Grand Alaska Part I: Nome & the Pribilofs Jun 09—17, 2010

Posted by Kevin Zimmer

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Kevin Zimmer

Kevin Zimmer has authored three books and numerous papers dealing with field identification and bird-finding in North America. His book, Birding in the American West: A Han...

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Our 2010 Grand Alaska adventure began, as it always does, with a fast start out of the gate in Nome. Our first afternoon on the Teller Road yielded a Northern Shrike before we were even out of town. The bird crossed the road right in front of the lead van, carrying a prey item that looked to be as big as the bird itself! Clearly struggling, it landed for what I hoped would be enough time for the trailing van to catch up, but the "landing" was more of a touch-and-go, and this time the shrike flew hundreds of meters out of sight. We didn't have long to be frustrated by the fast exit of the shrike, because we were soon gawking at herds of muskox, while thicket birds such as Golden-crowned Sparrow, Wilson's Warbler, and Gray-cheeked Thrush were popping up all around us. A detour into the alpine tundra produced a grounded Golden Eagle with a full crop before we had even turned off the road. Soon, we were looking at a male Rock Ptarmigan, and then a displaying Northern Wheatear, and before long we were whipsawed between a radiant and highly territorial Red Knot and a pair of Snow Buntings leapfrogging through the boulder field. The new birds were coming both fast and furious, and for the few in our group who had carried over from our Gambell-Nome tour, it was difficult to believe that this was the same piece of real estate that had failed to yield a single bird in pea-soup fog earlier in the day. We eventually made our way to the Woolley Lagoon road, where the tundra has a decided "high Arctic" feel to it, and where dressy Black-bellied Plovers and Pacific Golden-Plovers pattered across the wildflower-carpeted flats beneath the ever watchful eyes of Long-tailed and Parasitic jaegers.

The next day found us working the Council Road, where we picked our way through myriads of shorebirds, waterfowl, and loons at Safety Lagoon, and thrilled to such gems as Gyrfalcon, Peregrine Falcon, Black Turnstone, Bar-tailed Godwit, Wandering Tattler, Sabine's Gull, Aleutian Tern, and Arctic Warbler. One stop served up a virtual parade of responsive warblers (Wilson's, Yellow, Orange-crowned, Blackpoll, and Northern Waterthrush), with a territorial Alder Flycatcher and a pair of locally rare Black-capped Chickadees thrown in for good measure. We even managed scope views of a distant grizzly bear.

Day 3 found us on the Kougarok Road, where impressive scenery, big mammals, and gobs of great birds combine to produce one of the premier birding routes (and my personal favorite) in all of North America. Two mega-targets merit attention above all the others on this road. The first of these is the Bluethroat, a dazzling little Asian thrush that has established a toehold in northwestern Alaska, and one whose exuberant skylarking displays must be witnessed in person to be appreciated. As is always the case, the Bluethroat not only matched, but exceeded expectations, as we were treated to repeated aerial and perched song bouts from two males at a territorial boundary. That left the other "Grail Bird" of the Kougarok—the Bristle-thighed Curlew. This one requires a hike, and a certain amount of luck, for in any given year there are no more than two pairs of curlews that occupy what is a pretty large dome of sprawling tundra. We had just started to level out on our ascent when Dave Wolf, who was flanking us to the north, came over the radio and said, "Check out these birds coming over." I looked in his direction and saw three birds, clearly curlews of some sort (but then Whimbrels outnumber Bristle-thigheds on this mountain), and all headed our way. Before my binoculars could resolve any details of plumage, I could hear the clear whistled calls, "peeeeureet peeeureet," that made at least one of the birds an undeniable Bristle-thighed. "Get on the lead bird; it's a Bristle-thighed!" I yelled. In no time, the bird was above us, and now starting to sing, all the while spiraling higher and higher into nosebleed territory. And then it tailed off and headed down slope, disappearing beyond the curvature of the dome. A similar thing had transpired days earlier on the Gambell-Nome tour, and we had rushed to the spot where we had seen the bird go down, only to come up empty. Now, we regrouped and tried again, hoping for a better outcome. We moved as quickly as the terrain would allow, but soon we were back within sight of the road, with no curlew in sight. In the words of Yogi Berra, it was "like déjà vu all over again!" But this time would prove to be different. I raised my binoculars to scan down slope, and was startled to see a Bristle-thighed Curlew not 50 m in front of us, its spangled upperparts blending cryptically with the dappled tundra landscape. We halted our advance and gathered around the scopes, reveling in every detail that the optics revealed. Before long, Sue had spotted a second, brighter individual about 30 m to the south of the first bird. After much time had passed, the first bird became restless and took to the air, singing as it went. The second bird stayed, and allowed us to approach even closer. Eventually we had our fill, and headed down toward the road, with the curlew still on the ground. Only once we were down slope from it did the bird take to the air, winging back up to rejoin its partner.

After scoring big with both Bluethroats and Bristle-thigheds, almost anything we did on our last morning in Nome was going to seem anticlimactic. But a last blast out the Council Road served up the hoped-for pair of Arctic Loons that often occupy a particular stretch of coastal lagoon. We enjoyed better than average studies of these rare breeders before having to head back to town for our return flight to Anchorage.

Next up was St. Paul Island (the Pribilofs). Our flight out was uneventful, and we were barely on the ground before we had tallied our first Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches, one of the few land bird species on the island. But we had not come to this tiny island in the middle of the Bering Sea for land birds. We were here for the fabulous bird cliffs, where thousands of alcids, cormorants, kittiwakes, and fulmars breed cheek-to-jowl, and offer up intimate studies and countless photo-ops for camera-carrying birders. We indulged in scope-filling comparisons of Common and Thick-billed murres, Black-legged and Red-legged kittiwakes, Horned and Tufted puffins, and more cute little auklets than you could shake a stick at. Vagrants were in short supply, but we did manage a Black-headed Gull at Big Lake; a Whimbrel of the white-backed, Asiatic subspecies variegatus at the Salt Lagoon; a nice flock of "Aleutian" Cackling Geese; and 8 Steller's Eiders that were hanging out in the harbor. Vagrants should always be thought of as icing on the proverbial cake—it's the expected birds that one comes to these remote outposts for: Tufted Puffins close enough to touch, with their golden locks wafting in the bone-chilling maritime wind; Red-faced Cormorants with their impossibly bright facial skin staring up at us from precariously placed nests that hugged the sheerest cliffs; noisy Rock Sandpipers strutting their stuff in the middle of the road, with one wing proudly pointing to the sky; armadas of Harlequin Ducks ("Lords and Ladies") bobbing in the near-shore surf; or a Winter Wren belting out his thin, jumbled song from the top of a boulder, fiercely defiant in the face of a cacophony of seabird noise and omnipresent winds. These are the memories we take from the Pribilofs. That, and the sudden blizzard of a snowstorm that descended upon the island with our inbound plane just two hours out, and then cleared in time for the plane to land and take us back to Anchorage!

The next day was our day in Anchorage, which was also the transition day between Part I and Part II of the tour. The Part I folks enjoyed a morning split between boreal forest birds at Kincaid Park (Boreal Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, and the like) and shorebirds, grebes, and waterfowl at Westchester Lagoon, where the highlights included Hudsonian Godwits, Surfbird, and some very elegant Barrow's Goldeneyes. After lunch, we said our goodbyes to a few folks and then set about various chores, such as laundry and grocery shopping, before joining up with several new arrivals for the first night's dinner on Part II.