Grand Alaska Part I: Nome & Barrow Jun 07—16, 2018

Posted by Kevin Zimmer

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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 2018 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 Loons

Red-throated Loons— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

This year was no different.  For the first time in recent memory, we had arrived in Nome (albeit a full week earlier than normal, at the front end of our Nome-Gambell tour) to find the region blanketed in snow, with the Kougarok Road plowed only as far as Salmon Lake, and the Council Road still snowed-over on the Nome side of Skookum Pass.  There was still significant ice in Safety Lagoon, and Salmon Lake was completely frozen, all these conditions representing throwbacks to what was pretty much the status quo during the 1980s and 1990s.  Willow Ptarmigan (and, to a much lesser extent, Rock Ptarmigan) appeared to have rebounded in numbers from the lows of recent years, although their relative abundance this season may have been, at least partly, an artifact of the late spring and lingering snow.  With much of the tundra and ambient willow thickets buried in snow, male ptarmigan, still largely outfitted in their winter “whites,” tend to concentrate along the road edges, where they advertise their territories from atop willows and snow mounds.  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 Report.