Chapter 4. Western Alaska
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2002 All rights reserved.
(Bert) Sunlight at 3:30 AM, we supplement it with a few electrical lights as we gather our luggage, cameras, scopes, binoculars and many layers of clothes for our trip to Nome today. At the Anchorage Airport, long lines have already formed at the ticket counter and judging by the oversized tripods, bulky clothes and waterproof boots, I suspect most of our fellow travelers are also birders heading for Nome. In line, we talk to one group, all from Wisconsin and, like the others, we suspect we will be seeing each other often in the next few days while we bird the few roads extending from Nome. The flight to Nome is full, every seat taken. Overcast skies prevent us from seeing Mount McKinley, but I might have missed it anyway from my aisle seat. I barely see the ground on our descent into Nome. The Alaska Air building is small and the line is long for world's smallest airport terminal bathroom. Four of us take a taxi to pick up our vehicles, a 4-wheel drive Ford Explorer and a 4-wheel drive Ford Sport Trac truck. One is not available at first because it was returned late, but finally we return to the airport to pick up the others and our luggage. Our hotel has a worn façade and décor that makes one imagine it has stood there since the Gold Rush days. But we do not linger there long and instead walk to Fat Freddies for a hearty breakfast that includes Reindeer sausage. Then it is off to bird the coastal road, Council Highway, to Safety Sound and eventually in the direction of the remote village of Council. Birds are plentiful from the start. Barely at the edge of town, we puzzle over a shorebird that fits the general description of Western Sandpiper, but seems too bright and colorful, with its rusty crown and back. In fact, it is a Western Sandpiper, but more brilliant in breeding plumage then I've ever seen before. We see many Red-throated Loons, especially on the smaller water bodies and Pacific Loons on larger, more open water. A Common Raven has built a nest on a utility pole cross and 4 to 5 half-grown nestlings pop out at all angles, raucously requesting feeding. From the bridge over the Nome River, we see our first Bar-tailed Godwit and a Parasitic Jaeger and a couple American Golden-Plovers. Lapland Longspurs are common in the grassy areas separating sea from inland marsh, their harlequin pattern of black, white and rusty red so bright compared to the drab winter coat they wear when wintering in Texas. Five Long-tailed Jaegers harass a raven when it approaches their nests too closely, but another undetected raven sneaks in and steels a chick. The shallow lake, Safety Lagoon, is still covered with snow and ice, although puddles of open water allow dabbling room for Northern Pintails. We'd been seeing a few Red-necked Phalaropes, but when we come across a flock of 16 much more extensively red ones, we know we had found Red Phalaropes, a lifer for me and one I've often sought unsuccessfully. At Safety Sound we watch Sabine's Gulls swooping near the bridge and standing on the ice. Their sharply defined pattern of black and white on outstretched wings is diagnostic. And they are much smaller than the grayish Glaucous-winged Gulls and the almost pure white Glaucous Gulls that share the ice ledge beside the stream. Arctic Terns are common, but then we see our first Aleutian Tern: darker and with a white "headlight" between the eyes. Diving in the fast moving water of the channel, near its opening to the Bering Sea we see a small alcid. We leave our post on the bridge and drive around to the shore at the inlet to get a closer look through our spotting scopes. Unsuccessfully, we try to match the pattern of black and white to various murrelet species, gathering snippets of field mark details between somersault dives into the icy water. The black back and head, stubby black bill, white belly and undertail coverts do not fit any of the murrelets, but then I notice that all the field marks match Dovekie, an accidental species of Nome and the Seward Peninsula. Wow! Continuing, we follow the coast, looking inland. We see a pair of Tundra Swans on the lake, then notice more and then see white dots across the foothills - 200 Tundra Swans in all. A pair takes flight, kicking the water with each step just as I snap a couple of photos, catching them in mid-stride. At the bend in the gravel highway, just beyond the bridge at the Solomon River, we see the "Train to Nowhere," a Gold Rush era rusty train, mired in the tundra on a train track that stops in front of the steam engine locomotive. Common Eiders float on the widening in the river, joined by a pair of Pacific Loons and a flock of Aleutian Terns. From here the Council Highway turns inland, climbing very slightly. On Solomon River we find Harlequin Ducks, and in the willow-infested banks sing Gray-cheeked Thrushes, Yellow Warblers, Northern Waterthrushes and Wilson's Warblers. Climbing in elevation, more snow is stacked in frozen banks beside the road. We find Yellow Wagtails flying between willow bushes, Common and Hoary Redpolls feeding on snow banks, and many Golden-crowned Sparrows singing heartily their minor key solos. We head to the mile marker where Bluethroats had been reported earlier in the day. We miss seeing them, but get great views of Willow Ptarmigans, calling their comical clucking call and making short flights with outstretched white wings. Returning just two minutes before 8 PM, we meet Shari and Ermine on the street in front of the hotel. Together we walk to a Japanese-Italian restaurant for dinner. The room is filled with birders, most on a Victor Emanuel tour, lead by Victor himself. The talk is of the many lifers and rare sightings of the day.
(Shari) What a woman won't do to keep her man happy? She fixes her hair, gets it cut and dyed. She finds and wears attractive clothes and spends hours putting on makeup. She buys expensive perfume to smell just right. AND she gets up at the ungodly hour of 3:30AM in order to catch a 6:20AM plane to the really end of nowhere, Nome, Alaska for the only reason to see birds seen nowhere else in the world! Have you ever seen the TV show Northern Exposure? It must have been written in Nome because all the characters are in this town. The young man behind the desk at the hotel is the doctor's aide. He is soooo laid back and even talks as she did in the show with the same wry sense of humor. Every 20 feet along the main street stands a bar and along a perpendicular street from main, stands a church. "Three Lucky Swedes" discovered gold here in 1898 and within a year the population ballooned to 20,000. As with most gold towns, the wealthiest got their money servicing the fools who came for the gold. Bar owners, bankers, trading post people, bawdy girls all made a living in this one time largest city in Alaska. People lived in tents and poorly constructed buildings of board lumber strewn up and down the coast of the Bering Sea. The weather was and is relentless and only the hardiest people stayed after the gold petered out and now the population hovers around 3000. The only way to get to Nome is by air, sea or dog sled. The famous Iditorod Dog Race commemorating a serum run from Anchorage to stem the outbreak of Diphtheria finishes here each year. So we are here for the new gold: birds. At this time of year, birders from all over the world descend on the little town to look for feathered creatures with funny names like Bristle-thighed Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit and Bluethroat. By the time we reach Nome at 9:30AM we are starving for food and head for breakfast at one of the four restaurants in town. Bert and Jim H. are so raring to go and the rest of the group, except Nancy, Ermine, and me, are not as thrilled but follow along anyway. In the two rented 4-wheel drive vehicles, they depart while we three women head for our rooms for a well deserved nap. I sleep like a log for four hours before I hear Ermine knocking on my door. We decide to explore the town slowly since we are going to be here for four days and do not want to run out of things to do on the first day. We find three gift stores and while away some time looking at the merchandise. Later we meet in the hotel bar and play Yahtze until the rest of the group meets us for dinner. Over pizza and beer, we learn the group had a marvelous afternoon, especially Pat who has added a whopping 15 lifers to her bird list. And what a way for Jim to celebrate a birthday? How many people do you know that have a birthday in Nome? Even Bert and Jim H. have added three new birds to their life list and both are flying high. This kind of high normally could last for weeks but they have three more days to look. They are just beside themselves with anticipation. We say goodnight, with the schedule set to meet at the restaurant for a 6 AM breakfast and an 7 AM departure to look for more birds tomorrow.
(Bert) The Teller Road leads north, paralleling the coast, but inland far enough so that a coastal mountain ridge blocks a view of the Bering Sea. Soaring above the mountains we see a Golden Eagle. Beside the road an off-white Rock Ptarmigan is easily approached for photographs. Unlike the noisy Willow Ptarmigan, this species remains silent until its final short flight accompanied by an abrupt quiet cluck. High atop a grassy coastal mountain, Dave spots a Grizzly, miles off, but easily seen through binoculars and spotting scope. A blond shade of brown, the massive shoulder hump, flat face and long muscular body are all prominent features. Moose, three times, and a few Arctic Ground Squirrels add to our mammal list today. Just past Wooley Lagoon, we spread out as we search an alluvial wash just coming to life with low-lying alpine spring flowers. Across the road, Jim shouts "Wheatear" and I sprint across the tundra in his direction. Getting closer, Jim changes the id to Snow Bunting, an even more appealing find and a lifer for everyone in the group. Except for its black back and wing primaries, the bright white bird certainly matches its name. Continuing along the road, Yellow Wagtails are common and as we begin our descent to the coast we find golden-plovers. Searching for the telltale mark, we see the white belly line marking these two as Pacific Golden-Plovers, the much sought after prize of the two possibilities. At Teller, a coastal fishing village forlornly stuck on an icy cold peninsula jutting out into a still frozen bay, the wind blows off the ice penetrating all six layers of my clothing and for the first time I put on my thick gloves. Common Eiders, Pelagic Cormorants and Pigeon Guillemots play in the ice floes, seemingly oblivious to the cold. On the return to Nome we encounter a herd of Greenland Caribou, imported for domestic use, but then abandoned to the wild. They graze on a hillside, not viewable from the other direction and probably passed by undetected on our outgoing trip. Back in town, we again go to the Japanese-Italian restaurant (there aren't many choices in Nome). This time I overhear Victor Emanuel ask pony-tailed "Dave" to take care of the bill. My curiosity up, I walk up to Dave and ask his last name. A birding friend from Texas and a regular e-mail correspondent for years, I meet Dave Wolf for the first time in person. I knew he was a guide for Victor, but I am surprised we are both thousands of miles away from home on the occasion of our first meeting.
(Bert) Nancy wants to see a Bluethroat and the others concur. Remarkably, we've been listing birds we wanted to see and then within a half hour, we've found the bird. Not so for the Bluethroat. So this morning's strategy is to head directly to the spot when they have been sighted before, hoping that they can be found more easily in the early morning. Back on the Council Highway, we head out along the gravel road for 48 miles to begin our search. At our first stop we find no Bluethroats, but our attention focuses on a loud "whoop, whoop" call at the horizon. Then we see the source, a white swan flying alone along the crest of the mountain and then over the edge to the other side. Not one of the more ordinary Tundra Swans we've seen here in multitude earlier, this is a rare Whooper Swan, a lifer for everyone in the group. We continue to mile marker 50, about a half-mile further than we went on Sunday. This time we see a pair of Bluethroats fly over our heads and perch on the short willows. With its rufous tail and gray back, the male isn't all that impressive, but that changes when he turns his head toward us and shows us his beautiful blue throat, bull's eye centered in orange and ringed in black, white and orange. We see the female too, a subdued copy of the male, but with a white throat. We decide to continue on the Council Highway, climbing the mountain and affording us a far-reaching view of the countryside. As far as we can see, the land is unpopulated, with no evidence of human intervention but for the road we travel on. In another couple of miles we see our first trees in Nome - spruce runts barely a foot or two above the tundra - hardly what we could call a forest. We stop along the Fox River and find a Wandering Tattler perched on a rock beside the stream. One vehicle continues another mile or so and then radios back that they've gone as far as they can, the road washed out and not yet opened to Council. Meanwhile, we spot a Rough-legged Hawk perched conveniently in a dead snag long enough to get a scope positioned on him. We hear another hawk calling to him from a cliff only a few hundred feet ahead of us, but it takes several minutes of searching with binoculars to see the source of the call in the jagged rock face. Then we see the nest and the female resting on it , extending her neck in each call of the wild. The scope expands our view to full and we can see the ferocity of her threatening profile. Returning toward Nome, we stop for lunch at a pullout near the crest of a mountain ridge. Still higher on the rocky cliff, Northern Wheatears sing, feed, and gather nesting material. While the rest of Alaska has rainy and overcast weather, we bathe in sunshine and clear skies that permit a view from horizon to horizon. What a marvelous day to be in Nome! Later, after dinner in Nome, Dave and Jim hear of a rare sighting at Safety Sound. So the three of us head out the twenty miles to the bridge. Other birders are already gathered and within seconds we have a good view of a petite Ivory Gull, standing beside a giant Glaucous Gull. Pure white but for the canary yellow bill and its pitch-black legs, the delicate gull generates lots of excitement among the birders and as we drive back to Nome we encounter a string of cars filled with birders heading to the bridge for their look at the rarity.
(Shari) Ermine and I decide to hitch a ride with the group today. We have exhausted the town's resources of museums and shops and are sick of reading and napping. Even the descriptive blurb that Nome puts out says that the "true beauty of Nome lies in the surrounding countryside." But you must do it on one or all of the three main roads extending out from Nome. Here we do see all that is claimed to be here. Muskox looking leftover from another era, Grizzly Bear, caribou, fish camps, moose by the dozens, abandoned dredges and the last train to nowhere. I have trouble waking my body up today but get into the swing of things by 10 AM just four hours after we started with a hearty breakfast of waffles and reindeer sausage. I see my first Bluethroat, a plum of a bird for serious birders. Jim H. needs to call it up with a tape but once the call is heard the little bird flitters toward the sound. We see a nesting Rough-legged Hawk that gets agitated by our presence but sticks to her guns and stays on her nest while Daddy tries to call us away. Some of us see a Yellow-billed Loon. But even through the scope, I find the view unsatisfactory and maybe the bill is yellow and maybe it isn't. Others had a better look at it than I did though. Most of the fun of the day is in the people. Seeing the joy in Pat when she sees a new bird, hearing the jokes of David, and walking in stride with Wally are priceless.
(Bert) The third and final road out of Nome is our route this morning: the Kougarok Road, also known as the Taylor Highway. This is the route to reach the elusive Bristle-thighed Curlew, but spring thaw has washed out the road after about 30 miles and far short of the 70+ miles necessary to reach the curlew habitat. Our morning starts with many of the same birds we've seen in the past three days, now ordinary to us. We stop to watch an Arctic Tern that choose the unfortunate nesting site of a bare spot of gravel on the edge of the road. Sitting on two eggs, the tern only leaves the nest once and that is when Jim unknowingly drives within inches of the nest. We wonder if the tern will be able to sit on those eggs long enough for them to hatch. Seventeen miles out from Nome a white object darts across the road, almost too fast to identify. The Tundra Hare, a close relative of the Arctic Hare, is all white and a giant in comparison. I wish we could have gotten a second look, but the rabbit quickly disappears in the tundra shrubs. Shortly thereafter, Dave - our best mammal spotter - locates a Muskox on the opposite mountain range. Hardly more than a dot to the naked eye, the Muskox looms large in the spotting scope, shaggy in long matted hair like old pictures of a Wooly Mammoth, with moustache-shaped horns like a water buffalo. A feeding machine, he browses on bushes extending half his height. While we watch the Muskox through my scope, Jim has his focused on a raptor spotted by Pat, a Gyrfalcon perched on the rock edge of the adjacent cliff. Checking our watches, we pack up and head back to Nome, having previously agreed to meet Shari and Ermine for lunch. Burger King becomes the designated lunch stop: the only evidence of a franchise restaurant having reached this remote area and even this one is just a nook at the back of a grocery store. After lunch, the group splits up, ours heading to Safety Sound, the other heading back to show Shari and Ermine the moose and Muskox on the Kougarok Road. Theirs probably was the better choice, as ours turns out to be a cold adventure. Temperatures plummeted overnight and the wind chill along the Bering Sea is in the teens. Even six layers of clothing do not shut out the biting wind. We see good birds, but all repeats of the previous days. Rejoined in Nome, we gather our luggage, fill gas tanks, eat dinner and drop off everyone at the airport before returning the rental vehicles. Skies are clear at the start of our return flight to Anchorage. From my window seat I take a dozen photos of Nome from the air, the flat coastal plain seeming even flatter from the air until it rises to the mountains further inland. Near Anchorage the cloud cover hides the ground, but off in the distance I can see Mount McKinley rising massively above the clouds and reflecting the sunlight of a sun riding the horizon at 10 PM.
(Shari) Today is our last day in Nome. Ermine and I have a leisurely morning and check out the gift stores one last time. We really do not buy much because the prices are too high. Milk is $5.59 a gallon and cheap bread $2.50 a loaf. We learn that the young server at breakfast is a struggling actor from Florida who came up here to make some money. Here he can earn $17 per hour. I wonder how long he will stay. I expect a winter in Nome would be a killer. It is a wonder civilization has survived at all and more amazing that the first people to come to the North American continent from Asia came perhaps 30,000 years ago. Ancient Mammoth tusks are still found here and the native people can gather them to make artwork to sell. After lunch we separate into two directions. Some of us want to see mammals and others want to see birds. I got the better deal since we see hundreds of caribou, a small herd of Muskox and oodles of moose. I suppose we also see birds but who is looking? We meet up with the other half of the group at a Chinese restaurant for dinner before we have to get to the airport. Check-in is easy but two suspicious men have me in jitters for the whole flight. Meanwhile Bert merrily snaps pictures as calm as can be. I used to only have to worry about mechanical problems on an airplane. Now we add terrorism to the pot and I am a nervous wreck. I hate to fly and am glad when our wheels touch down in Anchorage. The whole group thanks us for including Nome in the trip. They loved it. It certainly is a unique trip, one not many people are likely to experience. Even I, as a non-birder, enjoyed myself immensely. Nome is certainly one of our last frontiers and worthy of a visit, if only for its novelty.
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