19 May 2015

Birding Alaska in spring - Homer & Seward

The name Alaska rings of wilderness and grand nature. At Biotope we have a thing for the northern birding. Which is why we live and bird in Varanger, Arctic Norway. However, we allways need a bit of inspiration and fresh ideas to fuel our birding passion. Since moving to Varanger a few years ago we have started a project to visit top nature destinations around the northern hemisphere.
We have visited northern Japan twice, Iceland, Svalbard and now Alaska. Our aim is to see these places from a birder architects viewpoint. We look at similarities, like how fishing is key to the northern communities, and how nature based tourism is becoming increasingly important. We are very interested in studying how these places work with dedicated nichés like the birding niché. 

As most keen birders and nature enthusiasts we like to travel. Seeing spectacular nature is always great, and meeting people and hearing their stories from the northern communities is inspiring. It helps us become better birder architects, in the sense that in our work we always aim to connect people and nature.

Biotope is a small family business, and on this tour was Elin & Tormod of Biotope with our up and coming birder, Lila. A good mix of family holidays and business. 

Birding Alaska, part 1: Kenai Peninsula 

Visiting Alaska have been a dream for a long time. Finally we are here. This short blogpost was written on tour as we just arrived Nome, and start part two of our Alaska adventure. This blogpost features some highlights from the first section of our Alaska trip: the Kenai Peninsula. Our tour was based on quite lot of planning in advance. We wanted to do so much more then we had time to do (like the Aleutians). Birding Alaska has its similarities to birding Varanger, but to get to the right mix of birding habitat, like boreal forest, tundra and arctic coastal waters you need several flights and destinations. In any case Anchorage is your main hub. For our first section of the tour we rented a car in Anchorage, then drove to Homer, which takes a day of birding and driving. In Homer we stayed at the very nice Lands End Hotel at the Homer Spit. A bit pricy (surprisingly more so then in Norway in general), but the views of the Kachemak Bay was brilliant, and birding from our hotel room was great! We had our first Marbled Murrelets from our room. 
   We had timed our visit with the Kachemak Bay Bird Festival and the arrival of thousands of waders. Mostly Western Sadnpipers and Dunlins, all in very stylish summer plumage. Our other target birds in Homer was Black Turnstone and Tufted Puffin (at Gull Island). 
   A key reason for going to Homer was also the convenient option to fly to Katmai National Park, which is about an hours flight away (in a 6 seater plane). 
   The Kenai Peninsula interior also offers some great boreal forest birding along the Kenia River, and in other creeks, valleys and ponds. We enjoyed great views of other target species like the brilliantly looking Steller´s Jay and Gray Jay.
   Lastly we had enjoyed a visit to Seward, from where we took a boat to the Chiswell Islands. This is a series of small islands and home to thousands of seabirds. Tufted Puffin and Horned Puffin are among the key species here. What absolutely stunning birds! Like our own bird cliff Hornøya in Vardø, there are some amazing places in the world that is worth visiting and taking care of. The Chiswell Islands is such a world class place. Want to see a Tufted Puffin Vortex? Stay tuned..

Below follows a series of photos from our Alaska adventure. We will make a blogpost from Alaskas Nome and St.Lawrence island too. For now we hope you enjoy these photos from the Kenai Peninsula. For the occasional trip update (limited internett access in Nome) follow us on twitter @BiotopeOffice - Part 2 coming soon..

Biotope´s birding Alaska tour map, featuring part 1 / the Kenai Peninsula (to the right)

click on any image for slide show view / bigger photos
Homer: the Spit. We stayed at the Lands End Hotel and the furthest end on the Spit. Most of the birding in takes place from the Spit towards the town centre. As always, it is great seeing a buzzing fishing harbour. Gull Island is in the distance (did my first Tufted Puffin sighting from a kayak which I paddled from the harbour to Gull Island). 

Bear with me

The highlight part 1 of the Alaska tour: Brown Bear viewing in Katmai National Park. Amazing animals. I took a tour with Alaska Bear Viewing Tours, one of the three original companies in Homer that will take you out to meet Bears up close. Very professional, yet intimate and personal. In fact I was very early in the season, and this was their first trip so excitement was high when we spotted our first massive Brown Bear from the small plane. 

The Bears are curious, but not aggressive towards people (normally..). We landed on a beach in Katmai where we spotted a saw with her (probably) three year old cub. The Bears came close, but was politely ´hushed´ away by our guide Michael. We hung around the bears for nearly three hours on the beach, watching them feast on Clams.

Bears have five times better sense of smell then a dog, and by smell they seemed to find Clams on every attempt, despite no visible sign on the surface. 

A Bears paw and claws is a delicate tool when needed. They are true proffesionals at opening Clams nicely. 

Seafood is best fresh.

Bear searching for Clams on a Katmai beach. What an amazing experience!

Aerial view over a small  part of the Katmai National Park, which is home to an estimated 3000 Brown Bears. There is certainly a lot to learn in Norway from how they handle Bear tourism in Alaska and live with Bears. 

Shorebird bonanza

Part of a 3000+ flock of Western Sandpipers (70%) and Dunlins (30%) and Mud Bay, Homer

Western Sandpiper in stunning breeding plumage

One of our top target birds: The Black Turnstone. We had about 15 of these along the Homer Spit, accompanied by 600+ Surfbirds and a few Rock Sandpipers. 

Another target species for us: the Rock Sandpiper. Very stylish birds, and in many ways similar to our Purple Sandpipers. A hardy Calidris for sure. 

Chiswell Islands and the Tufted Puffin vortex

In many ways the Alaskan coastal landscape is similar to Northern Norway. From the fishingport Seward we took to boat trips out to the Chiswell Islands and visited the Kenai Fjords. 

Of course the Norwegian Fjords are rarely accompanied by bears, like this Black Bear we saw from the boat in Aialik Arm / Holgate Glacier.

Despite the awesomeness of Black Bear and calving glaciers, the highlight of the last part of our Kenai Peninaula trip was the amazing numbers of Tufted Puffins.

Tufted Puffins are spectacular birds, in their striking black plumage, and probably one of the most wanted birds on any European seawatch!

One is cool, but the Chiswell Islands will present you with a couple of thousand Tufted Puffin. It is hard to say how many we saw, but in total it must have been 2500+ Tufted Puffins around the Chiswell Islands. 

I had never thought I would see a Tufted Puffin Vortex. The experience of being surrounded reminded we of our very own King Eider Vortex in Varanger. Again: world class birding!

Chiswell Islands are steep, many, and perfect habitat for seabirds, set in the middle of very rich waters. 

Horned Puffin - equally great to see. Fewer in numbers, but still around with 150 birds seen on the two trips we did. Our first trip was with the biggest Fjord tour company is Seward. Too big, too crowded, but birding was still amazing. Second day of birding was better as I got Louis who run a local Seward Water Taxi to take me out to the Chiswells. Seawatching is so much better when it is all about birding, and you get to decide where to go..

Horned and Tufted Puffins and Chiswell Islands. 

And the ever present Sea Otters. Always relaxed it seems. Dining must be good and generous.

Same, but different

One of the great things about birding the northern hemisphere is how similar many things are, yet different. Climatic conditions, landscape and seascape make life and its challenges similar for species in northern Norway, Hokkaido in Japan and in Alaska. Still some of the excitement is seeing the endless nuances and variations of nature in these destinations. They are truly some of the premium birding destinations in the world. Experiencing these places and the varied birdlife and nature they have to offer is a privilege.  

Pigeon Guillemot at Gull Island, Homer

Gray Jay, at Cooper Landing, Kenai River

Best wishes from Nome, May 2015. 
Stay tuned for more Biotope birding Alaska coming up soon..

Gambell, St.Lawrence May 21-24th 2015:

Tormod Amundsen   //   //   twitter @BiotopeOffice