Chapter 4. Western Alaska
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2006 All rights reserved.
(Bert) The alarm rings at 3:30 AM and I quickly arise, anxious for this day to begin. Terry chauffeurs the five of us to the Anchorage airport. We lug our not-to-exceed 40 lbs. of backpacks and duffle bags, wearing everything else on our backs - a multilayer of clothes, encircled by binoculars - and walking in heavy hiking boots. The Boeing 727 takes us north, across the Arctic Circle, landing in Kotzebue in early morning. Overcast and dreary, the coastal village looks uninviting. Ice covers the bay and part of the small pond between runways where I identify several ducks. I step to the open door and am blasted by the Arctic air, chilling me to the bone. Returning to my warm seat, we soon are in the air, cross the Arctic Circle again and land in Nome. Meeting others that will form our Gambell birding group, we take advantage in the delay in the next air flight. Aaron gets a car and we bird Nome River, finding a pair of Parasitic Jaegers guarding a bloody carcass of an unidentified bird, add Bank Swallows to our trip list, and watch a Peregrine Falcon disrupting shorebirds. The Beechcraft turboprop to Gambell is a smaller plane, only one passenger on each side of the narrow aisle. Ice along Nome’s coastline quickly surrenders to the open blue waters of the Bering Sea, although remnant ice floes float like white islands along much of our flight path. I can see St. Lawrence Island, or at least what must be the island below an opaque white cloud that encompasses its entirety. The pilot announces he will circle the island for up to 20 more minutes, waiting for a crack to open, since the airstrip is not equipped for instrument landing. Amazingly, I soon see a circular opening revealing a narrow concrete strip terminated on one end by a collection of small houses. The gap broadens and the pilot takes a circular route, tightening the circle, lowering altitude, like a coin rolling and dropping into a funnel. As we taxi to the utility shed on the village end of the runway, a dozen four-wheelers speed up to the plane, each carrying one or two Gambell natives. I’m the first off the plane, and I can see that the little children are seeking another passenger, not me. When the last lady climbs down the plane steps, broad smiles and cheerful shouts greet her. Our luggage is stowed on a cart behind a four-wheeler and we hike a half-mile to the small native house that will be home to ten of us for the next few days. Ralph and Virginia are delighted to learn that they will have a bedroom to themselves, as do Will and Jan, the rest of us sharing the open two rooms in the small upstairs, using sleeping bags we’ve brought with us. Our walk through the village is enthralling, much like being inside the camera lens of a National Geographic documentary on native Eskimos living hundreds of years ago. Overwhelming carcasses of decades old whale bones lie on the gravel bed. From wooden drying racks hang strips of fresh red meat of Bearded Seals and Walrus, mixed with the black aged meat. Small black birdlike carcasses stick on another rack, looking like strange insects. I’m later told that these are murres. Many of the ramshackle houses look abandoned, forsaken for new government built homes on the other side of the village. The Eskimos race back and forth in their four-wheelers, making easy progress on the deep pea gravel that is such drudgery for our walking. We traipse through a bone yard littered with the ancient bones of sea life that provided food for centuries. Near the drying racks I see a shelf of walrus heads, eyes closed, whiskers spreading, dark brown and drying. I’m told that aged walrus brains are a treasured delicacy. Everything on the ground is gravel, bones, and an accumulation of years of building debris, on one side stretches a frozen lake, on two others lays the sea and looming in the distance is the ragged edge of a mountain. Bill remarks, “I’ve only been here an hour and I already know I want to come back.” I echo his sentiment, for this surely is a place of wonderment and intrigue.
After wolfing down sandwiches and snacks, we are anxious to begin birding. James, one of our two bird guides, tells us they have been seeing Ruffs that past few days and we trudge through the pea gravel to the marsh at the edge of the frozen lake, designated the “Far Marsh” by birders. In no time at all we start seeing the birds. Most are females, called Reeves, which could be mistaken for many other shorebirds, but for their bright orange legs, although many here are dull. The male Ruff, however, is unmistakable, especially when it fluffs out its erectile neck feathers as a breeding display. We use the word “ruff” to describe a necklace or collar, and this Eurasian visitor to extreme western North America is called by the same name, both words coined in the early 16th century. The flock of Reeves and their dominating Ruff entertain us for an hour. A sideshow is an even rarer event: a Common Greenshank. This large sandpiper could easily have been dismissed as a Greater Yellowlegs, but for its greenish legs. Its occurrence in North America is so rare that Sibley subjugates it to a mere sentence without drawings in his field guide. I add another lifer to my list when we find a Red-throated Pipit prowling the marsh. We turn north and fan out across the bone yards in search of other rarities. “Bone yards” requires explanation. Below the gravel surface lie ancient beds of decayed animal parts, now only clean bones, an accumulation of hundreds of years of subsistence hunting. In search of ivory for carving, the Eskimos have dug hundreds of random holes into the permafrost. Now the terrain is a rough jumble of small mounds and ice filled potholes, difficult to traverse, yet good habitat for wandering Asian birds and local Tundra Voles. The voles scurry from one hole to another, hiding under browned grass tufts or clumps of the thin ground cover. Our canvas of the “Far North Boneyard” turns up a Long-toed Stint, a Eurasian relative of our common North American Least, Western and Semipalmated sandpipers, sharing the same genus Calidris. I’m delighted to get many photos of the stint, including several that reveal its outsized toes.
We split up on our return, Chris and I walking together. Although we remember our house is red, we cannot recall where it is among the other village homes and end up walking at least a half-mile out of our way. That may not seem like much under ordinary conditions, but carrying a spotting scope and tripod and walking with five layers of clothes across pea gravel that sinks six inches with each step makes the distance feel like at least two miles. I’m exhausted and after dinner I forgo walking to “The Point” to watch seabirds, one of the very few times I skip a chance to bird. Sleep comes easy and quickly tonight.
(Shari) Luxuriating in bed until the phone rings, I shake myself awake. I look at the area code prefix before I answer and see that it is 715 - a Rhinelander, Wisconsin number I always dread, but this one is okay. Medicare wants to know when my dad moved from Texas to Wisconsin. If it were not so early I would laugh because he has never lived in Texas. Oh well, after two calls I think they may have it straightened out. I am awake now, so decide to get up. It is raining, the first real day of rain we have had. I miss Bert already and it is only day one of five that he took a small group to Gambell for serious birding. I have a slow breakfast, watch Katie Couric’s last Today Show and then take the car to Wal-Mart. I return with a lighter wallet. Bert took MY new camera and so I bought a cheap little one, plus an alarm clock, and some bungee cords to tie down tablecloths in the wind (Richard’s idea). The rest of the day I spend in the warm motor home catching up on road logs, journals and accounting. It is a free day for the group and I wish the day were prettier so I could have a social hour outside to catch up on what everyone is doing, but I guess Anchorage has needed the rain. I just find it dark and dull and it adds to my missing Bert.
(Shari) The S.O.B.’s are doing their own thing today (in case I didn’t mention earlier, S.O.B.’s are spouses-of-birders). Since I have never gone to the museum in Anchorage, that is our first stop of the day. We easily could spend more than the allotted two hours in the museum. We join a guided group on the second floor and as we move from one display to another, we learn of Alaska through its ages. There are too many people in our group and I wonder off to view the displays on my own. After finishing the floor I wait for the group downstairs, enjoying a mocha latte. As we are departing the museum, a man tells us not to miss the raptor display. I wish I had known about it sooner since I could have spent more time looking at it. As it is, we will be eating a late lunch. We find the Snow Café downtown and join the locals in soup and sandwiches. Then we go shopping. However, we spend most of our time in one store with five of us buying matching jackets, a steal at $29.95. Fleece on one side and water repellant material on the other, the reversible jacket will be just the ticket to take to Nome. We have a few hours at home before the bus picks us up to take us to our LEO tonight, where I order the barbeque plate. I have so much food that my doggie bag has meat enough for two more dinners. The promised entertainment has already started by the time I finish my meal and I only catch the last 15 min. of the one-man show before I have to board the bus home.
(Bert) We get an early start on birding this morning, after eating an ample breakfast and making oversized sandwiches and gathering fistfuls of snacks to carry with us for lunch. We trudge through the “Boat Yard” where locals prop whale boats covered by walrus skin on a wood lattice and then the “Near Boneyard” in search of birds. Walking on thin patches of last year’s spent grass is a relief from the gravel. Stalks of brown grass are encased by ice, tripling circumferences. So are the cotton ball flowers of iced cotton grass. Walking through diffuse fog, following the hard gravel road separating the frozen lake from the base of the mountain, I search for Rock Sandpipers. Appropriately, Will reports a sandpiper perched on a rock and it turns out to be the lifer I seek. Much like a muddy version of the Dunlins we also see today, the Rock Sandpipers favor the mountain edge whereas the Dunlins marshlands.
After 3+ hiking miles we reach the wetlands extending the southern edge of the long lake. Here Jan reports a tattler and it is the very rare Gray-tailed Tattler. Although a drab shorebird, it nonetheless is an exciting find for all of us and a lifer for everyone but our guides. Chuck tells us it is #721 on his North American life list, an impressive number only surpassed by James - the 8th or 9th highest N. Am. lister - who is at #845 and does not count this one as an addition. By radio, James announces the find to other birding groups wandering the island and they respond saying they are on the way to the discovery. We break for lunch against a grassy mound that makes a soft landing and an excellent wind break. Eating quickly I continue alone through the gravel and am surprised by a pair of overflying mergansers that turn out to be Common Mergansers. Perhaps not worth mentioning elsewhere, here on Gambell they are quite rare.
We return to the house for dinner, but head back to the south end of the lake in the evening. At 8:28 PM, according to my camera, I take a photo of a Red-necked Stint and follow it with a hundred more shots. It’s an exciting find since it is yet another lifer for me. When we finally return to the house again around 10 PM, James, who did not accompany us this evening, looks through my camera at photos and then at a new shorebird book recently printed. I notice the book photos show more rufous around the neck than do my photos. This must be puzzling James as well. I go upstairs to prepare for bed, and when I return downstairs James tells me, “I’m not happy with the ID; it’s not a Red-necked Stint.” My heart sinks; I’ve lost a lifer. Slowly, he continues, “The good news is that I think it is the even rarer Little Stint.” Quickly I set up my laptop computer and download the photos from my camera. Using the full screen we scrutinize the photos for details and the evidence mounts for Little Stint: the whitish throat, the striking lines along its mantle, the color pattern of individual back feathers. James says he has seen the species twice before: once on Gambell and once on Attu, a very remote island he has visited 14 times. For all the rest of us it is a lifer. To confirm the sighting, James and Bob immediately don their outer layers of clothes and gather their birding gear and with a four-wheeler they head out the 4 mi. to the spot where we had seen the bird two hours earlier. At the same time they radio the birding group staying at the lodge, getting some out of bed at 10:30 PM and twenty from that group take four-wheelers out to the site. Having seen the bird well the first time, I head for bed. At 12:45 AM I hear them return and awaken Chuck, who had been asleep before they left the first time. Hearing of the opportunity to add #722 to his list, Chuck immediately gets dressed and accompanies James to the site. It is not until 2 PM that they return, after having successfully relocated the stint during the few hours of darkness still left at this latitude. The next time I note the time is when the 6:30 AM alarm rings for the start of another day of birding.
(Shari) It has been a long hard day in the field, so I need a beer. I sit outside with my feet up as I enjoy my Alaskan Amber Ale and the warm sunshine. Soon others join me and we talk about our museum/shopping day yesterday and our trip today. At 8 this morning we drive along Turnagain Arm and through the train tunnel to Whittier. I have made this trip dozens of times but never tire of the scene. Surrounded by mountains reflecting in the water, we travel the whole length of the arm. At our first stop, Terry focuses the telescope on Dahl Sheep grazing the hillside across the road. Ray uses his Golden Age card to get us into a movie at Portage Glacier for half price. When the glacier documentary ends, the curtains raise, uncovering a wall of windows and a scene only God could create. The theater crowd is so awestruck that no one moves and you can almost hear the people suck in their breath with admiration. The lake, covered by small ice flows and reflecting the surrounding mountains unfolds before us. Wow! We then travel a 2.5-mile-long tunnel through the mountain that until 2002 was used exclusively for train travel. Refurbished and now allowing cars every half hour through the one-way tunnel, it alternates with trains. We arrive in Whittier in time for lunch, dividing into two groups and fill both restaurants that are open. So now here I am sitting outside after a long hard day in the field, enjoying a beer and the company of good friends. What a job!
(Bert) Falling snow crystals tinkle against my eyeglasses and the stiff surface of my windbreaker. Much colder than yesterday, I’m cozy underneath five layers above the belt and four below. Having reviewed our sightings and what is left to discover, we decide to spend the morning at The Point, watching the alcid, duck and gull parade. Here thousands of birds pass to and from feeding sites, across clear ice water and floating icebergs and around the peninsular point and farther out into the Bering Sea. Overcast skies, only slightly brighter than the plumbeous sea, make the ice floes appear dull gray. Thin crevasses in the bergs glow an eerie blue. Birds fly by quickly and it takes a practiced eye to discern differences. I have no trouble with Common Eiders, and noticing the black backs of the King Eiders is not difficult, but I miss the feature that James points out when a rare Spectacled Eider wings past. James says the Common Murres appear gray and the Thick-billed Murres are black; I notice that “gray” is a subjective color and it takes me many tries before I separate the two shades of darkness. Fortunately, I have a thousand opportunities this morning. By noon we record an amazing list of nine alcids: the murres, Pigeon Guillemot, three auklets - Parakeet, Least and Crested - and both puffins - Horned and Tufted, topped off by the rarest to be seen at sea here, a Dovekie floating with very similar looking Least Auklets.
Like a slow-moving barge, the ice floe consolidates, now spreading for miles across the point and blocking out the open water. We hear the radio report of a Lesser Sand-Plover - a less exotic new name replacing the more familiar Mongolian Plover shown in most field guides. With that prompt, we plod across a mile of deep gravel to reach the mountain. Arriving, we search in vain where mountain meets sea. A weakened Crested Auklet moves slowly between an iceberg and shore, providing me an exceptional opportunity to photograph this species at close range. We make a few weary passes along the mountain base and finding no plover we head to a reported sandpiper at the Far Marsh, passing and photographing the Long-toed Stint in route. Before reaching the marsh we encounter a Common Ringed Plover, a bird that could easily be dismissed as yet another Semipalmated Plover. Fortunately, last night we had studied the small differences - lack of orange orbital, presence of white ear patch, minute differences in bill length and color - so we are prepared to identify this much rarer find. The nearby Wood Sandpiper doesn’t take long to find. We change positions several times to keep up with its movements, slogging through the wet marsh. Good thing my boots are waterproof. We meet another group who give us better directions to the Mongolian Plover, saying it was resting in the hillside and easily overlooked. Returning to the spot and after a diligent search uphill, James finds the plover and motions the rest of us to climb to his steep position. The plover, in spite of its dramatic colors is remarkably hard to find. Blending perfectly in its environment, the plover dissolves completely when it turns its back on us. Turning toward us, through the scope and my camera lens, the burnt orange head and breast glow softly, offsetting the black mask and white face - a real gem of a lifer.
What’s left? A Red-necked Stint is being reported where we found the Little Stint yesterday, which by-the-way did not reappear today. We shuttle by four-wheeler to the other side of the lake and search the wetlands. I see it briefly in flight and for a second on land, but before I can be confident of its id - given last night’s deliberations - it disappears. A half-hour later it reappears and we get a good look this time. While others take the first shuttle back, I stay to photograph the stint and a nearby Western Sandpiper, giving me a nice comparison between these Calidris cousins. We take the coastal trail back on the four-wheeler and Bob stops for me to photograph the mountains of Siberia, the coastlines between St. Lawrence Island and Russia being a mere 36 miles. An ice-filled sea separates us. In the evening we visit The Point again, this time watching the alcids fly south. Although still high in the sky at 9 PM, the sun casts sparkles on the icebergs and paints the sea ultramarine. Black strings of murres punctuate commas and dashes against a cloudless blue-gray sky. The air is calm and warm. Given no agenda, I’d spend more hours in this tranquility.
(Bert) I grab a mouthful of breakfast as we pass the kitchen on the way out the door for an earlier start this morning, heading to The Point while the 7 AM rising sun still brightens one side of icebergs and casts dark shadows on the opposite. Across a sea of ice, a clear view of Siberia shows shadowy folds in the snow-covered mountains. If penguins could fly, they would look like the chubby black-and-white tuxedoed murres heavily winging over the ice in haphazard flocks of 20-100. Pelagic Cormorants, black but for a patch of white rump on adults, flap long wings more deeply and stretch out broomstick necks and pencil bills, their heads not widening the transition. Northern Fulmars with fat B-52 bomber profiles, and Vega Gulls, the dark subspecies of Herring are easily seen, as are many very white Glaucous Gulls. My camera captures a gliding Pomarine Jaeger, showing its bulbous central tail feathers. I add a few new species to my list when I see Steller’s Eiders, Arctic Loon (seen once before in Scotland, but not the U.S.) and the gray-bodied white-headed Emperor Goose. A wide-hulled Lund fishing boats passes The Point, carrying four seated passengers and a standing driver clasping the arm of 75-hp Yamaha outboard. Some keep jackets open and wear flimsy hats, apparently comfortable in a wind chill that must be well below freezing. They join other boats heading to the flat ice floes and later we hear the echoed report of guns as they hunt for walruses. On the ice we see an occasional Bearded Seal stretched out to sunbathe or, perhaps, give birth to pups. Just as we leave The Point, a Yellow-billed Loon flies by at a distance, but visible enough to see its bigger size and yellowish bill.
We return to the house for lunch and then head out again in an hour, passing through the village and see a White Wagtail fly overhead. Chuck and I get a second look at it before we loose it between buildings. Still searching, I see a Slate-colored Junco, common for me in Texas, but stirring great excitement in James as he hopes it is a similar species, an Asian wanderer still not on his hefty life list. Others confirm my sighting of the junco, a species that shows up rarely in the fall, but never or hardly ever in spring. Near one house, I snap candid photos of children playing in the dry grass, pretending to hide from me and then excited to see the pictures. At another house we talk to the hunters as they butcher the eight young walruses they shot, hanging the bloody meat in strips on the drying racks. We decide to walk around the lake and spend many arduous hours doing so. Our rewards are noteworthy, if slim: a quick view of three Pacific Golden-Plovers, another look at the Gray-tailed Tattler - this time better photographed - and an intriguing study of a pair of Green-winged Teals, the male lacking the white vertical stripe and showing a hard-to-see horizontal stripe, marks for the Eurasian subspecies often called Common Teal.
We hike back along the runway, hoping to make the distance in time to see the small flock of Steller’s Eiders reported by Chris. The resting birds have flown by the time we get there and now we hear another report over the radios, heading to where Jon Dunn’s group has located an Eyebrowed Thrush. Jon has the bird sighted in his scope when he shows me the prize before he moves on to another bird located by the group at the marsh. While our group watches the thrush to come in and out of hiding, a Bluethroat is discovered nearby and we add that one to the list of great birds we’ve seen at Gambel, raised to 74 species now. My wrist watch dials past 8 PM by the time we finally return to the house for dinner.
(Shari) “Fancy meeting you here,” we say to everyone as we bump into each other at Saturday Market Anchorage. Some went birding early this morning and then came to the market while five of us got here when the market opened at 10. Ginny, Pat and I take this market thing seriously and do it in an organized fashion: first down one side of an aisle and then up the other. It takes us over an hour just to complete one cycle. The market is full of vendors with so many things to look at on this absolutely gorgeous day. Almost hot, I wish I had worn a short sleeve shirt. Lots of jewelry with an Alaskan bent is on display, including earrings made from reindeer horns, ivory and gold. T-shirts and hats proclaim Alaska. Carvings from moose antlers, hundreds of ulus (aboriginal knives) and bowls and gobs of people. A very popular attraction, the market now runs on Sundays as well as Saturdays. I make a few purchases, buying the grandkids some things and two wedding presents. We have a prearranged meeting time for lunch at noon near the food vendors and meet others there as well. After lunch we return home to take care of packing our things for our trip to Nome in the morning.
(Bert) A day of more and often better views of the rarities seen on previous days, I also get better photos. In fact, I’ve probably taken nearly 2000 since I’ve arrived in Gambell. Many, of course, will end in the Windows trash can, the balance including some real keepers. I add Steller’s Eider to my lifelist and Slaty-backed Gull to the trip list. When Chris, again birding independently, radio reports a McKay’s Bunting we make the long hike to the mountain. The Wings group zero in on the bunting site, but only two observers see it before it flies south. However, they find a Brambling at the same spot and Chris gets a brief view. By the time our group arrives the show is over. With Chris, we climb the sloping mountain edge and the two of us watch a Golden-crowned Sparrow, not unexpected on the mainland, but casual to Gambell. While scanning the mountains I see Crested Auklets perched on the flattened tops of giant boulders at the precipice. Nesting in the rocks, we’ve seen the alcids flying high above in transits between mountain and sea. The alcids chirp and I wonder if the Parakeet Auklets derive their name from their singing or from their stubby orange bills. On a steep slope I see murres sliding in the snow. We stop at the Far Marsh to study a Wood Sandpiper I located, finding two Red-throated Pipits as well. When the call announces a Sky Lark along the airstrip we hike as rapidly as the cumbersome gravel will allow. Arriving heated and worn, along with the remainder of the Wings group, the broadside parade towards the bird is about to begin when the Sky Lark takes flight and continues forever south. My glimpse is of an appropriately sized bird, absent of any field marks that allow me to count this as a North American addition, but I am satisfied as having seen the species in Hawaii and Europe. Back at the house we pack up our belongings and trudge to the airport, uncertain as to when the plane will actually arrive. Fortunately the skies are clear so I’m sure we will have a departure. During the wait, I prowl once more through the Near Boneyard and discover a still warm specimen of a Wood Sandpiper lying undisturbed on the ground. Having a collection permit, I bundle the bird in a plastic bag and put it in my coat pocket. I wonder if the Texas Cooperative Wildlife Collection includes a Wood Sandpiper. I doubt it.
Our plane takes off for the short trip to Nome and waiting at the terminal I see Shari, sporting a new red and blue Alaskan fleece jacket. She thought I wouldn’t notice her purchase. We drive immediately to the restaurant where the rest of the group has gathered and we share a joyous reunion, including tales of Gambell adventures.
(Shari) We work like a well oiled machine. Five drivers transport the group to the airport, dropping them and their luggage at the terminal. While the drivers park the cars in long-term parking, Pat determines how to check in. By the time I get up to check-in, most everyone has completed getting a boarding pass and handing over their baggage. Next we get into a very long line for security check. Here I take off my shoes and put my carryon in a tray along with my shoes and purse. The security guard asks if I have a computer and I answer yes. I am supposed to have it out of its bag and open in a separate container. He checks it and runs my carryon through the X-ray machine again. Soon he is asking for his supervisor, looking at me with a wary eye and holding onto my bag. I hear another employee ask, “Is there a problem?” To this he answers “Yes” as he holds up the paring knife I packed. Oh, my gosh! I am going to get arrested I think as I look back at him and he glares at me. The supervisor comes up and I try to explain that I changed my mind on which bag I was to carry on and which I was to check. I forgot about the knife and it was for cutting up the apples, which I brought along in the other bag. She believes me and asks what I want to do with the knife. I have the option of mailing it to myself. I tell her to just throw it out. I am grateful that is all I am to loose for I hear that you can be fined $200. Our flight is uneventful and George, our guide, meets us in Nome. He is hilarious and entertains us for hours as he takes us by bus on a tour of Nome, to a real life beach gold prospector, a dog sled demonstration, a slide show and gold panning. Each of us “unearth” gold in our pan and George puts our big claim in a souvenir gold pan. The gold pieces are held in the pan by scotch tape or else the wind would blow them away. Really big, huh? Nome became a town in the late 1800s when three lucky Swedes found gold. At one time 30000 people lived here, all trying to strike it rich. Most did not and now the town boasts 3500 people, ninety percent of whom work in some sort of government job. Because of the permafrost, houses are built on a tinker toy type of support structure under the floor and water is constantly recirculated to prevent it from freezing in the minus 40 deg. winters. I just cannot imagine living through eight months of winter darkness with winds blowing outside and the temperature 40 below. Even today, June 4, the Bering Sea is covered with ice at the shoreline and the wind is so brisk that we take shelter in the bus. Our dinner tonight is a pleasant surprise. Nome has about six restaurants: a Chinese-pizza, a Mexican-pizza, a pizza, an Italian-pizza-Japanese, a seafood-steak, another seafood-steak, an ice cream joint that serves soup and would you believe a Subway? We go to the Italian one and find the food excellent. The pizzas look good. I have veal parmigiana and sushi and Bert has shrimp tempera. Yum!
(Bert) Wintry blasts of Arctic air sliding over the offshore ice keep us well bundled and wishing we had added one more layer before we left our hotel. Nonetheless, this group is red hot to see the expected birds of Nome - those difficult to find elsewhere - as well as the chance of rarities blown in by the winds. Red-throated Loons seem to be just about everywhere: along the coast, in the small ponds and flying past. At our first stop, the dredge pond along the Council Road, a pair of Common Ravens has built a nest in the antique dredge. In the tundra behind the dredge I hear Hoary Redpolls flying overhead and we see a few resting in the short willows. American Tree Sparrows sing pleasingly. A bit beyond we find a golden-plover which I first pronounce as an American. Studying it in the scopes, however, casts doubt on the hasty identification and as we compare observations with several field guides, we are quite sure it is the much rarer Pacific Golden-Plover. Although I’m convinced, others want to see more golden-plovers before they mark this one as a lifer.
From the road we watch both sides, the wetlands and swallow lagoon to the east and the mostly-frozen coast to the west. Lapland Longspurs, colorful and obvious, attract our attention continuously on the inland side. Another specialty we find often is Long-tailed Jaegers, easily identified by their trailing dagger tail, but we also record four Parasitic Jaegers. A flock of Emperor Geese flies low over the ice, followed immediately by a flock of Brants. By the time we stop for lunch at Safety Sound, the chill factor has turned more frigid and many seek the shelter of our rental cars. Prowling the tundra I find Semipalmated Sandpipers singing and performing aerial flights over their nesting territories. Out in the lagoon, gulls and ducks scatter and I draw attention to the Sabine’s Gulls in their numbers. We continue along Council Road, but the chilly weather now including light ice rain is a deterrent from birding. Some turn back to Nome, others continue toward the Solomon River. Throughout the day and even more so here at the Solomon Bridge, we see the dark goose-like Brants with “ring around the collar,” certainly in greater numbers than I’ve ever seen before. Also numerous are flocks of Tundra Swans that must exceed 300 in total. Common Eiders are plentiful as well. At our last stop the winds and sleet challenge us and I rush to photograph an odd pair of Northern Pintails, the male quite normal, the accompanying duck, which I take to be a female, is oddly paisley-bodied with a gray neck and brown head. Later, after consulting Sibley’s field guide, I deduce the oddball must have been a nonbreeding male, but much more pleasingly plumaged than illustrated. We turn back to Nome, having birded only half the distance I’d originally intended.
(Shari) I am up, but not ready. The group meets at 6:30 for breakfast at Fast Freddy’s though he is anything but fast. It is enjoyable just talking, however. Cars and drivers are arranged and since four of us want to leave later, the S.O.B.’s get to keep a car. We depart at 10, after I do a little shopping without buying. Our car takes bets on when we will catch up to the birders and Pat wins. She said they would be at mile 10. Sure enough, even though we leave 90 min. later we catch up in 30 min. Unreal! They will never make it to the end of the road. We decide to pass them up when they spend too many minutes looking at a bird and trying to decide what it is. We drive the gravel road until about mile 45 before we too turn back. We tease Paul that we don’t want him in our car tomorrow because he always wants to stop for birds. To his defense, he does get me a lifer, I think. It is a Parasitic Jaeger and it has a great fantail. The weather is fierce and no one wants to spend a whole lot of time outside of the car. The wind chill must be way below freezing. On top of that, it starts to snow on the way home. We again take bets on when we will see the birders on our way back. We all loose. They have only made it to mile 27. They have been gone now for 7 hr. and that is as far as they have traveled. We all agree that we are sooooooooo glad that we are not in any of those cars. Needless to say, after swapping Georgia and Sally for Paul, we get home way before the birders and meet at the bar cross the street for a hot Bailey’s Irish Cream and coffee, to which Richard treats me. At six we walk through the snowflakes to the café and have a room to ourselves. Bert conducts a bird check off and we have a so-so meal of halibut, steak, pork chops, beef dip, seafood platter etc.
(Bert) Falling snow flurries are a bad omen for the start of birding. To the mountains, we drive inland on the Kougarok Road, heading first to the high ridge just outside Nome where Bluethroats have been reported. We take the side road up higher until the snow storm thickens, the road becomes slippery and we’ve reached the landmark “Y” where we will begin our search. No Bluethroat in its right mind would be singing in this frigid environment. Yet, we hear Fox Sparrows clearly and see them dimly in the storm. Sticky snow surrounds every twisted branch and in the matrix hides a Golden-crowned Sparrow. The snow wonderland is beautiful and unexpected, although deplete of singing or flying Bluethroats. We persist for a half hour, walking up and down the road in the snow, and then return to the Kougarok Road. Snowfall is only slightly lighter here when Terry announces a Grizzly beside the road. I radio to the other cars and we all stop to watch a mother Grizzly and four - repeat four - cubs. They slowly retreat toward the distant willows, turn frequently to watch us, and I photograph the she-bear and two cubs as fuzzy brown fur surrounded by myriad white spots of suspended snow. We continue inland through the winter wonderland, watching American Tree Sparrows search for food between the snow drifts and then come upon a pair of Snow Buntings. Although a few of us had our fill of these cute white birds in Gambell, for most of the group this is a life bird. We watch them from a distance, not wanting them to fly away, and they entertain us for many minutes: snowbirds playing in the snow. Our car passes Grand Central River, then we double back when I hear those in the other cars have found a Wandering Tattler feeding along the shoreline. The Wandering looks very much like the Gray-tailed we saw a few days ago, the difference mostly in the increased underside barring on the Wandering.
At Salmon Lake campground we try again for Bluethroat, this time finding several individuals. Each flies in a graceful arch, sailing to the ground on spread wings and a widened tail showing eye-catching rufous sides to the base, and immediately disappearing in the thick grass. Performances have long interludes. During flight we can see the bull’s eye red and blue throat of this Eurasian migrant that includes the far northwest of North America for nesting. We also find an American Golden-Plover and in strong contrast to the bird we saw yesterday, we are now convinced the other was a Pacific. At the lake I climb up onto a stout picnic table so that I can see over the snow and willows to the ice covered lake. The near side is clear, occupied by loons and ducks, the most interesting being a small flock of Black Scoters. This sighting causes me much ribbing from Ray and Nancy, since I had earlier told them to watch the coast for their lifer Black Scoter, instead of inland. Now miles from the coast, they get their lifer here.
We eat lunch and I tell the group we need to be on the move if we want to reach the known haunting grounds for Bristle-thighed Curlew. Seventy-three miles down the Kougarok Road we park on the side and most of us make the difficult climb uphill, over tundra mounds too narrow to hold a single foot, but surrounded by wet spots that eventually soak through my boots. A few of our group look at the formidable hill and stay back in the cars. Some hike uphill slowly to match lung capacity. I stop so frequently to photograph tundra flowers that I trail behind most of the group. The pure white Alp Lilies stand high - a mere 4 to 6 in. - above the other petite tundra covering. Snow patches mix with white reindeer moss; the tiny Purple Mountain Saxifrages add color. We reach the summit, but no curlews. Our heart double beats when we see a look-alike, a few Bar-tailed Godwits, but the bill convexes and the body proportions are wrong. Chris chats with the birding group that preceded us up the hill and learns they found none here, so intend to hike miles farther into the redoubtable tundra. Alternatively, we decide to spread out over the mountain top and use radios to relay any sightings. After tiring of the grueling hiking, some start heading downhill, but just then I see a curlew fly past me and over the edge. Only Mike can see me, so through the radio he transmits my location for others to join me. Together again, we begin the search anew. We get more flybys and then see the three Bristle-thighed Curlews on the tundra adjacent to a Willow Ptarmigan and a Long-tailed Jaeger. The best view is yet to come when one curlew flies directly over our heads, only a dozen feet separating us. Our hike down the mountain, through the wet and jumbled tundra, is more arduous than up and by the time we reach the cars, I can see that even without stopping again, we will not be in time for our scheduled dinner rendezvous, but all of us are happy to have seen so many good birds today, climaxed by the wonderful looks at Bristle-thighed Curlews.
(Shari) Again, our little group of S.O.B.’s take off this morning two hours after the birders. As we are getting into the car, we talk with Larry, Barbara and Don who tell us that they had to turn around because of snow on Anvil Mountain. Since it is only drizzling a little bit in town, we drive off anyway. I am today’s designated driver and Pat and I agree that if the snow sticks to the road, we will turn back. As we crest the hill, snow is sticking, but I know we will be going downhill so we continue on. We hope to see the mama Grizzly and her four cubs at mile 19. Paul is with us again and we tell him we will only stop for ptarmigan, harlequin ducks, moose, muskoxen, caribou and bears. Wouldn’t you know, as soon as that is out of our mouths he spots a ptarmigan. As we are looking at the ptarmigan, Pat looks up and sees a moose right in front of us. I don’t know who is most surprised. I think us, since the moose continues to eat. I try to take a picture put all I get are snowflakes. We finally turn around and head back after going to mile 32 without seeing the bear. We play 1’s and 5’s until 6 when we head to the Mexican restaurant. The birders are not yet back. Sitting at the table, I look at each person passing by the window, expecting to see Bert and the rest any minute. By 6:30 I get a little concerned and mention that they are late. By 7 I am a lot concerned. Every minute seems like an hour and I am working myself into a dither. Now Barbara is concerned too. At 7:30 Ginny and Bill walk into the restaurant and they are pummeled with “Where have you been?” They explain that they did not get to the hill where the curlew hid out until 3:30. Here I thought the whole idea was to go straight out there and bird on the way back. But no, they had to look at every feather that flew. By the time Bert walks in the door I am steamed. I grab him by the jacket and pull him outside so I don’t make a scene inside. He is caught unawares and had no idea I would be worried. Come on now. How long have we been married and how many times have we had the scenario? Well he knows again this time for sure. It is time for the honeymoon speech. I usually give it about two weeks into a trip when Bert and I have our first bickering match. I tell the group how we are each individuals and we have to be sensitive to each other’s foibles. The first high of the trip is over and day-to-day reality sets in. The honeymoon has ended I am afraid, at least for Bert and me. I go off to our room still steaming while Bert goes in to eat. I know I will get over it but I was so very worried and had all sorts of disastrous things occurring to the whole group.
(Bert) Everyone is keen to see Muskoxen, so we head first to the mountain hillsides where they have been seen last. From miles away we can already see the herd, yet wanting a better view we find another road that takes us closer. I count 19 in the herd, including newly born calves. From a distance they look like grazing cattle; nearer, they are a solid mass of long shaggy dark brown hair propped up by short white legs mostly hidden beneath the fur mound. Sharply hooked horns protrude forward like a matched pair of thickened scythes. Chris T. wants a closer photo and walks alone in the direction of the herd. Shari warns of the danger and Bill asks to be bequeathed his binoculars after a Muskox gores him. Chris gets his photos, but as validation of Shari’s warning we later find a loner Muskox hidden in a pocket of willows and quite separated from the herd. This time, however, we are all safely in our cars.
Turning back to the coast, we visit the same spots of two days ago when the weather was so blustery. Now it is warm and calm, at least by Nome standards, and birding is a much more comfortable exercise. The birds cooperate too, and we see many of the same ones, including all three jaeger species and many displaying Western and Semipalmated sandpipers and Lapland Longspurs. Chris T. sees Aleutian Terns fly past the point at Safety Sound and that begins our search for more sightings. Ralph stops to get his scope on a pair resting on an exposed rock in the inland lagoon and then all of us get to watch these and a few others alternately resting and flying. White foreheads make it easy to separate these from the more common Arctic Terns. Black Scoters are at sea as well as the nearby Solomon Lakes, close enough here to photograph well. The male ducks appear completely black, except for a prominent orange knob on each gray bill. On a roll, the birders get more explicit on their wish lists and we seek some of the rarities that have been seen in the area. Next comes two Tufted Ducks that take flight. Dark black backs separate these from the similar scaup that fly with them and when they come down again on the water, twisting to and fro as they swim, we see glimpses of the long feathery tuft protruding from the back of their heads. In quick succession, Chris spots another European transplant, a Eurasian Wigeon nearly identical to our American Wigeon except for an obvious rufous - almost orange - head with a buffy forehead. We follow the Solomon River and I stop quickly when I see a pair of Yellow Wagtails in flight. These birds almost always seem to be on the move and I am lucky to have photographed one resting on a rock a few days ago in Gambell. After giving most of the group a chance to identify them in flight, this pair flies out of sight.
Time is running out, so we turn around. Back at Solomon Lakes we find a pair of resting Emperor Geese, a much better view than the quick flock a couple of days ago. We have been clicking off so many rarities in quick succession that we look at what is left to find. Now driving along the coast, I say we should search for Yellow-billed Loon. We stop for every loon, finding mostly Red-throated, but also Pacific. Then Bill draws my attention to one farther out to sea and I quickly recognize this could be a Yellow-billed. Aligning my scope, I can easily see the husky size of this loon, its thick yellowish bill and the characteristic way it tilts the bill skyward. I see another Yellow-billed much farther out. We focus on the closer one and everyone lines up to view it through the scope, a lifer for many. On our trip back, we see many other birds, including flocks of hundreds of Red Phalaropes, but we’ve already gotten almost of all of the species we could expect, plus a good collection of rarities. Back at the hotel, we repack our luggage, return the rental cars and take a bus shuttle to the airport. While waiting for the plane, I see that Chuck - from our Gambell side trip - is on the same plane and he points out another passenger by name and distinction. I snap a photo of this birding celebrity who has the distinction of being the current record holder for seeing the most bird species in the world, 8583 at last count. I wonder how many he added during his Nome visit.
(Shari) The Bering Sea is calm, reflecting the morning sun and an eerie line of clouds low in the sky. The ice has moved a few hundred feet from shore and gold mining equipment is already working off the beach. Paul decides to join the birders this morning so that leaves only one car for the S.O.B.’s. Richard, Pat, Don, Barbara and I follow the birders to their first stop. I want to see Muskoxen and today I am not disappointed. Chris spots the herd first on the hillside high above the town and we find a road that takes us below their lofty position. In fact, we get pretty close and had Chris been walking in the willows at the location we spot one of the herd, he would have been in trouble. When Chris tries to walk up the hill to get closer, I yell that he should make noise so the grizzlies can hear him coming. Bill jokes that if anything happens he wants his binoculars and Bert wants his boots. After the birders leave us we drive to where the Siberian Bluethroat was spotted. Barbara wants to see it so bad. She walks patiently up the road and comes back describing a bird with a brilliant orange neck. I bet she did find it. Good for her! We then try to see the Grizzly and her cubs, but have no luck and decide to return to the hotel. Pat and I play 1’s and 5’s and then Yatzee before it is time to return the cars and go for dinner. Funny George picks us up at the hotel and takes us to the airport. My foot warmers set off the security device and I almost have to strip before the security guards let me board the plane. It is after midnight when we open the door to R-Tent-III and I crawl into bed. It is good to be home.
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