Ribbon seal hunt
Since there is some interest in looking for ribbon seals, let me list the options:
1. I’ll be in Anchorage for a conference on June 10-14 2014. The return airfare to Barrow at that time is only $300. But seals will only be possible if there is enough fast ice (ice attached to the shore) at that time, it’s strong enough to walk on, and the wind is not from the south (or the ice might detach and you might end up in Siberia a few months later). Bowhead and gray whales might be visible in the distance, and there should be bears at the whale carcass dumping site at Point Barrow (accessible only by $75 pp ATV tour if there are bears present). It might be possible to see walrus, the more common seals (spotted, ringed and bearded) and caribou on the same tour. The main reason to do this in June is that 2014 is predicted to be the mother of all lemming years in Barrow. 2013 was a lemming year, but the population didn’t crash due to mild winter. There are already snowy owls moving into the area, which has never happened so early before – a really good indicator. Considering that lemming cycles are generally becoming less dramatic all over the Arctic, it’s a chance that shouldn’t be missed. The species found in Barrow are Beringian brown lemming, Nearctic collared lemming, and Northern red-backed vole. There are also two shrew spp., but they are rare around the town because of feral cats. Short-tailed weasels sometimes live in peripheral houses, and might be viewable. Summer birding isn’t normally too exciting, but in a lemming year there would be tons of snowy owls and jaegers, and possibly gyrfalcons. There are usually a few species of eiders and yellow-billed loons around town, too. 24-hour sunlight is fun.
2. It is possible to go to Barrow in late September-early October, during the return whale migration and the second whaling season. The ice conditions will be even less predictable; there might be no ice at all, or a narrow channel near the shore. In the latter case whales and seals will be easily visible and there will be bears. But I don’t know if ribbon seals are still around at that time. Lemmings might crash by that time or not; collared lemmings might be already in their gorgeous winter fur, but if there’s too much snow they might be difficult to find. Birds would include almost-guaranteed Ross’s gulls, but their wonderful breeding plumage will be worn and the pink color barely visible, if at all.
3. A trip to Gambell in late April-early May of 2016 sounds like a good idea. The island has an endemic species/subspecies of shrew, very nicely colored, but rare. Other mammals are collared lemmings, Northern red-backed voles, tundra voles, Arctic squirrels and Arctic foxes, but all of them are virtually absent in some years. There might also be McKay’s buntings in breeding plumage, and birding in general is very interesting (lots of Asian vagrants, the only breeding dovekies in the Pacific, etc., although birders invariably visit later in season so there’s no information about April). But the airfare is over $1000 from Anchorage or Fairbanks. Also, non-natives are limited to 5-mile radius around town. The weather in spring might be abysmal.
4. A cheaper alternative, also in April-May 2016, would be Nome ($300+ from Anchorage). It would also have McKay’s buntings, plus muskoxen, Alaskan subsp. of Arctic hare, singing voles and other stuff. But the seals, if present, would likely be farther offshore, and finding them might prove expensive. Flights to Gambell require a plane change in Nome, so it’s logical to combine both destinations.
5. Finally, in early July 2016 I’ll be co-guiding a boat trip to the Pribilofs and St. Matthew, during which it might be possible to see a ribbon seal. But summer sightings of this species in the open sea are generally very rare.
My financial situation and family circumstances dictate that I can only run these trips as a guide/organizer (if there’s enough interest). The only one I’ll consider doing anyway is the trip to Barrow this June (since I’ll be already in Anchorage). Everybody is still welcome to join me – at least it will bring the costs of car rental down. Just let me know now because I have to take the air tickets within a week.