Birds of Barrow Alaska 2019 Trip Report

By Eric Rock on Jul 03, 2019

Utqiagvik, the town formerly known as Barrow, sits 350 miles above the Arctic Circle on Alaska’s northern coastal plain. It is one of the best locations in the world to photograph arctic nesting shorebirds and waterfowl. This far out on the edge of Alaska’s North Slope, spring weather is notoriously unpredictable—but often very productive for photography. We had our sights set on two fascinating species of sea ducks: the colorful Steller’s eider and the rarely-photographed spectacled eider. Needless to say, our group was also interested in getting good close-range images of Pacific loons, as well as any number of shorebirds that make the long migration from the south to this coastal tundra to breed every year.
A pair of spectacled eidersThis year the breeding season was slow to unfold as cooler than average temperatures persisted through early June. Ponds and lakes in the area were still frozen tight to their shores. The tundra was just emerging from its winter mantel of snow, yet the snow and ice did not seem to deter the arrival of the birds. The air and tundra was bustling with activity.
Stepping off our airplane in Barrow, we checked into our hotel and were quickly out the door to search for birds to photograph. Finding them did not take long. Just about every snow free area and thawed puddle had birds hanging out or actively feeding while they waited for the greater portion of the landscape to melt.
At our first stop we encountered a couple of hyperactive red phalaropes—completely oblivious to us as they swirled and twirled across a meltwater pond. We proceeded only a short distance when we pulled up next to a somewhat wary pair of white-fronted geese. These birds are normally very skittish, but we easily photographed them from the comfort of our van—our “rolling blind.” We came to call this our “drive-by shooting” technique and applied it to birds close to the road that would otherwise be flushed. It did not take long for us to realize that the birds were plentiful and close at hand. Only a few miles inland from the coast, on shallow tundra pools, it was easy to see that ice-free, open water was fair game for locating any one of the three species of eiders.
Photographing in Barrow AlaskaDuring our six-day photo trip, our routine would follow a simple pattern. We would locate our subjects, ready our gear and make a low and slow approach, wading into the cold tundra pools. Steller’s eiders—one of the rarer eiders—were relatively common and made for great photographic subjects when bathed in the wonderful arctic light. When we weren’t photographing eiders, there were plenty of drake long-tailed ducks occupying the wet tundra, showing off for the nearby hens. Northern pintails were plentiful and almost everywhere. The dapper drakes were the most difficult to approach, but with some patience we all managed to capture some portfolio-quality images of these beautifully plumaged ducks.
Once a few small ponds had thawed, red-throated and Pacific loons began to show up. On the third day of our stay, a well-habituated pair of Pacific loons arrived at the lagoon behind the school near our hotel and made for some excellent photography. We made a few stops here to make sure to capture these beautiful birds in a variety of lighting conditions.
American golden ploverDays are long close to the summer solstice, as the sun never sets. Only fog or heavy cloud cover would deter us from shooting early or late in the day. Each day we would start out early and check the wind and light to determine our direction of travel for that morning’s exploration, photographing until a break at midday. We followed lunch up with a short rest and then headed back out around 4PM. Our routine would have us stay out as long as we wanted or needed, based on weather and light conditions—sometimes into the “wee hours.”
As our photo tour progressed, the days warmed and the sun melted most of the snow on the surrounding tundra. The first wildflowers were just beginning to emerge. Some of the courting shorebirds began to change their behavior and started nesting. The red and red-necked phalaropes mated and, in a reversal of the normal paradigm, the males would soon quietly incubate the eggs and later care for the young while the females would eventually leave and begin their southward migration. Male pectoral sandpipers maintained their territories and would display for our cameras, while semipalmated sandpipers continued their buzzing aerial displays. If we did not see a bird to photograph, it seemed all we had to do was stop and listen—there was always a raucous dunlin calling nearby or American golden-plover close at hand to pursue.
Arctic fox in summer pelageThis year brown lemmings were plentiful and could be seen scurrying across the tundra on numerous occasions each day. Snowy owls were also observed during our stay but nesting had yet to commence for these arctic predators, making them unapproachable. We managed good photography of two encounters with arctic foxes. This time of the year their coats are gray and often mangy looking, but these two interesting individuals looked distinct and well worth photographing.
Barrow does not disappoint any nature photographer looking to expand their photo portfolio of arctic nesting waterfowl and shorebirds. This season’s trip was no exception. As we departed on our homeward flight to Anchorage, I couldn’t help but wish the many birds we got to know a successful year so they may continue their time-honored breeding cycle and usher in life on this tundra landscape for many springs to come.

Related Tags:  alaska, barrow, eider, spectacled