Robert Cleland cleland at
Mon May 31 13:06:18 PDT 2004

I just returned from two consecutive birding trips in Alaska, run
by Wilderness Birding Adventures. I strongly recommend them - they run
small, well organized and well led tours. Both tours were 3-day affairs,
guided by Aaron Lang (who was just great).
The first tour was Owls of the North. It started at Ft.
Richardson, on the outskirts of Anchorage, where Bob Dittrick (owner of
WBA) has been involved in a long-term project to provide nest boxes for
the smaller owls. There we had great views of Boreal Owl and Nothern
Saw-whet Owl at the boxes. Later, near Palmer we saw Great Horned Owl
nestlings, although no adults. The next day we spent a frustrating
morning looking for a Great Grey Owl at the edge of Wrangel-St. Elias Nt
Park. A friend of Aarons, who lives nearby, said that they were around,
and suggested we return after dinner. Local knowledge does help, because
we then were able to locate a Great Grey on a nest. What a fantastic
bird! Then the trick was to find a Nothern Hawk Owl. We spent hours
driving along a stretch where they had been seen recently, and were
decided to give up. A few miles away we stopped to watch Dahl sheep when
Aaron spotted a Hawl Owl flying away. After a short chase, we got great,
but short views of the owl. So we saw all four target owls.
Total birds was 90, with the most interesting to me were the
Bohemian Waxwings and Boreal Chickadees. Also lots of mammals, including a
grizzly bean, a moose mom with 2 very young calves, cariboo, beavers out
on a bank.
We had one day in Anchorage between trips, and despite rain we
were able to see a flock of Sandhill Cranes very close up, and Hudsonian
Godwit - Anchorage is one of the few known breeding spots for this bird.
Getting to and from St.Paul on the Pribilofs is always a gamble.
The flights on Sat and Sun were cancelled, but our flight on Mon made it.
The Pribs are an amazing place. One town, with ca 800 people (700 aleuts),
not a single tree, three old volcanic craters, lots of cliffs on one half
of the island and rocky beaches on the other half. One hotel (the King
Eider) and one place to eat, the Trident Seafood Cannery. Lots of marshy
land and grass tussocks.
The "trash bird" is the Pribilof subspecies of the Grey-crowned
Rosy Finch - a very big finch. Almost as many Snow Buntings. The cliffs
were alive with Crested, Parakeet and Least Auklets, Thick-billed and
Common Murres, Horned and Tufted Puffins, Black-legged and Red-legged
Kittiwakes. Because of constant East winds, there was a lack of Asian
vagrants. A Common Snipe (recently split from Wilson's Snipe) was the only
one. Also present was a fantastic McKays Bunting. Another highlight was
the Northern Fur Seals. At this time, only the males were there in numbers
- the beachmasters - defending their territories against all other males,
and against any birdwatchers who were foolish enough to get close. These
males are huge, and can move rapidly across the rocks. Some females had
arrived, but we saw no pups. Also present were lots and lots of Artic
Getting home was harder that getting to the Pribs - on Wed we were
at the airport, and watched the plane make a pass at the field and decide
it was too dangerous, and head back to Anchorage. But on Thursday, the
plane was able to land, although much later than normal, and we made it
back to Anchorage about midnight. Saw 37 birds, including 10 lifers.
Total for the two trips was 118 birds, and 14 lifers.
The Pribilofs are a "not-to-be-missed" experience. And I was
really impressed with WBA. There was another tour out there that I
thought was not nearly as well led, and much bigger.

Robert Cleland

Professor (Emeritus), Biology Dept. Box 355325
Univ. of Washington
Seattle, WA 98195-5325
Phone (206) 543-6105; FAX (206) 685-1728

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