Fall Alaska 5 – and ABA bird #800 for 2019!

Barrow and Ivory Gull – ABA bird #800!

A quick run up to Barrow from Anchorage – crossing into the Arctic Circle, my aim was to cross paths with east-bound Ross’s Gulls that make an annual migration past that shoreline in mid-October each year. I knew that the timing of the trip was probably a few days premature, based on the migration of the spectacular pink gulls, and apart from an ‘almost’ sighting of three highly suspect small gulls at the beginning of my third day on the island, I decided to move on – with the view of returning immediately after my coming week of Hawaiian birding. But I stayed just long enough, and I mean just long enough, to make the trip the stuff of legends, if only in my own lunchtime.

Ivory Gull was on my radar while I was at the ‘top of the world’, but seeing one was admittedly highly unlikely, since they have become so rarely encountered these days during their annual eastward migration – which was concentrated in late October and early November – back in the days when pack ice was still associated with Alaska’s Arctic coastline in early winter. One of Alaska’s best and smartest birders assured me a few weeks ago that an Ivory in Alaska this year was a guaranteed nonevent. So imagine the excitement and guarded elation when my buddy Herb Fechter, who was on Team Attu with me this Spring, found and photographed a jaw-dropping, pure-white adult Ivory Gull on his (and my) first day in Barrow. He found the bird in the middle of a browned-off field, but not far out of town. After his spectacular discovery, he tried desperately to reach me by phone while staking out the bird from a distance, not daring to get out of his vehicle. What a guy. Alas, my GCI outer Alaska phone service has gone on the fritz, and it was nearly an hour before I received his communications by text and email, long after the bird had done a runner. Once I got the word, Doug Gochfeld and my Field Guides team mates criss-crossed likely areas in the direction that Herb had seen the bird flying towards – but no luck. Augghhh, indeed, and deadly silence in the van.


Team Doug (Doug Gochfeld in centre) waiting and hoping for Ross’s Gulls at Barrow.


Spectacled Eider – a species I was grateful for seeing at Barrow.


The seas were calm enough for wishful whalers, but the whales, like the Ross’s Gulls, seem to have not yet arrived at Alaska’s Arctic coastline.


Football practice for Barrow High School in the Arctic’s only football field. WTF?


Wanka-shot with my hero of the moment – Herb Fechter.


On my third day, I teamed up with Herb, so as to flog a ride to the northern-most point of the Barrow coastline, hoping to maximise the chances of scoping a Ross’s Gull. Early in the piece, between small groups of Black-legged Kittiwakes, I may have seen a trio of Ross’s, but it was too much of a stretch, and since I failed to score photographs of the distant birds, it was a ‘no sale’. It wasn’t much later, when we returned to town, that we learned from Doug that he’d been forwarded a Facebook post that Gaylee and Richard Dean had not only arrived in town a few hours earlier, but they had successfully tracked down Herb’s Ivory Gull, just a few miles away from the original sighting. That was incredible news, but it took hours to track down the dynamic duo and get details of their sighting. As it happened, they’d gone back to the site where they’d seen the bird, with no success, and the feeling was that it had moved on. Herb and I however, used the last hour of my time before 6pm check-in for my Anchorage flight to search the areas near the Deans’ sighting. In accordance with the well-known ‘last minute before flight out’ phenomenon, we found that incredible bird – and were able to photograph it, and leave it in situ, before Herb dropped me off at the ‘airport’ five minutes away, and sped off to find Doug and group, since he was out of phone range. Like a succession of incredible birds I’ve lucked into seeing after the ‘extra 10% effort before quitting’ that seems to be required, this seems to me, at least at this cloud-walking moment, to be the best bird I’ve seen so far this year.


Ivory Gull photographed with fogged lens. Trust me, it was even more spectacular than the image promises. WHOO-HOO!


The man of the hour, my Georgian birding mate, Herb Fechter; what a guy. Oh, and the Ivory Gull in background (look carefully) was kinda OK too.

Got birding business in Hawaii next, but will be back to Barrow to settle unfinished pink business. Watch this space.