Nome Tour with High Lonesome

25 09 2019

 

 

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Group at the Safety Sound Roadhouse

 

Day 1

The saying “There’s no place like Nome” certainly lives up to its billing! Though Nome’s an incredible setting both scenically and for wildlife it’s also the kind of town that looks like it might be the perfect setting for a David Lynch movie.

High Lonesome BirdTour’s second Nome/Seward Peninsula tour of the season kicked off with a minor Alaskan hiccup when we realized that co-leader Dave Krueper and many of our tour participants were not going to be able to leave Gambell in time to join us for the first half day of the tour (at least) due to fog creating impossible flying conditions. Cancelled flights perhaps created an even more manic situation than usual in the arrival hall at Nome Airport, a place known for its slightly random deplaning. After sifting through all the arriving luggage and passengers we finally assembled our group of newcomers from Anchorage at the airport, headed for a quick lunch and decamped to the hotel to check in and drop bags.

We now had an afternoon for exploring a handful of local hotspots. The first stop for almost any birder arriving from Nome is the hallowed Nome River Bridge. This year the Nome River mouth found itself home to a good number of Aleutian Terns and we were happy to get both great looks and good numbers of this highly prized, beautiful and mysterious Alaskan specialty. It was also nice to be able to compare them to passing Arctic Terns too.

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Aleutian Tern – Luke Tiller

Our next stop was at Hastings Creek, where we enjoyed uncovering an American Pipit nest as well as working our way through redpoll identification to add both Hoary and Common Redpoll to our growing checklist. Our highlight however had to be finding a stunning pair of charismatic Eastern Yellow Wagtails, whose breeding range bleeds into Alaska from eastern Asia. The rest of the afternoon was taken up with a run out towards Safety Sound to see both the lay of the land and the birds commonly found here in Nome.

With people tired from a long day traveling we headed to the hotel before heading to the weird but wonderful Milano’s Pizza. The restaurant boasts not just good pizza but also tasty Korean food as well as everything from sushi to burgers. It’s something of a Nome institution that was uncovered in the early years of High Lonesome’s adventures up here.

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Rock Ptarmigan – Luke Tiller

Day 2

There are essentially three roads out of town in Nome, so High Lonesome’s tour puts aside a day to explore each and then adds a couple of half days for further exploration and cleanup. We started off our second day heading out of town on the Teller Highway. Our first stop was a brief one just outside of town where we picked up many of the common passerines to be found here including a nice mix of warblers: Wilson’s, Orange-crowned, Yellow and Northern Waterthrush as well as a couple of goodies like Gray-cheeked Thrush and American Tree Sparrow.

Rolling along the Teller Highway we picked off a variety of desirable but common species like Willow Ptarmigan, Red-throated Loon and Long-tailed Jaeger – stopping where sightings provided good viewing and photographic opportunities. A highlight drive by sighting on a desolate portion of tundra was another Eastern Yellow Wagtail, a species that can sometimes be much harder to find in Nome. We were also enjoying the incredible scenery where snow encrusted tundra was rapidly being covered by a beautiful matting of greenery and wildflowers.

Around mid-morning we arrived at one of my favorite spots along the Teller Road and were greeted by an amazing herd of Muskox. We’d also run into a fog bank and so these incredible prehistoric looking creatures were suddenly swept up in a dense blanket of fog: a pretty dramatic apparition. Of course, the rolling mist wasn’t making the birding conditions too favorable. Every now and then one of our avian targets would appear from out of the gloom, giving us tantalizing views, before disappearing back into the tendrils of the smog. The whole scene reminding me of something out of the Hound of the Baskervilles.

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Rock Ptarmigan (female) – Luke Tiller

With visibility down to about 30 feet birding was a little more challenging than usual. After hearing the incredibly beautiful trilling of a Bluethroat for about 15 minutes, and only seeing the hazy silhouette of this bird skylarking into the frosty Alaskan sky, we eventually garnered good looks at this most garish of Alaskan passerines on the ground.

Thankfully as the mist slowly began to thin, other species that we could initially only hear began to reveal themselves. The real highlight of a visit to Nome is not just seeing rare and uncommon birds, but also seeing common species doing uncommon things. As someone used to seeing most of their shorebirds loafing on a sandbar or mudflat in drab non-breeding plumage it’s a real treat to see them in their breeding finery and watch their exuberant displays on their nesting grounds. Here we uncovered a bevy of beautiful shorebird species including American Golden and Pacific Golden Plovers as well as Red Knots and what was probably the highlight of the day: Rock Sandpiper.

After disappointing views of drab female Northern Wheatear we were treated to incredible views and photographic opportunities with a spectacular Rock Ptarmigan, in a bed of pretty wildflowers, before rounding out our trip with a sweep of all the expected pluvialis plovers when we picked up spanking silver and black Black-bellied Plovers at Woolley Lagoon.

We had just enough time to have a brief stop to stop and smell the roses (wildflowers) before we made our way back to town to connect with the participants that had finally escaped from Gambell and head for our first dinner as a group.

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Bristle-thighed Curlew – Luke Tiller

Day 3

With the full group all assembled we set off on our day along the Kougarok Road with expectations of an audience with one of Alaska’s most sought after species: Bristle-thighed Curlew.

Kougarock Road is a perennial favorite, with a great mix of habitats to be found along the 70 mile stretch of road that winds inland towards Coffee Dome and the curlews. Our first stop of the morning was adjacent to the Nome River, here among dense willow brush we picked up our first highly prized specialty for the day: Arctic Warbler. This relatively brightly colored old-world warbler reaches the eastern edge of its range here in Alaska. Having to make its way all the way from wintering grounds as far away as Indonesia, it usually arrives late enough in the season that tours that arrive early in June have traditionally had a fair chance of missing it. This year the warblers seemed to be on the move early and we had been lucky enough to have found the joint earliest record for this species in Nome with the previous High Lonesome tour group.

Next stop we stopped at a previously located Gyrfalcon nest. Though there was a Rough-legged Hawk loitering close to the nest we never saw any adults in our half hour vigil, and we had to suffice with views of fluffy Gyrfalcon chicks. I was a little worried by the seeming absence of adults at the nest, but was relieved to hear that they did eventually return later in the day.

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Bar-tailed Godwit – Luke Tiller

The route out to Kougarock provided us with both fantastic scenery as well as several good birds which we stopped for as views and photo opportunities dictated. Our next big stop of the day was all the way out at the Kuzitrin River Bridge. Here we were treated to several passerines that are hard to find almost anywhere else in Nome including Say’s Phoebe, Blackpoll Warbler and Rusty Blackbird. The highlight of our stop however were raptors. Initially we picked up a spectacular adult Bald Eagle (a relatively uncommon sight in Nome itself) soaring north of the bridge. While scanning the cerulean blue sky we noticed that the Bald Eagle was joined by a Golden Eagle which in turn was driven off by a territorial pair of Rough-legged Hawks. A pretty spectacular run of raptor sightings!

We arrived at the Coffee Dome late morning and prepped for our hike up to the area to search out the curlews. Before the hike we listened to recordings and perused guides in order to familiarize the group with these sometimes tricky to ID birds.

The hike itself is birding fokelore. The tussocks of tundra that you must hike on being described as being like hiking on greased bowling balls. In reality the hike (if you take the right precautions and stick to the trail) is one that most people can undertake given some time. The hike up hill along a well-worn path can be somewhat wet and a little slick but we took things carefully and slowly allowing the group to meet at the summit off Coffee Dome just in time to be greeted by the plaintive calls of a Bristle-thighed Curlew. The bird of course was calling in flight and dropped down on the tundra a few hundred yards away.

Here began the next part of our curlew adventure. The calling curlew landed on the tundra out of sight of the group and as we slowly closed in on it, we realized that the bird had touched down in proximity to a couple of Whimbrel. This is a difficult ID at the best of times but with the heat haze it was quite a conundrum working out which individual was which until the bird took off calling again. We eventually tracked the bird down where it had landed and it finally gave us great looks and opportunities for photos. The effort involved in tracking the bird down and identify it successfully too surely makes this bird one of the more rewarding lifers to be had in the ABA?

With our target under our belt we happily worked our way home. Stops on route allowed us a chance to enjoy such cool riverine species as Harlequin Duck and Wandering Tattler as well as beating the brush (and Tundra) for Varied Thrush and Snow Bunting respectively. A stop at the Gyrfalcon nest still yielded just the chicks, so we headed home for another Milano’s dinner special.

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Willow Ptarmigan – Luke Tiller

Day 4

We kicked off our last full day with a run down the road towards Council, Alaksa. This little community sits at the end of the highway about seventy miles northeast of town.

We started our morning with stops just outside of town where a somewhat foggy seawatch session at Point Nome yielded a half dozen Horned Puffins as the only real highlights. Fog wasn’t to be our friend and the run along the coastline was something of a wash in terms of seawatching. Thankfully things began to break open as we got towards Safety Sound, allowing us to pick up a few nice species including good numbers of Tundra Swans, a Slaty-backed Gull and our first Surfbirds.

Our next birding stop was in the ghost town of Solomon, just past The Last Train to Nowhere (always worth a stop for photo opportunities and to uncover some of the early history of the area). Here we managed to pick up a couple of co-operative Eastern Yellow Wagtails – a highlight for those that missed them while stuck in Gambell.

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Willow Ptarmigan (female) – Luke Tiller

The road to Council climbs and crosses some of the highest elevation areas that are easily explored on the roads out of Nome. This means both dramatic and often barren slopes where jaunty Northern Wheatears ply their trade (named in old English for the white arses not cream auriculars). Like a grey, white and rose Rock Wren with a bandit’s mask they ply their trade atop prominent rock outcroppings. Bare slopes are also home to Snow Buntings which are even more brilliant white than usual in their summer alternate plumage.

The landscape changed again as we dropped down towards Council and here and there spruce trees (the first we’d really encountered) started to dot the landscape. As you traverse the road in to town the spruces start to become denser and denser before you finally hit a relatively impenetrable forest just before reaching the Niukluk River. Here we eked out several passerine species. One never knows what you might encounter here at the northern edge of Alaska’s Spruce forest. Today there wasn’t a huge deal to be found, but a pair of obliging Boreal Chickadees were a real treat. Somewhere in the distance an Alder flycatcher sang, and a Pine Grosbeak flew over calling but refused to appear for the group.

On our way home we stopped at Safety Sound Roadhouse. Last checkpoint station on the route of the Iditarod. This bar is about as slap bang in the middle of nowhere as one might ever possibly be and yet the interior looks like one of the best dive bars you might find in any big city in the US. This fun bar was the perfect place to grab a beer and raise a celebratory glass to all the great birds we’d witnessed on our adventures.

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Arctic Warbler – Luke Tiller

Day 5

With just a morning left for birding adventures we decided to offer two different morning options based on having two different vans. One set out on the road to Teller with those that had missed out on that experience while mine set out for a trip back down the Kougarock Road to see if we could have any better fortune with Gyrfalcons. Unfortunately, the fog hung in in the valleys along the Nome River and the Gyrfalcon nest stayed stubbornly obscured. We at least had some company while we waited with Arctic Warblers putting on a highlight reel show. Mid-morning we were back at the Aurora Inn in time for breakfast and onwards to new adventures or winging our way home via the Nome Airport.


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