Birds of Barrow, Alaska 2015 Trip Report

By Joe Van Os on Aug 06, 2015

This June, thousands of acres of wild Alaska were on fire due to the warm and dry weather conditions experienced throughout much of the Western US.  As our flight landed in Barrow at the start of our bird photography scouting trip, we were met not by the brisk temperatures hovering around freezing, the fog and the gray overcast we were expecting, but by a mild temperature of 50ºF and a cloudless blue sky.  The broad fields of snow had already melted and the normally partially-frozen tundra ponds were mostly ice free.
We had come to photograph several special species of ducks, breeding shorebirds and Pacific loons.  The stars of Barrow, however, are the ducks—spectacled and Steller's eiders—that are almost impossible to easily photograph anywhere else in North America except on Alaska's North Slope.  They rank high on many bird photographers’ bucket lists.  But, like many places in the West this year, the early spring allowed the breeding birds to get an early start to their breeding activities since they were not curtailed by a snowy, icy environment.  We were afraid we had arrived too late!
We dressed in our chest waders and lightweight jackets and headed out on some of the few miles of road that radiate out of town.  Except for a treacherous winter ice road from the town of Deadhorse, there are no roads into Barrow—so one quickly discovers "the ends of the Earth," Barrow-style.  A vast expanse of grassy arctic tundra with countless tundra ponds dotting the soggy permafrost landscape stretched before us.  In June, Barrow has 24 hours of daylight.  It was already past 9 PM and the sun was still high in the sky.
Fortunately, only a few miles out of town we began to see drake spectacled and Steller's eiders (and a few king eiders) for some good photo opportunities.  The importance of finding the drakes can't be understated.  Once the exotic males have finished mating, they go out to sea to molt, where they are inaccessible—leaving only the brown, cryptically-colored females to make the nest, lay eggs, incubate and shepherd their ducklings to areas where food is plentiful.  We were happy!
Barrow is the northernmost town in the US and has been the ancestral home of the indigenous Iñupiat people for more than 15,000 years.  Apparently the long days of summer are also a happy time for the Iñupiat as beach barbecues were going at full tilt and small children were crawling all over the town's playground equipment when, at midnight, we returned to our hotel.  Yes, we could have stayed out to photograph the entire night—but you have to sleep sometime!
The tundra habitats along the roadways are different enough that you have the opportunity to select the bird species you would like to photograph by driving to that habitat.  Just a change in elevation of one or two feet—Barrow is exceptionally flat—makes a big difference in the birds you might find nesting there.  One road was particularly good for ducks, another for shorebirds.  Though we had good opportunities to shoot the more uncommon Baird's sandpiper, plus dunlins, long-billed dowitchers, pectoral and semipalmated sandpipers, and Pacific golden-plovers, far and away the favorites were the virtually fearless red and red-necked phalaropes.  These interesting shorebirds turn the male-dominated breeding strategy of the bird world on its head.  Colorful dominant females leave the incubation and "child-rearing" to the males, and the females may select several partners during the short breeding season and produce a second clutch of eggs for another male to tend.
On those ponds that still had a bit of ice, long-tailed ducks and Pacific loons were our favorite target species and we photographed both species well.  Common redpolls flitted across the landscape, while snow buntings and Lapland longspurs also presented good photo ops closer to town and near any building where they found a crevice to use as a nest cavity.  It was easy to find their nests.
During our stay we saw about half a dozen snowy owls, but it was a poor lemming year and there were virtually no owl nests around Barrow.  The area is called Ukpiagvik—"the place where we hunt snowy owls"—by the Iñupiats, and it is understandable that the owls are extremely skittish here.  Grocery store food is exceptionally expensive in Barrow—a gallon of orange juice is almost $10—so the local diet is supplemented with wild game and a traditional bowhead whale hunt.  Gasoline costs $7 a gallon at this remote outpost.
On our last day there was a distinct shift in the wind and we watched numerous groups of drake eiders heading out to sea.  We had made it to Barrow just before the big seasonal change in birdlife when the drakes fly out to sea to molt and many male shorebirds start their southward migration, freeing up food resources and leaving the females to tend the young.  The next morning, we also began our own southward journey on our flights to Anchorage and beyond.