Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Place where Snowy Owls are Hunted

Snowy Owl.

The place may be known as Barrow Alaska on the map, but for more than 1000 years it has been known as Ukpeagvik to the native Iñupiat people. Ukpeagvik roughly translates as "place where snowy owls are hunted" (source: Wikipedia). It is the Northern-most American city and the ninth most northern city in the world. Residing north of 71° latitude, it is well inside the Arctic Circle. This is where we started our Alaskan adventure!

Point Barrow in the distance - Northern-most point in America!
They hunt whales here as well, mainly Bowhead Whales

Our Alaskan adventure began as soon as we landed at the Barrow airport. It was 37° F outside, quite a shock after leaving 105° Boise, Idaho! The airport is quite small and we were soon buried in cargo as there was about a 10 foot by 20 foot space for baggage claim. A full 737 plane of passengers and all of their luggage, it was pure chaos as boxes and bags were thrown and stacked in all corners. Citizens jumped in to try to provide some order to the melee, but it only got worse. With no roads into Barrow, everything comes in by plane... Well, not everything. Our baggage did not. Apparently there was too much cargo so they left our bags in Fairbanks. We found it interesting that Alaska Airlines prioritizes cargo for people not on the plane over baggage for those on the plane, especially since we had to pay to check our bags. Oh well. Maybe tomorrow...

The morning bird hike was a bit on the cool side as all of our warm clothes were still sequestered in Fairbanks. Luckily, it was a sunny day with no wind, so we managed ok. We were excited to see our first Snowy Owl from about a mile away. We also saw the first of three Jaeger species we would see that day.

Dark-phase Parasitic Jaeger.
Juvenile Snow Bunting (I think).

Snow Buntings were everywhere! Sandpipers, Plovers, Redpolls, and Gulls helped fill out our list of birds. Overall, the birds were not tremendously abundant as we would expect in more temperate latitudes, but most were unique from what we see in Idaho. Quite a few were life birds for me.

We were happy that our bags arrived on the plane the next morning. This made the afternoon adventures a bit more enjoyable. We hooked up with a local couple for a tour of the area. We hit the local birding hotspots and drove out as far as we could go on point Barrow. We were amazed at how calm the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas were (they merge at Point Barrow). The birding was great, but we fell short on the mammal front - no Polar Bear, no Walrus, no Arctic Fox, and no Whales. This was not too surprising as all of these animals are hunted at least to some extent in the area, and have been for hundreds if not thousands of years. The only Bearded Seals we saw were those being hauled in by the local hunters.

Snowy Owl, 2 blocks from our hotel!

Our second day involved more birding and a visit to the Iñupiat Heritage Center. Much of the focus of the center is on the long tradition of whale hunting and how it has evolved over the centuries. They also had a good migratory bird exhibit. The town was very unique and everyone was very friendly. It was well worth the visit, but a day and a half was about enough to see everything. We departed that evening to continue our adventure near Denali.

Pacific Loon on the Chukchi Sea.
Sandpipers flying over Chukchi Sea

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