Back to Alaska

Post by Scott Schuette

When it comes to birding, Alaska holds a special place in North America.  For some it is revered for its remoteness, to others it’s the unique breeding species which are of greatest interest, and for yet others the potential of far-flung species from both the southern portions of the United States and Canada, but more importantly from Asia, are the prize at the end of the journey.  And if you are doing a big year it’s the latter two that you covet and the first one that drives you nuts, so many birds and such difficulty/expense getting to them.  But thankfully, if you are only 121 x 142 x 67 mm in size and supported by Leica Sport Optics that difficulty and expense seems to not be as great a barrier.  And so it is that Travis is already back in the Land of the Midnight Sun (inside joke for anyone currently living in Alaska) to chase down yet another prized rarity from across the Pacific and take a shot at adding a few more of those unique species which manage to reside in Alaska during the winter.  This was my third time in the field with Travis, the first time is when he and Tom Johnson made a trip out to St. Paul Island in July and the second time was when John Puschock brought him along on a Dusky Thrush in Anchorage chase combined with an Aleutian adventure just a couple weeks ago, but this time he was my responsibility.

Figure 1: Sunrise along the Seward Highway at about 10:00 a.m. (not exactly midnight sun huh?).  Photo by Scott Schuette

Figure 1: Sunrise along the Seward Highway at about 10:00 a.m. (not exactly midnight sun huh?). Photo by Scott Schuette

The reason for the current trip is pretty simple.  On December 11th an unusual bird was noted coming to a feeder in Homer, Alaska on the southern Kenai Peninsula by homeowner Tami Reiser; unfortunately, good photos weren’t taken until almost a week later when on the 16th they were emailed to Homer resident Aaron Lang who identified the bird as a Rustic Bunting, and subsequently put the word out about its presence.  And so for the past week-plus plenty of people, and optics, have been able to make the trip to Homer to enjoy this rare sighting of a bird who should be scratching around underneath a brush pile outside of Seoul instead of hanging out with a flock of Juncos in Alaska.  But South Korea’s loss is our gain.

Of course it wasn’t just the bunting we needed this trip, there were plenty of other species that were possible or likely so those would also be on the agenda for a long weekend trip from Anchorage to Homer and back.  After arriving in town on Thursday, the early sunset precluded any birding that day but the upcoming drive on Friday had some potential.  Joining Travis and myself on this trip would be Luke DeCicco and Wendy Holman with an assist from Aaron Lang once we made it to Homer, long story short the drive down was full of scenery but short of birds and so the first two days in Alaska produced no big year birds.  Thankfully that would change quickly on Saturday, December 21st.

 Figure 2: Isn't this what you'd want on the snowbank behind your house? Luke DeCicco (L) and Scott Schuette w/ an obscured Travis (R) enjoying the Rustic Bunting. Photo by Wendy Holman


Figure 2: Isn’t this what you’d want on the snowbank behind your house? Luke DeCicco (L) and Scott Schuette w/ an obscured Travis (R) enjoying the Rustic Bunting. Photo by Wendy Holman

After a good night’s rest and a leisurely morning at the Wilderness Birding Adventures headquarters (a.k.a Aaron’s house) we were all off about 10:15 a.m. to look for the bunting.  About 10 minutes and a couple right and left turns later we were perched on the snow berm at the edge of the South Peninsula Hospital parking lot looking (peering?, leering?) into the backyard of some incredibly gracious homeowners enjoying the small flock of Dark-eyed Juncos (Slate-colored and Oregon) when a flash from the left, a call to take a look at this bird, and there it was, Rustic Bunting.  Of course the view was obscured by branches but we could see all of the proper field marks and then as all rarities do when your look is less than satisfactory, it flew down onto the porch railing and started feeding on sunflower seeds in the wide open allowing us and anyone else who would have decided to show up over the next 10-15 minutes perfect views.  It was about as confiding as a bird could be and we enjoyed our time with it, but there were other species to see in town and so after some pictures and a few more sweeps of the yard just to make sure he hadn’t brought any other friends with him, we went to go try and find some birds of our own.

Figure 3: The Rustic Bunting, showing off for all of us.  Photo by Scott Schuette

Figure 3: The Rustic Bunting, showing off for all of us. Photo by Scott Schuette

During the winter in Alaska, towns are often the best places to find birds as the supplemental food supply (feeders) and manipulated habitats often offer more livable conditions for most birds than the expanses of snow covered boreal forests and frozen lakes/streams.  With that knowledge in hand we went for a walk, using Aaron’s local knowledge we went up hill along trails, down streets with fruiting trees, and past houses that currently do or in the past have had feeders.  A quick walk up one cul-de-sac produced a small flock of sparrows, juncos, and chickadees when an orange flash shot behind a nearby house, the look was brief but long enough to identify a Varied Thrush, year bird number two for the trip.  A bit more exploring continued to produce birds but nothing new for the year, though nobody is going to turn away from Golden-crowned Sparrows, Bohemian Waxwings, Boreal Chickadees, and Northern Goshawk.  It was getting close to lunch, one advantage of winter birding in Alaska is you only have to be outside for a couple hours before you get to indulge in lunch, so after one last check of a different feeder was made we were down to the Boatyard Café for a soul-satisfying burger in front of the fire.  Birding the way it was meant to be.

A slightly more sluggish and weighted-down group left lunch headed for Seaside Farms to the east of Homer, an awesome patch of habitat on the Kachemak Bay shoreline maintained by Mossy Kilcher (aunt to Homer’s most famous former resident).  The tree plantings, brushy draws, and scattered feeding stations here have produced quite a few rarities as well though we were hoping for more typical residents this time.  A little searching and a flock of sparrows was found including mostly White-crowned and Golden-crowneds when a different chip was noted coming from the group identifying an American Tree Sparrow and Travis’s third new bird for the day.  Only quick looks were managed but there’s a good chance better views will be had this winter “down south.”  A rare-for-winter Northern Harrier and “Sooty” Fox Sparrow were also seen around the farm with a small group including Black-capped Chickadees, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Dark-eyed Juncos, and a Brown Creeper being a nice send off.

After dropping Aaron off for the afternoon the rest of the group headed for the famous Homer Spit, a natural 4.5 mile long gravel spit that extends into lower Kachemak Bay with a road to the end and numerous buildings and harbors along its length.  According to Wikipedia it is the longest road into ocean waters on Earth, so that’s a fun fact for the day.  Anyhow it’s also amazing birding year-round with thousands of spring shorebirds and countless ducks, alcids, cormorants, loons, grebes, gulls, and let’s not forget Sea Otters, at all seasons.  Unfortunately the light was already fading on us so our Steller’s Eider search didn’t go anywhere but the hundreds of Northwestern Crows flocking across the spit were great as were the flocks of 75+ Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches and 50+ Snow Buntings we also found.  The hoped for McKay’s Bunting did not materialize however.  The lack of light on rightly enough, the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, put an end to our day’s birding activities about 4:15 p.m. with a solid three year birds under our belt, or strap.

Figure 4: Flock of 75+ Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches on the Homer Spit.  Photo by Scott Schuette

Figure 4: Flock of 75+ Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches on the Homer Spit. Photo by Scott Schuette

Sunday was going to be a day to look for a few other birds in Homer (Steller’s Eider) and then make a couple stops on the drive back to Anchorage in hopes of catching up with a forest bird or two.  The morning dawned less than pleasant however with wind and blowing snow so the plan changed to a loop drive in the hills above the city passing through open boreal forest, black spruce bogs, and hillside alder thickets looking for birds like Northern Hawk-Owl, Northern Shrike, and Gray Jay.  And after a solid 20 mile loop how many did we find?  Well, we found five, species that is although one of them was a lone Gray Jay, year bird number four.  The other species noted included Bald Eagle, Common Raven, Black-billed Magpie, and Pine Grosbeak, have I mentioned Alaska can be quiet in the winter?  From there a short stop at the Anchor River mouth did not produce the flock of white buntings as we had hoped for while the next stop at the Kenai River Flats where upwards of 500 Snow Buntings (a flock which could easily contain a McKay’s or two) had been seen lately was cut short by the redundant combination of wind and blowing snow.

Figure 5: Looking across Cook Inlet at Mt. Iliamna from the Anchor River mouth.  Photo by Scott Schuette.

Figure 5: Looking across Cook Inlet at Mt. Iliamna from the Anchor River mouth. Photo by Scott Schuette.

Minor setbacks sure, but there was still hope.  The stretch of the Sterling Highway headed northeast from the town of Kenai is perfect habitat for resident owls and Northern Shrike but we were racing the clock (it was already early afternoon which is basically evening) and were going to need some luck.  But what’s a big year without a little luck?  Because that’s what we got when a Great Gray Owl came into view along the side of the road about 10 miles east of Sterling.  I really don’t think you can end the day/weekend on a better bird than that which is apparently what Mother Nature decided as well, since we didn’t see anything else on the drive.

Figure 6: Bad picture of an awesome bird, Great Gray Owl.  Photo by Scott Schuette

Figure 6: Bad picture of an awesome bird, Great Gray Owl. Photo by Scott Schuette

And with that the third Alaskan adventure of the year came to an end, and a flight down south to greener pastures, and hopefully more birds, awaits.

Scott Schuette is the Director of St. Paul Island Tours. As a result, he’s seen more Red-legged Kittiwakes than most and spends a large portion of the year hosting visiting birders and wildlife fans fantastic birds at the edge of North America!