Grand Alaska: Nome & Gambell May 29—Jun 08, 2018

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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A heightened sense of anticipation preceded this year’s Nome-Gambell tour for both Brian and me.  For the first time ever, we had scrambled our usual order of doing things, placing our four days at Nome on the front end of our four days at Gambell.  I had made this change after the 2017 tour, largely in response to ongoing and intensifying climate change, which had resulted in earlier and earlier springs throughout the state over the past two decades.  Sea ice offshore from Nome and Gambell, so prevalent during my early visits to these Bering Sea outposts, have long been a thing of the past, as have roads closed by snow, Safety Lagoon being partly frozen, Salmon Lake being completely frozen, the tundra being brown, etc.  In most recent years, there has been little to no ice or snow to greet our arrival in Nome, and the tundra vegetation is more often already gone green.  With the ever-earlier arrival of spring comes concomitant acceleration of the breeding cycle of the special birds that we come to see.  Migrant shorebirds and waterfowl have largely pushed through already, Bluethroats and Bristle-thighed Curlews are on the downside of their territorial displays, ptarmigan are well into the acquisition of their cryptic brown alternate plumage and so forth.  These are the trends that we’ve been seeing in recent years, and the primary reason that I reconfigured the Grand Alaska program, to get us into the Pribilofs, Nome, and Barrow earlier in the season, to optimize our chances for vagrants, the regular migrants, and some of the more special breeding birds.   It was against this backdrop that we were particularly excited to bird Nome, at a time when there was still significant snow on the ground, ice on the big lakes and lagoons, migrants moving along the coast, and breeders in full-throttle establishment and defense of their territories.  We were not to be disappointed.

Bristle-thighed Curlew

Bristle-thighed Curlew— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer


On our first afternoon drive out the Council Road, we saw 3 Pomarine Jaegers, 40+ Red Phalaropes, and a Pectoral Sandpiper, all migrants that have usually passed through Nome by the time we arrive.  The Red Phalaropes were part of a spectacular assemblage of birds foraging along the wrack line on the beach beyond Safety Sound.  Included in this interspecific feeding frenzy were more than 300 Red-necked Phalaropes, the 40 Reds, 20+ Sanderlings, 6 Surfbirds, a Black Turnstone, and 15 stunning Sabine’s Gulls.  While we were entranced by this spectacle, 2 Black-headed Gulls, vagrants here, flew past us and put down on the water among some Sabine’s Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwakes, and Glaucous Gulls.  It was difficult to pull ourselves away from breeding-plumaged Surfbirds and Sanderlings, and seeing females of the two elegant phalarope species side by side in full breeding dress was even more alluring, but the ticking clock and growling stomachs reminded us that dinner was beckoning.  The stretch of the Council Road that skirts the coastline of Norton Sound from Cape Nome to Solomon is always the most dynamic place for birding in the Nome region and never fails to deliver something good or unexpected.  This year, our time along the coast and the adjacent complex of lagoons produced a pair of Common Loons (rare migrants and the least regular of the five loon species in this area), several close fly-by views of Aleutian Terns, 2 Caspian Terns (rare anywhere in Alaska), a male Eurasian Wigeon, a mixed-species feeding flock of scoters (Surf, White-winged, and Black), multiple Gadwall and Common Goldeneyes (both species being rare migrants to this region), loads of Brant and Cackling Geese on the still partially frozen Safety Lagoon, 2 Buff-breasted Sandpipers (only the second time that I’ve seen this species in Nome in 33 years), and Bar-tailed Godwits (formerly fairly common, but increasingly rare in recent years) to name just a few.

Read Kevin’s full report in his Field Report.