Grand Alaska Part I: Nome & the Pribilofs Jun 09—20, 2015

Posted by Kevin Zimmer


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 2015 Grand Alaska Part I tour began, as always, 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 (Muskox, 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.

Red-throated Loon

Red-throated Loon— Photo: Kevin Zimmer


This year was no different. After checking in to our hotel and grabbing lunch, we headed out the Council Road. From pairs of snazzy Red-throated Loons to hovering Semipalmated Sandpipers, bickering Arctic Terns, sweetly singing Lapland Longspurs, and marauding Long-tailed Jaegers, this was a great introduction to the avian diversity of Nome. The smelt runs that had so spectacularly concentrated gulls, jaegers, and other seabirds for the past several days were still ongoing, although they appeared to be slightly more dispersed than just three days earlier. Nonetheless, the numbers of Black-legged Kittiwakes and murres were truly impressive, and there were still plenty of jaegers of all three species harassing the kittiwakes and gulls without mercy. Amid so much bird activity, there were still several highlights that stood out. We picked out a rare Slaty-backed Gull from among the masses of other gulls and found no fewer than 15 smartly plumaged Sabine’s scattered over the sand spit at Safety Sound. The sand spit was also where we caught up with a group of 18 Surfbirds, the largest such gathering of this species that I can remember seeing at Nome. Surfbirds are uncommon breeders in the Nome area, breeding on a few high domes in the dry, alpine tundra. Arriving migrants can be found during brief windows of opportunity along the coast, typically feeding in the wrack line, but disperse soon after as snow melt makes their higher elevation breeding sites accessible. They are probably missed on more short visits to Nome than they are seen, so we were lucky indeed to find so many birds in their spangled breeding plumage.


Surfbird— Photo: Kevin Zimmer


Farther down the road, we stopped for a suspicious-looking pair of loons feeding just off the beach on the ocean side. A quick check confirmed my initial impression: these were a pair of rare Arctic Loons—bigger, larger-billed, and flatter crowned than their much more common Pacific cousins, with bolder neck striping and a distinct white patch on the flanks jutting above the waterline. Arctic Loons are rare migrants through the Nome region, and are even rarer presumed breeders. In most years, there is a pair that takes up summer residence somewhere in the vast complex of coastal lagoons beyond Safety Sound, but finding them, especially among the throngs of Pacific Loons, is never a given. Just a few miles farther along the road, we hit the brakes again, this time, for a lovely male Eurasian Wigeon on the lagoon (inland) side of the road. We piled out of the vans, and put the bird in the scopes. The higher magnification provided by the scopes revealed that the female duck accompanying the male was, in fact, also a Eurasian Wigeon, and not an American Wigeon as we had assumed. While Rafael and I were discussing the separation of female wigeon and continuously adjusting the scopes for people to view, we suddenly realized that our scopes were angled in different directions. Amazingly, there were two different pairs of Eurasian Wigeon less than 50 m apart!
With so much to look at, time was slipping away. But, there was still one more important target looming ahead of us. A pair of Gyrfalcons was nesting on the side of a bridge several miles up the road. Gyrs have occupied this site off-and-on over the years (the first time I saw them nesting at this site was in 1988), but the re-occupancy rate of Gyrfalcon nests from one year to the next on the Seward Peninsula is reputed to be less than 25%. This was a rare opportunity, not to be missed, to be able to see nesting Gyrfalcons below eye level and at close range—most nests are on distant cliff faces high above the road. The falcons behaved beautifully. One gray-morph adult, likely the female, was attending the nest and its four downy occupants, and by remaining in the vans and staying for only a short time, we were able to obtain fabulous views without flushing or unduly stressing the birds.

Gyrfalcon on nest

Gyrfalcon on nest— Photo: Kevin Zimmer


The next few days were a blur, as we concentrated our efforts on the other two major roads, the Teller and the Kougarok. 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. 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 Bristle-thighed Curlews that we had seen so nicely just a few days earlier with the Gambell/Nome group, in large part, no doubt, because we hit a warm and sunny, yet exceedingly windy day, the kind of weather in which the curlews are seldom very active or conspicuous. Ptarmigan were way down in numbers, and generally inconspicuous, but we did manage great views of a few individuals of both species.

Investigation of alpine tundra off the Teller Road treated us to breeding-plumaged Red Knots, Northern Wheatears, and Snow Buntings, and the nearby Woolley Lagoon road provided an abundance of dressy plovers (Black-bellied and Pacific Golden). We also enjoyed superb views of Arctic Warblers, perennially late migrants that had only just arrived to breed in the Nome region. A Double-crested Cormorant at Teller and another near Safety Lagoon were exciting for their local rarity, as was an adult Slaty-backed Gull on the beach near our hotel, and seeing such boreal forest species as Varied Thrush, Boreal Chickadee, Blackpoll Warbler, and Pine Grosbeak in the limited spruce forest near Council was novel. Northern Shrikes were more conspicuous than usual, and it was particularly interesting to watch one individual at Pilgrim Hot Springs being mobbed by Rusty Blackbirds as it was attempting to depredate the blackbird nest. Aleutian Terns showed well, but we came uncomfortably close to dipping on Bar-tailed Godwit (a species that I have never missed here) before finding a couple at the Nome River mouth on our last morning. Mammals were also noteworthy, highlighted by multiple groups of Muskox, and by a large, blond Grizzly that we interrupted as it was feeding on a Muskox carcass.

Aleutian Tern

Aleutian Tern— Photo: Kevin Zimmer


Back in Anchorage, we had two days of birding the boreal forest zone of Alaska before heading off once more to another treeless part of the Bering Sea region. Our first day provided a chance to sleep in and recover from the hectic pace of Nome, followed by some relaxed birding within the Anchorage city limits. Throngs of nesting Red-necked Grebes, magnificent Bald Eagles, a good variety of waterfowl and forest passerines, and loafing groups of Hudsonian Godwits and Short-billed Dowitchers kept us more than busy, as we marveled at the abundance of birds and natural beauty within this metropolitan area.

The next day was more of a surgical strike. Since arriving in Alaska on May 31, I had been tracking the progress of a nesting pair of Great Gray Owls at a campground more than 170 miles from Anchorage. There were three fuzzy youngsters in the nest when I visited the day before our Gambell/Nome tour began, but indications were that the owls were further along in their breeding cycle than usual, and that the young might be fledged before we could get there with the group. I headed off to Gambell, and then to Nome (where, between the two tours, we spent an entire week), before finally returning to Anchorage on the night of the 14th. I called the campground managers on the 15th, and sure enough, was greeted with the news that the youngsters had fledged 4 days earlier. After leaving the nest, the young move, on average perhaps 50 m/day. With each passing day, they get farther and farther from the reference point of the nest, and become increasingly difficult to locate in the vast spruce dominated forest. The good news was that Graham had been able to find the birds on the afternoon of the 15th. “If you come up tomorrow, chances are we can still find them, but this will probably be the last day.” It wasn’t a sure thing, but even the possibility of seeing Great Gray Owl trumped anything we were likely to find in Anchorage in my estimation. 
Up the Glenn Highway we went, making a brief stop at an overlook of the Matanuska Glacier (and snagging a White-winged Crossbill in the process), but otherwise intent on getting to our owl site as quickly as possible. Fifty-odd miles south of our destination, I noticed a small raptor on a wire on the left side of the road. I radioed to Rafael and turned around, fully expecting the bird to be a Merlin. Pulling alongside the bird (which was facing away from us), I raised my binoculars, and was jolted by what I saw—it was a Northern Hawk Owl! We piled out of the vans, locked the bird in our scopes, and then basked in the crippling views of this striking bird (which, by now, had flipped around on its perch to face us) as it pumped its long tail up and down. We seldom score Hawk Owls on the Part I portion of our Grand Alaska tour. They are birds of the taiga and boreal forest, and this part of the tour is usually devoted to treeless tundra at Nome and St. Paul. A quirk of the calendar and the schedule of flights to the Pribilofs had conspired to give us this extra time out of Anchorage, and it had already paid off in a big way with the Hawk Owl. Even on the Part II portion of Grand Alaska, we are not guaranteed of seeing this enigmatic northern predator, whose densities are typically low, and subject to periodic severe fluctuations based upon the boom-and-bust cycles of the vole population.  Reluctantly, we left the Hawk Owl, because the clock was ticking, and Great Gray Owls wait for no one. Imagine our surprise when, just six miles up the road, a second Northern Hawk Owl flew low across the road between our two vans!

Northern Hawk Owl

Northern Hawk Owl— Photo: Kevin Zimmer


Arriving at the campground, I checked in, confirmed that the Great Grays had been located late the previous afternoon, and that no attempt at finding them had yet been made on this morning. Then, and only then, did I reveal the reason for our long haul up to get to this spot. I had not wanted to fan the flames of hope too high, only to have them dashed by cold water should we arrive to the news that the owls could not be located.  Assembling quickly, we met Graham at the site and began hiking, past the now-deserted nest and up onto the spongy shelf of spruce and muskeg beyond. Before long, Graham had located the adult female, and shortly thereafter, we found one of her three fledged youngsters. We settled in and enjoyed watching and photographing mom and toddler for the next hour, but despite careful searching, we could not locate either of the other youngsters, nor the adult male. Nevertheless, it was a spiritual experience to be in the presence of these confiding and majestic birds, and one that none of us shall soon forget. The hour passed quickly, and we had prioritized seeing the owls ahead of having lunch, so grumbling stomachs and increasingly threatening dark skies drove us to leave the campground and start heading back to the south. The weather caught up with us at our lunch stop and ended up chasing us all of the way back to Anchorage. Joe summed it up perfectly when he said, “If you told me that we’d drive 400 miles roundtrip and see two birds [a slight exaggeration], I’d have said it was a horrible day. But if you told me those two birds were Northern Hawk Owl and Great Gray Owl, and that we’d have such great looks at both of them, I’d have said we couldn’t possibly have done any better!”

Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl— Photo: Kevin Zimmer


We finished our tour with a visit to St. Paul Island, one of the five islands in the remote Pribilofs. This year we experienced no weather delays in getting out to St. Paul, and, remarkably, we were to enjoy warm, sunny weather for virtually the duration of our stay.  In fact, the weather was too good! Clearing skies meant that the Hawfinch that had been present just the day before had already taken off, and an absence of winds meant that it was unlikely that any new Asiatic vagrants would be blown over during our short stay. But then again, Asiatic vagrants should always be thought of as a bonus—icing on the cake if you will. If they’re there—terrific, but if they aren’t (and there’s a reason those things are called “accidentals”), hey, the real show, as always, is on the cliffs. We were successful in relocating a vagrant Common Cuckoo that had been present for more than a week, and we enjoyed totally unexpected encounters with Double-crested Cormorant, Bufflehead, and a male Barrow’s Goldeneye, three common species of mainland Alaska that were, nonetheless, real rarities here. Reef and Ridgewall treated us to the dynamism and frenzy that typify seabird cliffs, in the process, netting us superb views of Horned and Tufted puffins, Thick-billed and Common murres, and Parakeet, Crested, and Least auklets, not to mention Northern Fulmars gliding past at eye level, showy Red-faced Cormorants, and a few pairs of nesting Red-legged Kittiwakes amongst the more common Black-leggeds. I particularly enjoyed our scramble up to Zapadni Cliff, my favorite of St. Paul’s many bird cliffs. The convoluted cliff face at Zapadni often allows careful observers point-blank views of the alcids, an experience that I find more impressive with each exposure. 

Tufted Puffin

Tufted Puffin— Photo: Kevin Zimmer


Flocks of elegant Harlequin Ducks frequented several coastal locales, noisy Rock Sandpipers were seen displaying with one wing up across the tundra, and hulking Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches always seemed to pop up wherever we went. An adult Bald Eagle was hanging around the village of St. Paul, and dazzling Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs were constantly in evidence. We particularly enjoyed watching a Pacific Wren delivering one mouthful of insects after another to her hungry brood near the Reef Cliffs.  Northern Fur Seals littered the beaches, as they always do at this time of the year, although their numbers were but a fraction of what can be seen in July and August.  Finally, we lucked onto a couple of distant Yellow-billed Loons (in basic or “winter” plumage), and three Cassin’s Auklets, the latter representing only the third record ever for the island of this alcid species.

It was great fun traveling and birding with each of you, and, as always, Rafael and I genuinely enjoyed sharing the natural history marvels of North America’s last frontier.