On October 4 I flew from Hartford to Anchorage (via Dallas and Seattle) for a highly anticipated three day visit to Barrow, AK (scenery pictures here) with Wilderness Birding, the same outfit as last year’s Gambell/Nome trip. Our little group of eight, including our leader Aaron Lang and Norm Budnitz who was also on the Gambell trip, gathered at the Anchorage Airport at 4:30 AM on October 5. Our 6 AM flight arrived in Barrow at 10:30 after stops in Fairbanks and Prudhoe, the northern terminus of the Alaska pipeline.
I had checked the five-day weather, which was predicted to be overcast with intermittent snow flurries, but we were pleasantly surprised on arrival by clear blue skies, albeit with a brisk east wind that reduced the temperature from the posted 26 degrees to a wind-chill of close to zero. We spent just enough time getting settled at the nearby Airport Inn to don the multiple layers necessary to stay warm along the windy coast of the Chukchi Sea. Except for Common and Hoary Redpolls at a feeder in town, and seeking Snowy Owls along the few roads inland into the tundra, all of the birding this time of year is done along the eight miles of coast between Barrow and Point Barrow. Point Barrow, the northernmost spot in the United States, is a spit of land that extends northward into the Arctic Ocean, dividing the Chukchi Sea to the west from the Beaufort Sea to the east. It is some 340 miles north of the Arctic Circle, and 1300 miles from the north pole. The October sun rises only to about 15 degrees above the horizon all day, and ten minutes of daylight is lost every day. By late November the sun has disappeared below the horizon not to be seen again for some sixty-five days.
We set out along the coast at 11:15 AM and just a few minutes later I had my first new species – a juvenile Yellow-billed Loon out on the water, although fairly far off. This was especially gratifying since it was my sole missed target species on last year’s Gambell/Nome trip. We would tally a total of 19 Yellow-billed Loons over the three days, some flying and some on the water.
The star of the October show in Barrow, and the main reason people travel here nearly to the end of the earth, is of course Ross’s Gull. This small pink gull breeds in Siberia but migrates along the arctic shore of Alaska each October allowing birders a rare brief opportunity to see it. A bit of luck is required as the weather can be bad, the birds far offshore, or even near absent on any given day, but as it turned out, we were lucky. We had just stopped at an exposed spot to “sea watch” when the first small group of Ross’s appeared, flying east reasonably close to shore. Over 45 minutes, before stopping for lunch back in town, and another 45 minutes after lunch, we counted about 50 Ross’s Gulls. Then at 2:30 we had a prearranged rendezvous at this same location with a local guide for a special venture out to Point Barrow itself.
The drive out to the point is only a few miles, but it is not to be taken lightly. The snow is deep in places, the sand soft, the ruts formidable, and it is very easy to become hopelessly stuck. Our heavy dual-cab, specially modified, high-torque pickup truck had 400 HP and balloon tires with a low psi of 12. This was the high point of the trip – Point Barrow was nothing short of spectacular. In addition to clear skies, the sun was at our back and its low-in-the-sky position provided unusually-colored light for photography. In addition, Ross’s Gulls were practically onshore here, and flying east into a stiff easterly wind, such that they often virtually hovered in place. We counted another 60 Ross’s Gulls here, plus we had two first-cycle Sabine’s Gulls circling overhead. I noticed half a dozen birds dipping into the water and started snapping pictures, but right away recognized them as “mere” Arctic Terns and so paid little further attention to them in order to concentrate on the gulls. In addition there were several close-in groups of photogenic juvenile Red Phalaropes to go along with the copious Glaucous Gulls and scattered Long-tailed Ducks and Eiders – mainly King but also a few Common. If this were not enough, through a telescope we also got to observe and admire three polar bears, although they were too far away to photograph. We spent two hours at the point, and I can’t remember being so sorry to have to tear myself away from a place.
Because of all the attention paid to Ross’s Gulls, Sabine’s Gulls, and others, it is easy to gloss over the many hundreds of Glaucous Gulls that constitute the dominant species here. This is a species that is not often seen in the lower forty eight, yet can be studied here at leisure in its different age cycles. The annual bowhead whale hunt had just been completed before we arrived, and while the twenty carcasses had been hauled off to the point to keep the polar bears from venturing too close to the town, the butchering sites remained covered with blood and scraps upon which the Glaucous Gulls could feast, and many of these pale gulls could be observed with whale blood splattered on their feathers.
At dinner that first evening we compiled the day’s sightings, but when I mentioned the six Arctic Terns I had seen at the point, Aaron was skeptical because it was too late in the season for them in Barrow and would constitute a near record. I replied, “I have pictures.” “You do??” The photos of course, as they are wont to do, removed all doubt, but I asked Aaron if he would have accepted the sighting in the absence of pictures, and I was amused when he admitted that he would not have. I felt like Rodney Dangerfield – no respect. I had in fact almost entirely disregarded the terns at the time. Had I known how unusual the record was to be, I would have made a special effort to obtain better photos.
After dinner we took advantage of the unexpectedly clear skies to head back out of town in hopes of seeing the aurora borealis, but alas on this night there was no aurora to be seen.
The second day was again sunny and we did the sea watch again. There was no wind so the sea was almost like glass, but today the Ross’s Gulls were further out and considerably less numerous. I was however rewarded with several scattered Yellow-billed Loons, all juveniles, one of which was close enough in on the flat sea for some decent shots. In the afternoon we explored Cakeeater Road and Gas Line Road looking for Snowy Owls and found two, as well as a female Rough-legged hawk. Back in town we were just two blocks from the hotel when another Snowy Owl flew over the van. We followed it to the next block where we found it perched on a pole adjacent to the airport runway, where it remained until we left.
The third and final day was overcast and blustery with intermittent snow flurries, but we did see two adult Thayer’s Gulls – my third new species of the trip. Aaron spotted three
very distant Short-tailed Shearwaters, which would have been a fourth, but they were too far off for photography and I never saw them anyway. We spent some additional time at a feeder in town observing Common and Hoary Redpolls. The flight back to Anchorage departed at 7:50 PM. and I arrived back in Hartford at 5:30 PM the following day. The one hoped for species we never did see was an Ivory Gull.
A few additional observations: Everything is expensive in Barrow, including food. A tuna sandwich is $15, a gallon of milk is $9, and gasoline is over $7. A single ride to the point runs $100 to $150 per person, which is why our group only went once. The Airport Inn was a pleasant place to stay – convenient, warm, and comfortable. Rooms were in short supply since a fire this past summer destroyed Pepe’s Restaurant and caused extensive smoke damage to the adjacent Top of the World Hotel, which consequently is presently closed for renovations. Finally, if you are considering a birding adventure to any part of Alaska, be sure to remember Wilderness Birding – I can’t recommend them highly enough.