September 25, 2020
NOME JAEGERFEST 2015
By Kevin J. Zimmer
As is usually the case on our Nome-Gambell, Alaska tour, top honors on the lengthy list of Nome highlights on our 2015 trip (co-led by Rafael Galvez) were shared between our experience with the iconic Bristle-thighed Curlew and our repeated views of dazzling male Bluethroats in full skylarking display mode. Indeed, these two species have become virtually synonymous with birding in Nome.
However, as satisfying and exciting as our experiences with the curlew and Bluethroat were on the 2015 tour, I would probably point to the spectacle that greeted us at Cape Nome on our first afternoon in the area as my personal favorite memory of the trip. As we approached the Cape, it was clear that something special was going on. A shelf of tundra above the road was liberally sprinkled with white spots that soon resolved themselves into a scattered group of Long-tailed Jaegers. We counted 16 on the ground at one time (and a late-night pass by here in the days to come yielded more than 50!), but this was a mere harbinger of what was awaiting us around the bend.
As the jetty at the Cape came into view, it was immediately apparent that there was a feeding frenzy of gulls and other seabirds in progress over the waters just off the beach. The gulls, 90% of which were Black-legged Kittiwakes, numbered in the many hundreds to low thousands, and they were everywhere on the water and swirling above like snowflakes in a blizzard. Small rafts of Common Murres were scattered amongst the gulls, as were Pacific and Red-throated loons and a few Pelagic Cormorants. But what really caught my attention were the jaegers. Never had I seen so many in one spot, and certainly not from shore! All three species were present, with Pomarine and Parasitic being represented by both dark and light color morphs. Most bizarrely, Pomarine Jaegers, which, unlike the other two species, do not nest in the Nome area (and are typically early migrants), were numerically dominant. In fact, there were at least 80 of them within 300 m of shore, and seemingly many more well beyond the main concentration of birds.
The focus of all of this avian abundance was a “bait ball,” probably initially formed by a concentration of planktonic invertebrates (amphipods and copepods or ‘krill’) that had, in turn, concentrated a spectacular ‘run’ of Candlefish (also known as ‘Hooligans,’ a type of smelt). The birds were focusing their attention on the Candlefish, and the jaegers, true ‘pirates’ of the high seas away from their breeding grounds, were focusing their attention on the other birds, particularly on the kittiwakes. No sooner would a kittiwake or other gull nab a ‘Hooligan’ than one or more jaegers would be on it, attempting to harass its victim into coughing up its prey, which the pirates would then deftly pluck from the surface. The jaegers were relentless in their assaults, coming in low and fast, the powerful Poms closing distance with deep, plowing strokes, the lighter and more buoyant Long-taileds and Parasitics more darting and slicing, but all ending with strafing, savage attacks that were frequently punctuated with aerial maneuvering suggestive of World War I-era dogfights. Time and again, kittiwakes were driven to the water and either stripped of prey or forced to abandon it. Meanwhile, other jaegers maintained patrols up-and-down along the beach, drifting by our position at eye level and offering rare, count-the-feather views. We watched, transfixed, for more than 45 minutes as this scene played out before us.
The Candlefish runs continued up-and-down the Norton Sound shoreline throughout the next week (spanning the duration of our stay and that of our Grand Alaska Part I group, and, in somewhat diminished capacity, that of our Alaska Highlights group), and featured some truly spectacular numbers of kittiwakes and murres, but the jaeger spectacle that we witnessed on that first afternoon was never to be duplicated. Pomarine numbers dropped steeply over the next 48 hours, and by the time our Grand Alaska tour was officially underway, species composition had flipped so completely that Parasitic Jaegers had become the numerically dominant jaeger species along the coastline.
A late May through June visit to Nome is always a sure bet for seeing numbers of nesting Long-tailed and Parasitic jaegers and provides a decent chance for picking up a few migrant Pomarines, but, in 35 years of birding Alaska, I’ve never witnessed a jaeger spectacle such as the one we encountered in 2015. It’s unexpected surprises like this, combined with the omnipresent chances of encountering Asiatic vagrants, that make each visit to Alaska’s ‘outposts’ both unique and constantly exciting.
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