Chapter 6. Northern Alaska
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2006 All rights reserved.
(Shari) Ukpiagvik. No, I am not swearing. In the Eskimo language it means “Place to hunt owls”, or Barrow to us. Flying from Fairbanks this early morning, we are met by Ron, our guide. He tells us to gather our luggage and board the waiting white school bus for the start of our tour. Taking us first out to a fresh water lake, still frozen on June 17th, he tells us the average high temperature all year in Barrow is 35 deg. So this lake will be frozen for a few weeks yet. We learn about the people who inhabit this stark land with no trees, a constant 4 mo. of sunshine in the summer and 8 mo. of darkness in the winter. Most of the people are at subsistence level but Ron tells us if they want to work they can make a pretty good income. Preferring to hunt seal, whale, bear, caribou, and fish the waters, they keep their traditions alive. About 4000 inhabitants reside in Barrow in weather beaten small houses along side haphazard dirt and gravel roads. We pass a small group of “shacks” about 4 mi. from town on our way to Point Barrow. Ron tells us these are cottages for the people to use to get away from the hustle and bustle of Barrow city life. He must be kidding. I notice the map calls this area, “hunting village.” We arrive at Point Barrow, the northernmost point in the United States and look at the Arctic Ocean, its ice-covered waters surrounding us on three sides. About 2-1/2 mi. farther down the beach, polar bears feast on seal and walrus bones left from the hunter’s knives. We see no bear. However, we are treated to our second sighting of a Snowy Owl. I remember Bert’s only other sighting many years ago in Wisconsin. He taped it on our video camera but either our daughter Missy or I taped over it. He still tells the story over and over again. I hope he sees plenty of owls today so he can get his pictures and stop with the story already. We later watch native dances performed by children in traditional costumes. The dances have names like “The Mosquito,” or “The Whale”, or “Women looking pretty” or “Waves,” and are accompanied by the beat of a stick on the underside of a hoop and the “Ey eh ya ya ya” of the chorus. Later we participate in a blanket toss. A young man tries to reach the high ceiling as everyone grabs the ropes around sewed sealskins in the form of a trampoline. After meeting at Pepe’s for dinner, Bert goes out with a small group of die-hard birders and I crash. I must be older than he, since my body cannot keep going from 4:30 AM to 10 PM. I never hear him come back.
(Bert) As the jet flies north, I only see a glimpse of the Brooks Range through a break in the clouds. The rain clouds covering most of Alaska do not dissolve until we are over the coastal tundra along the Arctic Ocean. The tundra, streams, and iced lakes look like a flat brown pancake, spread with swirls of blueberry syrup and dabs of white cream. No man-made verticals, horizontals or diagonals, only meandering, patternless curves, ovals and arcs of pastel earthen brown, watery blue and snow white stretch for endless miles to the horizon, terminated on one side by the solid ice cover of the Arctic Ocean. We arrive at the Wiley Post - Will Rogers Memorial Airport in Barrow around 9:30 AM and Ronnie, our guide for today, greets us. A teacher at the local high school, Ronnie drives the school bus through the small village, telling us the history of the area, how the Eskimos lived thousands of years ago, and what life is like in the world’s northernmost city. When he takes the bus out of town along Freshwater Lake Road, I can tell the most intense birders in the group are anxious to be birding. At the lake we pile out of the bus, Nancy D. sees our first Snowy Owl across the lake and we ecstatically line up behind spotting scopes to get a good look at this much sought after bird. A King Eider flies by too quickly for most to see; the Sabine’s Gull stays long enough for close-up photos. Too soon we climb back into the school bus and continue the tour.
While the tour is interesting and certainly worthwhile, after our lunch break, seven of us are anxious to get our rental van and start birding, letting the rest finish the afternoon tour. We head out to Cakeeater Road, stopping regularly to watch the birds feeding in the shallow puddles and marshlands. Ruddy Turnstone is a surprise as is the sheer number of Red Phalaropes which seem to be everywhere. Continuing on Gas Well Road, the habitat is drier: a broad, flat brown cover of tundra with occasional small lakes. I think I’m seeing a new shorebird when I find a black-chested sandpiper. I check all the field marks and cannot match it to anything I remember seeing before. Everything seems to fit Pectoral Sandpiper except the black chest. After more study I notice that the chest alternates between the fine vertical lines of the Pectoral and solid black whenever the sandpiper puffs out the feathers. In flight, it makes a strange radio tuning type noise, sounding more electronic than natural. Here again, seeing a familiar migrant or wintering shorebird in its breeding plumage is like seeing a new species. Across the light brown tundra a white object stands out obtrusively. When I digiscope the Snowy Owl, its whiteness is so intense that it blurs into a white featureless mass, so I manually change the aperture until I can see the tiny coal black elliptical eyes and petite dark pencil stub bill, the only contrast to its snow white feathers. This is the second of six Snowy Owls we see today. We return to the hotel and eat dinner next door at Pepe’s.
We fill the van for birding in the evening, in search of the Spectacled Eider and Lesser Sand-Plover reported by another birding group. We find the Spectacled Eider sleeping on a grassy mound near the wetlands. Repeatedly relocating our scopes and walking closer to the mound gives us no better view because the setting sun is against us, tendrils of fog rise from the water and even after 20 min. the eider does not raise its head from slumber. Farther down along the gravel road, I walk across the uneven tundra in search of the plover, instead finding fascinating nature to photograph. The interlinked ice floes on the lake form a random puzzle of open blue water and closed gray ice. On the tundra, waxy yellow buttercups, probably Ranunculus nivalis, bend toward the setting sun. Catlins of Arctic Willow raise only a couple of inches above the tundra, as does the Frigid Coltsfoot with its spindly white blossoms. A Semipalmated Sandpiper attracts my attention when I see a green flag attached to one leg. I photograph the bird, noting it also has an orange band, a red band and an aluminum numbered band, undoubtedly identified as part of someone’s investigation of the breeding habits of this species. Still not finding the Mongolian Plover, we backtrack to the eider location. The eider has not moved its head, so we return to the hotel. Not quite willing to quit birding while the sun is still shining, Bill and Terry join me for a search of the graveyard near the high school where a Dusky Thrush was sighted yesterday. Only the Common Redpolls are active, everything else seemingly sleepy, so at 10 PM we stop birding, the sun still high in the sky.
(Bert) I’m up early to prowl the Arctic Ocean that fronts our hotel. Nancy D. is out for an early morning walk too. We see the King Eiders still resting on the same ice floe as last night, some dipping into the ice water. I photograph the attractive males illuminated by the rising sun. Pale blue heads have a bright orange-yellow protuberance at the forehead and a pale green face, outlined in black, giving them a colorful clown like appearance. In one of the few pools of open water, a Red-throated Loon swims near a Pacific. Breakfast is slow and leisurely when 50+ birders - from ours, plus VENT and Field Guides groups - crowd one room of Pepe’s, all arriving within minutes of its 7 AM opening. An hour and half later we drive toward Point Barrow. In route we see almost no birds, except for the hundreds of Glaucous Gulls clustered near the town dump site. At road’s end I see just the heads of two Spectacled Eiders, their bodies hidden by a tundra berm. Ralph has his scope on them too. The hooded heads are pale green with a large white eye patch that shows like oversized eye glasses. When we try moving forward for a more revealing view, the two take flight over our heads, giving us a sharp study of their black breast, bellies and tail, offset by white around the curvature of the wings and back. Even their greenish heads and white spectacles stand out. We drive to the DEW site and find the Snowy Owl that a worker on the airplane told me about, also finding another pair of Spectacled Eiders. With time left on our morning agenda, we return to Freshwater Lake where the birding was so good during our tour. This turns out to our best spot of the trip, with a regular succession of good sightings. A pair of Long-tailed Ducks, within 20 ft. of where I stand, alternate between resting and swimming. Finding the poses irresistible, I click dozens of photos with single feather detail. I am distracted when Georgia calls out a Spectacled Eider that flew and landed a couple dozen feet ahead of them. We are about to leave the lake when I see a godwit neck deep in the tundra grass. With various glimpses of its head, neck and long bill, we rule out the more likely Hudsonian Godwit and call it a Bar-tailed. Later when I review the four photos I took, I’m not sure we weren’t seeing an unexpected Black-tailed Godwit and will need to send out the photos to others for review. After a nice string of bird sightings I see another eider in the tundra and Sally is quick to recognize this pair as Steller’s. We stay in the van, not wanting to upset the feeding birds, and with patience we get many views of the white-headed eider with the black eye feathers and the odd green spot at the back of its head.
After lunch, we still have time for birding before our early evening plane departure. My first stop is where we saw King Eiders in early morning, because Bill and Ginny said they saw a Common Eider among them. I find it again and take photos so that I can now claim the remarkable distinction of having photographed all four eider species in one day. We trek through familiar roads now, trying again for the Mongolian Plover, unsuccessfully. Nearby, though, we watch a pair of dark form Parasitic Jaegers fighting - or sharing if Ralph’s interpretation is correct - over a dead Arctic Tern. We’ve seen at least five Parasitic Jaegers today and more than a dozen Pomarine Jaegers majestically flying over the tundra or resting on mounds. Our last species to add to our Barrow trip list is a pair of Common Ravens.
(Shari) I awake after the birders have already departed and have to eat breakfast all by myself. When they come in for their lunch break, I am not hungry so I eat lunch later, again alone. The lobby of the hotel is jammed full after 11 AM checkout because the morning flight out was cancelled and all those people will have to be scrunched onto our flight. A few of us S.O.B.’s sit on the comfy lobby chairs and talk. I know we are bored when Nancy S. says we have run out of things to talk about. Even Larry is quiet. I think we are just drowsy and need to wake up. Deciding to go for a walk, Barbara, Virginia and I go to Browers’s Café and take more pictures of the huge whalebone arch. The ice on the Arctic Ocean has noticeably melted since yesterday and I can see a little bit of open water at the shoreline. It is one of the nicer days that Barrow ever has, in the high 40’s and sunny. People are out in their shirtsleeves and riding their ATV’s. It is the mode of transportation on a nice Sunday afternoon, but does intrude on the silence of the town. Soon it is time for the bus to take us to the airport. It too is full of people trying to make the flight out, which is way overbooked. All of us get on, however, and the flight is uneventful: the only kind to have. Before we go home, half of us drive to Pike’s Landing for a delicious meal. Bert and I split grilled halibut and we sit on the outside deck enjoying the weather, the riverside scenery and the company. Bert and I keep shifting our chairs since the sun’s brightness is bothering our eyes. At 10 PM, the sun is still quite high in the sky.
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