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  • Writer's pictureAllan Sander

Land of the Midnight Sun

Updated: Jun 29

“How long has it been?“ I knew you were going to ask me that, so yesterday I had to go check on my lifelist knowing it was when I encountered my first ptarmigan. Guess what, it was back in September of '89!"   

“Which one?” 

“There you go again.  Actually, I saw all three!  I covered a lot of territory on that trip”

Today's outing was limited to covering the Anchorage municipalities, but wilderness is everywhere, it defines the state of Alaska.  A great introduction to the local avifauna is at one of the small intertidal bodies of water found within the Chester Creek greenbelt called Westchester Lagoon.

Here the most common gull (and bird in general for the trip) is the Short-billed (Larus brachyrhynchus).

Also found here are the two scaup, which allowed for an ideal comparison of each species. The circled pair shows the trademark 'peak' of the Lesser Scaup (Ayhtya affinis) head; the circled individuals of the Greater (A. marila) appears as if that peak was pushed forward giving it a fuller, more rounded appearance. Also in the female Greater there is generally more white in the cheek area as compared to the Lesser, however, there is always some variability.

If you capture a bird stretching its wings or in flight, the Greater Scaup displays a more prominent white wingstripe reaching far into its primary feathers, the Lesser is generally limited to the secondaries.

Nesting Red-necked Grebes (Podiceps grisegena) are regulars and relatively indifferent to the surrounding human activity.

Often times they leisurely preen themselves between feedings.

The aerial display of Arctic Terns (Sterna paradisaea) searching for food is always a delight.

The dabbling ducks include Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler,

Gadwall (Mareca strepera),

the omnipresent Mallard, and American Wigeon (Mareca americana). These are generally found in the more vegetated backwaters among the reeds.

Another local is the Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinisii).

A thin, stucatto trill rang out among a clump of Alder trees. It was an Orange-crowned Warbler (Leiothlypis celata) singing from under the protection of the canopy. I managed a few shots before it stopped, only to commence with raising its crest to reveal the namesake


Forever the opportunists, Short-billed gulls will utilize manmade structures suitable for building their nests. Here one has secured a spot atop a defunct utility pole.

Today we managed to find a Common Loon (Gavia immer) trawling the waters; it is amazing the distance these birds can cover when underwater!

It was intriguing to hear a rather subdued call from the bird after having caught a fish - perhaps it was looking around to entice a mate with its prize?

Potter Marsh Bird Sanctuary and Wildlife Refuge is one of the city’s well-known birding ‘hotspots.’  It runs along the Seward freeway (Route 1) that hugs the Turnagain Arm and has several turnoffs.  Each viewpoint provides a different perspective regarding the breeding birds of the area.  We start in the reverse, heading back towards the city.  Flights of Short-billed gulls paint gray-and-white silhouettes across this scenic panorama.  Arctic terns perch on any high point adjacent to the road allowing some nice photo ops.

We find a Trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator) sitting in its nest. 

Further back Cackling geese seem to be having a territorial dispute.

Entering the parking lot of the marsh provides views from an extensive network of boardwalks.  An Alder flycatcher belts out its song from the stand of alders that dominate this section.  Other passerines include Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped warblers, junco, robin, and Lincoln’s sparrows.  Nest boxes secured to the wooden supports accommodate the violet-green and Tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor); many can be seen hawking insects across these waters.

Our next stop brought us closer to the wilderness as we followed little used trails into the forest.  Sadly our destination was to reach a woodland that once ‘was’ - a stark landscape of blackened trunks; it was set ablaze by one of the squatters residing in the area.  Anticipation of sighting either a Three-toed or Black-backed woodpecker did not transpire.  However our hopes for an exciting find did not wane, finding numerous moose prints crisscrossing our path; we even came across some bear scat, but only the songs of chickadee and juncos broke the silence.

The resident ducks and geese paddle about, Violet-green swallows carve their way through dampened air, and gulls populate the sky.  We have opened our doors to the eastern side of Westchester Lagoon.  We did not go very far before a couple of larger gulls cruise past. 

I quickly run back to grab my camera - it might be a Glaucous-winged.  A bird perches atop a light pole.  It seems to be a Herring but the eye color is not clear/yellow, it is more a dirty white.  A Thayer’s-Herring hybrid

I am told to be diligent with gull identification as hybridization is quite common in this region. 

It is back to where the fun commenced, Westchester Lagoon.  The tide has now receded so a quick scan is in order.  Green-winged teal sweep their heads across the exposed mudflats, filtering out its organic matter. 

Closer in a lone Bonaparte’s gull (Larus philadelphia) stands at attention and in the foreground...

... a Cackling goose calmly waits out the storm.

We retrace our steps along the trail to the backside of the lagoon.  We scan the area for a nesting crane but somehow overlook it.  A large raptor cruises overhead, the characteristic bend in the wings identify it as an osprey. Pushing forward the rain picks up.  The trees thin out and another section of the coast is revealed.  “Threre’s a crane!”  Sure enough a lone Sandhill (Antigone canadensis) struts through the rain-sodden field; it is completely waterlogged; you almost feel sorry for the poor creature.

The rain and wind picks up by the time we reach the bridge at the Fish Creek Estuary.  There is no protection here.  From its source the serpentine passage of water through fresh green pastures belies the serenity of the scene. 

As you follow it from underfoot and turn round, you squint through the pelting rain to find this frothy, silt-laden mixture racing toward Cook Inlet. 

We concede to the elements and return to town to have a hot drink, dry off, and hope that the weather improves for another go this afternoon.  After all, this is the “Land of the Midnight Sun.”             

Our return to Potter Marsh provided some better looks of previous sightings along with some new species.  From the parking lot two corvids flew past: a lone crow and a pair of Ravens (Corvus corax). 

On the way to the boardwalk several robins scrambled about along the forest edge.  On the far side of the walkway some fellow birders had scoped out an Alder flycatcher.  Meanwhile, a pair of Trumpeter Swans preen their feathers at another observation point.

They eventually paddle off into the heart of the swamp.

Before departing a skein of geese bid us, "Adieu!"

"Until next time!"

“Let’s go back to Westchester!”  So be it.  The rain was back to a very light drizzle and there was even a break or two.  At one point the clouds parted to reveal the Chugach Mountains.

I finally got to see the eggs of the red-necked grebe..

Terns and gulls continue with their ostentatious behavior. 

Eagerly churning up the waters in the back portion of the pond are a brood of Mallards

Out in the open water, exploring the depths are a pair of Greater scaup

We slowly work our way back and enjoy more views of both Common Loon...

...and Red-necked grebe.

All agree, “We will be back!”

Location: Anchorage, Alaska U.S.A.

Date: June 05, 2024

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