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Barrow, Alaska—Eiders and Jaegers and Loons, Oh My!

by Brian Zwiebel | October 5, 2011

© Brian ZwiebelAlaska. The name itself stirs emotion in the hearts and souls of all who have visited. Destinations within Alaska are virtually endless. Well known photography meccas such as Denali, Katmai and Nome come instantly to mind. But what about Barrow, AK as a premier bird photography destination? If you have never heard of Barrow, you are not alone. I had barely heard of Barrow when I started my research looking for new and undiscovered photo destinations in the great state. The plan was simple enough. I wanted to photograph high arctic nesting birds and I wanted to do so in a town with an infrastructure to make the logistics at least manageable.

While reviewing range maps of my most desired species I soon discovered that Barrow is smack in the middle of one of the main breeding areas of King, Spectacled and Steller’s Eiders. I also found daily flights, several lodging options, rental cars, and a small road system. And thus the plan was hatched.

King eider (male) © Brian Zwiebel

Uncountable hours of research and planning went into that first trip, so much so that I thought I knew what to expect when I got there. Not even close! Sure I had mapped out the area roads, knew of the midnight sun and had even found a restaurant or two I wanted to try (Kuboka for Japanese is my favorite). I did have an idea of the species I would see but I was not prepared for the amazing breeding behaviors and displays I would witness. This article will let you know what to expect at Barrow and help you decide if an adventure to Barrow’s high arctic is right for you!

Dunlin with raised wing © Brian Zwiebel

The Birds

There are few places in North America where one could expect to see all four species of eiders in a single day. (Common Eider is an off-shore migrant only). All three jaeger species occur at Barrow as well as Pacific, Red-throated and Yellow-billed Loons!

Pacific loon © Brian Zwiebel

In addition, Barrow is home to wide array of nesting shorebirds, many of which exhibit fascinating breeding displays. Red and Red-necked Phalaropes, Pectoral, Baird’s, White-rumped and Semipalmated Sandpipers, American Golden Plovers, Dunlin and Long-billed Dowitchers are all regular breeders at Barrow. You will be blown away by the multitude of amazing behaviors if you have never before experienced shorebirds on their breeding grounds. And, if that were not enough, singing Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings both in full breeding plumage are the most common passerines at Barrow.

Snow bunting © Brian Zwiebel

Throw in abundant Long-tailed Ducks, the possibility of Sabine’s Gulls, Glaucous Gulls, ptarmigan, magnificent Snowy Owls along with some rare migrants and I just can’t think of a destination with more interesting opportunities.

Gaucous gull above lake on tundra © Brian Zwiebel

Light & Wind

From mid May through the end of July the sun does not set in Barrow for over eighty days. This provides the unique opportunity to photograph all night long. On more than one occasion I have gone out after dinner for the evening shoot and stayed out the entire night, not quitting until mid morning. These all night shooting parties have been some of the best experiences in my life. If you think you might be up to a fourteen hour photo shoot you should come prepared with a snack, water, extra batteries and plenty of flash cards. On full sun days the evening light will start getting good around 7:00pm. Strong east winds prevail at Barrow and since birds almost always face into the wind you will have to pay special attention to head angles during the evening shoots. Evening is a perfect time to try for over the shoulder shots. Approach with the sun behind you as you normally would for a front lit subject. Then try making various pishing or squeaking noises to get the birds to look your way. This pose is one of my favorites as it shows off the back plumage which is often more interesting than the belly view.

Pectoral sandpiper © Brian Zwiebel

You will want to save your action and flight photo efforts for early to mid morning when the light and wind are coming from roughly the same direction. You should also be aware that ice fog is a regular occurrence. The fog will often roll in off the ocean between 1:00am and 2:00am and may not burn off until 9:00am or later.

Long-tailed duck landing in water © Brian Zwiebel

Cautions

Grizzly bears are almost unheard of at Barrow. That said, one was spotted by another party during my first trip to Barrow. Polar Bears are normally confined to the area along the ocean and near the tip of Point Barrow. In May 2010 however a Polar Bear did wander several miles inland to the new dump area off of Gas Well Rd. The terrain is generally very flat at Barrow and the tallest brush is not even knee high. Surprising a Grizzly or Polar Bear at close range on the tundra is not likely though a dense fog would make it more so. It is always advisable to remain alert to your surroundings.

A GPS or compass and the knowledge to use them correctly will come in handy to help you locate your vehicle if a dense fog rolls in unexpectedly.

There is nothing you will encounter in nature that is more slippery than ice covered with water. Many of the tundra ponds at Barrow have ice covered bottoms, the permafrost. Some ponds have smooth and slippery bottoms while others are covered with ankle breaking and knee twisting ice knobs that remind me of cypress knees. I fell hard on my knee the first evening of my first visit to Barrow. I could easily have seriously injured myself or smashed my gear which would have been a huge bummer! I have also encountered ponds where thigh deep water suddenly changes to depths unknown with an icy ramp at a 45 degree angle in between. I have learned that using your tripod as a walker and moving very slowly is the only way to go if you choose to venture into the ponds.

Extreme caution should be used at all times or you will fall. You may fall anyway if you choose to enter the ponds. On my most recent visit to Barrow I fell hard on the ice once again. This time I was right next to the van in a roadside ditch. Regular cautions were far from my mind as it was nothing more than a shallow puddle but the risk to life, limb and expensive camera equipment were no different than had I been crossing a tundra pond a mile from the road.

Special Considerations

Barrow is an expensive place to visit. The cost of food, fuel, lodging and rental cars is high. Perishable goods have to be flown in as there are no roads to Barrow. Some goods come in by barge during the very brief ice free summer.

You may be visiting in summer but this is still the arctic. Average high temperatures during my June visits have been around 40°F with lows ranging from just below freezing to the upper 30°F’s. Prevailing winds are almost always from the east coming in off the ice pack averaging about 20 mph. I have experienced stronger winds with gusts of 30-40 mph. In these conditions it may be best to remove the lens hood from your long telephoto lens to minimize wind induced vibrations. The rare calm day with light southerly winds will cause the mercury to quickly rise to around 55°F.

Waders are a must for anyone venturing into the ponds. Waders may also be preferable even if you don’t intend to get in the water. The ground is damp almost everywhere at Barrow; the permafrost does not allow the ground to absorb much moisture. Also consider taking waterproof gloves, a hat and neck gaitor for extra warmth against the arctic wind.

Insects are rarely a bother at Barrow but on warmer days flies and mosquitoes may be a nuisance. A head net and light mesh gloves along with your preferred bug spray should do the trick.

Anyone visiting Barrow who wishes to venture out onto the tundra for birding or photography will need to submit a permit application to the Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation (UIC). They can be contacted at (907) 852-4460. I have made some great images from the road but it is advised to obtain the permit from UIC prior to your trip to avoid unnecessary delays upon your arrival.

Barrow Alaska Site Guide for Birders and Photographers eBook by Brian Zwiebel

A Site Guide to Barrow, Alaska for Photographers and Birders
eBook by Brian Zwiebel

Brian Zwiebel’s Site Guide to Barrow, AK for Photographers and Birders is a downloadable, 88-page pdf eBook (8.61 MB zip file) available for sale in the NatureScapes.net store. If you are going to Barrow on your own to photograph or bird, or even if you are going with a group, you will find this guide indispensable. It details the best locations for each of the many Barrow specialty species. Buy Now →

 

About the Author

Brian's photographic journey has taken him all over North America. Some of his most memorable trips have been to the arctic and sub arctic regions of Alaska and Canada. In June 2007 he spent two weeks photographing tundra nesting birds at Barrow, AK and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In 2010 he returned to Barrow to co-lead a photographic workshop. His memorable experiences at Barrow led to the creation of A Site Guide to Barrow, Alaska.

Brian's extensive photo files include over 400 species of North American birds captured on either 35mm film or digital media. His award-winning photography has been internationally published in various books and magazine including Birding World, Bird Watching and the ABA’s magazine Birding.

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