This past couple of weeks, I had a couple of birder friends come visit. In 9 days total, we put over 1000 miles on my car plus some additional miles on my Alaska Airlines account. Our route went something like this:
Tuesday: drive around Anchorage
Wednesday: drive to Seward, visit the SeaLife Center, take a 6 hour boat cruise out to Aialik Bay and the Chiswell Islands, drive back to Anchorage
Thursday: drive to Whittier, take the ferry to Valdez, drive around Valdez
Friday: drive from Valdez to Anchorage
Saturday: drive around Anchorage
Sunday: get up at Stupid O'Clock and fly to Barrow (with a brief stop at Prudhoe Bay) and drive around Barrow all day
Monday: drive around Barrow all day, return to Anchorage late night
Tuesday: drive from Anchorage to Homer, drive around Homer
Wednesday: drive around Homer, drive back to Anchorage
Thursday morning: take my friends back out to the airport, crash, and sleep for approximately 32 hours (I got sick round about the time we came back from Valdez. It's not quite over yet.)
The following is the list of birds I saw and felt I could reasonably identify. Locale helped a little: if it's a big gull with pink legs in Barrow? It's a glaucous. There's really no other option. Don't ask me to identify a glaucous in Seward. Though for some strange reason I'm pretty confident with the dowitchers these days. Not so much with the other sandpipers and variants, but dowitchers, I got 'em. And after seeing what seemed like billions of greater white-fronted geese in Barrow, having one strafe the car on the Spit out in Homer a day later allowed me to identify it immediately. I may not be able to do that next summer.
Here's my list:
American dipper American golden plover American pipit American robin American wigeon Arctic tern Bald eagle Barrow's Goldeneye Belted kingfisher Black bellied plover Black scoter Black-billed magpie Blackcapped chickadee Blacklegged kittiwake Bonaparte's gull Canada goose Cliff swallow Common merganser Common raven Common redpoll Dark eyed junco Double crested cormorant Eurasian wigeon Gadwall Glaucous gull Gray jay Greater scaup Greater white fronted goose Greater yellowlegs Green winged teal Harlequin duck Herring gull Horned grebe Ivory gull Lapland longspur Lesser scaup Lesser yellowlegs Mallard Marbled murrelet Merlin Mew gull Northern harrier Northern pintail Northern shoveler Northwestern crow Pacific loon Pectoral sandpiper Pelagic cormorant Pigeon guillemot Red necked grebe Red necked phalarope Ring necked duck Ring-necked pheasant Rock dove Sandhill crane Savannah sparrow Semi-palmated sandpiper Short billed dowitcher Snow bunting Snow geese Snowy owl Song sparrow Surf scoter Tree swallow Trumpeter swan Tundra swan Varied thrush Violet green swallow Whimbrel White crowned sparrow White winged scoter Yellow rumped warbler Peregrine falcon
That would be 73 species, total. Yes, the falcon is out of alpha order, but I just remembered it and didn't want to reformat the last third of that list. My friends got a few more--some birds I caught glimpses of, but not enough for me to take a shot at identifying, like a hoary redpoll up in Barrow and one of the woodpecker types at Westchester Lagoon here in Anchorage. And of course, all those gulls that I'm no good at picking up the tells on, like glaucous winged gulls in Seward. Or the thrush up on Hillside that was tentatively identified as either a Swainson's or a Hermit, and I really have no hope of further identification on that one.
Since I'm relatively new to birding, I ended up with 20 species for my life list. Many of which I've probably seen in the wild before, just that I wasn't counting them--or even paying much attention--at the time, so this is a first.
But I'm not all about the checking off the list thing, though I do that too. Some of these were far more fascinating for what was going on with them. The pectoral sandpipers? Okay, those were a new one for my life list, but we were parked at an overlook by a slough area in Valdez when we spotted the flock. And suddenly whoosh: most of the flock took wing. Why? A merlin (which I have seen before) was hunting them. The American dipper? That's a fairly new one to my list (saw it just two weeks before this trip) but while observing a pair of them near Valdez, one put on a great show for us by swimming underwater where we could see him/her, catching a small fish, feeding it to the other, and then going out and fishing some more.
We had a pretty funny travel guide up in Barrow the first day. He's the one who spotted the first snowy owl for us. (You look for high points on the tundra and look for the owl-shaped silhouette to see them. Really. This one was still in full winter plumage so spotting a white bird against white ground against a light grey sky?) Our guide was a little bemused by the whole birder thing. Accustomed to birders, yes, he sees lots of them, but he doesn't entirely get why people do this and often pay lots of money to do it. I made him laugh out loud when he asked if we were all birders and I answered yes, but I was the Ringo Starr of the group.
Honestly? I don't entirely get why people pay lots of money to do this, either. The Barrow trip wasn't as costly as could be--another friend donated use of her place to house my friends while in Anchorage so that saved them several nights worth of hotel costs which in turn helped pay for the flight to Barrow (I didn't have any plans for that AkAir companion fare anyhow and I have a goodly amount of air miles stocked up. 3 full fares to Barrow? Not so much. 1 full, 1 companion fare, and 1 air miles fare? That's doable). I really started paying attention to the birds partly once I moved to Alaska because at some point while traveling around the state I realized that I was seeing birds, regularly, that other people took once-in-a-lifetime trips to see. Like the Kittlitz's Murrelet. Or Thick-Billed Murres. Or Northwestern Crows (don't ask, I don't understand that one either.)
And honestly, I still get way more excited by some of the charismatic megafauna in Alaska than I do by the birds. On that boat trip out of Seward? We saw a fin whale. What a fin whale was doing in the entrance to Resurrection Bay, nobody quite knows, but that was very cool. And orcas. And northern sea otters. And stellar sea lions. And harbor seals. And a muskrat. And Dall sheep. And Dall porpoise. And a humpbacked whale. And mountain goats. And a black bear. And a snowshoe hare. And caribou along the Glenn Highway just outside of Glennallen. And the mother moose with her gangly babies that were probably no more than 3 days old in Homer.
But, okay. I saw a snowy owl. A real, live, snowy owl. Not in a zoo. On a snowdrift on the tundra (and later on a utility pole). Still in winter plumage. A snowy owl. That was cool. No eiders yet, but this totally makes up for that. Besides, this was my third trip to Barrow. One of these days, I'll get up there and I'll get to see eiders. I SAW A SNOWY OWL.