Like Greenland and Spitsbergen, Barrow (at the last northern part of Alaska) is a dream location for any bird photographer, especially those who have a preference for arctic species. That is why Jan van Holten, Martin van der Schalk and myself visited this magical location in June 2015 for the duration of two weeks.
Reaching the village is a long journey! Excluding the hours we had to wait between transit flights, it took up to 14.5 hours to get there by plane. Around four thousand people live in Barrow, most of which are Inupiaq Eskimos who live by hunting; killing a number of whales each year for their own consumption (it’s forbidden to sell the meat).
We (Jan, Martin and I) made a plan of action beforehand; preparing our wishlist and also making appointments regarding practical issues like who brings what from home and which of the 24 light hours we'd use for photography as travelling freely around Alaska requires a 150dollar fee (which we paid for in advance) .
We made base at the King Eider Inn. There was no opportunity to have a meal in the hotel itself so we found ourselves either eating out or making bread rolls. It was good, clean but mundane. Free Wi-Fi is available and the couple who own the place are friendly and helpful. If you're lucky you might even get to taste some of Carol's delicious homemade brownies! The hotel is a hotspot for birdwatchers, which is very useful for information exchange.
Weather and light conditions
The temperature was usually between 0 and 12 degrees Celsius, sometimes going up to 17 degrees. On our second week the ice melted and dried up. Ordinary winter clothes used in the Netherlands should be sufficient for the climate. It was mostly sunny with occasional rainfall. The light is the best after 22.00 h., so it’s worth going out to photograph at night-time.
Most of the time we took photos of the direct surroundings of Barrow, easily reached with our rented car. The birds are mostly tame (except for the Snowy Owls) and easy to find. The Cakeeater road leading to Gaswell road is very good, as is the Imaqsaun road to the freshwater lake. Most of our pictures were taken in the vicinty of these roads. Further detailed information can be found at the useful Site Guide of Brian L. Zwiebel (which can be bought online).
Saturday June 13th
We arrive at Schiphol Airport by 6:30h and wait, as our flight doesn't leave till 10:00h. The trip is on schedule and we reach Barrow, the northernmost village in the USA, that day at around 21:00h (keep in mind the 10 hour time difference between there and the Netherlands). We stay at Hotel King Eider Inn: there's no better name for a hotel! It's located diagonally opposite the airport-exit, at no more than one hundred meters walking distance! When we arrive, we are tired, but that doesn’t keep us from photographing immediately. In the surroundings of Barrow a tame couple of Spectacled Eiders, one of our trip's top targets, is spotted so there is no time to waste! We immediately set off with our huge American car and find the Spectacled Eiders (with thanks to Micha Schipper for the explanation) and take our first pictures. What beautiful birds! Our first impression of Alaska is positive: there's an incredible amount of waders! Every lake has their own Grey or Red-necked Phalarope-couple and wherever you look you’ll see American waders, like Pectoral Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher and Semipalmated Sandpiper. Nice! We're going to have fun here for the next 14 days!
Sunday June 14th
We eventually realize it's 00:00h, however it doesn’t matter and we keep on taking photos as there's daylight 24/7. Today happens to be Martin’s birthday and one couldn't wish for a better gift than a picture of a Spectacled Eider! Sure enough, we find around ten of them! At one point we even had a Yellow-billed Loon flying overhead. Later we had to stop photographing because of the rain so we decided to explore the area. By the time we got back to the hotel we were exhausted and desired nothing other than our beds.
The alarm clock woke us at 19:00h and as expected, it's still raining. At the moment there is a poor internet connection and phone interference, so it’s impossible to send a sign of life to home. For now our relatives will just have to have faith that we arrived safely…
Barrow is a grey village, made up ugly houses and a whole lot of rubbish. When you buy a new car, you park your old one next to your house and that's where it will stay. When you buy a new car again ten years later, you put the old one next to the former relic and so on. That aside, the inhabitants are very kind. They stop regularly and ask us what we are doing. It's inconceivable to them that we'd make such a big trip just to photograph birds. Maybe it truly is strange…
An Arctic Redpoll is breeding in the garden of the hotel. We do some shopping and go out to get some shooting done. The hours leading to midnight consisted soley of us eating pizza and photography. We took a lot of pictures. What a wealth of waders! Most of the birds are tame and very approachable. Our luck's looking up as we found another nest of a redpoll in an old snowmobile; unfortunately, the same can't not be said for our line of communication as there is still no internet access and thereby still no contact with the home front.
Monday June 15th
When we got up, it was raining, so after breakfast we took it easy. We slept a little and after lunchtime the weather dried and we went out, driving north and photographing redpolls and Snow buntings. In the afternoon the lighting conditions were great as the sun peeked through the fog. We took pictures of Spectacled Eiders, Pomarine Skua and Grey Phalaropes. Life in Alaska is great! We continued shooting through the night and only got back to our hotelroom at 5:30h.
Pacific Loon and Jan
Male Grey Phalarope
Tuesday June 16th
We woke up at 13:00h and started our day relaxing over a cup of tea in the hotel lobby. Much to our relief, the internet was working and we let our loved ones at home know all was well. After that we went out and drove around a bit in the village. Like yesterday, we hoped to get some pizza to eat, but alas the pizzeria's doors are closed for two weeks from today. Unlucky! The local south Korean restaurant made for a good alternative. Later we visited the house of the local guide, Mike, to shoot redpolls, which was successful. From the other birds, there were only a few which were clearly Arctic Redpolls along with a White-crowned Sparrow. Afterwards we drove to north and I took photos of a highly photogenic Pomarine Skua, which made me very happy. So far we've been seeing Spectacled Eiders on a daily basis; though the tame couple seem to be shier. It's 15:00h now, we're finished for the day and after a cup of tea, off to bed.
Male Arctic redpoll
Wednesday June 17th
We slept till 13:00h again and had a coffee in the hotel lobby and breakfast in our room. I decided to change my cameras: connecting the 7D to a 500mm-lens and the 5D to a wide-angle lens. The harsh light of today is not good for the pictures. We ended up spending a few hours photographing some fighting Red-necked Phalaropes. Why are these birds so aggressive; can’t disagreements be resolved in a different way? Apparently not. During dinner I asked the waitress to take a picture of us, to which she bluntly replied: ‘No.’ If nothing else, at least it was a clear answer. After dinner the sunshine softened a little and we shot some nice pictures of Pacific Loons and of a Semipalmated Plover. The tame couple of Spectacled Eiders seems to have disappeared and has given way to two less tame male Spectacled Eiders. We saw 6 Long-tailed Skuas and we took our first pictures of these beautiful birds. Snowy Owls are seen daily, sometimes up to 5 sightings. At 4:00h. we're back at the hotel. Not because we are tired of shooting, but because it is too cloudy.
Martin and a Grey Phalarope
Thursday June 18th
Despite the clouds, we went out this afternoon after "breakfast". Fortuitously we found a nest of a Savannah Sparrow, which was a nice little bonus. In the evening we found a Pomarine Skua hunting down a male Spectacled Eider. How brutal! He was posing beautifully while eating a dead Glaucous Gull. In the meantime we spotted a dark morph Pomarine Skua nosediving towards the Spectacled Eider. After dinner we went for a drive. It’s too foggy to take any more pictures but it doesn’t matter as we're still enjoying the fruit of this afternoon's shooting.
Pomarine Skua and a Spectacled Eider
Dark morph Pomarine Skua
Friday June 19th
In the afternoon, we started with our usual late breakfast and had a chat with a few American photographers we met in the hotel lobby. Later in the day we found our first Baird’s Sandpiper, but sadly the sunlight was too harsh to take any good pictures. We also found our fourth nest of an Arctic redpoll; the female was out in the sun with an open beak clearly having problems with the high temperature. The trip at night was great, the light was beautifully soft and warm and we finally found a couple of Steller's Eiders who were willing to contribute. The Spectacled Eiders females seemed to have disappeared and were probably breeding out in the tundra. At such an hour you’ll only find small groups of males together, who shortly after will leave to the open sea. From this night on we have to deal with a new phenomenon: mosquitoes. They're everywhere! They're seemingly all over the tundra and really love human blood. We ended our night-trip at 5:30h.
Saturday June 20th
Yesterday we were up late (ah I mean early) so today we had a good sleep. In fact we only stopped sleeping to buy some groceries just to sleep again right after. We later woke up again to find out that Carol (the manager of the hotel) made us some delicious brownies! We had dinner at a Japanese restaurant and went to the tundra. We didn’t take a lot of pictures, but the pictures we did take were very nice (Grey and Red-necked Phalaropes and a Savannah Sparrow). The advantage of a longer stay at one place is that we could improve our pictures. We ended our day with a 'Snowy Owl in the scenery'-picture. Once again we didn't get back to the hotel until 5:30h.
Sunday June 21th
Today we visited a local museum where a lot of attention was paid to whale hunting and the traditional way of life of the Eskimos. In the evening we shot a Long-tailed Skua and a flying female Spectacled Eider. We even got to observe young waders for the first time: Red-necked Phalarope. At the tundra we found three Sandhill Cranes. When we drew near they were attacked by a Pomarine Skua. As we were walking back to the car we found a nest with two eggs of a Pomarine Skua. A quick picture with the IPhone and we left. After a few hundred meters we accidentally scared a breeding female Spectacled Eider at a nest of three eggs. Again a quick picture with the IPhone before swiftly running off. What a night!
Jan, Martin and Red-necked Phalarope
Female Spectacled Eider
Monday June 22th
We photographed a couple of Sabine's Gulls and a Western Sandpiper at the end of the Imaqsaun road. After that we did some shopping and had dinner at the Japanese restaurant. We shot two Baird’s Sandpipers on a nice small ice edge at the start of the Cakeeater road and afterwards took pictures of Arctic and Pomarine Skua. We finished early (2:00h at night) because it had become too cloudy.
Tuesday June 23th
We started at the end of the Imaqsaun road at the freshwater lake and drove back to Barrow to refuel, go to the ATM, visit the local fire station (Jan is a fireman) and ended the trip with a pizza. A lot has changed in the tundra within two weeks time. Pools went dry, eiders disappeared, female Grey Phalaropes are gathering in groups and the ice is melting. More and more often we're finding nests of breeding birds. We were fiercely attacked by a couple of Long-tailed Skuas, probably because we were in the vicinity of their nest. Today we observed two couples of Spectacled Eiders along the Gaswell road and at the freshwater lake we came across a lonely male Spectacled Eider, a breeding Pacific Loon and two Yellow-billed Loons. We're searching for polar bears, but haven't had any luck yet.
Females Grey Phalarope
Wednesday June 24th
Today it was cloudy and cold(er). We eternalized an Western Sandpiper at the freshwater lake. Man, are these birds active! A couple of Spectacled Eiders decided they weren't in the mood for posing. They left before we were even able to take a picture. We saw a Savannah Sparrow and a lot of young waders. We gave the evening trip a miss due to the bad weather conditions (rain) and because we're trying to return to the regular day and night rhythm. While we were having dinner at our hotel room, Jan spotted (as sharply as ever) a Snowy Owl behind our hotel in the local graveyard. We quickly abandoned our dinner to get a good shot of the Snowy Owl and were rewarded with a very special portrait of it perched on a grave cross.
Thursday June 25th
In the morning we took more pictures of the Snowy Owl in our backyard. Later in the day I spotted a white Polar Fox but he disappeared almost as soon as he saw me due to the reputation for hunting in the area. In the afternoon we visited the Whaling festival at the centre of Barrow. On a large square, divided by gaudy plastic barriers, the locals meet each other and enjoyed multiple performances. As a visitor it’s allowed me a chance to try whale meat. I passed. Meanwhile it started to rain. We drove around at the village to take our final pictures of it. In the direction of Point Barrow we found five Sabine's Gulls swimming inside a dam and found a dead male Spectacled Eider for the second time.
Friday June 26th
Our last day. We spent most of it sleeping and packing our suitcases. From our window we once more saw the Snowy Owl who seemed to make itself at home in the graveyard. Our last pictures are of a fledgling Arctic Redpoll. At 20:20h we flew to Anchorage. The party's over and we look back on a successful and cozy holiday.