Gone Floatabout

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Snowy Owls, Spotted Seals, and an ATV: Good times on Point Hope!

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Snowy Owl on whalebone

Snowy Owl perched on bowhead whale bone, Point Hope, Alaska

Although getting to know the people of Tikiġaq was what made our stay there so special, the wildlife and the landscape were wonderful, too. No, we didn’t see a polar bear but yes, our probable snowy owl sighting was in fact a snowy owl! These beautiful birds are high on the wish lists of both birders and Arctic travelers: 2 feet tall with a 4-5ft wingspan, they’re majestic birds – the largest species of owl. The almost completely white plumage of the male makes him a kind of Arctic symbol. Fortunately they’re not endangered or threatened, but their habitat (tundra) and range (strictly Arctic in summer, further south into Canada and Eurasia in winter) make them not so easy to spot in the wild. Owls in general aren’t easy to spot, being nocturnal, but of course the 24hr sunshine of the Arctic solved this problem for us. So it was with excitement akin to what we’d felt on seeing the muskoxen that we saw our snowy owl a second time, and this time without a doubt as to what he was!

Snowy Owl flying

Snowy owl in flight

He seemed to favor the end of the peninsula where the old village is situated, and we guessed that was because it was filled with chirping, scurrying ground squirrels. We lay in the tundra grasses for hours watching as he glided from perch to perch: whale jawbones stuck upright, the frames of a disused umiak, the ridgepole of an old timber house. We never saw a female (with more dark spotting), possibly because our male was alone, or possibly because she and her nest were well hidden and the male was so good at distracting us away from her – we’ll never know!

Snowy Owl on disused umiak

Snowy Owl perched on a disused umiak

Point Hope was alive with other birds, too. The very tip of the peninsula exploded with seabirds as we approached.

Tip of Point Hope

Most of them were gulls and murres but a closer look revealed a flock of small birds paddling close to shore and then taking flight every time a whitecap threatened to swamp them. Analyzing our photos and bird book later we thought they likely were red-necked phalaropes, though not breeding females since they have more brilliant plumage. Another arctic bird!

Phalaropes

And to round it all off, we spotted the beautiful and delicate Sabine’s gull!

The currents around the peninsula appeared to have brought together a school of small fish – herring?- on which the gulls were feeding. This had also attracted a big run of salmon to the feast, and, best of all, quite a number of spotted seals!

Spotted seal

Spotted seals are another shy Arctic critter, endemic to the Beaufort, Chukchi, Bering, and Okhotsk Seas, sometimes migrating south to Japan. Here’s a map with all these seas marked, except for the Okhotsk which lies off the map southwest of the Bering, between the Kamchatka Peninsula and Siberia.

Map to Point Hope

Point Hope’s landscape also intrigued us. The multi-colored pebble beaches were crowned at the edge of the tundra with thousands of huge driftwood logs, even though we were hundreds and hundreds of miles from the nearest tree. We thought it most likely that the logs had drifted down the mighty Yukon River to the Bering Sea and then rode the currents north, although it’s equally likely they could have come from Siberia. Interspersed among the logs were many marine mammal bones, likely from Inupiaq hunts. Seal bones, whale bones, even a walrus spinal column. Fortunately we didn’t find much plastic trash compared with beaches on the Gulf of Alaska the previous summer.

Walrus spine

On our last day, we rented an ATV from one of our Tikiġaq friends and drove up the peninsula the opposite direction from where we had been exploring. This was the way to the Brooks Range, and very quickly we found the tundra to be lusher – with taller, greener grass. Tarns dotted the landscape and we hoped to spot more birds. We were a little disappointed in this regard, although we did glimpse a juvenile snowy owl. Mostly we just had fun zipping around the tracks other ATVs had made and seeing more of wonderful Point Hope!

Ellen on ATV

Ellen drives the quad past a tundra pond

 

 

Author: Ellen

Circumnavigator, Arctic voyager, writer/photographer

3 thoughts on “Snowy Owls, Spotted Seals, and an ATV: Good times on Point Hope!

  1. Pingback: Sailing to the top of America | Gone Floatabout

  2. Wow guys, you have outdone yourselves this time! Wonderful collection. It’s hard enough to see owls, but an arctic owl and photos to prove it is special as are the other birds and wildlife.

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