This is the second of three planned posts about my trip to Alaska this June. Each post will cover one of my main targets when visiting the area. I will also talk a bit about what I saw and how I spent some of my time there. This post covers shorebirds; although it covers most of the land birds we saw, first.
Shorebirds... why shorebirds? I like them. They are small, quiet, little, intricately-patterned birds that sit in flooded, corn stubble fields or pace the sandy shores of whatever body of water there is in the area. Frankly, I hate looking at them in farm fields. It looks sad, to me. Sand, surf, and some sunshine look a lot better suited for them. Like sparrows, shorebirds are often written off as hard to identify birds that most people have a fleeting interest in. Maybe liking them is just part of that continual rooting for underdogs that I like to do. Which is all great, but it does not answer the question of why I would want to travel so far to see them. The tundra is home to the breeding grounds for several species. This is a chance to see the birds on their home turf; not just sitting in some farmer's field. I have seen pictures of them on the tundra, and they looked spectacular. I needed to see that for myself.
Utqiagvik is built on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, but it is surrounded by the tundra. As I mentioned in the previous post, the tundra is primarily a flat plain of stubby grasses and plants. Anything over ankle height is tall. Trees are not a thing. The tundra is pocked with small, plush, spongey mounds of lichen and moss. You could easily nap on one all day. Due to the layer of permafrost, the melted snow and ice form into ponds and marshy areas. Everything is soaking wet, which you will discover when you put a hand down on it. Take extra gloves. The area is also covered in caribou and goose poop. It is literally everywhere. For these reasons and others, you live in chest waders and a waterproof jacket while there. Sure, they are not necessary, but they make your life a lot easier.
What does life look like out there for a bird photographer? It is a bit hectic. With 24 hours of light, there is a possibility of shooting at any hour. Much like elsewhere, though, the light can get harsh in the middle of the day, if it is sunny. If it gets cloudy, it can quickly get too dark. Since the sun is not that strong, it does not take much cloud cover to end the shooting. You are constantly waiting for good light and then trying to photograph as much as you can while you have it. You are up and out for a few hours. If it is sunny, you are done by around 10-10:30 AM in the morning. Then you are waiting for the light to improve. It either needs to get slightly overcast or you need to wait until around 6/7 PM or so for the sun to get lower in the sky. In the meantime, you are grabbing a nap. You will want to eat. Do not forget to back up photos. Maybe it is dinner time; so, you will eat again. Then you are back in waders and out shooting until it gets cloudy or foggy. Maybe the light is good before dinner, and you are skipping dinner until 10 or 11 PM to take advantage of the light. You might be back out at 3 AM, though; so, you will want to cram in that nap, etc. quickly. It is so much activity packed into 3-6 hour increments that you quickly get turned around on time. Since it is light all the time, you really just assume that it is always time to be up. When you get back home, your body will hate you. Jet lag has nothing on this.
And where is all of this birding taking place? Well, you are never that far from town. The roads, at least the ones we were on, just do not go that far. They are rough and can turn to mud quickly. You will want a 4x4. If you look on eBird, you can see the birding locations as hot spots on the map. Sure, you could just take off across the tundra and bird other places. You will need a land use permit to be on the tundra. Unless you get a snow machine (snowmobile), you are also walking, and, honestly, there is nothing different out there than what you can find along the road. Maybe different opportunities, but not different birds. Forty-four species of birds and five mammals are what we found. There were more to be seen. This was a photography trip and not a birding trip, though. We did not spend a lot of time looking for accidentals and rarities; although we did find one slightly out of the way bird. You are definitely looking at quality over variety, there.
Which is probably a good segue into talking about what I did see....
Oof, again, where to start? How about with the first bird I saw when we landed. I knew there would be Snow Buntings there. I knew they would be in breeding plumage. I was not quite prepared for their role in Utqiagvik. Imagine this. You have just landed in Utqiagvik. No jet walks here; so, you are deplaning on the tarmac and walking into the building. There, on a piece of machinery, is a cute black-and-white Snow Bunting. It is hopping around and then suddenly dives down into a hole in some plywood - just like a House Sparrow would do. That sums up my introduction to Snow Buntings on their breeding grounds. They are pretty House Sparrows. Gail Bisson, one of the other participants, kept looking for bunting nests in abandoned cars.
It was neat to see the birds, and it is remarkable how different they look on their breeding grounds. I have only ever seen them as beige/brown birds. And their beaks are orange!
Here, I am going to take a quick diversion. Mostly due to the last picture above. The female bunting sitting on the tundra. That picture was actually taken just inside the cemetery located inside town. Six Arctic Warblers were being seen in the cemetery. That is a life bird for me. I needed to see one before I left. We already had questions about whether it was appropriate to bird the cemeteries there. If there was any question about it, it was answered immediately when we were accosted by an irate local walking by. Even after we apologized and said we were moving on, they kept yelling at us. We birded the perimeter without luck. I asked the hotel owner about it, and it was clear that the idea of birding within the cemetery was not something he was comfortable with. I did not go back. I did not get my life bird. I will find it elsewhere.
Back on the topic of completely different looking birds. Let's talk about Lapland Longspurs! Again, I have only ever seen this bird in sparrow-like plumage hopping around in snow-covered fields; usually near an airport. In late winter, you would see some that had started to transition to breeding plumage, but you never really got a full idea of what they would look like. In Utqiagvik, you can see them in all their glory.
I have several one-offs from the trip. We had a couple flyby Common Redpoll flocks. We also had a couple birds perched on the plowed snow banks one day.
I only saw one species of sparrow on the trip; although Brian and his group had an American Tree Sparrow, too. I shot this Savannah Sparrow on the way out to shoot King Eider on our last day. Priorities... take the shot you got when you got it. Plus, Savannah Sparrows are cute! I wish I was about a half-step closer to the bird and had a little more clearance between it and the snow.
Speaking of one-offs, we had one bird that was slightly off course. Not quite an accidental, but definitely off by a few hundred miles. It was a life bird for a couple people, and I know how skittish Varied Thrush are; so, I stayed back at the car to help improve their odds of getting closer. In the end, it flew up on a snow pile, and I snapped a distant shot. Varied Thrush is always a good bird to see.
Just running that stream of consciousness - in the good to see category was our sole raptor of the trip, Snowy Owl. We saw a second one that was a mile or so out across the tundra. But look at those feathers! Not a fleck of black. I have never seen one this pure white.
Finally back to birds I have multiple pictures of. This next group are not raptors, but they are raptor-like. They are best known for harassing gulls and terns into giving up their food. We had three species of jaeger around Utqiagvik. Of them, Long-tailed Jaeger is the least common. In fact, we only had one the entire trip. I have only seen Long-tailed as immature birds. I had no idea how long the tail really got on the birds. While birding the bay road one day, I looked out the front window and could see a bird with a long streamer trailing behind it. It took me a minute to recognize it. While it never came close, it did bank and parallel the road for a minute; giving me a couple of ID shots at it. It is a sharp looking bird.
We had both light and dark morphs of Parasitic Jaeger. They were the second-most common jaeger there. Unfortunately, the best shots I got were in harsh light.
By far, the most common jaeger was the Pomarine Jaeger. A big, bull-chested jaeger with two twisted "spoons" protruding from its tail. We had surprisingly good luck photographing this bird. Especially on the day we saw the Long-tailed. Brian and I had walked out onto the tundra to look for a calling Red-throated Loon. While we were walking, we were attracted by a second strange call. Moving toward it, we came upon a Pomarine Jaeger standing on top of a moss-covered mound. The bird stayed there quite a while as we approached. It would stretch its wings. Walk around a bit, then sit down. It was basically unconcerned with us. We had amazing light for it, too. This was not the only one we had such luck with. Earlier in the week, the whole group approached a different bird. It was interesting to see these birds; as I have little experience with them.
I was a bit disappointed with the showing of the next family of birds. We just did not see many gulls. I was not expecting a Ross's or an Ivory. Hoping, yes; expecting, no. We did have a few Herring, and maybe a Glaucous-winged. I never got a good look at it, and it was very foggy that day up on Point Barrow. We did have a beautiful pair of Glaucous Gull that had staked out a nesting mound but had not started actively nesting yet. We had just finished photographing some Brant and took the opportunity to photograph them, as well. I am glad we did. They are beautiful birds.
Which finally brings us to the point of this post - shorebirds. As I mentioned, shorebirds are largely a farm field bird, for me. Aside from a bit of Lake Michigan, the state is land-locked. There are a few reservoirs and lakes to check. Water treatment plants (one of my least favorite places to bird) are usually good for shorebirds, too. The opportunity to see these cute, mild-mannered birds on their breeding grounds was something I looked forward to. Did I day "mild-mannered"?! For the most part, they are maniacs up there. Fighting, displaying, weird display calls, ..., electric donkey calls. You read that right, I cannot make this stuff up. They have it all.
Let's start with the largest maniac of them all. It is, of course, one of the tiniest. The Semipalmated Sandpiper. This bird calls incessantly for minutes on end. It flies up into the air and kites against the wind; calling the entire time, of course. Constant mini battles for territory that ended in the birds marching side-by-side to establish some invisible boundary line that was not to be crossed. They were crazy, and they were everywhere. This is probably the second-most common bird we saw.
Unfortunately, I am not much of an action photographer. I did manage this one frame from a dispute.
Dunlin are a species I do not have a lot of shots of. They look amazing with that rufous back and huge black belly patch. I was happy to see so many of them in the area. Their song, though... it is something else. When that thing comes screeching up behind you, it is a bit off-putting.
Pectoral Sandpiper are the big weirdos of the tundra. I saw a few face-off, but I never really saw any battles. Instead, they would perch up on a small mound and wait. When they were ready to display, they would leap into the air and glide just over the tundra; chest pushed way out and wings held in a victorious V formation. While they were doing this, they would give out a science fiction-like UFO noise. Best way I know to describe it.
On the other end of the spectrum is the Long-billed Dowitcher. They travel in rabid packs. When they start displaying, it turns into a battle. I have a whole series of shots from one such battle. They are all out of focus. I am, it goes without saying, disappointed. I got shots of them posing in good light, though.
Our first day in Utqiagvik, I spotted a large shorebird flying by. Like a newb, I had left my binocs in the car. Brian quickly picked it up and called it out as a godwit. After some discussion, and, frankly hopeful, guesses on my part, he correctly ID'd the bird as a Hudsonian Godwit. An uncommon bird for the area. The ID was later strengthened by the presence of a pair of Husdonian Godwit elsewhere in the area.
I know you are dying to know about that electronic donkey call. Go ahead and pull up the song for a White-rumped Sandpiper. It is amazing. You would think it was fake. I know I did, but then I heard it. We had stopped in an area where we had previously seen a Baird's Sandpiper. We never did get photos of that species. While scanning the area, this call erupts right outside the truck window. White-rumped Sandpiper; it is unmistakable. It was running around on the ice and displaying at the various other sandpipers in the area. They mostly looked dumbfounded and ignored him. We got out and spent some time shooting him as he moved around. It is a good year for them up there. We had several birds over a couple of different areas. Some years they have none.
One more and them a quick gallery of some one-off sandpipers. This next bird deserves a little special attention, though. For me, this bird is not a wandering-the-shore shorebird. It is not even a flooded farm field shorebird. It is a half-mile out, sod farm shorebird. In the fall, you prowl the sod farms around the state looking for distant views of American Golden Plover. They are always distant. Getting close is not an option. To have an opportunity to see and photograph them on the tundra was fantastic. They have a graceful, loping display flight. It is something to see. They did not allow for a close approach, though.
Speaking of sod field birds, my one shorebird disappointment was the Buff-breasted Sandpiper. I had hoped to see them up there. They too are always distant birds that run around on the sod fields, here. With the snow and ice holding on so late, it appears that their arrival was delayed, there. I have heard stories of how amazing their lekking behavior is. It would have been amazing to see.
We had a smattering of other shorebirds during the trip. Semipalmated Plover, brick-red Sanderling, and even a Western Sandpiper. These were birds we only saw a few times during the trip; so, I do not have a lot of photos of them. Aside from the Western Sandpiper, they are also common birds around Indiana, at the right time of year.
We did search various areas for stints that had been reported, but we did not have any luck. We tried to chase a Redwing that was reported one morning, as well. Jamie and Brian even cruised the area where they had Song Thrush the previous year. No joy. But it did provide them the chance to mention, again, how they had found one up there. You just have to be in the right area at the right time; the accidentals do not stay put. It is hard to complain about missing some accidentals, though. I saw most of the birds I came to see. I guess you always need something to go back for.
Next up - Nanooks!
Thanks for reading,