Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, June 27, 2022

Alaska, Part I: The tour begins in Anchorage

The glacer!

Russ and I just got back from two absolutely perfect weeks in Alaska, participating in a Victor Emanual Nature Tour (aka VENT) led by two extraordinary birders, Barry Zimmer and my dear friend Erik Bruhnke. We flew in on June 10, a day before the actual tour began, in order to relax after the very long flight and get acclimated to the time change. 

Our plane landed in Anchorage after 9 PM. It might as well have been 4 PM as far as daylight went—we never once were awake during the brief period of darkness on the entire trip—but it was well after midnight according to our biological clocks. Traveling west through time zones is the right direction to make waking up easy— our days started at 5 or 5:30 AM through the entire two-week tour, but we always woke up before the alarm went off. Of course, we paid for that at the other end of the day. When we settled down for dinner at 7 or 8 PM, I was always wiped out. 

The official tour wouldn’t begin until dinnertime on June 11, so Russ and I had that whole day to ourselves. It turned out we needed it after realizing that we’d both forgotten important things at home. Erik and Barry had both arrived the night before, too. (Erik was on the same flights as us.)

Erik at the Minneapolis airport

They offered to take us to the Anchorage REI where they had to buy bear spray anyway, but we decided to walk the 3.1 miles on our own. It wasn’t exactly exercise—I’m a pathological moseyer, so we hardly made good time, but walking felt good after sitting so much the day before, plus I spotted a snowshoe hare chomping on some ornamental plants along the street, retreating to the adjacent parking lot when I pulled out my phone to photograph it. That turned out to be our only sighting of this species on the trip. 

Our one and only snowshoe hare of the trip

Having never been to Anchorage before, I had no clue that the dominant urban gull in those parts is the Short-billed Gull (formerly called the Mew Gull until it got split from its Eurasian counterpart). It was disconcerting to check through so very many gulls flying over without being able to detect, for certain, a single Herring or Ring-billed Gull. 

If the walk to REI turned out to be exhausting or even just tiring, we’d have called a cab for the return trip, but we both felt fine and I got to try out my new sunglasses on the walk back to the hotel. And neither of us needed to rest up after the 6.2-mile roundtrip, so after I got my camera stuff organized, we headed out again to nearby Lake Hood, a popular seaplane base, where we could get a feel for the common waterfowl in the area. I got pictures of a Barrow’s Goldeneye...  

Barrow's Goldeneye

...and a gorgeous but elusive Black-billed Magpie. 

Black-billed Magpie

The 8 ½ miles Russ and I walked that day was far and away the most we’d walk during the entire two weeks. We freshened up for meeting the group in the lobby at 6:30. After a bit of schmoozing, we piled in the two vans and rode to the Kincaid restaurant for an outstanding halibut dinner.

The first part of our tour was listed as VENT’s Grand Alaska Nome pre-trip. Our flight from Anchorage to Nome (arrangements made by VENT) was set for mid-morning. Some participants would be leaving after Nome without having a chance to bird in Anchorage at all, so our leaders set up an early-morning optional short trip to Westchester Lagoon—an outstanding Anchorage birding hotspot. Knowing we’d be back there again, Russ stayed behind to get our stuff in order. Our group saw some splendid birds, including most cooperative and photogenic Short-billed Gulls and Arctic Terns.

Short-billed Gull

Short-billed Gull

Arctic Tern

I even got a poop shot from one obliging Arctic Tern, along with it snoozing, showing off its white eyelid. 

Arctic Tern poop shot!

Arctic Tern snoozing

The Holiday Inn Express served as our group’s basecamp between excursions to Nome, Denali, and Seward. They let us to keep extra stuff in a storage room between these shorter trips. Russ and I had each checked a large bag for our flight in, but would only need our carryon bag for the four nights we’d be in Nome, so Russ brought our large suitcases to the storage room and then chilled out a bit. When the rest of us got back to the hotel, we loaded up our luggage for Nome and headed back to the airport. Our big adventure was about to begin!