Grand Alaska Part I: Nome & the Pribilofs Jun 09—18, 2016

Posted by Kevin Zimmer

Kevinzimmer_resz

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...

Related Trips

Our 2016 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 healthy complement of large mammals (Muskox, Moose, Brown Bear), 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 J. Zimmer

 

This year was no different. The combination of sparse winter snow and an exceptionally early thaw meant that all three of the major roads were open and drivable for their entire lengths, providing access to some of the most exciting birding in North America. It also meant that the landscape was much drier than normal, given that most of the tundra ponds and marshes in this permafrost zone result from melt water that collects on the surface and slowly evaporates through the summer. On a typical early June visit to Nome, there are significant lingering snowfields in the alpine areas, and the exposed tundra is brown in color and very wet. On this trip, there was no snow or offshore ice to greet us, and the tundra was dry and quite green, not brown, with cotton grass (Eriophorum, which is actually a sedge) and an array of wildflowers (the Moss Campion at Salmon Lake and the Alpine Forget-me-nots along the Council Road would get my vote for co-favorites) bursting out all over. We could see the effects of the early spring on the birds as well.  Most migrants had already passed through, and many of the breeding species were further along in their cycles than usual, resulting in fewer singing, territorial birds, and more that were instead, focused upon feeding young. Ptarmigan of both species appeared to be in a “down” year in their population cycles, although their apparent scarcity may have been, at least partly, an artifact of the early spring. As spring advances, these birds “brown-up” and retreat back from the road with the receding snow, making them much harder to detect.

Moss Campion, Nome

Moss Campion, Nome— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

As is usually the case, top honors on the lengthy list of Nome highlights would have to go to our repeated views of dazzling male Bluethroats, a couple of which were in full skylarking display mode. Since discovering the first known nesting pair of Bluethroats in the Nome area (and, by extension, the first Bluethroats in Alaska that tour groups could access by car) on June 11, 1987, we have never failed to produce these beautiful, “chat-like” Old World Flycatchers during our annual Nome visits. 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 day, the kind of weather in which the curlews are seldom very active or conspicuous. Picking off not one, but two different adult male Spectacled Eiders on our last afternoon was a major coup, especially given that the stakeout, subadult male that had spent more than a week at the Hastings Creek mouth had seemingly disappeared just a couple of days before our trip began. The resident breeding pair of Arctic Loons was back in their usual location east of Safety Sound, and was, perhaps, the most important single sighting of our first afternoon (although rivaled by the two different Black Guillemots that we found along the coast that same afternoon). Finding a pair of White Wagtails at Woolley was also a big treat, given that this Beringian species can no longer be counted on to nest with any consistency on the nearby mainland. Not to be overlooked was the presence of three elegant male Eurasian Wigeon that were hanging out with a larger flock of mostly American Wigeon at Safety Lagoon.

Bluethroat

Bluethroat— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

Also noteworthy were the magnificent Gyrfalcons that were nesting on one of the traditional nesting cliffs along the Council Road. The scope views were distant, but still allowed nice detail, and we could even make out at least three, and possibly four downy chicks in the nest. Nice studies of paired Northern Wheatears, numerous flirtations with dapper Eastern Yellow Wagtails, close fly-by views of multiple Aleutian Terns, and the usual assortment of breeding-plumaged loons, waterfowl, shorebirds, and jaegers were just a few of the other expected offerings that occupied our three days in the Nome region, while a gathering of up to 28 Surfbirds, 3–7 Black Turnstones, and 2 Sanderlings loitering in the wrack-line along the beach at Safety Sound for the duration of our stay should only be viewed as a less-than-expected bonus. 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 dispersing 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. The continued presence (they were present, in slightly shifting numbers, for the entire week that our two groups were in Nome) of this many Surfbirds along the coastline suggests to me that these were non-breeders or failed breeders, already fattening up for the southward migration.

Surfbirds

Surfbirds— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

It was a notably great year for Short-eared Owls, which were seen daily, with a single-day peak of 13! We were also treated to an abundance of Arctic Warblers, perennially late migrants that had clearly arrived early this year to breed in the Nome region. As previously noted, ptarmigan were thin on the ground, but we managed to squeeze out a few Willows and a single male Rock Ptarmigan. Northern Shrikes were more conspicuous than usual, and Rusty Blackbirds were actively feeding young in a couple of locales. The road to Woolley Lagoon proved even better than usual for shorebirds, producing a banded Red Knot and a pair of Bar-tailed Godwits in addition to the usual trifecta of Pluvialis plovers and Ruddy Turnstones. In and amongst the many avian highlights, we were also treated to sightings of a lone Grizzly (Brown Bear), multiple herds of Muskox, multiple Moose, and a Short-tailed Weasel among many other mammals.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

Finally, I would be remiss not to mention some rarities that undoubtedly generated more excitement on my part than from anyone else in the group. The rarest of these was a pair of Eastern Phoebes that had been found a week earlier, and which had been seen by our Gambell-Nome tour group. Eastern Phoebe is a rarity anywhere in Alaska, and this pair (which must have migrated north together) represented a first record for the entire Seward Peninsula. Making it even better, the phoebes were actively building a nest in a culvert where the Council Road crosses Hastings Creek. We stopped at Hastings Creek on our first afternoon excursion, and, as advertised, both phoebes were there, perching on the bleached driftwood and making repeated trips to construct the nest, which looked to be about 50% completed. I have since heard, through the grapevine, that the phoebes were feeding young in mid-July, so this extralimital nesting attempt appears to have been a success!

Rock Ptarmigan (male)

Rock Ptarmigan (male)— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

That first afternoon drive also produced three other rarities, two of which had been first discovered by our Gambell-Nome group earlier that morning: a female Bufflehead lingering at the Nome River mouth; a pair of Caspian Terns at Safety Lagoon (presumably the same two birds that we had first found at the Nome River mouth that morning); and a Common Loon in the lagoon complex east of Safety Sound. Caspian Tern has become increasingly regular (although still rare) in south coastal Alaska, but our two birds represented only the 2nd Nome record ever that I’m aware of. While not nearly in the same class of local or regional rarity as the phoebe and the tern, the Bufflehead is, nonetheless, of less-than-annual occurrence in the Nome area, and a bird that I have seen there on only a handful of occasions over 30 years of observation. Similarly, Common Loon is the least common and regular of the five loon species in the Nome area, and is always noteworthy when seen. The same can be said for the four Redheads (3 males and 1 female) that we discovered and photographed east of Safety Sound. These birds are uncommon migrants and breeders in interior eastern Alaska, and become progressively rarer farther west. Interestingly, their past occurrence on the Seward Peninsula has been strongly correlated with drought years in the Alaska interior, a pattern that would appear to fit this year of little snow accumulation combined with a warm, dry spring. Finally, the Great Horned Owls that we saw at Pilgrim Hot Springs represented one of the few area records (and my first in 30 years of Nome visits), and was made all the more exciting by the fact that they had nested, and had fledged a youngster (when I ran into Tom Zimmer at the airport a few days later, he told me that he and his partners had discovered the actual nest, with a second youngster still inside).

Spruce Grouse (hen)

Spruce Grouse (hen)— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

Back in Anchorage, we had a single afternoon of birding the boreal forest zone of Alaska before heading off once more to another treeless part of the Bering Sea region. Topping everything was finding two different Spruce Grouse hens, each with a brood of at least 4–8 downy chicks! Spruce Grouse are widespread in the interior forested parts of Alaska, but they are seldom present in high density, and their furtive nature and cryptic plumage combine to make this one of the toughest to find of Alaska’s resident specialties. After finding the grouse, everything else was “gravy,” and we could relax and enjoy the nesting Red-necked Grebes, magnificent Bald Eagles, and variety of waterfowl at Westchester Lagoon, while continuing to marvel at the abundance of birds and natural beauty within this metropolitan area.

Tufted Puffin

Tufted Puffin— Photo: Brian Gibbons

 

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, but an absence of southwest winds meant that it was unlikely that any 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. 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 among the more common Black-leggeds.

Rock Sandpiper

Rock Sandpiper— Photo: Brian Gibbons

 

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, while dazzling Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs were constantly in evidence. It was particularly nice to find so many Pacific Wrens throughout our stay. These hardy little insectivores are residents of the island, and their numbers get knocked back to near zero with each particularly harsh winter, only to rebound when good breeding conditions are followed by milder winter temperatures. 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 few Yellow-billed Loons and King Eiders, and a lone Red Phalarope and Rhinoceros Auklet, all of which must be rightfully considered as “bonus birds.” All too soon, our Bering Sea adventure had come to an end, and it was time to head back to Anchorage, where Brian and I were prepping for an entirely new group of eager birders, and the start of the Grand Alaska Part II tour.

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