Eiders! - Utqiagvik (Barrow), AK - Part 1

This is the first of three planned posts about my trip to Alaska in 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 eiders; although it starts with ducks, geese, phalaropes, swans, and loons. If it sat on the water, it is covered, here.


Alaska, the final frontier. It says that right on their license plates. It is a wild place unlike anywhere else in the US. The vastness of the unsettled and untamed area there is unrivaled. It is a place, if you ever sat down and leafed through your field guide, that you look at and want to go to; dreaming of the number of life birds to find in there. At two-and-a-half times the size of Texas, Alaska is not long weekend, a cruise, or even a simple two week vacation. It is a number of trips to widely distributed areas. Areas, it turns out, that can be quite unpredictable to reach or leave.


Utqiagvik (formerly known as Barrow) is the furthest point north in the US; resting north of the Arctic Circle and only 1300 miles south of the North Pole. There are no roads to Utqiagvik. There is a tiny airport. Once the ice pack clears, there is supposedly some cargo shipments that arrive. Utqiagvik is one of the oldest permanent settlements in the US. It pre-dates the arrival of European explorers to the area by hundreds of years. Admittedly, it is not much to look at. Housing conditions vary considerably but trend towards poor. Food is very expensive, and the people rely on subsistence hunting. Finding a car without a cracked windshield is nearly impossible. New cars do not exist. In June, there is 24 hours of daylight. The sun literally sets just above the horizon before bouncing back toward the sky - never quite dipping its toe into the ocean. At "night", the light is a beautiful, soft, gold color. The light plays tricks though, as you never quite know what time it is. Good luck getting back to normal sleep patterns when you get back home. Away from the shore, Utqiagvik is flat and the tundra does not grow much taller than ankle height. It takes work to sneak up on things, there. I know; we tried.


So, why go? Eiders. Eiders are a family of marine duck who spend their lives out at sea. They come to the tundra to breed. Not long after establishing a nest, the male heads back to the open waters and leaves the female to tend the nest on her own. You want to be there when they have started nesting but before the male leaves. There are four species of eider in the world, and they can all be seen there. I still needed two of the species for my life list. In Utqiagvik, not only could I see them, I could have the opportunity to photograph them.


Turns out, this was maybe not the best year to go. Maybe climate change is just going to screw this up, too. Regardless, it was a "late Spring" in Utqiagvik when I arrived. I was even a day late when the pilot deemed it too dangerous to land the first day and turned the plane back to Anchorage. When I finally got in, the temps were still hovering around freezing, and a light snow was falling on-and-off. Much of the tundra was covered in snow and ice. The various ponds were mostly frozen. Many of the outer roads were not plowed. In short, the weather was holding everything off; including the arrival of the breeding birds. The eiders were not there in large numbers, and they were definitely not nesting yet. Luckily, the temps quickly warmed during the week and things improved. It helped that I was with a group that knew how to bird the area and were expert enough to guide us on getting close to the birds we wanted to shoot. Brian Zwiebel and Jamie Cunningham of Sabrewing Tours were guiding four of us, on this trip. A small group size helped. Not that we still did not face challenges. A group of researchers were banding eiders, and this made all of the eiders super-twitchy. Turns out they do not enjoy being netted. Since the birds were not nesting yet, they were quick to leave well before you even got to the edge of the pond. They fly fast and far. We made the best of it, and it was a fantastic experience.


How successful was this experience? Well, I will let you judge. Buckle-up, it is a lot of photos.


Where to start. I guess I will start with our first day in Utqiagvik. Alaska Airlines had added a special morning flight after the cancellation, and we were into the hotel and out by 2:00 PM. We eventually ended up at a small pond near the gravel pits. Stellar's Eider were on the pond, but they flew long before we could even start our approach. We got organized and started a slow, meandering approach; eventually wading into the pond on our knees. I quickly learned that a tripod is essential. It is a miracle I did not dunk my camera before we finished here. I did not make the mistake of hand holding, again. We got within 30 foot or so of the Long-tailed Ducks on the pond. While they were aware of us, they were relaxed enough to rest, preen, and even engage in some chasing and fighting.

There were also a pair of Greater Scaup here.

As you can see, the lighting was not that great, but Brian and Jamie knew that everyone would be itching to get out for some photos. I think the Long-tailed Ducks worked out well in the light. We saw plenty more throughout the following days.


The groups split in two, and my group headed out towards Gaswell Rd. There, we found our first open pond. There were a group of researchers there, but, amazingly, there were still some ducks at the front of the pond. Here, I got my first ever looks at an adult breeding King Eider. Just a sneak preview of later.

King Eider

What we also had here was my best and closest looks ever at a Pacific Loon. We were able to get right up to the edge of the pond, and it swam right past us several times.

I got one of my favorite photos of the trip, here. I love the full spread of the wings and the lighting.

Pacific Loon spreading its wings
Look at those wings!
Pacific Loon showing purple throat.
And that purple throat!

We saw more later but were never able to get close; until our last day. Jamie spotted a pair of loons staking out a pond and knew we would be able to work out a close approach. She was right.

Pacific Loon showing green throat coloration
Turns out, throat coloration varies depending on the light. Look at that green!

We had Red-throated Loon fly over a couple of times, but we never had one sitting on a pond. The surprise loon of the trip was a flyover by four of my lifer Yellow-billed Loons. Distant and fleeting, but still countable. It is hard to make out the upturned bill in this poor photo. You will have to take my word for it.

Distant Yellow-billed Loon

Not quite duck... not quite shorebird. We saw a lot of phalarope while there. If you were not photobombed by a phalarope at some point, you were not photographing in Utqiagvik. There were that many. The great thing about shooting here? They were all in breeding plumage. For once, you could actually see where Red Phalarope got its name. We had them in the snow, on frost-covered ponds, and in some really beautiful light.

Red Phalarope

I wish I had a good way to capture their little spinning dance they do to stir up food. While they are not spinning, some of my favorite photos are of them diving for food.


We also had Red-necked Phalarope. They were not quite as common as the Red Phalarope, but they were every bit as amusing to watch and shoot.


Another common bird of the tundra. Greater White-fronted Goose. This bird was everywhere, and it was not hard to find traces of it on the tundra where I was laying. Oh, well. It is a good looking goose.

Greater White-fronted Goose goose stepping
In case you were wondering where the term "goose stepping" originated from.

I was not as excited about the next goose as I should have been. I have seen Brant on the east coast, and they are as tame as Canada Goose. Oddly, I was of the mindset that I had seen them. That was weird for me. They are a cool goose.

Brant in flight

Speaking of odd.... We had just finished shooting some shorebirds, and a local watched as we loaded up into the trucks with our gear. It would have seemed obvious that we were not casual birders. Anyway, we load into the truck, and the guy pulls up to the first truck with his window down. We can quite clearly hear him ask the others in our group if they have seen the swans. When he finished there, he pulled up to our truck and asked the same. I mean, they are huge, white birds. It is hard to miss them. Maybe they are just his favorite bird, or it is the Utqiagvik version of "have you seen any eagles?" Regardless, while not numerous, Tundra Swan were a common and obvious sight in certain areas.


Which brings us, finally, to the stars of the tundra. The eiders. As mentioned above, all four species can be seen here. Common Eider is usually only seen as a flyover, and we had several groups flyover during our time there. King Eider I had seen a couple of times, but I have never seen a breeding plumage male; all my previous birds were first-year males. That leaves Stellar's Eider and Spectacled Eider as lifers for this trip. Thankfully, we saw both. I admit, I was a bit concerned about finding a Spectacled, at one point. With the low numbers and the banding, we were not finding any. Spectacled was my number one target for this trip. You could say I was fixated. I know everyone else was probably tired of hearing about wanting to see one.


Needless to say, I did see one. Once I did, it was like an immense weight came off of me. I could relax. I was not going to go home without one. Pictures, on the other hand, were a lot more difficult. The birds were extra skittish. The sight of people was enough to send them at times. Our best luck came on the last full day. We had approached within decent range and were waiting for the birds to settle back down. They eventually relaxed and laid down. Then a small-engine plane buzzed over the top of us and scared them all off. Dreams crushed.

Spectacled Eider in flight

Our final morning, we headed out before having to pack to fly home. The morning was fantastic. We were nailing everything we were trying for, and the light was great. We had just a little time left when we found a pair of Spectacled Eider on a pond. With the solo pair, we almost thought we had a nesting pair. We started working in, but the pair just stood up and walked off into the tundra before flying off into the distance. No joy.


Stellar's Eider, to me, is not an attractive duck. It just looks a bit ??? I do not know. I think it really comes down to the two large black eyes. It looks like it badly lost a fight. To be fair, the iridescent blue feathering on it is pretty cool. It shines a deep royal blue. Take out the black eyes and the odd tufting, and it would be a sharp duck. We had better luck with Stellar's, but not great luck. It was our most numerous eider of the trip.

Maybe a little closer looks at these ducks. Approaching them was difficult, but we had a group land in a pond where we were already sitting. A couple of them came close. They took notice of us, moved off with the group, and then they all scattered to the wind to look for a different pond.

Stellar's Eider male
Stellar's Eider
Stellar's Eider female
Stellar's Eider female

Last eider and a last-day great experience. Sadly, the experience was ruined a bit at the end. We had seen King Eiders throughout the trip. Like everything else, we had issues getting close. They would fly. They would walk off into the tundra and then fly. My closest experience was the first day when a pair slowly drifted by us on the pond. As soon as they were at our backs, they turned and flew off. Other than that, our opportunities were fairly distant. An extender would have helped at times on this trip. To be fair, it was recommended.

The male and the female King Eider are both striking; just in different ways. I assumed this eider was a sure thing for close photos. Yet, I blew most the photos from the first day's encounter; so, I had basically none. Our last day rolled around, and we were driving the roads; hoping for eider - at least I was. A call came over the radio, and Brian had a pair in a canal. I was not sure how that was going to work out. I assumed the canal was too deep to stand in. We got lucky. There was a shallow flat area in the water not far from the eiders, and we were able to position ourselves on it. We were also lucky that the light was with us. We got into position, and Brian circled the birds and gently herded them our way. They seemed quite content to stay in the canal, and we spent a little while shooting them. Eventually, the female turned to where we got a good look at her left wing. It was drooping. She was injured and probably could not fly. This was why they were content to stay in the canal. We quickly packed up and left them to drift back up the canal to hopefully rest up and recover. Looking back at photos, I only had one or two shots that showed the wing (see the first photo), and they were fairly distant at the time. At the times I was looking at her, she was facing the good wing towards me.

King Eider female
King Eider female
King Eider male
King Eider male

While I was most excited about seeing eiders and ticking a couple more lifers off my list, there was plenty more to see up there. An extra day's delay (thank you fog!) getting out of Utqiagvik even brought an opportunity for some non-birding fun. Stay tuned! Sandpipers are up next!!


Thanks for reading,

Mike







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