Chapter 9. Nome
(Bert) I spend the day helping Doug upgrade and update his onboard GPS system, catching up on journal writing, and packing for tomorrow’s trip to Nome. No other news.
(Shari) Whose idea is this anyway? Bob has asked me that question many times and I wonder too. We have to catch the very first plane of the day to Nome. That means we have to have our cab pick us up to take us to the airport at 3:45 AM. Yes, you read that right. At least up here it is not dark outside and the sun is up somewhere behind the clouds illuminating the earth in mellow light. I print out the boarding passes for all at the automated check-in kiosk. I take off my shoes and all my layers of jackets and am told to raise my arms in the air. Anchorage must have one of those fancy body scans. I don’t even want to think about that image. Pat has a bit of trouble as her hand warmers set off the alarm. But finally we are past security and I hurry to Starbucks for a skinny mocha latte. Our flight is uneventful and as we fly over land, I get to talk to a 15-year-old young man who is on a mission trip to Kotzebue with nine others. I think he is pretty cute and ask if I can take his picture. Immediately. I text the picture to my granddaughter, with the caption “Eat your heart out”. She texts me back “Awe, he is cute”. I thought she would get a kick out of that. We land in Nome just in time for breakfast. After settling in our room, changing into 4 layers of clothes, the birding begins. From 11AM until 5PM we travel a whopping 22 mi., stopping at every feather on land, air or sea. We are starting a day list and a Nome list.
(Bert) Compared to the plane we took to St. Paul Island, the Boeing 737 we fly to Nome is much larger and more comfortable. We make a stop at Kotzebue–above the Arctic Circle–and I’m surprised how many passengers are disembarking. Many are part of a Baptist youth group from Tennessee that will help in a local church. Snow is everywhere at Kotzebue, the ponds are frozen and, from the air, the streams, lakes and ocean are frozen over also. As the jet rises into the sky, I try to add a Kotzebue bird to my list; the only close one I see is Greater Scaup.
How different it is as we descend to the Nome airport. The Bering Sea is completely clear of ice and although we see patches of snow, especially on mountain tops, and some floating ice at Safety Sound, it looks like winter has finished its course. It doesn’t take us long to check into the hotel, retrieve our rental 4WD Toyota 4Runner, and start out birding. Now, on the ground, I see that although we may be at the end of winter, spring shows little evidence of color or growth. All is brown grass, dusty gravel or dark beach sand as we head out along the Council Road. Birds are plentiful, however, and many are paired and engaged in courtship. At the first stop–two ocean-side ponds on the outskirts of Nome–we quickly build a Nome species list: Brant, Long-tailed Ducks, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Black Scoter, Whimbrel, Western Sandpiper, Mew Gull, Glaucous Gull, Arctic Tern, Tree Swallow, Fox Sparrow, Lapland Longspur, Common Redpoll. Most impressive are the Red-throated Loons. From this one spot alone we see 13 loons. On one pond three loons must be two males and a female because we witness a fierce battle between the males both trying to court the female. One male swims underwater, a sleek submarine, and torpedoes the other who appears totally unaware of the sneak attack. A blur of flapping wings and stabbing bills ends with the attacker retreating. But it is only a temporary retreat and the aggressive loon repeats his underwater attack over and over.
At Nome River we encounter our first Eastern Yellow Wagtail, one of five we see today. An attractive bird with obvious white outer tail feathers and a gorgeous yellow color, it is a specialty of Western Alaska. Here we also see two tardy Snow Geese and get our first of countless Red-necked Phalaropes feeding in small circles in shallow water. At Derby Creek and again at Hastings Creek, we have a chance to study a few of the numerous redpolls that seem constantly to be overhead. Most, I suspect, are Common Redpolls, but the perched ones we are looking at now through binoculars are much whiter, show little or no streaking and have evident white rumps. This is not the only time we see Hoary Redpolls today and I am surprised how much more common they are than I remember from previous Nome trips.
At the seaside rock and gravel excavating operation, we stop to study a Pacific Loon, trying to get a convincing view in the hope that it might be an Arctic Loon. No such luck. Same with a murre that at first appears to be a Thick-billed Murre, but on closer examination is Common Murre. We pause on the Safety Sound bridge to study the many Arctic Terns and Glaucous Gulls, hoping for some rarer ones. Suddenly, a Peregrine Falcon screams from the air and dives toward Bob. I grab my camera and shoot photos of the interaction, but when a second Peregrine joins in the battle, I recognize we are disturbing a nesting pair, so we make a hasty retreat. Parked safely on the opposite side and below the bridge, we look back at the bridge support beams and see one Peregrine has resumed sitting on a stick nest.
(Shari) I wonder if I look any different. I think I am changing like a werewolf at full moon. I just may be becoming a birder. Ever since I downloaded the 99 cent iPhone Audubon Birds app that David told me about, I have been entering my sightings. The app tells me about the bird, gives me pictures, shows similar birds, has the voice calls and the range map, and keeps track of lists and journals. Plus, it puts the sighting on a map. This is all done with relative ease with no pencil and paper and book to lug around and keep track of, and I only have to enter things once and I am done. None of this getting home and entering stuff in the computer. Probably the company I am with and the frequent unusual birds in Nome help to make it interesting too.
(Bert) We meet at 6:30 AM for breakfast and sit at a table with a large picture window facing the Bering Sea. Interrupting our conversations are five Red-throated Loons, a dozen Glaucous Gulls, a Common Murre and an Eastern Yellow Wagtail, a pair of Common Mergansers, several Arctic Terns, a half-dozen Brants and a Long-tailed Jaeger.
We head out again on the Council Road, intending to travel quickly to where we left off yesterday and then continuing nearly to the end of the road. I stop, though, when I see a Short-eared Owl in flight at mile 8. We quickly jump out of the car and watch its gentle butterfly-like flight, drawing deep, slow wing beats, and flying low over the grassy tundra. When it is joined by a second owl, we quickly recognize this is a mated pair. Just then we witness an amazing display of aerial gymnastics as the owls face each other in a tight circular flight, first one facing down and the other upward to the sky, then both rolling and reversing positions, staying almost within wing’s length, twisting wings and neck as only contortionist owls can perform. I freeze the action in five photos and then the owls separate. Wow, what a performance!
That’s not all the action! We haven’t moved from our stand next to the car when two Parasitic Jaegers attack a Common Raven, immediately followed by a Peregrine Falcon trying to snatch two Willow Ptarmigans. The Parasitic Jaegers come to rest on the grass and not 300 yards away a pair of Long-tailed Jaegers land in another grassy spot. Meanwhile two male Lapland Longspurs are performing their display flights–like stiff-winged kites, they descend gracefully with spread wings, singing profusely–and Redpolls fly overhead in undulating arcs, all the while alternating between buzzing calls and tinkling songs.
Just before we reach the bridge at Safety Sound we stop to scope a pair of swans and see the yellow mark on their faces to clinch the ID as Tundra Swans. Little did we know that within the next half-dozen miles we would find another 350 swans stretched out across the ponds beside the road.
At the flats below the Safety Sound bridge, two Semipalmated Sandpipers are arguing over territorial rights. It starts when a male tries to attract a mate in a ceremonial kiting display flight and then strutting around on the high points of the grassy marsh, cocking its tail like a white flag and calling to get more attention. When another male appears on the scene, two adjacent signs, not more than 25 ft. apart, become the battle station posts. One male stands at attention on the “All Dog Trails Lead to Nome” sign, aggressively raises its wings part way, in a stance ready to take flight, and squawks threats in the direction of the other male. The second bird faces the first from its pulpit on the “At the Water’s Edge” sign and also raises its wings in a threatening pose. Suddenly, they both take flight and meet each other on the ground midway between the signs. They continue their winged threats and dart at each other, barely missing clashing with their bills. Then they both jump up, tilt backwards, and continue the brawl with spread claws. The action switches to a battle of bills, one opening its mandibles and clamping down hard on the other’s closed bill. They fly at each other, brutally banging wings together. One jumps up and tries to descend on the other with extended claws, digging its sharp claws into the chest of the other bird as that one closes its eyes, as if in pain. It seems like the battle extends for minutes, but my camera records it as only seconds when they separate and the winner continues with his mating dances.
Bob and Pat are keen on seeing Aleutian Terns and although we have canvassed several areas where they have been reported in the past few days, we have only seen Arctic Terns thus far. While driving to the Solomon Bridge I stop suddenly when I see an Aleutian beside the road. Excitedly, Bob and Pat jump out of the car and we watch as four of the terns circle us, giving us good looks at their white foreheads, marked wings, and most noticeably, the contrasting calls compared to their Arctic cousins.
At the East Fork of the Solomon River, Bob finds a distant bird standing very high atop a rock cliff. I call it Northern Wheatear by its overall shape and habitat, and a scope view confirms by guess. Getting back into the car, I notice the temperature has reached the low 60s, a pleasant afternoon. We stop again for a flying Gyrfalcon and then see its mate on a nest. After finding two more Northern Wheatears when the road climbs to high cliffs, we return to Nome and after dropping the group off at the hotel, I refuel at $5.94 per gallon for regular.
(Shari) Pat calls me Princess because I have this habit of waiting until Bert calls me when he has a sighting I might find worthy. My motto is to let the guide do all the work of locating, identifying and putting the scope on the bird before I get out of the car. We have a terrific time today, all day long: seeing Muskox, hysterical laughter from Pat and me when just after saying Bert is counting again he tells us there are 150 swans on the pond, extreme interest in the territorial fight between two Semipalmated Sandpipers, wide open eyes watching two Short-eared Owls mating in the air, seeing Parasitic and Long-tailed Jaegers on their nesting ground, watching the antics and hearing the chucking chuckling of the Willow Ptarmigan, seeing a Peregrine Falcon nest, calling in a Northern Wheatear with my iPhone recording. There is so much activity today that we never get to the end of the road and turn around at mile 50.
By 6 we are at Subway buying tonight’s dinner, tomorrow’s breakfast, and tomorrow’s lunch. I intend to go out again tomorrow with the group, but will keep a close eye on the color of my skin. I sure do not want to lose my status as an SOB.
(Shari) Another day of birding, this one starts at 5 AM when my alarm rings. I dress in the fog of my mind and lumber downstairs. Normally, Pat, Tom and Bert are chipper and talk as soon as they see each other while Bob and I are left in relative quiet until we wake up. This morning, everyone is quiet. Bob has not felt good for a couple of days and now Pat tells me she has a scratchy throat. Nevertheless, they push onward, not wanting to miss the Bristle-thighed Curlew. I go along because I hope to see the Bluethroat. We stop at the campground on Kougarok Road and make a valiant effort to see the Bluethroat but have no luck. A snowdrift on the road stops us from going all the way in and I have to walk around ice and snow to get to the bathrooms.
(Bert) We leave Nome a 5:45 AM so that we can get to Coffee Dome in early morning when the Bristle-thighed Curlews are likely to be more active. We make a few brief stops. At Salmon Lake Campground we stop to watch a moose with her two newly born calves in close attendance. When I follow a pair of Common Redpolls to a low bush, one escapes, but the other stays tight. On closer approach I see the redpoll is sitting on a nest carefully folded into a well hidden crotch of spreading branches. Even within my position only a few feet away, it remains frozen in place. We slow at mile 58 for a Tundra Hare, add Cliff Swallows to the list at Pilgrim River, and see 14 more Muskoxen at mile 65.
When we reach Coffee Dome at mile 72, Jim, Greg and their Texas Ornithological Society colleagues just finish coming off the mountain and are gathering at their two vans. They found the Bristle-thighed Curlews and now it is our turn to find them also. My previous experiences have been that the curlews are at the top of the mountain and that sometimes even after a two-hour search they cannot be found. I hope the large TOS group did not scare them off the mountain for this morning. We don’t have to wait long. Barely have we started our climb when two Bristle-thighed Curlews fly over us and across the road. While the curlews are often difficult to separate from Whimbrels, this time it is easy because we can identify them by call. Continuing our climb, we get more views of the curlews: one flying uphill, two flying downhill and low to the ground, another flying downhill, and the same one flying cross hill. I’m not sure how many were the same curlew seen multiple times, but I suspect we saw at least three and possibly five curlews. On some of the flights we get a clear view of the cinnamon tail, a good field mark.
(Shari) The other target bird today is about 70 miles inland from Nome and we do not want to waste time stopping, so we push onward. When we reach the location, we see Jim’s TOS group walking down the hill. They were successful and got good looks at five curlews. I decide not to climb the tedious hill of tundra and, instead, I read my book and take a nap during the two-and-a-half hours our group is gone. They come back and they too were successful.
(Bert) The curlews are not the only good sightings from the treeless mountain top. We watch a pair of American Golden-Plovers, two flying Short-eared Owls, a Rough-legged Hawk and a Bar-tailed Godwit. A very good sighting is of a pair of cooperative Rock Ptarmigans. The male is still completely white and the female is all brown. Later we see a male Willow Ptarmigan on the same mountain and that one has a rufous head and neck with a white body. The three ptarmigan species look nearly identical in winter and in late summer, but change plumages at different times, which is exactly what we are witnessing now.
I am pleased that we got the curlews and the bonus of the Rock Ptarmigans. Now if we can just get the Bluethroats. We are almost at the mile point where we will search and I am driving slowly when at my side of the car we come up to a small 15 to 20-ft. diameter pool just a few feet from the road. There float two geese looking a lot like Greater White-fronted Geese, but different. The identical geese lack the white forehead and have uniform undersides, not the dark bands of the White-fronted. The extremely close geese are freighted and take off, revealing the wide white U-shaped band on each spread tail. We cannot believe our good fortune and compare notes on what we saw in our brief 30 sec. view. Had it be 15 sec. longer I would have swung my camera around and gotten a quick photograph. Now we need to rely on field notes. In addition to what I’ve already noted, we add dark heads, orange bills (at least half the length), and orange legs. The geese were uniform in body colors, perhaps darker on top and lighter below. While immature Greater White-fronted Geese resemble what we witnessed, they should have changed to adult plumage already this past winter. Secondly, why would two identical immature geese hang out together in June? These really seemed like a mated pair. That leaves our analysis to Bean-Goose, presumably Tundra Bean-Goose, and a casual visitor to Nome.
Thrilled with our last find, we move on to the Bluethroat territory. It doesn’t take us long to find the Bluethroats and we spend 45 min. watching them move from singing post to singing post. Through binoculars and briefly through spotting scopes we see their magnificent blue throats. This is a “wow!” bird that I never tire of viewing.
(Shari) We move onward to the end of the road stopping for looks at other birds. Jim had left a note on our car while I napped, with the mile marker for the Bluethroat that they saw. Sure enough, when we get there we see the cute bird too. We get home and all of us are pooped. Only Tom joins us for a Chinese dinner, while Bob and Pat go to bed early.
(Bert) Three principal roads lead from Nome; this morning we drive the last of the three, the road leading to the coastal village of Teller. One of my favorite stops is Snake River, where two houses, a pond, the willows, and the river always produce many bird species. The good news is that we add Northern Shrike to our trip list; the bad news is that we also see a large flock of Rock Doves circling one of the houses. I haven’t seen the doves in Nome on previous years and suspect they were just recently introduced.
At Penny River, Pat discovers the nest of a Semipalmated Plover. It is much like that of a Killdeer, i.e., not really a nest at all and just a depression in the gravel where the plover rests on eggs. Meanwhile, its mate tries to distract us down another path by playing the broken wing act. While I am scanning the wetland willows, a Tundra Vole scurries through grass tunnels in front of my feet. The High Lonesome tour group passes us and one of the participants says they got a brief view of an Arctic Warbler a few miles back. Most of the morning we are either in front or behind the group and the leader seems very intent on getting Arctic Warbler, as we often hear them playing a song recording. I suspect the Arctic Warbler is just arriving from Asia and I haven’t heard any singing as yet. At mile 15 I stop when I see an Arctic Warbler perched on a roadside willow. Everyone in our car gets to see the warbler, but it so drab and non-descript–especially through the tinted car windows–as well as not singing, that I doubt I’ve convinced anyone that it is an Arctic Warbler. Somewhere we will need a better view.
At Sinuk River I point out a photogenic pair of Northern Waterthrushes and Pat spots two very spotted Spotted Sandpipers, soon joined by a Wandering Tattler. A bit later we find a pair of Wandering Tattlers at Eldorado Creek, perhaps setting up nesting.
Teller Road becomes The Road for ptarmigans. We find Willow Ptarmigans at six locations for a total of nine birds and we find six Rock Ptarmigans at three locations. True to their names, the Willow Ptarmigans are in lowland willow habitat, while the Rock Ptarmigans take the highland rocky ground, mostly devoid of dense vegetation.
At mile 49 a Golden Eagle flying at the crest of the mountain gets our attention. We stop at Bluestone Creek to study a known Rough-legged Hawk nest, but find it unattended. Now we enter Reindeer range and have the good fortune of finding herds at mile 55, 59, 65, and 70, a total of 119 Reindeer, including eight crossing the road only a stone-throw away from our car.
Some 75 mi. into our trip we reach the end of the road at Teller, a native village with many local customs, including walrus hunting as evidenced by the carcass remnants left on the frozen bay ice. In 4-wheel drive, I drive out on to the deep gravel spit. Through spotting scopes we scan the expansive bay still filled with floating ice. We study Pelagic and Red-faced Cormorants, find a couple of distant Black Guillemots, and listen to the yodeling of a Pacific Loon. Now 4:20 PM, it is time to head back to Nome and we predict we should be back in town well before 6 PM. However, we soon enter 5 PM rush hour when two long flatbed tandem trucks, meant for transporting heavy equipment, pull on to the road just ahead of us. The gravel road is too narrow for us to pass the trucks, plus its attendant pickup truck, so I slow down and trail the trucks by a mile to avoid the tornadoes of dust they stir up. I planned on stopping at the spot where the tour group found an Arctic Warbler, but we have trouble pinpointing the site, so we will have to try for that another day.
(Shari) What a relief! I have not turned into a birder. Today as Bert leaves our room at 6:30, I turn over and fall back to sleep not to awaken until I am ready. I grab a granola bar for breakfast, watch a bit of morning TV and read my book. For lunch, I decide to either eat grocery store sandwiches or at the hospital cafeteria. I walk to the hospital cafeteria first. I have eaten in hospitals in the past and find they often have good nutritious food at a reasonable price. When I see the salad bar display I readily make up my mind to eat here. I am starved for fresh vegetables. I load a Styrofoam container with lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, and olives. My salad is weighed at the check-out stand and, with a cup of vegetable soup, I only pay a little over $6. Soon after I sit down, another lady who works in the PT department joins me. We strike up a conversation and I find that she has been in Nome since August, coming up with her husband who got a job on the new hospital construction. We had noticed the hospital on the very first day in Nome. It is huge and dominates the landscape and we wondered how the town could justify such an expense. She informs me, that all the offices are full with a waiting list. Included in the construction is a long term care unit.
It has been four years since we have been in Nome and it has lost some of its frontier status in my mind. The main street in town has constant traffic coming and going. The roads leading out of town are full of “shacks” built along the rivers and the sea, probably used for pleasure and/or gold operations. No longer is the majority of the population Native American with a spattering of Oriental and white. Now all I see are male construction workers and gold dredgers, usually Caucasian, from the Lower 48 and, of course, birders. One group after another group of birders comes to Nome this time of year and all the rooms and rental cars are taken. Unfortunately there are no new restaurants with this increase in population. Tonight we revisit a restaurant called Milano’s. I had liked it in the past but tonight’s service is poor and food is mediocre.
(Shari) Our high school classmate Kathy meets us for breakfast. She and her husband are taking a little vacation to Nome but, unfortunately, he missed last night’s airplane and will not be coming until later this morning. We have a delightful time with her but have to rush off with our group to continue the marathon birding. On the promise of doing some of Teller Road, I agree to join the group. I am dressed and awake anyway. I hope to see a bear but we have no luck there. More moose and muskox show up though. We re-do the Council Road, again seeing the Short-eared Owl. Love that bird! While Bert tries to find a Red-necked Stint, Pat and I laugh at Bob looking at some old piece of machinery at the side of the road. It is the engineer in him I guess. We diddle around all day doing what I call wringing the chamois. We are looking for the very last species still to see in Nome and it is like wringing a chamois out of water when we have already wrung it out. I can’t say I found anything noteworthy but I do get to read more of my good book and get good looks at muskox. It is so hot today for them, that we find a whole herd lying with legs spreadeagled, babies and all, on a bank of snow and ice. Nome reaches a record high temperature today of 75º. What a difference it is from our first two days here when we wore every bit of clothing we brought along.
(Bert) We have a more leisurely morning and are not on the Council Road until 8:05 AM. It always seemed to me that this road has the highest probability of rarities, especially between Safety Sound and Solomon. In the past week or so, several rarities have been reported, but my experience is that the birds often move on and are difficult to relocate. This morning we do add species to our list, however. We find ten Dunlins at Nome River and the Solomon ponds, two Pectoral Sandpipers at the ponds, and three Canvasbacks near Safety Sound bridge. This time, many Aleutian Terns are at Safety Sound at the bridge, the usual place we have found them other years. A Spectacled Eider has been reported, so we are studying all eider flocks more closely. When we see an odd immature eider at sea with a flock of Common Eiders, I get out the scope and check it out more closely. After digiscoping the eider and comparing field guide illustrations, we deduce it is not the first winter King Eider we had hoped for, but another Common Eider. Better, though, are the shorebirds Pat sees while I am driving along the coastal beach. I back up and put the scope on the birds. Others are surprised when I name them Sanderlings, because their breeding plumage is so different from the winter plumage we see in the Lower 48. Sanderlings are rare in Nome, so it is good to find these four.
At mile 30 I come to a quick stop when I see a small flock of Brants accompanied by a pair of ducks that I quickly identify as Ring-necked Ducks. I take a few photos and then continue for a quarter mile. Thinking about the ducks, I recall that these are far out of range, so I back up to their location again. I want to make sure we did not overlook Tufted Ducks, as these are more likely in Nome, even though they are rare. Yes, the ducks are definitely a pair of Ring-necked. None of the books I have, nor the checklists, list Ring-necked Duck as occurring in Nome even as an accidental.
We have enough time left to head back to town and check out the Nome Bypass Road and the areas near Nome High School. Here we again find Muskox, including two very close to the road and in good photo proximity and also a herd of Muskox resting on ice. Given the current temperature in the high 60s and the blankets of shaggy fur that the Muskox carry, the ice must be welcome. At one of the small ponds, which were frozen over on our previous visits to Nome, we see a nesting Red-throated Loon that is frightened off its nest by a predatory Glaucous Gull. An Arctic Tern is upset by the gull as well and between the two of them they keep the gull at bay. Meanwhile, I’ve set up my scope to study two Least Sandpipers with muddy legs barely showing yellow. One appears to be nesting. Least Sandpipers are another species hard to find in Nome.
(Bert) What have we missed and where can we find it? That’s what we ask ourselves this morning. Our Nome trip list is quite full, so adding another species will be hard. Instead, we concentrate on getting a good look at Arctic Warbler. We start at the Snake River, on Teller Road, and quickly find 18 species, though none new. At mile 11, where we now think was the spot the High Lonesome group had a brief view of an Arctic Warbler, we also find one. It is not singing, shows little interest in us, and quickly disappears. We do slightly better at Penny River with several views at rest and in flight, but again it is not singing and quickly disappears into the willows.
However, a species that is quite conspicuous is Gray-cheeked Thrush. We have been finding these all week and today I keep a count. Although I am sure I missed many, I record the thrushes at 14 of our stops and a total of 21 birds. The thrushes are singing on territory and some are carrying nesting material. Although a tough bird to find in Texas in migration, here on their breeding grounds they are particularly common.
Before we leave Penny River, Tom finds a Red Fox, quite blond in color, and it remains staring at us while I take photos. We leave Teller Road and head to the Kougarok Road, still on the hunt for better views of Arctic Warbler. At mile 10 we stop for a pair of Northern Shrikes perched on high wires. And we stop again at mile 27 when Tom announces he sees a large bird perched at the peak of rock cliffs. Scope views reveal it as a Golden Eagle and then Tom finds the nest with another eagle sitting upon it. I remember visiting this spot twice in 2008 and finding the same nesting pair.
Tom is really on a roll today, because he is the first to hear an Arctic Warbler singing when we stop at Grand Central River. We can pinpoint the approximate location from which the warbler is singing, but it is too distant and too congested with dense willows to see the singer. So, I play about 5 sec. of my recording and immediately see the warbler fly in our direction. It perches within 25 ft. of us, changes perches several times, sings profusely, and gives us frequent close views. I get a few photos, but am not confident I got one in sharp focus. Since I do not repeat my recording, the warbler loses interest and returns to its original, more distant, singing post.
(Shari) Today we squeeze the chamois some more and look for the last feathers left to see in Nome. No day has the weatherman been right. Today it is supposed to be nice, sunny and warm. But it starts out cloudy and cool. Repeating the Teller Road and then the Kougarok Road to get better looks at Arctic Warbler and Bluethroat, I am amazed at how everything has greened out in the three days since I had last been here.
(Bert) Our last major stop is at Salmon Campground. Another Arctic Warbler greets us at the entrance, but we are interrupted by four other birders and engage in conversation. We all head down the muddy entrance road and this time we are able to reach the end and are not stopped by the snow drift that blocked us a few days ago. On further conversation with one of the other birders, I find out that he traveled to Panama on an RV caravan led by Dan and Sue, who were our Tailgunners on one of our Mexico-Belize trips. Another of the birders suggests a spot where we might find Varied Thrush, a bird Bob wants to add to his Nome list.
Golden-crowned Sparrows seem especially common here and when one jumps out of the grass where Tom and I are hiking, Tom expects a nest. He inspects the grass and quickly locates the nest with four eggs. I take a couple quick photos just before the sparrow returns and we move aside. Unwilling to leave the nest uncovered for long, the sparrow quickly returns to rest again on her eggs.
Tom and I continue to fan out across the marsh willows, looking for Bluethroats. Although we find none here today, I get even better views of another Arctic Warbler. This one repeatedly rests on the highest branches of the 4-ft. willows and I get multiple chances for photography.
(Shari) During the driving times, Tom is spitting out more puns than usual and Bert tries to keep up with him. To compete, I tell a joke about an old man’s birthday present and no one laughs. I think no one gets it. When Bob says “I get it, that’s not funny”, implying I hit too close to home, everyone just howls with laughter. Meanwhile, Bert starts and stops the car repeatedly, listening, listening, listening. He sees something streak across the road and hops out, in shooting camera position. He has found an Arctic Warbler. My goodness, everyone cannot get out fast enough. The warbler is singing sweetly on top of a branch and when looking through my binoculars, I can see him tilt his head up with every song. It is really cute. After we find that warbler, we find them all along the road. It is amazing: three days ago they were not defining territory and today they are! We also find a Golden Eagle’s nest and can see a bird on it.
(Bert) I check the time, 3:10 PM, and suggest we start heading back to Nome. I also note the temperature is 76º, our warmest day yet and, perhaps, a Nome record high as it surpasses Anchorage today. At a brief stop at mile 37 we again hear an Arctic Warbler singing on territory. What a difference a few days make: first no warblers, then a few very shy silent birds, and now many Arctic Warblers singing and defending territory! Perhaps one difference is the rapid advancement of spring here on the Kougarok Road. We notice today the vegetation has transformed from winter browns to spring greens. I am witnessing yet another spring, having reversed to winter numerous times in our transit from Texas since March, only to initiate spring a few days or a hundred miles farther in our passage toward Western Alaska.
When we reach the hillside willow patch described by one of the other birders, we stop to listen for Varied Thrush. After a 10 min. wait, some of us hear a distant Varied Thrush call twice. It is too far away to see, but we are confident on the identification, so we add one more species to our Nome list.
(Shari) On our way back, we see a group of people walk towards their cars from within the middle of a flat field of tundra. We stop to ask what they found. They were looking for a Horned Lark and, instead, found two Bluethroats defining territory. My goodness, we have to see this too. We all walk to the rock they mentioned and sure enough, there the bird sits on a branch. He circles us, flying from one branch to another, showing us that this is his territory. We get fantastic looks at his blue and orange chin, especially as he lifts his head when singing.
(Bert) We catch up with the other four birders again. They are just leaving a grassy marsh and seem excited. We stop to ask what they have seen and they are happy to tell us it is Bluethroats. This location is not one of the known sites and, in fact, would not likely have been found except that these four were intent on finding Horned Larks and stumbled on the Bluethroats about 200 yd. from the road. We go to the spot they describe and soon we see a male Bluethroat also. We must be in the midst of its territory, centered by a 3-ft. boulder, as the Bluethroat keeps circling us and singing from posts on the periphery.
Adding to the list of coincidental meetings with people I know, when I stop to talk to a tour group replacing a flat tire on their rental van, I meet a lady from Texas I corresponded with because she had a Calliope Hummingbird in her backyard and I reported it in my North American Birds article. And, then, on the flight to Anchorage this evening, I meet Bob and James who were our tour guides at Gambell in 2006 and 2008.
When I total up our Nome list this trip, it comes to 86 bird species and 8 mammal species. That compares well to our 2008 trip when we saw 85 and 10, respectively. Our most noticeable miss this year is that we did not see a single Grizzly Bear, an odd omission since other years we had multiple sightings.
(Shari) We finish our trip in Nome at Subway yet again. We figure that between the two of us Bert and I have eaten over 5 ft. of subs while in Nome. Bert drops us off at the airport, returns the car to the rental agency and rejoins us in the waiting area. Two hours later we board and have a nice smooth flight back to Anchorage, getting home at 10:30 PM.
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