as one group found two Wood Sandpipers as well as a Ruff in alternate plumage and another found two Terek Sandpipers and summoned the rest of us. Two Greater White-fronted Geese flew overhead.
After a king crab dinner at the Trident, we returned to the bus and headed out for the evening tour. A stop at the far end of Salt Pond gave us all excellent views of three Common Greenshanks. A couple of Wandering Tattlers were closely examined for barring on the underparts, as Gray-tailed Tattler had been reported on the island. Mike and Joe flushed the candidate bird and the call of the Wandering Tattler dashed all hopes. We moved on to Reef Point, near town, and reveled in close views of more auklets and puffins nesting, while listening to the song of a Winter Wren. Mike Rogers and others in the group were scoping from a blind set up to view Fur Seals. Frantic gesturing indicated they were on to something. A few yards below the blind they had spotted two Common Sandpipers and the elusive Gray-tailed Tattler. Gene and Dori were too far away to reach the spot in time but they remained behind, choosing to walk back to town. Their persistence was rewarded and they were lucky enough to catch a ride back to the hotel with one of the other tour groups after they saw the birds.
The morning of June 2, our last day on St. Paul Island, was cold and windy. We began with a stop at the Salt Pond and the gull aficionados were happy with Glaucous and the "vega" race of Herring Gull. We had seen Slaty-backed Gull in a few different locations on the island and Salt Pond proved to be a good place once again to study this bird. Sandpiper fans were happy to get good looks at four Bar-tailed Godwits. Our last stop before boarding the plane was back at Webster Lake. The Ruff was still there, as were the ducks. One group found two Wood Sandpipers and the others found a male King Eider not far from shore, that stayed put long enough for all who wanted to see it. An adult male Lapland Longspur in alternate plumage foraged briefly in the gravel almost at our feet. Steve Stapp, although a non-birder, photographed many of the birds we saw on the trip and has a great start on a life list. All too soon it was time to return to the airport for our flight to Anchorage.
June 3rd Joe Morlan and I birded together, beginning at Hillside Park in Anchorage. New birds for the trip included Boreal Chickadees and Spotted Sandpiper. Joe located a drumming female Three-toed Woodpecker. We heard Gray-cheeked Thrush but were unable to get visual confirmation. We also saw our first moose; a young male with a small rack of velvet covered antlers, browsing in the woods. At noon we moved on to Chugatch State Park, hoping for Willow and Rock Ptarmigan. We found White-winged Crossbills and Common Redpolls in flocks, a male Northern Harrier performing a courtship display and many Golden-Crowned, Fox, and Lincoln’s Sparrows singing. Joe climbed the ridge in search of ptarmigan while I enjoyed the afternoon sunshine near a clump of willows. Unfortunately, his quest went unrewarded and we left for registration at the WFO conference.
Our first WFO field trip began at 5 AM on June 4th. Buzz Scher led and drove the van to Potter Marsh on a beautiful, sunny day. Others in the group included Kimball Garrett, Kathy Molina, Jean Brandt, Mike San Miguel, Phil Unitt, Mike Rogers and Alma Kali. It was a seasoned group with good eyes and ears. We saw a nesting Horned Grebe, the expected gulls, Arctic Terns, an alternate plumaged Pacific Loon and a Rusty Blackbird posing on a snag. Returning to the van, we heard a Northern Waterthrush singing and located it high in a tree near one of the ponds.
Chugatch State Park was the next stop. Buzz was confident he could find Willow Ptarmigan as he had seen a pair in low elevations near the wooden bridge. White-winged Crossbill and Common Redpoll flocks were abundant, as were Pine Siskin. Buzz located a male Willow Ptarmigan and those of us who had remained at the lower elevations had great views. Jean pointed out a herd of Dall Sheep on the mountain as we left for another parking area at Chugatch. The group spread out in the forest and found a Spruce Grouse cooperatively feeding in a black spruce no more than ten feet above the ground. We returned to the hotel for the afternoon papers, tired but happy. That night many folks went owling and had excellent looks at Boreal Owls, including nestlings. They returned to the hotel about 11 PM and grabbed a few hours sleep before the next field trip.
June 5th dawned sunny and calm once again. We met Dan Gibson and Nathan Senner at 5 AM for a trip to Arctic Valley, Otter Lake, the fish hatchery and Westchester Lagoon. In the parking area at Arctic Valley, Kimball scoped the mountainside and focused on a white spot that turned out to be a Rock Ptarmigan. All life birds should be this easy! Some of the group felt obligated to climb the mountain for closer views and got them. Those of us who remained below saw three Bohemian Waxwings foraging in the willows and a Golden Eagle flew overhead. Along the exit road we saw a family group of Gray Jays.
Otter Lake sported a pair of Trumpeter Swans, a Rusty Blackbird and added Hairy Woodpecker to the trip list. The fish hatchery was next and the family of dippers, with three young begging food, captured our attention. A sleeping Common Merganser proved an identification puzzle for a few moments. Our last stop was Westchester Lagoon and the mudflats nearby. It provided real drama as two Common Ravens were harassing a female Mallard with very young ducklings. Suddenly, a Bald Eagle swooped down and attempted to grab the Mallard. She barely escaped into the underbrush as the ducklings disappeared into the marsh grass.
June 6th was the pelagic trip out of Seward on the "Misty". It was another clear day with 50-mile visibility and calm seas. We encountered sea otters, Dall’s Porpoise, at least five Orcas, four Humpbacks and a Fin Whale with calf. Pelagic birds included both murres, Pigeon Guillemot, Rhinoceros Auklet, a basic plumaged Marbled Murrelet , Double-crested, Pelagic and Red-faced Cormorants. Black-legged Kittiwakes were abundant. Excitement ensued when a Short-tailed Shearwater was located just yards from the boat. In deeper waters we found a couple Pomarine Jaegars and Northern Fulmars. Both puffins were sighted and a singing Fox Sparrow on a rocky outcrop covered with seabird nests provided quite a contrast. Returning to Seward, we saw our first Northwestern Crows. On the drive back to Anchorage, we stopped briefly in the parking lot of the Tidewater Café and soon both a male and female Rufous Hummingbird came to the feeders in plain view of the bus.
The following day, Joe and I decided to drive down the Kenai Peninsula to Homer to look for avian specialties. It’s 225 miles from Anchorage but well worth the trip. Joe got out the scope at our first chance to pull over on Homer Spit. Looking toward Cook Inlet, he spied a small flock of Common Eiders, a life bird for him. Not far away was a Yellow-billed Loon in basic plumage and a flotilla of Surf and White-winged Scoters. We drove down to Land’s End, parked and walked to the shore. Within minutes Joe had picked out two Kittlitz’s Murrelets, one of his target birds. Two Brant flew by. After a few hours of searching, we finally saw four Aleutian Terns, languidly flying over Kachemak Bay. In past years they had nested nearby but have been less common recently so we felt fortunate to see them. We met the Cardiff’s and Dori Myers and had a late lunch at Boardwalk Fish and Chips before exploring more of the Homer area.
Airport access road bisects the former tern colony. Here we found one Sandhill Crane and a male Ring-necked Pheasant (local escape) to add to our trip list. We left the Sterling Highway for the mouth of the Kenai River and saw about 75 Sandhill Cranes, cackling and lesser Canada Geese and a herd of reindeer. At 7:30 PM we stopped at Tern Lake in hopes of finding Alder Flycatcher. A singing "maxima" Song Sparrow was interesting but no flycatchers.
On the 8th of June we decided to drive out the Glenn Highway. Kimball Garrett, Mike San Miguel, Robb Hamilton and their group had seen Northern Hawk Owl at two different spots earlier in the week and we hoped to have some success. We scanned thousands of spruce tops but no luck. We did see a few of the Harlan’s race of Red-tailed Hawks and a construction delay provided an opportunity to check out a nearby riparian area. Joe first heard, and then tracked down, an Alder Flycatcher in a grove of paper birch trees. It was actively feeding and singing, a new bird for both of us.
We stopped at some lakes at mile 122 on the Glenn Highway. A Short-eared Owl patrolled the grassy areas and a Red-throated Loon floated in the center of the lake. We heard an unfamiliar song and an American Tree Sparrow obligingly teed up on a small spruce just yards away. Another Alder Flycatcher sang and flitted in the bushes. According to Kimball, they had seen a hawk-owl at mile 134.5. We pulled over and were met by a troop of Gray Jays, which we hoped would lead us to an owl. A female moose ran through the woods but no owl.
On Wednesday, June 9th, Joe and I visited Earthquake Park on the way to the airport for his fight to Nome. We had another Alder Flycatcher. They are late migrants and we were happy we were able to stay long enough to see them.
I headed back down to the Kenai for a two-night stay at Seaside Farms, a hostel on the shore of Kachemak Bay. On the way I stopped at Portage Lake, a beautiful glacier lake and detoured on the 20-mile long Skilak Lake Road.
It was dusty but scenic and I pulled over to take a photo and found a male Pine Grosbeak feeding on dandelion seeds just yards from the car. It was a first for me and I was able to get some photos with my "point and shoot" camera, using the car as a blind.
The remaining days in and around Homer were very relaxing after the hectic pace of the previous ten days. I became more familiar with many of the birds I had seen for the first time in Alaska. I explored recommended birding sites like Beluga Lake, Skyline Drive and East end Road. On the 11th, I took a short boat trip to Gull Island and was pleased to find Red-faced and Pelagic Cormorants and both puffins nest there along with Pigeon Guillemots, Common Murres, Black-legged Kittiwakes and Glaucous-winged Gulls. The sight of a Bald Eagle eating a Tufted Puffin was sad considering puffins are uncommon compared to the gulls and murres. Soon it was time to leave but I’ll never forget the sight of dozens of eagles in the air along the Sterling highway in Ninilchik, their black and white pattern framed against the royal blue sky.