Grand Alaska Part I: Nome & the Pribilofs Jun 09—18, 2012
Posted by Kevin Zimmer
Our 2012 Grand Alaska Part I tour began, as usual, in Nome, my favorite place to bird in all of North America. There is something indescribably special about the area surrounding this old gold rush town. The mix of special breeding birds on the tundra and large numbers of migrants staging at Safety Lagoon and other points along the coast, coupled with the very real chance of finding some rare stray from eastern Asia always makes for exhilarating birding. When you throw in a full complement of large mammals (musk ox, moose, grizzly, reindeer), a kaleidoscope of emerging spring wildflowers, impressive sub-Arctic scenery and a real wilderness feel, all set to 24-hour daylight, what's not to love? As is the case with other high-latitude spots, no two springs or even short visits to this region are the same, and that unpredictability only serves to add to the excitement of a trip here.
Arctic Warbler, Nome, Alaska, June 10, 2012— Photo: Kevin Zimmer
This year was no different. After checking in to our hotel and grabbing lunch, we headed straight to the Nome River mouth, hoping to score with a couple of very good birds that I had seen earlier in the morning with our Gambell-Nome tour group. This move paid dividends immediately in the form of an adult Slaty-backed Gull that was right where we had left it a few hours before. Unfortunately, we were not as lucky with the Red-necked Stint. Upon leaving the river mouth, we headed out the Teller Road, where walkaway looks at a male Rock Ptarmigan were our biggest prize. Both Rock and Willow ptarmigan undergo dramatic population oscillations, and can be difficult to find during "crash" years. Even during years in which ptarmigan numbers are high, the birds become much more difficult to find with each passing day in spring; as the snow melts, the birds brown-up from their largely white winter plumage, and move back off the roads to either higher elevations (Rock) or the security of the willow and alder thickets (Willow). Despite a particularly harsh winter, spring appeared to have arrived early in Nome this year, and ptarmigan of both species were becoming progressively harder to find. We had seen several Rock Ptarmigan (and fairly large numbers of Willows) during the Gambell-Nome tour in the preceding few days, but the male Rock that we saw on our first afternoon turned out to be the only one we would see as a group during our tour. Other first afternoon highlights included nice studies of a Northern Wheatear and scoring a plover hat trick along the Woolley Lagoon road, where we encountered Black-bellied Plover, American Golden-Plover, and Pacific Golden-Plover, all sporting their most elegant breeding dress. We also found active nests of both Long-tailed and Parasitic jaegers, with the Parasitic nest being attended by a smoky-brown dark-morph bird. Closer to town, we also enjoyed a particularly nice show put on by a pair of Rough-legged Hawks, not to mention point-blank views of a very responsive Arctic Warbler. In fact, Arctic Warblers were everywhere, including obvious migrants that were still moving across some pretty barren alpine tundra.
The next few days were a blur, as we concentrated our efforts on the other two major roads, the Kougarok and the Council. As is always the case, birding highlights were so numerous that it is difficult to single out just a few. However, it would be difficult to top the dazzling male Bluethroats that performed so well near Salmon Lake. These iconic little colonizers from the Old World are spectacular for their aerial song bouts as well as their vivid colors, and they have been an annual highlight of our Alaska tours ever since 1987, when we were the first group to discover them breeding in the Nome area. Sadly, we could not relocate the pair of Bristle-thighed Curlews that we had seen so nicely just a few days earlier, no doubt in large part because we hit a warm, sunny day, the kind of weather in which the curlews and other large shorebirds are often inactive. We did enjoy nice scope studies of Gyrfalcons at three different nests, with nice studies of Merlin and Peregrine Falcon rounding out our falcon experience. A male Eurasian Wigeon at Safety Lagoon was a good pickup, as were two Red Knots and a Black Turnstone, and a single Red Phalarope was a late and unexpected migrant. Northern Shrikes showed well along the Kougarok Road, as did Rusty Blackbirds, and we rounded out our Nome experience with a particularly nice show from an Eastern Yellow Wagtail.
I never cease to be amazed by the wealth of birding and wildlife viewing opportunities available within the Anchorage city limits. We had a most enjoyable day of birding here between our Nome and St. Paul sojourns. Particularly impressive was the large flock of Hudsonian Godwits loafing on a small grassy islet in Westchester Lagoon. We visited this spot on our first evening back in Anchorage and tallied 82 godwits, with 6 Short-billed Dowitchers and a breeding-plumaged Surfbird added for good measure! All the while, impressive numbers of Red-necked Grebes, some attending their floating nests, dotted the expanse of the lagoon, and a pair of Bald Eagles surveyed the scene from atop their massive nest on the far side. At other stops we enjoyed a nice assortment of boreal forest passerines, among them a very responsive Boreal Chickadee. Our biggest prize was a hen Spruce Grouse that I spotted as it crouched frozen in the shade of spruce. When it did begin to walk slowly away, multiple downy chicks materialized as if by magic from beneath their nervous mother. For all of this, the day's most satisfying highlight was probably a toss-up between the elegant Common Loon and the showy Horned Grebe, both in high breeding plumage, and both of which allowed us such close approach and prolonged, intimate study, proving once again that part of Alaska's appeal is the opportunity to enjoy familiar birds in different plumages and unfamiliar settings.
The Pribilofs leg of our tour began auspiciously when the flight plan called for us to stop at St. George Island en route to St. Paul. We were there only briefly (but long enough to see several Red-legged Kittiwakes and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches!), but it was my first time on St. George despite more than 25 years of visits to St. Paul! Generally clear skies allowed for nice views of the high bluffs of St. George both on our approach and upon take-off, whetting our collective appetites for the bird cliffs awaiting us at St. Paul. Upon arrival, we learned from local guides that the vagrant picture was pretty bleak, except for the White-tailed Eagle that had been present for at least a few weeks. Some of us had seen a White-tailed Eagle beautifully on our Gambell-Nome tour two weeks earlier, but we were still hoping to score this prize for the rest of the group. Unfortunately, the eagle was playing hard-to-get, appearing seemingly at random at scattered locations across the island, and seldom in the same spot twice. We never did connect with it. Our unexpected finds from the island included a male Eurasian Wigeon, two subspecies of Cackling Goose in the same flock, Sabine's Gull, multiple Black Guillemots (the first I had ever seen in the Pribilofs, and the lingering remnants of an unprecedented invasion of this species into the surrounding waters), a Dovekie (only the second time I have seen one on the island), and a very lost Wilson's Warbler. All of these were merely bonus birds, because the real show, as always, was on the cliffs. In particular, we enjoyed spectacular weather for a hike to Zapadni cliffs, my favorite of St. Paul's many bird cliffs.
The repeated point-blank views of Horned and Tufted puffins (often side by side), Thick-billed and Common murres, and Parakeet, Crested, and Least auklets made the hike more than worthwhile, and is an experience that I find more impressive with each exposure. We were also treated to light and dark morph Northern Fulmars gliding past at eye level, as they played in the winds swirling above their nesting ledges. Red-faced Cormorants were less conspicuous than usual, but readily seen nonetheless, and our many Rock Sandpipers included one incubating a clutch of eggs. The hardy Pacific Wren belting out its song from atop the cliffs near Reef Rookery was also a highlight for many, as were the hulking Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches that seemed to be everywhere on the island.
All too soon, it was time to head back to Anchorage, as our thoughts turned to the many birds and mammals of interior Alaska that were awaiting us on the next leg of our Grand Alaska adventure. It was also time to say our goodbyes to some who were leaving us, and welcome new participants aboard. It was great fun traveling and birding with each of you, and, as always, I genuinely enjoyed sharing the natural history marvels of North America's last frontier.