I arrived in Anchorage yesterday at 1:30 am after a long day and 3 flights from Fort Lauderdale. It's my third time to Alaska in the past 4 weeks, and I'm still stupidly surprised that it's cold here in the winter. It's -6F. (Although if you adjust for the "Florida Clothing Factor" that makes that brings it down to around...umm.. well...bone-chillingly cold degrees Fahrenheit.)
I was headed to Homer where a Rustic Bunting was found a couple of days ago coming into a feeder. I was there in the spring with Wilderness Birding, before heading out to the Pribilofs. Aaron Lang drove us the 4+ hours from Anchorage to Homer which gave me more time to gaze out the window - a good thing: it's one of the most beautiful drives in the country.
The road runs southeast from Anchorage along Turnagain Arm - a branch of the Cook Inlet that forms the north coast of the Kenai Peninsula. Ancient, enamel-capped mountains of the Kenai Range reflect in the icy-cold waters below. Beluga whales play here in the summer. The hillsides hide bears, Dall sheep and moose. This time though, in the middle of the night, it just looked dark. And lonely. And cold.
Alaska. In the winter. In the dark.
There's snow blowing across the icy road. The occasional truck materializes from a bend and temporarily blinds me with its beams. Otherwise, I have the whole road to myself. It takes all my concentration to stay awake and navigate each turn. I'm reminded of the dangers of not doing so as I pass vehicles buried in ditches of snow.
It's still dark when I pull into the Two Sisters Bakery for breakfast (sunrise here is about 10:30)
I've been driving all night, except for a quick 15 minute nap on a pull-out that turned into an epic 2 hour slumber. I needed it.
Homer is a pretty artsy place. If there are hipsters in Alaska then they're here. And if they're here then they're sipping lattes and eating granola at the Two Sisters Bakery.
"The bunting's only 2 minutes away!"
I'm met by Aaron Lang who picks me up in his monster truck. I'm very happy to see him again. I had a wonderful time on his Wilderness Birding trips in Alaska this year - to remote Gambell out in the Bering Sea, and here in the Kenai Peninsula. Aaron is not only a great guide who knows his birds, but he's a fun person to hang out with.
The promised two minutes later brings us to a house in northern Homer. A gaggle of well-wrapped birders is standing on a snow bank peering into a neighboring yard below. Welcoming waves and a few "it's still here!"s and "we're looking at it now!"s bring an immediate sense of relief. The almost 2 days of travel to get here will be worth it.
We climb up the snow bank and position ourselves to look down onto a deck. We can hear juncos "zit, zit" ing about on the deck and in the trees. They're after the seed that's liberally scattered across the snowy floor. I'm following directions for the bird, "right of the planter", "left of the two juncos" - until my magnified vision alights on a fat, stocky bird, almost horizontal in its posture. Its reddish color and striking face pattern confirm its identity - Rustic Bunting!
Peekaboo! Rustic Bunting hiding on the deck.
Notice the slightly raised crest on the back of the head and the pale lower mandible.
I watch as it hops around, greedily sucking up the sunflower and assorted bird seed.
Rustic Bunting (left) with Junco (right.) Notice the strong white lines on the face: the supercilium streaking back from the eye and the submustachial stripe from the bill. The flanks are streaked in red, and the folded wings have two white bars. The small white square at the back of the face is typical of Rustic Buntings.
It's lucky to be alive after making the unplanned crossing of the Bering Sea. A bird like this will probably never make it back home - it's lost forever. The best it can hope for is a pleasant winter with new friends (growing up in Russia it will never have seen Juncos or American Robins) and avoiding the new predators (Sharp-shinned Hawks and domestic cats.)
There's a blizzard warning with a large snow dump forecasted for this evening. I'm keen to get on my way before then and thank Aaron for yet another great Alaskan bird.
Aaron Lang. Resident of Homer and owner of Wilderness Birding
It's light on the drive back to Anchorage which gives shape to the blind hills and curves of the night before. The waters of Turnagain Arm are icy cold and sluggishly moving …
Turnagain Arm - looking across the water to the Kenai Mountains to the south.
The Alaska Railroad parallels Turnagain Arm
Alaska is such an amazing and visceral place. As Janis Cadwallader, a birding colleague from the Pribilofs this year, puts it - the scenery is so stunning that sometimes it just hurts to look at. Alaska's painful, rugged beauty is inspiring, humbling and intoxicating. I feel so lucky to have spent so much of my year here (54 days, 8 trips) - a state in which I've seen over 50 birds that I've seen nowhere else. It's a wild place. Even in Anchorage airport...
"beep, beep, beep"
My alarm brings me back to the present - time to get up from my makeshift Seattle bed. After visiting 3 corners of the US this week - California, Florida and Alaska - I'm heading home to the 4th, to Massachusetts and a birthday dinner with Gerri. My year of travel, of chasing ephemeral feathers, is almost up. But I know the memories and images will last a lifetime. And I'm still hoping there'll be a few more to chase before the new year...
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BIG YEAR LIST: 745 + 3 provisional (Rufous-necked Wood-rail, Common Redstart, Eurasian Sparrowhawk)
NEW YEAR BIRDS (1): Rustic Bunting