Alaska Highlights Jun 15—27, 2017
Posted by Barry Zimmer
“Oh my God, there’s a Gyrfalcon right next to the road being chased by Long-tailed Jaegers!” I yelled, as I brought the van to a quick halt. There aren’t many places around where one can utter those words, but such are the possibilities in Nome, Alaska. Nome is one of my favorite birding places on the planet, and all of the reasons why were on display on this year’s Alaska Highlights tour.
Three roads radiate out from Nome, and we had a full day to cover each one. We started with the Teller Road, running northwesterly and inland through expansive, rolling tundra domes. The Gyrfalcon incident was incredible, as the pair of Long-tailed Jaegers bombarded it for nearly five minutes close by and in circles around our van. But that was just one of many highlights on this road. A massive bull Musk Ox greeted our arrival at the base of the road, posing atop a small hill for incredible photographic opportunities. Next came a pair of Willow Ptarmigan with tiny chicks foraging on the shoulder. At a higher, drier tundra dome some thirty miles out, we encountered Red Knots, American and Pacific golden-plovers (in stunning breeding plumages), and a Northern Wheatear among others. Arctic Warblers sang from the willow thickets next to streams, distracting us from the American Dipper that was nesting under the bridge. A pair of Bar-tailed Godwits rested on a rocky island in the Sinuk River, and a cow moose with calves was spotted on a distant hillside. Further out, we saw a Golden Eagle soaring over the hills to the right of the road. We were pursuing it when the eagle flushed a male Rock Ptarmigan from the slopes. We immediately abandoned the eagle and tried to follow the ptarmigan. A female joined the male in flight, and we watched as they landed about a half-mile up ahead. They landed high upslope, but two of us circled around the birds and were able to herd them downhill to a rocky bank adjacent to the river. There we obtained superb scope studies of this uncommon species. A Rough-legged Hawk, a Merlin, and a few Hoary and many Common redpolls rounded out the highlights. The day on the Teller Road was magical indeed.
Next up was the Council Road running east of Nome along the coast to Safety Lagoon before veering inland toward the tiny town of Council. Most amazing on this day was seeing a group of eight Red-necked Stints at one spot! But as with the Teller Road, there were many memorable moments. Five Eastern Yellow Wagtails at Hastings Creek, great studies of Aleutian Tern at the Nome River mouth, and a Northern Shrike hovering over the tundra were early highlights. At Safety Lagoon, we encountered Tundra Swan; all three scoters; Common Eider; King Eider (a fly-by flock of nine); Black Turnstone; Pacific, Red-throated (abundant), and Common loons; and most incredibly, a Short-tailed Shearwater resting on the water just thirty feet from shore. Further out, we were treated to Peregrine Falcon at a nest site, another Gyrfalcon with a baby also at a nest site, and a perched Golden Eagle sitting atop a tiny spruce. A post-dinner option out this same road netted a rare Arctic Loon and found that the stint flock had grown to an unbelievable 14 individuals!
Read Barry’s full report in his Field List.