Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Off to Nome for Curlews and Bluethroats
July 28, 2018
By Steve Grinley
I will continue our Alaskan adventure of a decade ago, with the second leg of our journey:
Our next destination on our Alaskan trip was Nome. Nome is on the Seward Peninsula that reaches into the Bering Sea. It is an old gold rush town, and it looks like it hasn’t change much since its hay-day at the turn of the 19th century. Gold miners still sift for gold along the beaches there. Nome is now famous for being the finish line for the Iditarod Dog Sled Race that starts in Anchorage.
Nome is near the Arctic Circle and we had more than 20 hours of sunlight each day with the sun setting, briefly, around 12:30am. The birding there was some of the best that we experienced on the trip. This time, we were more comfortable in three 15 passenger vans for the twenty of us and our gear. There are three dirt roads that lead out of town and each ends seventy or more miles later at a smaller town.
The road to Council, which headed east along the coast, is the first one that we traveled. Mew gulls were the common gull there, and arctic terns perched on telephone wires! A stop at the mouth of the Nome River produced glaucous-winged and slaty-backed gulls. Further along the road we found a colony of Aleutian terns, another life bird for nearly everyone on the trip. We were searching for Arctic loons, but we came up empty. We did find bar-tailed godwits and several Pacific loons, including one with youngsters riding on its back!
The next day we took the Kougarok Road which headed north into the hills. (Of course, hills is a relative term here, as many of these “hills” were equivalent to the “mountains” of the Berkshires or White Mountains. But these hills were dwarfed by the high mountain ranges that we encountered on much of our trip.) The scenery was spectacular along this road, as was the wildlife. We saw our first grizzly bear of the trip, a moose with calf, and a golden eagle’s nest with eaglets on the side of a cliff. On the down side, we also saw a mew gull eating a young semipalmated plover.
We reached our destination some seventy miles along this road, which was the nesting area for the rare bristle-thighed curlew. It required that we hike up a hill of tundra to search for the one or two pairs that might be nesting there. Now, walking on tundra is not easy. It requires careful stepping around low growing vegetation while trying to avoid the wet areas. We made our way up hill slowly, but it was exhausting nevertheless.
We only saw whimbrels and golden plovers during our first couple of hours. We then decided to split up and one of our groups finally located a pair of curlews on a far ridge. We all made the strenuous hike to that ridge to see the birds, and then had to make the long trek back. We did encounter another pair of curlews on the way down along with good looks at bar-tailed godwits. It was arduous work, just to find our target bird, and a couple of our participants got in trouble from exhaustion and dehydration. A collective effort got everyone off the mountain safely, and with good views of these rare curlews.
On our way back, we were further rewarded with beautiful views of a pair of Bluethroats bringing food to a nest near Salmon Lake. These beautiful birds have bright blue and red on the neck and chest and was the favorite bird of most everyone. Some of us also had life views of hoary redpolls, and a yellow wagtail, while a wandering tattler, similar to our spotted sandpiper, walked the shore of the lake. We also saw our first willow ptarmigans of the trip.
The following day, we took the road to Teller, which is a fishing village on the north side of the peninsula. The song of gray-cheeked thrushes and Arctic warblers accompanied us much of the way. We finally had good looks at Arctic warblers and, after much work, wheatears and rock ptarmigans with chicks. We found Pacific golden plovers, a rough-legged hawk at its nest, and we encountered our first Musk ox of the trip.
When we arrived at Teller, we watched jaegers try to steal fish from the kittiwakes that were feeding offshore. We watched a pair of horned puffins fly by, our first of the trip. We watched the local fishermen casting for salmon from shore. Their pickup trucks were backed up to the shore and as they pulled in a fish, their wives would take the fish and immediately clean it, in seconds, right on the back of the truck. As we drove through town, we could see the fish hanging in the yards to dry, like clothes on a clothes line. Like the birds, the native people here also experience subsistence living.
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