Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Rare Ducks Provide Feast for Birders, and Natives Alike
July 26, 2008
As we stepped off the plane in Boston at 11:30 last Sunday night, we welcomed the dark. That had been the first time in three weeks that the sun wasn’t shining at that hour. We were arriving from a world-wind birding tour of Alaska and, though it was an amazing experience, it was exhausting and we were glad to be home. We never had more than four hours of darkness on any day of our trip and on some days, the sun never set.
Three weeks ago, twenty birders gathered in Anchorage and took a morning flight out, for the first leg of our trip, to Barrow. Barrow is above the Arctic Circle and the northern most point on the continent, where we “enjoyed” twenty-four hour sunlight. It is an outpost of civilization, where the native people endure a subsistence living – hunting, fishing, and whaling for their food. The town consists mostly of trailers and shacks, hardly seeming capable of withstanding a 70 below winter and biting winds. We actually hit a mild spell, even for summer, when the temperature rose to nearly 60 on one day. But the temperature was in the chilly 40 degree range the rest of our short stay.
The song of snow buntings surrounded our modest hotel. Those and Lapland longspurs were the common breeding birds. Just imagine- no starlings, no house sparrows! In fact, I saw no starlings or blackbirds and only 1 house sparrow our entire trip. Passerines (perching or song birds) were few and far between in all the areas that we visited.
We went to Point Barrow hoping for three target birds: Steller’s eider, spectacled eider and yellow-billed loon. We were also hoping for a glimpse of a polar bear on the ocean’s solid ice that came within a hundred yards of shore. Our guide carried a rifle just in case we had a close encounter with one. The first hundred yards of water was broken ice with patches of open water where we did see common and king eiders. A few Pacific and common loons were around and we finally did have a yellow-billed loon fly low overhead, giving most of us good looks. But no Steller’s and spectacled eiders, and no polar bears.
We spent the rest of our time, a couple of days, in Barrow traveling the dusty dirt roads around the town in search of birds. We were supposed to have three 15 person vans for this portion of the trip, but, instead, the twenty of us were crammed into one van and a six passenger pickup truck. While visiting these outposts of civilization, we are at the mercy of their resources as well.
We eventually got excellent looks at Steller’s and spectacled eiders – both very beautiful ducks. We saw lots of jaegers, which we seldom see from land in Massachusetts. Usually we have to take a summer pelagic boat trip to see these birds around here. They were on their nesting grounds in Alaska and we saw many long-tailed, parasitic and pomerine jaegers on their nest. Glaucous gulls, which we sometimes see in winter on Cape Ann, is the common gull in Barrow in the summer. We also had good looks at snowy owls, some on their nests!
The rarest bird we saw in Barrow was probably the killdeer. Though a killdeer is a common resident here, it was not supposed to be in Barrow. Another interesting sighting was a raven with what looked to be a large jaeger egg in its mouth! Another of the more exciting birds was a peregrine falcon. It was carrying prey and it came close enough for us to identify its prey as a red phalarope. What was remarkable was that the peregrine was being hounded by a jaeger, trying to steal its food. They darted all around, but the peregrine was a bit quicker and outmaneuvered the jaeger, which eventually gave up the chase.
As we were searching for birds along the tundra, we encountered a Native who told us about a herd of hundreds of caribou down another road, not very far away. As we headed slowly there, we were passed by several local vehicles which sped by. As we approached the area, we could see a collection of vehicles parked and, by the time we got there, we realized that there were pickup trucks and trailers filled with dead caribou. Needless to say, the rest of the herd was nowhere to be found. Word had gotten out and the locals came for their food. This harvest would be later placed in ice cellars, which the natives carve out of the ground and cover with a tarp for frozen storage for the year. They do the same with the eider ducks that they shoot. (They told us they don’t pluck the feathers for storage so as not to create freezer burn.)
We learned that it is a hard life for man and birds in Barrow, as we headed back to Anchorage for our next segment of the trip.
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