North of the Arctic Circle

By John Puschock, owner of Zugunruhe Birding Tours

“Ross’s is not a gull, it is the gull…”

Ken Behrens and Cameron Cox in the Peterson Reference Guide to Seawatching: Eastern Waterbirds in Flight, 2013

Last month, I had the honor of accompanying Travis on his first trip north of the Arctic Circle on my Ross’s Gull expedition to Barrow, Alaska. I’ve run this trip annually since 2009, with this year being the first that Zugunruhe Birding Tours teamed up with the American Birding Association to offer it as an ABA Event.

This is my favorite tour, and it quickly gained that status despite having some stiff competition. Sure, it has the smallest trip list of just about any offered by any tour company (we’ve ranged from 19 to 26 species), but there’s something magical about seeing flocks of Ross’s Gulls. Oh, and there’s Snowy Owls, good chances of seeing Ivory Gulls, polar bears, and more.

Travis, fellow guide Jess Findlay, and I started our first day of birding on October 3 by heading out the road that follows the coast northeast of town. There were good numbers of Yellow-billed Loons along the way, more than I’ve seen on the water during previous trips. Year bird number one of the trip for Travis.

Travis scans the Arctic Ocean.

Travis helping me scan the Arctic Ocean.

 

We then stopped, and before getting out of the van, I spotted two eiders a few hundred yards offshore. They looked a little different than the ubiquitous King Eiders. With help from Travis, I could see large pale circles around their eyes: Spectacled Eiders, another year bird for Travis! He then added a late-staying Rough-legged Hawk and Thayer’s Gull to the year list.

 

Travis's first Rough-legged Hawk of the year.

Travis’s first Rough-legged Hawk of the year.

 

Immature Red-necked Phalarope

Another late-staying bird that Travis and I got to see from close range: Red-necked Phalarope.

 

Travis's first Thayer's Gull.

Thayer’s Gull (immature gull in center; other gulls are Glaucous), another year bird for Travis.

 

Soon it was time to head back to the airport to pick up two other birders doing a big year: Neil Hayward and Jay Lehman. They were joining us because, like Travis, they both needed Ross’s Gull for their year lists. After lunch, all three of them got to tick it when a flock of six flew past.

Three Big Year Birders

The three big year birders take a moment to discuss big year strategy. Jay (left), Travis (center), and Neil (right).

 

A flock of Ross's Gulls

The reason we come to Barrow: flocks of Ross’s Gulls.

 

You may think that was the highlight of Travis’s day, but you’d be wrong. The highlight came as we were scanning from the end of the coastal road. Neil was looking across Elson Lagoon and spotted a polar bear. I don’t care if it doesn’t have feathers a polar bear always takes top billing.

Polar bear

Polar bear. Some of us were happy it was far away. Digiscoped photo by Neil Hayward.

 

The next day was more of the same (and I mean that in a good way). More Ross’s Gull. More polar bears. Literally more polar bears. Yesterday we had just one. Today it was three. The only bird that Jay and Neil still needed from Barrow was Ivory Gull, so we focused on that. Unfortunately, we couldn’t turn one up. Then, as the end of the day drew near, it was time to say good-bye to them and hello to the ABA group.

Over the next few days, Travis got to see a lot more Ross’s Gulls. Their numbers grew as the days went by. During the first day of the ABA event, we saw about 150 Ross’s. It kept climbing after that, and daily counts were over 500 by the end of the expedition.

Flock of Ross's Gulls

Another flock of Ross’s Gulls. Check out all that pink.

 

Another flock of Ross's Gulls

And another one.

A single Ross's Gull

For a change of pace, here’s just one Ross’s Gull.

 

While the main target of the trip was Ross’s Gull, we looked for other birds, too. On the way to lunch on our first day, we drove around the west end of the airport for a Snowy Owl. A stop at a feeder in town gave us Hoary and Common Redpoll for the trip list. We also took a drive down Gas Well Road. This road is a bit inland. There’s usually a Snowy Owl or two (and this time was no exception), but our target was arctic fox. Their numbers were low this year. Travis, Jess, and I saw one soon after we arrived, but that was it. No luck with them on Gas Well either, but while we scanned an area that had a lot of tracks, several of us simultaneously discovered a flock of Willow Ptarmigan, the sixth and final year bird for Travis on this trip.

Snowy Owl.

Snowy Owl.

 

Glaucous Gulls feeding on bowhead whale

Glaucous Gulls feeding on the remains of a bowhead whale.

 

Immature Red Phalarope.

An immature Red Phalarope. This species tends to remain at Barrow later than Red-neckeds. Numbers vary year to year on this tour.

 

At the conclusion of the expedition, all participants received certificates commemorating their visit north of the Arctic Circle. Suitable for framing, it was created by ABA Adjutant Liz Gordon.

Travis's Arctic Circle certificate

His journey has been certified.