Grand Alaska Part I Jun 09—19, 2017
Posted by Kevin Zimmer
Our 2017 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.
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 Skookum Pass 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.
Read Kevin’s full report in his Field List.