Category Archives: Alaska

In Nome On The Longest Day

Sunrise in Nome on the summer solstice (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska Birding with PIB: Nome Alaska 21 June 2019

Today we’re in Nome, Alaska on the summer solstice. If we were north of the Arctic Circle the sun would never set today but Nome is 143 miles south. The sun does set here, but barely. It never gets completely dark. Instead, twilight lasts for 2.5 hours and then the sun is up again.

The photos above and below were taken at sunrise during the 2013 summer solstice from the Bering Land Bridge Preserve office in Nome. The photo caption says, “Up here in Bering Land Bridge, summer solstice means almost 24 hour days. Sunrise at our office here in Nome on the solstice is around 04:18 am, and the sun won’t set until 01:47 am the next day.”

Summer solstice sunrise over Anvil Mountain, Nome, Alaska (photo from Bering Land Bridge National Preserve on Flickr)

The sun just skims below the horizon, then circles the town.

Indeed it is the longest day.

(photos from Bering Land Bridge National Preserve on Flickr, Creative Commons license; click on the captions to see the originals)

The Poster Child For Climate Change

Surface air temperature patterns across the Arctic in 2018 (map from, annotated to show Alaska)

Alaska Birding with PIB: Arrive in Nome, 20 June 2019

Because the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, Alaska copes with climate change every day.

Record heat waves, low sea ice, eroding coastlines, melting permafrost, disappearing lakes, ice-road failures, and declines in fish, bird and wildlife populations. Here are just a few examples of what Alaska is dealing with:

Ice road failures:

An ice road in Alaska, dog sled on the berm (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Winter is the time to go places in Alaska when the frozen lakes and rivers become highways, but this year the ice was thin and it broke up earlier than expected. There were accidents at the ice failures, people died, and villages were cut off because the ice is their only road. Every winter the Kuskokwim River becomes a 200-mile ice highway that links 13,000 people in southwestern Alaska. The New York Times described how people cope now that the ice is thin: Alaska Relies On Ice. What Happens When It Can’t Be Trusted?

Lack of sea ice makes a village disappear:

Aerial view of Shishmaref, Alaska (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Erosion at Shishmaref, Alaska, 1950-2012 (map from Wikimedia Commons)

The town of Shishmaref, Alaska is disappearing. Perched on an island in the Chukchi Sea, the sea ice that used to protect it from huge waves in autumn storms is forming too late now to do any good. The new seawall is a only temporary fix. The island is shrinking. In 2016 the villagers voted to leave the island but there’s no money to do it — and so they stay. Read more + video at CNN’s Tragedy of a village built on ice.

Wildlife declines, seabird die-offs:

Caribou in Alaska (photo from NPS Climate Change Response on Flickr)

An international study of reindeer and caribou across the Arctic shows that almost all of the herds are in decline: 2018 Arctic Report Card: Reindeer and Caribou continue to decline.

In PLOS One, a recent study of a massive seabird die-off in 2016 indicates that unusually warm ocean temperatures lowered the food supply and lead to starvation for 3,100 to 8,800 seabirds, especially tufted puffins. This group washed ashore at St. Paul Island, Bering Sea in October 2016.

Seabird carcasses found on North Beach, St. Paul Island, Alaska, 17 October 2016 (photo from PLOS One)

Thawing permafrost, combustible lakes:

Thawing permafrost causes many problems. When the frost melts the land slumps and slides. This slump engulfed trees and created new cliffs.

New cliffs and delta, 1000 feet long, as permafrost thaws into the river (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When the land subsidies, trees collapse and die (called drunken trees). The area becomes a bog.

Trees die, bogs form as permafrost thaws, Innoko NWR, Alaska (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Methane formerly trapped in the permafrost bubbles up in lakes (photo) with potentially explosive results (video).

Methane bubbles in a frozen lake, Alaska (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska is experiencing so many effects of warming that it could be a poster child for climate change.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

p.s. Yesterday on the boat trip at Kenai Fjords National Park we saw some of the glaciers in this news article, especially Northwestern Glacier:

Two Puffins And A Unicorn

Tufted puffin in Alaska (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska Birding with PIB: Pelagic tour at Kenai Fjords National Park 19 June 2019

Last summer I went to Newfoundland to see the only puffin we ever think about in eastern North America, the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica). In the Pacific there are two more puffins and a closely related bird that’s like a unicorn. Today I hope to see all three.

Atlantic or Pacific, the first thing to know about puffins is that all of them are pelagic. They spend most of their lives far out at sea and only come to land in the breeding season when they look their very best. If you want to see a puffin you have to visit their homes in early summer. Otherwise they’re gone.

The tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) is the largest of them, more powerful than cute. Almost double the weight of the Atlantic puffin, his breeding plumage includes a bright orange beak, white face, and long golden head plumes. His extensive breeding range makes him relatively easy to find on coasts and islands from California to Japan. At their breeding colonies each pair digs a burrow up to five feet deep where they raise a single chick per year.

The horned puffin (Fratercula corniculata), below, resembles the Atlantic puffin but he’s 40% larger, has a mostly yellow beak, and feather “eyebrows” like horns. There’s no danger you’ll mix them up in the wild. The horned puffin is only in the Pacific, the Atlantic puffin is only in the Atlantic.

Horned puffin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The horned puffin also differs in his nesting strategy. These pairs don’t burrow to make a nest. Instead the female lays her single egg on scree in a rock crevice or on a cliff. Horned puffin breeding colonies range from (rarely) British Columbia to Alaska to the Sea of Okhotsk (Russia and Japan).

And finally there’s the unicorn.

The rhinoceros auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata) is not an auklet at all but the closest relative of puffins. Slightly larger than an Atlantic puffin he has a large orange bill with a single horn protruding from it, leading some to call him the unicorn puffin.

Rhinoceros auklet (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The rhinoceros auklet nests on offshore islands from California to the Gulf of Alaska to Korea and Japan. You’ll see them on the water during the day but not on land. Instead they fly home at night with fish to feed their chicks. As they arrive at the nesting colonies they run the gauntlet of gulls waiting to steal their food (see video below). Perhaps that’s why they come home only at night.

The unicorn has a different lifestyle but he’s a puffin nonetheless.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Parrot-Finch of the Northern Pines

Red crossbills, two males, Deschutes National Forest in Oregon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska Birding with PIB: Anchorage to Seward 18 June 2019

Red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) are conifer specialists that breed across North America and Eurasia, from Alaska to Newfoundland, from Scotland to Japan. They are so tied to spruces, pines and firs that you won’t find them in deciduous forests nor anywhere that the cone crop has failed. That explains why in three decades I’ve seen only one red crossbill in western Pennsylvania.

Approximate red crossbill breeding range (map is hand drawn by Kate St. John from sources at HBW and IUCN)

Red crossbills eat conifer seeds by prying open the cones using their crossed bills. Their beaks have evolved to match the cones they open — and so have the cones. A 2010 study led by C. Benkman showed that it’s a continuous arms race in which the cones evolve to foil the beaks and the beaks evolve to open the cones. The crossbill-cone competition has resulted in 21 subspecies of red crossbills with different beaks and call types. One population in Idaho, the Cassia crossbill (Loxia sinesciuris), was given separate species status in 2017.

Crossbill beaks are such important tools that a bird’s right-handedness or left-handedness is expressed in the crossing of his beak. Individual beaks cross right or left, as shown in the two male crossbills above.

Though red crossbills don’t migrate, they range far and wide in search of food, calling “jip jip” as they fly. Their flocks are usually noisy but fall silent when they’re feeding intensely. In his Essential Field Guide Companion Pete Dunne describes them as Eclectic Parrot-Finches: wide-ranging, social, and parrot-like in behavior.

Red crossbills favor old growth conifer forests because the cone crop is heavier on trees more than 60 years old. If I’m lucky, today I’ll see the “Red Parrot-Finch of the Pines” near Seward, Alaska.

(photo and base map from Wikimedia Commons, breeding range drawn freestyle by Kate St. John; click on the captions to see the originals)

Smith’s Promiscuous Longspur

Alaska Birding with PIB: At Tangle River on Denali Highway 17 June 2019

In western Pennsylvania we rarely see longspurs, the sparrow-like birds whose long hind toe gives them their name, but two species of longspurs breed in Alaska.

Lapland longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus) are the most conspicuous songbird on the tundra as they prominently claim territory and a mate. The males flutter and sing above their chosen patch, advertising themselves in loud flight song displays.

Smith’s longspurs (Calcarius pictus) are harder to find partly because of their lifestyle. They don’t claim a territory, they don’t claim one mate, and they don’t use flight song displays. Instead the males sing from the top of a twig, “Hey, ladies! Come here.”

Male Smith’s longspur (photo by Jared Hughey for the 2013 Smith’s longspur project)

When a female shows up the two go through their courtship displays and copulate. Then they both go off to mate with other birds.

Smith’s longspur, female (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The fancy name for this is polygynandry. Each female and each male pairs and mates with two or three of the opposite sex. These birds are very busy during the breeding season!

Over a period of one week in the early spring, a female longspur will copulate over 350 times on average; this is one of the highest copulation rates of any bird. Males are well-equipped to deliver such large numbers of ejaculates—their testes are about double the mass of those of the monogamous and congeneric Lapland Longspur.

Birds of North America, Smith’s longspur account

Every nest contains chicks of mixed parentage — the same mother, various dads. Fathers choose a couple of females and try to insure that most of the chicks are their own.

Males do not defend territories, but instead guard [their] females by following them closely. [Males] compete for fertilizations by copulating frequently in order to dilute or displace sperm from other males.

Birds of North America, Smith’s longspur account

When John James Audubon named Smith’s longspur for his friend Gideon B. Smith he was unaware that these birds had such an unusual social life. It took a long time for humans to figure it out, beginning with pioneering behavioral work in the 1960s and now DNA tests today.

Inside the calm exterior of a Smith’s longspur is a very promiscuous bird.

(credits: YouTube video by Jared Hughey for Heather Craig’s 2013 breeding study,
photo of female Smith’s longspur from Wikimedia Commons,
photo of male Smith’s longspur by Jared Hughey on Flickr. NOTE: I have been trying to reach Jared Hughey since 11 May 2019 via email, Facebook and Alaska NPS Twitter to confirm photo permission for his stillshot of the male Smith’s longspur. Perhaps he is out doing field work. When he contacts me I will remove his photo if he objects to its use.)

Denali Highway

Denali Highway in summer (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska Birding with PIB: Denali Highway 16 June 2019

Today our birding tour travels 113 miles of the Denali Highway, the only direct route from Cantwell to Paxson, Alaska. In Pennsylvania the trip would take about 2 hours including birding stops. But not on this road!

For most of its 133-mile length the Denali Highway is a dusty gravel road with occasional washboard sections. Closed during the winter (October to mid-May) its recommended speed limit is 30 mph and services are scant. In other words, don’t expect a bathroom. 20 miles are paved but we won’t be driving on them. Our destination, the Tangle River Inn at Delta Junction, is where the pavement begins.

Highlights of the road include:

  • Great views of Denali mountain if it’s not clouded over,
  • The second highest highway pass in Alaska at MacLaren Summit, 4085 feet
  • The MacLaren River,
  • Fly fishing for grayling — we will see this but not do it
  • Moose, caribou, lots of wildlife, and …
  • Birds!

Google predicts the trip will take 3 hours but we’ll be birding so I expect to be out there all day. Here are just a few of the birds we hope to see.

Nesting tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus) maybe too early to see cygnets.

Tundra swan family in July, Alaska (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Northern hawk owl (Surnia ulula):

Northern hawk owl (photo by Jessica Botzan)

Willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus) showing his beautiful red eyebrows:

Willow ptarmigan in Alaska (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The ptarmigan predator: Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus)

Gyrfalcon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And a songbird famous for migrating from Alaska to Africa, the northern wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe):

Northern wheatear (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This will be my first time on the Denali Highway. We’re in for an adventure!

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the captions to see the original)

Alaskan Flower

Alpine forget-me-not, Denali (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska Birding Tour with PIB: at Denali 15 June 2019

Forget-me-nots in Pennsylvania are the Eurasian species, Myosotis scorpiodes, but in Alaska they have a native one. Found in alpine regions of Europe, Asia and North America, the alpine forget-me-not (Myosotis alpestris) is the State Flower of Alaska.

According to Wikipedia, “it grows well throughout Alaska in open, rocky places high in the mountains, flowering in midsummer. It is also found throughout the Himalaya range at elevations of 9,800–14,100 ft.”

Its common English name, Forget-me-not, is a literal translation of its German name: Vergissmeinnicht.

It blooms at Denali in June.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Arctic Terns Have Short Legs

Arctic tern (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska Birding with PIB: Birding Anchorage to Denali 14 June 2019

The first time I saw an Arctic tern was on a bird outing at Cape May, New Jersey in May 2004. It was the only Arctic tern perched in a big flock of common terns. How to pick it out of the crowd? “Look for the tern with the short legs.”

Arctic, common and Forster’s terns are in the same genus so it’s a challenge to identify them, especially since we don’t get any practice with Arctic terns in Pittsburgh.

In Alaska, terns are simpler. There are only four species: Common tern is very rare. Caspian tern is the only one with a big carrot-red bill. Arctic terns are everywhere and Aleutian terns look different.

Famous for their long distance Arctic to Antarctic migration, Arctic terns (Sterna paradisaea) are pale gray and white with uniformly silver gray upper wings, small round heads, short dark red bills, and short red legs. In the breeding season they have very long white tail streamers.

Arctic tern in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When they’re breeding Arctic terns are quite vocal. If you get too close to a nest they shout and dive bomb you. How close is too close? On the tundra where they nest alone, you may not know there’s a nest until you’re under attack.

Arctic tern in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Aleutian terns (Onychoprion aleuticus) are uncommon and local but easy to identify because they’re dark gray with white tails, white foreheads, black legs, black bills, and white edging on their wings. There’s no mistaking who they are when they’re standing.

Aleutian terns pair (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

You can see the Aleutians’ white foreheads in flight.

Aleutian tern in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Even though it’s not a useful field mark in Alaska, Arctic terns are still the ones with the short legs.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Gone Birding in Alaska

Willow ptarmigan at Denali (NPS photo/Kent Miller via Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska Birding with PIB: Flying to Anchorage 12 June 2019

Today I’m flying to the 49th and largest state of the union, Alaska, for an 11-day birding tour with Partnership for International Birding. Our guide will be David Trently whose Newfoundland tour was so much fun last July.

U.S. map highlighting Alaska (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska isn’t just the largest state. Overlaid on the Lower 48 it spans from California to Minnesota to Florida with a population only half the size of metro Pittsburgh. Alaska is so sparsely populated that 52% of it is wilderness.

Alaska’s size compared to the Lower 48 (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Eleven days will only scratch the surface.

In the interior we’ll visit Denali National Park and see Denali itself if the sky is clear. Then we’ll travel the Denali Highway to Delta Junction, birding along the way.

Bear digging and Denali (NPS Photo / Daniel A. Leifheit via Wikimedia Commons)

In the south-central region we’ll visit Anchorage and Seward and take a day-long pelagic trip at Kenai Fjords National Park where we’ll see glaciers, killer whales, and lots of seabirds including …

Aialik glacier at Kenai Fjords National Park (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Tufted puffins!

Tufted puffin swimming, Alaska (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Then we fly to Nome to see the Arctic tundra, muskox, reindeer (caribou) and nesting birds. Bristle-thighed curlews, last seen in Hawaii, will be here.

Reindeer at the Teller Road, Nome-to-Teller (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Our travels will touch the places circled in red below.

Map of Alaska, marked with destinations on PIB tour (map from Travel Alaska at

I don’t expect to see hundreds of Life Birds, but that doesn’t matter. Our checklist contains 205 birds including the willow ptarmigan (State Bird of Alaska at top), horned and tufted puffins, auklets, murrelets, gyrfalcon, varied thrush and bluethroat. For mammals you can’t beat killer whales, caribou, muskox, grizzly bears and arctic foxes.

Because there’s a 4-hour time zone difference, a dawn to dusk birding schedule, and little or no Internet access, I’ve written all 13 days of blog posts in advance including the 2 travel days. My husband Rick (who’s too near-sighted to go birding) is holding down the fort at home and posting my blogs to Facebook and Twitter. I’ll moderate your comments when I get access to WiFi.

For now, I’ll be mostly off the grid in a beautiful place.

Islands near Spire Cove, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I’ll “see” you when I return to my computer on Tuesday morning, June 25.

(photos and U.S. map from Wikimedia Commons)