Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Nome Offers Diverse Habitat and Birds
July 01, 2017
By Steve Grinley

     I present you the last leg of the Alaska trip that Strickland Wheelock shares with us, as he leads a group from Mass Audubon Drumlin Farm Sanctuary in early June. His tales of Nome brings back fond memories of my own trip to Alaska. Nome was certainly a highlight:

     “Birding Nome is always the exciting conclusion to any birding trip to Alaska – seeing all these rarities on breeding sites in full breeding plumage, displaying, vocalizing. Nome is located on the south coast of the Steward Peninsula with a subarctic maritime climate which is greatly impacted by the Bering Sea…Basically there are 3 main dirt roads leading out of Nome – each with their special birding highlights and each around 70+ miles long. Fortunately, these roads were graded and relatively smooth to drive.

     “Day one was Teller Road, a road going 73 miles to an Inupiat village on Grantley Harbor. The road often is bordered with small willows, crosses several streams & rivers, and rocky canyons & hills covered with tundra habitat. At the start of the road, progress was crazy slow as we were determined to show everyone all the passerines. Bird song was all around us – Gray-cheeked Thrushes singing everywhere [from telephone lines to the shrubs]. Along with the thrushes were Northern Waterthrushes, Yellow, Blackpoll, Wilson & Orange-crowned Warblers, Fox & White-crowned & Golden-crowned & Lincoln & Savannah & American Tree Sparrows, Common & Hoary Redpolls, and Lapland Longspurs. Basically, no matter which road you travel, these species are everywhere.

     “Some of the interesting species enjoyed on the way were Willow Ptarmigan, American & Pacific Golden Plovers, Whimbrel, Sandhill Cranes, sky larking American Pipits, Short-eared Owl, Northern Harrier, Rough-legged Hawk, Merlin, Golden Eagle, and Wandering Tattler. Red-throated Loons were in most every small pond along with several species of ducks and Red-necked Phalaropes. [We had] several close looks at Long-tailed & Parasitic Jaegers sitting on the tundra or harassing other birds – although a Rusty Blackbird was dive-bombing a Long-tailed Jaeger. Wilson Snipe were calling & displaying, Northern Ravens, American Dippers, Cliff and Tree Swallows. The highlight was when we reached Teller where we had both White & Eastern Yellow Wagtails! In the harbor were Common Eiders, Harlequin Ducks, Pelagic Cormorants, and Bald Eagles.

     “Day two was Council Road – a road going 72 miles to the small village of Council located on the Niukluk River. The road follows along the coast bordered by the small willows, many roadside dredge ponds left over from the gold rush days, tundra, Nome River plus Safety Sound – basically the best road for shorebirds, gulls, terns and vagrants. Immediately at the mouth of the Nome River we located a colony of Aleutian Terns mixed with some Arctic Terns. Along with the terns were many Black-legged Kittiwakes, Western Sandpipers plus two participants found a Red-necked Stint that had been seen the previous night…

     “Highlights besides the Aleutian Terns were close up looks at Arctic Warblers that had just arrived, then on a cliff face, eye level almost and close to the road, was a parent Golden Eagle with 3 babies. Near the end of the road we saw another Varied Thrush along with many more passerines.

     “Day three was the famous birding road – the Kougarok Road that is 84 miles in length. Unfortunately the fog was a real issue in the beginning as we drove along hearing & seeing now all the passerines plus many more Arctic Warblers. As we were working our way along and listening to a Bluethroat, a key target bird, singing, Kathy Seymour was able to scope this stunning songbird in the fog [as it] teed up on a shrub. Hoary Redpolls were sitting in the shrubs just yards from the windows as we drove, Willow Ptarmigans and Golden Plovers in the tundra, Golden Eagles soaring, etc. However, there was another key species – the Gyrfalcon – who was nesting on a cliff face now completely covered in fog which we hoped would clear on the return trip. 

     “Finally we reached mile 72 which is the Coffee Dome – home of the breeding Bristle-thighed Curlew – the main target bird in Nome. The challenge is that you have to hike about 40 minutes up the dome on very uneven, wet tundra – plus the fog. Once up there, the walking is more even as you search for these birds. Up there are … the very similar looking Whimbrels. The Curlew has a very different call and quickly we heard them calling. Then one flew and landed close to us to view in the scope – what a sense of accomplishment for all to see this bird so well. 

     “Things even got better as the fog lifted back at the cliffs where the Gyrfalcon was nesting. We quickly found the nest with 3 white plump babies but no adults. As we watched a Rough-legged Hawk soar by a nearby cliff [where it was nesting], suddenly the male Gyrfalcon came out of nowhere and started dive bombing the hawk and shortly landed on a rock for scope looks at this handsome falcon. Lucking as I was scanning a speck up in the sky, this speck went into a dive disappearing behind the cliff and then quickly the female Gyrfalcon arrived at the nest with a kill. We watched this mother rip apart the kill and feed the babies who were scrambling over each other for the meat – an experience no one will forget! Guess we can say we saw 5 Gyrfalcons this day [which is rarely said]!”

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
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Newburyport, MA 01950
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