There's No Place Like Nome - June 4-11th
I have always wanted to go to Nome and I finally made it. Me, myself and I went this June 4th for a week. It's a very expensive place (esp. for a Canadian in this exchange rate) and gas is 5$ a gallon so I had to save up for quite some time for this trip. I had to do a lot of planning because things book up there close to a year in advance. Everyone wants to go the first two weeks of June to see all the breeding birds. It was all worth it even with the horrendous mosquitoes. This is truly the best place I've ever birded in my life and not only that, the scenery and animals like Muskox are fantastic to look at. I've been dreaming of seeing Muskox for so long!
The moment I got off the plane after a full day of travel on Alaska Air from Vancouver to Seattle to Anchorage and then to Nome via Kotzebue, I was exhausted. When the plane landed in Kotzebue it was the first time I'd ever been north of the Arctic circle. There was a little snow on the ground in places but it was very warm. Warmer in the air than Vancouver when I left it actually. My bag was packed with down jackets and long sleeves shirts and long johns. The weather was projected to be 4-10C without the wind chill when I left but when I got there, it was at least 20C!
Muskox were hanging close to town and Red-necked Phalaropes, Long-tailed Ducks and Red-throated Loons were abundant. Aleutian, Arctic Terns and Glaucous Gulls flew overhead. I knew at this moment it was a special place that I would never forget.
The Inuit as we call them in Canada and Eskimo people as the Americans call them here were very friendly. The preferred most respectful term for these Indigenous people in Nome is Inupiat or Inupiaq. Most of the Inupiaq still hunt here for survival also the price of food here which is brought by plane and boat is ridiculously expensive. The Inupiaq hunt whales, seabirds, gather and collect seabirds eggs (I watched them collect Mew Gull and Loon eggs), collect herbs, seeds and plants and hunt seals, walrus, muskox, bear and caribou etc. They use the Qiviut (wool) of the Muskox and hides from other animals like seals and caribou for clothing and boats. Subsistence hunting is a way of life here even in 2017.
I watched many children out late at night playing past midnight. While I was birding around a local park I spoke to a father there and he said the kids only see light for so little during the cold snowy winter so he lets them go outside late in the summer. It's a tough life not for the faint of heart.
Many of the Inupiaq are marginalized there in similar situations to our First Nations in Canada. Drug and alcohol abuse, fetal alcohol syndrome and suicide is prevalent in this isolated place. Climate change is playing a major role in their society nowadays and is affecting their traditional way of life especially around subsistence hunting which they are so dependant on. There were many people there talking about Trump's ridiculous views on climate change (he believes it doesn't exist). Maybe he should visit the Arctic?
While I was birding and saw some Inupiaq collecting eggs from Red-throated Loons and Mew Gulls that were sitting on their nests, they were confronted by some birders who did not respect their cultural and legal right to gather and collect eggs. Well after a shouting match where the birders were called racists and told off one of the young Inupiaq woman said I'm tired of being treated like a second class citizen. Unfortunately in 2017 in the US and Canada they and all indigenous people are still treated as such by society and in government. They still suffer systematic racism. Even on some reserves they do not have potable water which is unbelievable that they live in third world conditions in the western world, especially since they were the First Peoples in this land.
I also witnessed a disturbing event of two young Inupiaq men shooting Tundra Swans as target practice and goading birders about how they hate Swans. This was disturbing to see one because the animals were suffering and wounded and they were all dead or dying for nothing as the birds were left and not collected for meat. Second not to excuse the behaviour but I also felt sad for the young men who are obviously suffering from boredom and other emotional problems most likely due to marginalization.
In AK I learned that 25% of the indigenous population lives below the poverty line and in Nome that number is 7%. However, the houses in Nome were quite nice in comparison to some Indigenous communities I have been to. Plus Nome has areas that are tribal villages you can't go on like where the King Islanders live off the Teller Hwy but the city is made up of Caucasian people as well who make up 38% of the population. Many of the Inupiaq people feel disconnected from their culture since in school they were not allowed to speak their own language and Elders who fluently speak the language are passing away. Many years ago they were only permitted to use English in school and if they spoke their own tongue they were hit. This is similar to our old deplorable residential schools in Canada. In Nome students are now learning the Inupiaq language which helps carry on their culture and identity and young men are learning from Elders the way to carve Ivory sculptures from Walrus tusks. Many tourists buy these Ivory pieces from the lone gift shop in town as it is one of the few places in the world you can still buy legal Ivory. The animal is not killed solely for Ivory as in the poaching that goes on in Africa but the Inupiaq use the whole carcass for meat and the hide for boats etc. I wonder how much money from each Ivory sale in Nome makes it back to the original artist? I'm guessing not much.
Nome is a special place with special people like the Inupiaq with their amazing culture and impressive skill and strength to survive in the harsh climates and it is where the end of the famous Iditarod dog sled race ends.Of course it holds many specialty birds you can't see anywhere else in North America, like the Arctic Warbler. I was able to see all the sought after breeders here Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Bluethroat, Bristle-thighed Curlews, White Wagtail, Northern Wheatear etc but more on that later.
When the taxi pulled up to my hotel the Dredge 7 Inn I was pleasantly surprised with how it looked but for 250$ Cad a night I was hoping for concierge service... I jest. (On a side note this hotel is lovely inside but I do not recommend it due to poor management and a rude owner. This owner tried to scam and overcharge myself and 4 others by increasing the room rate without telling us and who spoke to guests in a horrible manner.
Only with a lot of back and forth and assertiveness and calling my bank in Canada did I get the charges reversed which was a hassle. The best place to book and stay at is the Aurora Inn or Angel Camp by the Sea B&B.
All the hotels rent cars but be sure to book this about a year in advance as getting a car is no easy task. There are not many hotels and not many cars. Even if you do get a car make sure it's a working one. A few people at my hotel got such a crappy truck it would barely work all the engine lights were on and tires had lots of patches and it kept going flat. He paid 75$ to have it replaced but then the patch didn't hold. Without a car in Nome you can't do much so make sure you get one. Also if anything happens to you and your car on those 3 summer gravel roads that are 72 miles or longer one way , you are hooped. Cell phones don't work on most of the outer roads. The roads are all gravel and can be quite rough with potholes in spots as well, so a good working car is essential.
As I said, the exchange rate is poor right now so it all worked out very costly. One week in Nome was way more than three weeks I recently did in TX but as my friends Mike Tabak and Thor Manson told me, life is too short to worry about money. For the Inupiaq people here that may not hold true.
I've been asked to describe Nome's city it's hard for me to do but let's just say I did not find it very pretty and it was very dusty. One guy from WA there described it as a ugly Ocean Shores another described it as Skid Row. Perhaps he said this as you do see some drunk people around the many bars in the downtown core. Most are sadly of the marginalized Native population that travel to Nome from dry villages.
I would not say it's skid row at all but most of the houses are older wooden houses. Almost all of the houses there have a chained up dog . Most of the town buildings , like many of the homes, look tired and in need of renovation and painting. I would say not to judge a book by it's cover though, for instance, husky restaurant looked awful and derelict on the outside but when you went inside it was lovely and had great food.
On a positive note all the birders in town bring much needed money to the city. I met a gold miner at Milano's Restaurant where I had dinner the first night (great food by the way, choices are very limited in town).
He stars in the show on the discovery channel called "Bering Sea Gold" that is filmed in Nome. He is originally from Calgary but is a dual citizen. He said he hates living here because it's a tough life but the money is too good in gold mining. The price of gold is very high and Nome is still an active gold mining town. They call the beaches here "golden beaches." Divers like the guy I met take small dredgers out in the water and dive for gold using suction cup technology. In the colder months he has to use a chainsaw to cut through the ice to get to the gold. It's a dangerous career.
After putting down my stuff I headed out for a short look around. Just around town I saw a Pacific and American Golden-Plover,Common and Hoary Redpolls, Grey-cheeked Thrushes, Yellow Warblers and Savannah Sparrows.
I decided to head to bed after hearing from my friend Randy Walker who was here with his brother Rob (unfortunately we were never able to connect as they left a day after I got there) that he had an Arctic loon, emperor geese, bristle-thighed curlew, rock and Willow Ptarmigan, white and yellow wagtail, horned puffin and bluethroat. He had not seen some of the reported rarities: Lesser Sand Plover , Grey-tailed Tattler, Great Knot, Common Ringed Plover, Ross's or Ivory Gull. My number one goal was to get that Ross's Gull and Ivory but I wasn't going to hold my breath.
It was so hot that first night that I slept with the window open. As I stared at my ceiling I noticed it was decorated with Muskox wool. I didn't get much sleep though, as the tied up dogs that were chained to outdoor dog houses at almost every property all day long (not much of a life) barked all through the night.
My curtains blacked out all light for the most part and I wore a sleeping mask and ear plugs. These are essential to your sleep as birders come and go all day and night in the hotel and same with cars and people outside. In the short summer in Nome it seems no one sleeps in the land of the midnight sun. Also, the birds sing loud all night when you are trying to sleep, especially the Grey-cheeked Thrushes right outside my window.
I recommend two book guides for your trip: The Nome Guide by the Alaska Dept of Fish and Game (essential!) and the Alaska ABA guide. Also during your stay keep checking ebird rarity alerts for Nome County. Don't forget to stop in at the Aurora Inn to view the written sightings for the day. All the bird groups stay here and they have a sightings board in the lobby.
In the morning, I was eager to get up and look at the shorebirds we see in Vancouver on their breeding grounds. I picked up some bear spray (can't bring it on the plane) and left town. I started on the Council Rd. I made my first stop at the Nome River Bridge where I picked up a lifer Aleutian Tern. I watched the Aleutian and Arctic Terns diving for fish in the river. As I continued down the road I saw many Common Eiders (another lifer) in gorgeous breeding plumage. I met up with some American friends and saw several Semi-palmated Sandpipers displaying. A Red Fox stopped and stared at us while Lapland Longspurs serenaded us.
The mosquitoes here were so awful. When the wind died down it was like stepping into a hive of bees, with the constant buzzing and stinging bites. I was very glad to have my mosquito head net and gloves and tons of bug spray with deet. Only the headnet and gloves worked. The Deet sprays did not though, as they were relentless, even biting through pants. When I go back I will be buying the full mesh jacket and pants bug protective set to wear.
At Safety Sound I stopped and had Arctic Loon, Horned Puffin and all the other 4 Loon Species. I'd finally got my lifer Arctic Loon. As I continued on I saw the infamous train to nowhere that had now partially sunk into the wet tundra.
I went up 1500 feet and saw much more snow here. The landscape was so impressive and then I saw a small herd of Muskox. Seeing these guys in Nome trip was my first time seeing this species. I have always wanted to see these mammals that are related to sheep and goats (even though they look like Mini long haired Bison). I stepped out of the car and got some photos of these gorgeous creatures. They touched foreheads with each other in an amazing sign of affection and fell asleep on the ground after grazing. I felt blessed to witness this.
I drove all the way to the end of the road to the small village of Council. As you get near Council you go through a Boreal Forest. Here I picked up a male Rusty Blackbird perched by the car. Other good birds here were Boreal Owl, White-winged Crossbill, Boreal Chickadee and Gray Jay.
In the evening when I got back to town I decided to walk out into the tundra because I saw a gorgeous Long-tailed Jaeger sitting in a field. He was hovering and landing searching for food. He let me approach close and at one point he was flanked by a Whimbrel and male Lapland Longspur. The male Longspur allowed for fabulous shots as he belted out his song. A Rough-Legged Hawk and Short-eared Owl flew overhead.
Suddenly, I noticed a Parasitic and Long-tailed Jaeger dive bombing a male Willow Ptarmigan far in the distance. I still wonder what that was about.
I walked out to the Ptarmigan and he was making his funny sounding calls each time that the Jaegers dive bombed him. All were oblivious to my presence. The Ptarmigan was constantly trying to shake off the unrepentant mosquitoes, just as I was. I got my shots at midnight after the Ptarmigan had his fill of fluffy willow buds and he fell asleep. I had a long walk back to the car and all the while I was getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. At this point I had been birding for 18 hours straight (which I ended up doing my whole stay pretty much - so much to see and so little time). I was tired but the light was great and I wanted to take advantage of it. The best light for photography was around 1 am.
I went to East End Park which is on the edge of town where there are a couple of small ponds. Here I photographed a singing Grey-cheeked Thrush, breeding plumaged Long-tailed Ducks, Red-throated Loons, Western Sandpipers and Red-necked Phalaropes that began mating in front of me.
There are four main restaurants and a Subway in Nome and two small grocery stores. The restaurants are the Polar Cafe, Milano's, Husky and the Bering Sea. They serve both western and Italian in addition to Korean, Japanese and Chinese cuisine.
Since food must come by boat or air a 5$ sub in Vancouver is about 14$ US here. Dinners in the restaurant average 25-35$ US. The food was very good in all the restaurants. The Polar Cafe was extremely busy with birders every morning for breakfast. Many birders chatted over their sightings here some had just come back from Barrow,St Paul and Gambell on St Lawrence Island and a few from Russia! I kind of wished I had taken the 1 hour plane ride to Russia but oh well you must get your visa well ahead of time so I would have needed to prepare for it. It would have been great to go there with Ilya who can speak the language. Surprisingly flights were not expensive at all. A lot of people were talking about all the amazing rarities they had seen at Gambell and all the trash on the ground there and how the Native people there were destitute. Every day I would check ebird and see my friend Paul Lehman just racking in the most incredible rarities every day. This rarity streak was going on for quite some time as my friend Paul Prappas was in Gambell at the end of May and got many at that time as well. Nome wasn't having such luck.
The next day I got up and drove the Kougarok Rd (the Rd that takes you to the curlews). At mile 11, I heard the distinctive call of a Arctic Warbler. I got out and got a photo of it. It was not easy and took me several hours with many breaks in between of waiting in the baking heat and mosquitoes. They are extremely hard to photograph as they are flitting around everywhere and travel hundreds of metres in seconds. I drove on and at mile 21 found some more birds but they were even less accommodating than the previous one. I gave up and just watched and listened to them it was far more pleasant. Some people call them drab but I found them very beautiful. I noticed many listers just stop and tick the bird and barely looked at it anxiously looking for the prized Bluethroat. The Arctic Warbler is the only old world Warbler (that is part of the leaf warblers) that is found in North America and AK is the only place you can see it.
One man who had mobility issues and was hearing impaired stopped by asking if I had a Bluethroat or Arctic Warbler when I was standing staring at the bush with my camera, tripod and bins in hand. He was thrilled when I got him on the Warbler. About 1 hour later he came back to me in his car so excited and told me he had a bluethroat at mile 27. I was so happy for him that he got his targets. I went there and sure enough it was a male there singing and displaying.
This is probably the most stunning bird I've ever seen in my life and one I was hoping to see as all birders do who come to Nome. The rufous tail, white eyebrow and the red, white and blue on the throat and chest is something to behold.
I noticed at the Arctic Warbler and Bluethroat spots at mile 21 and 27 had cairns placed there for birders to be alerted to the spot. This is good and bad as it's wonderful to help out other birders but the bluethroat and Arctic warblers were endlessly taped. The Bluethroat at mile 27 was essentially taped to death. I was surprised he was responding at all after all the tape playing. Later on during my stay I found a lone Bluethroat he eventually posed right in front me (over the course of a few days) and I was all alone with the bird which was very nice. I went back to that lone bird over three days and was able to watch his natural behaviour and photograph him. It took three days to get a decent shot of him. He was harder to photograph than any other bird I've ever photographed. Without playing a tape it's a waiting game and a painful one but it was worth it. Take your patience to Nome if you plan on photographing birds there.
Seeing the Arctic Warbler and Bluethroat were one of my top highlights. I ended up seeing 8 Bluethroats along that one road (including 2 at Salmon Lake) and 10 Arctic Warblers.
While driving on the Kougarok Rd I was inspired by the gorgeous beauty of the tundra and snowy Kugliak Mountains. At one point I thought I had a polar bear (they are rarely sighted in Nome) but it was a completely white Grizzly Bear. I have seen many Grizzlies but never one this white! He looked as white as the BC Black "Spirit" Bears. I almost wondered at the time if he was a hybrid with a Polar Bear as they do exist but looking at him all his features were spot on for Grizzly. Also along this road I saw a Parasitic Jaeger kill and eat a Golden-crowned Sparrow. Northern Harriers flew over and Blackpoll, Wilson's and Yellow Warblers sang their hearts out with accompanying Red Fox Sparrows, American Tree and Golden and White-crowned sparrows. I also saw 40 muskoxen with 9 adorable calves here. The calves almost look like small cute wild boars.
I've been to Alaska a few times but the furthest north I ever went was Skagway and boy it was nothing like Nome. I've never been anywhere quite like it and I've been to the Yukon. It's a truly amazing and captivating place.
The best thing to do when you come to Nome is if you see a birder looking intently through his or her scope or bins stop and ask what they are looking at. Everyone I met this way was so friendly and we exchanged information and both parties ended up happy. For instance I helped a lady who was looking for Emperor Geese and Bar-tailed Godwits and she helped me find Eastern Yellow-Wagtails and Northern Wheatears. I met people from all around the world this way Sweden, Japan, Australia etc.
One thing to know about Alaska at this time of year is that your skin will completely dry out here and turn ashen. So make sure you drink a lot of water and reapply lotion often and bring Chapstick. Make noise and stay out of the dense Willows (especially by the rivers) where moose and bear frequent. Carry bear spray at all times if you leave the car and hike more than 50 feet from your vehicle. Make sure you know how to use the bear spray and I don't just mean watch a 3 min YouTube video. That bear spray can save your life but it's virtually useless if you don't know how to use it quickly and effectively. It's surprising how you can be standing in front of a Willow and the Grizzly bear be literally right there amongst them so don't be fooled.
Make sure you wear hiking boots that are waterproof and have gortex pants and waterproof boots. That dry looking tundra holds a lot of moisture and is a lot more difficult to walk in than it looks, you can't move that fast in it.
Also bring tons of snacks with you to Nome. There is no going back into town for lunch unless you seriously want to cut down on your birding days and increase your driving times and gas costs. Don't buy most snacks at a grocery store as they are double the price as back home. Buy sandwich supplies at the store so you can pack a lunch daily. You can save more money by buying dinners at the grocery store to cook at your hotel instead of paying to eat out each day which is pricey. First aid kid and emergency blanket should be with you , flare, matches and at least a bear bell if you don't want to carry Spray. Another tip is to book your Alaska Air flight (only airline that goes to Nome) online on cyber Monday. This can save you hundreds of dollars. A scope is essential for seabird watching so make sure you have one. You can rent one if you don't own one.
Also, I found the birds there challenging to photograph especially the ducks, eiders and swans that are hunted. All these birds are extremely skittish. I recommend a 500 or 600 mm lens. I used a canon lens (100-400mm). It really didn't have enough reach for most birds even with the 1.4 teleconverter on it. A tripod that can get wet is essential because you have to take many birds that are in the water and you need to go in the water and sit so that's why you have gortex pants or waders and boots. A tripod is also essential because of the long waiting times. Don't forget extra 64gb SD cards and extra batteries as you can't buy any in town. A good thing to have is a camera battery car charger you can get for 30$ from Amazon.You need a lot of patience and if you held your camera for that long your arm would fall off! My friends were shooting with a 600mm and a 2X converter. I used this personal bird blind by lens coat for 120$ US and it is essential in my books to photograph birds properly in Nome.
You can buy it HERE
The next day I returned to Kougarok Rd to mile 72 to hike for the Bristle-thighed Curlews! Thanks to Matt and Court Cameron for giving me such excellent directions. You hike up a hill opposite to "Coffee Dome Hill." It was not a lifer for me but one of my top AK birds as it is for any birder who comes here for the first time. You can't see them anywhere but Alaska and Hawaii pretty much in the US. I climbed up a steep hill over deep ruts and tundra that seemed to move under my feet like bowling balls. It definitely was an ankle twisting hike and I fell a few times going up haha. It was also wet so it's best for people to wear waterproof hiking boots. It took me 45 mins to reach the top and my Fitbit said it was equivalent to walking 35 flights of stairs. On the way up I took my time looking at American Golden-Plovers in breeding, Whimbrels and Lapland Longspurs.
When I got to the crest of the hill this guy waved me over as I got closer I saw it was Jon Dunn. Jon is a well known birder and the author of the Birds of North American field guide by National Geographic. I had actually met him at breakfast that same morning at the Polar Cafe. He had found a Bristle-thighed curlew and was waiting to show it to me. I quickly got on it with bins. He then let me look at it with a scope. Another flew in and they began to sing their distinctive call/song. A few Whimbrel flew in as well and you could really hear the difference between the two. Also, when they stood side by side the Whimbrel was paler on the back and the Bristle-Thighed had much more contrast. In flight we saw the diagnostic rump colours. Bristle-thighed Curlews have buff coloured rumps and the Whimbrels have a brown rump.
After that Jon asked me to walk with him and his large (21 people!) "Wings" group and we ended up getting 8 Bristle-thighed Curlews.
Later, Gavin Bieber who was also guiding spotted a male Rock Ptarmigan in gorgeous breeding plumage (almost all white). We got great views of it and then left. When I followed them back down the hill I was hoping to not twist an ankle or fall down the hill. They went down an easy trail with no ankle twisting possibilities. Too bad I didn't find this trail on the way up!
It was a magical experience and I highly recommend a "Wings" tour with Jon Dunn if you like group tours. Gavin Bieber who was with Jon was beyond excellent as well and he spotted a Ross's Gull later that day. Of course I wasn't there! Before getting in the car I saw large flocks of Greater White-fronted Geese fly over.
As I drove out I noticed three American Golden-Plovers around mile 64. I got out to photograph it.
It was neat sitting on the tundra with a couple of stunning males as they foraged for food between gorgeous alpine flowers.
Around Mile 60 it was sad to see a grizzly bear take two young moose calves. The fight happened right off the main road. The mother tried to trample him and was running back and forth in distress but the grizzly stood up and swatted her and ran and grabbed her two calves and began eating them on the river bank. The grizzly needs to eat but boy it was hard to listen to the calves cry out as they were torn apart and watch the mother pace back and forth for a full hour. It was heartbreaking to feel this sentient animal's distress. She finally crossed the river and left when she realized she was defeated and her calves had stopped crying. The Grizzly remained over the carcasses of her babies. I've never seen anything quite like it. This was also sad for another reason, according to AK Fish and Game the Moose population is extremely depleted and is dropping fast since 2010. The main reason that this is occurring is due to Grizzly bears killing calves. Nature is beautiful but can be so cruel and powerful.
When I got back to town I went to the harbour in search of a White Wagtail tip and I did find it. There was also a Spotted Seal here lying on the beach. I then sat down with a cooperative Arctic Tern and a not so cooperative Sabine's gull and multiple Black-legged Kittiwakes. I got some nice shots of the Arctic Terns in flight as he let me walk right under him.
Later on that evening after a 19 hour birding day, on Council Rd I got views of a nice Red-throated Pipit, Slaty-backed Gull, Eurasian Wigeon, Semipalmated Plover, Kittlitz's Murrelet (very cool to see here) and all 5 loon species again. I stopped in at Hastings Creek Lagoon and spotted two threatened Spectacled Eiders swimming, I almost fell over as that's pretty uncommon. It was a fantastic day.
The last place I stopped was Teller Rd. Here I got to see Inupiaq people swimming in the river. It was so frigid I don't know how they did it. A Northern Wheatear was along the road and a Pacific and American golden Plover in breeding plumage plus a few Short-eared owls, many Long-tailed and Parasitic jaegers and a Peregrine Falcon was sitting on the famous "House Rock." It was a great way how to end the day.
The next morning I went straight to Hastings Creek where I saw 3 Eastern Yellow Wagtails I dipped on the day before. As they hovered for food I was able to get a photo of the male. It was a lifer for me. I stopped by small lagoons on the side of the roads that held many Tundra Swans, Red-necked Phalropes, Long-tailed and Scaup and Red -throated Loons. On the rivers I saw Red-breasted and Common Mergansers and had a Northern Shrike hunting in a nearby field.
As I stopped on the side of the road along Council Rd near mile 53 a dog came running up to me and cowering so I gave him a pet and a snack. I then walked 50 m down the trail into the willows to photograph an old dredger (I had bear spray and a bear bell) but within 5 mins this man whistled for his dog and screamed "do you have a gun on you?." thought maybe I was trespassing so I lifted my hand and showed the camera and said I'm just taking a photo and he said "ok you gotta get out of there I had 4 Grizzlies there about 5 mins ago and they are still there" and he waved his hand gun and said I have been firing shots all morning. He said hunting season just ended so all the bears are down by the rivers now. It's the most dangerous time to be going 50 feet off the road.
So I thanked him and left. I spotted the bears as I climbed into the car and we had literally almost been holding hands.I'm bear aware but it's a stark reminder for myself and everyone that we are in grizzly country and it's their place not ours. After seeing a grizzly take on an adult moose and win I'd never have a chance. From then on I made sure to stay close to the road along the riverways at all times.
On my way back into town at mile 15 there was an idiot photographer walking out with a 600 mm lens right up to a bull Muskox I left because I didn't want to see him be gored. Another idiot had taken a calf into town. I found out it was ultimately rejected after three reintegration attempts and sadly sent to live it's life out at a zoo. Mike Toochin told me in Nome he saw a lady try to pull the wool off a Muskox in a field. I am not sure what all these people were thinking. These animals can be extremely aggressive and deserve our respect at all times.
At mile 25 at the Safety Sound Bridge I met a young man Justin from Nevada. He said to me as I pulled up in the parking lot that he had an Ivory Gull behind him so I ran over and could not find it. It had flown! I was so disappointed. This was a bird I wanted so bad and then he gave me more good and bad news. He was looking at a Ross's Gull 15 mins before I got there in front of him but could not relocate it. Oh and he had a Grey-tailed Tattler at mile 16.6 an hour ago. He had the best birding day of his life and I was happy for him he was a super nice guy. I just wish I was beside him at the time of all his sightings!
I spent hours there looking for all three and he helped me as well but no luck! I was pretty sad as the Ross's Gull is my most wanted of all birds. The Ivory is my second and the Tattler would be gravy. This spot Safety Sound was a fantastic birding spot. At low tide I ended up seeing gorgeous King and Spectacled Eiders here. I also saw a striking Red-necked Stint and Rock Sandpiper both in their fancy breeding colours. The day before someone had a Black-headed Gull. (This Gull was the only rarity in Nome I got unless you count Emperor Goose as rare as well. Frankly the Spectacled Eiders I saw is more rare.
This area is near the Safety Sound Roadhouse which is the last checkpoint for the famous Iditarod dog sled race. If you drive around Nome you will surely see large stick crosses which are the sign markers for the famous sled race.
The next day I decided to head out that way again to try for those rarities. I had no luck so decided to drive up into the mountains. In a pass I found a male Semipalmated Plover in breeding plumage amongst the beautiful purple tundra flowers. He was high up on a freezing windy mountain. It was something special to sit there with him in that rocky setting. A Merlin flew fast overheard but didn't seem to notice the plover. I looked for some Wheatears here but surprisingly could not spot any.
As I was sitting there with the male Plover an Inupiat man came up to me and asked if I liked birds. I said I did and he said well I know where a Golden Eagle nest is and I'll take you.
So I followed him and lo and behold in a location I won't name (as he asked me to keep it quiet, so the chicks are not endangered). There was the nest 10 feet off the ground and at eye level just like he told me. I used the car as a blind and got some shots of the 2 chicks. I sat there until the adult came back. When the stunning female came back she sat on the nest sheltering her chicks from the wind. She kept a watchful eye on us the whole time. I did not want to stress her so I took a few shots and left. It was beautiful to see that magnificent creature. That was a surreal moment I've never been as close to Golden Eagles like this before. I was grateful this wasn't a well known spot and couldn't imagine what a madhouse it would be if this happened in Vancouver.
I left and thanked the gentleman and we both went on our ways. I felt that this moment here made up for missing a Ross's, Ivory Gull and Grey-tailed Tattler. When one door closes another opens. This moment was the most special moment I've ever had with any bird, in any place, in all my life.
On the way back to the hotel just before the Safety Sound Bridge I spotted 2 beautiful Emperor Geese sitting on the beach. I took a record shot and then they were gone just like that. There was a woman from Winthrop, WA that I kept running into everywhere who was looking for Emperor Geese I wished she was near me at the time. She unfortunately never ended up seeing them.
I finished the evening with great views of Semipalmated Sandpipers and Lapland Longspurs doing aerial displays and Horned Larks singing in the background.
I decided to go back out that same evening and look for the Gulls and tattler and I was unsuccessful yet again sadly but I did get good looks off Cape Nome at a lifer Black Guillemot he was in mottled breeding plumage making it hard to identify because I couldn't rule out Pigeon since he would not fly or preen. I ended up going back and relocating him later on to get a look at the under wings even though some great birders confirmed it as one just to be sure. I also had 2 Thick-billed Murres, many Black-legged Kittiwakes, 2 close to shore Pacific Loons and a Pelagic Cormorant on the Bering Sea across from the Quarry. This was my longest birding day and I took some photos at 3 am of the moon and the sunset that had set for what was to be maybe 2-3 hours but it was still bright outside just with a pink hue to the sky and there was a full moon. It would be strange again to see the black night back in Vancouver.
That day I birded 20 hours and was completely exhausted with a headache. I definitely pushed myself too far. If you go remember to pace yourself and try and get a proper nights sleep, pull over and take short naps in your car preferably with the engine not running.
The next morning I slept in and got rested and went out on the Teller Highway to see what I could find. I stopped at Cripple Creek at mile 16 and saw Harlequins and Scaup in the river and a Wandering Tattler. I also ended up seeing several Willow Ptarmigans both male and female at several spots along the road and a few Pacific and American Golden-Plovers, Whimbrel and 3 Northern Wheatears. The Northern Wheater males were doing display flights. It was so cool seeing this bird that flies back and forth from there to Africa. They didn't sit long for photos as they were chasing each other through the rocks here at the start of Wooley Lagoon Rd. I planned to go down to the Lagoon but the King Islanders Tribe has restricted "permit only access" now which my guide books were too old to know about. I had not secured the permit and didn't trespass.
Anyways in this stretch of land here held gorgeous lichen covered rocks, a rushing stream, Long-tailed Jaegers sitting on fence posts, American and Pacific-Golden Plovers, Whimbrel, Western Sandpipers and an Arctic Tern. I collected drinking water here as many of the locals do. It is thought to have healing powers I was told. I headed into the little sea town of Teller and found 2 White Wagtails one in the cemetery and one at the sewage lagoons. Ask permission before birding the cemetery.
On the way out at mile 40 on the Teller Hwy, I saw two men looking through scopes so I slowed down and asked what they had and they told me they had 2 Bar-tailed Godwits, Pacific Golden-Plover, Whimbrel and Willow Ptarmigan. I was excited especially about the Godwits so I pulled over and joined them. It was fantastic to see the males in stunning bright red breeding plumage. All of a sudden a female popped up out of the tall grass and then another here and there and then they all picked up and flew after thirty minutes. By this time I had counted a total of 14 Bar-tailed Godwits in flight. This was a personal high count for my life, what a sight!!
The rain began to pour (the only one day it rained during my trip). I decided to go to a location they told me about that had a nesting Gyrfalcon and Chicks. I got there at the spot they gave me (I wont say where as promised) and sure enough there was a stunning white morph Gyrfalcon with her chicks. I have never seen a wild white morph before and it lives up to all the hoopla. It is no wonder Falconers like them so much!
On the last morning before I left I decided to go look for the Black-headed Gull that had been reported a few days ago. I saw the night before it was reported at the Nome River Mouth near the bridge so I went there and low and behold I got it. Many friendly Inupiaq were fishing on the river sandbar here and I told them I didn't want to leave.
It was now time to go back to Vancouver via three planes. I was so sad to leave this wondrous place but happy to go home and have a proper sleep schedule again. I'll never forget Nome's beautiful landscape and the incredible birds from this trip.
I would come back again every year if it wasn't so expensive. Definitely a place every birder should head to in June. I never felt unsafe there once either as a woman traveling alone.
So although I never saw my two most wanted birds: the Ross's and Ivory Gull I could not complain. For my first trip to Nome I felt I did pretty well and got 9 lifers and some great photos and memories. I had a spectacular trip with beautiful birds that I'll never forget. I truly can't wait to go back to Nome and also to explore more of Arctic Alaska. I think Barrow will be the next goal so I can see Polar Bears and Steller's Eiders.
If you would like to see my photos from my trip to Nome, you can view them at the link to my photo album on Flickr here:
Link to Alaska album HERE
I just couldn't ask for more on this trip. This place is priceless and worth every expense in getting there.
Thanks to Graham Sunderland for providing me with an excellent guide to Nome! Big thanks to my friends Matt and Courtney Cameron for helping me with some planning and great tips for this trip!
Here is my full list of birds seen during my trip:
Great White-fronted Geese
Common Eider (lifer)
Spectacled Eider (lifer)
Arctic Loon (lifer)
Golden Eagle (on nest with chicks)
Gyrfalcon (on nest with chicks)
Bristle-thighed Curlew (8)
Bar-tailed Godwit (14 breeding birds in one group)
Aleutian Tern (lifer)
Thick-billed Murre (lifer)
Arctic Warbler (lifer)
Eastern Yellow Wagtail (lifer)
American Tree Sparrow
Black Guillemot (lifer)
Grizzly Bear (including a Blonde one)
Spotted Seal (lifer)
All the best and thanks for reading.
|Arctic Warblers - Photo: Melisa Hafting|
|Male Bluethroat - Photos: Melissa Hafting|
|Muskoxen and Calves - Photos: Melissa Hafting|
|Long-tailed Ducks - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Common Eiders - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Hoary Redpoll - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Black-legged Kittiwake - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Red-necked Phalarope - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Tundra Swan - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Male Lapland Longspur - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Eastern Yellow Wagtail - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Female Golden Eagle and Eaglets - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Emperor Geese - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Common Eider pair - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Male Rock Ptarmigan - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Pacific Golden-Plover - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Male Semipalmated Plover - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Arctic Terns in Flight - Photos: Melissa Hafting|
|Arctic Tern on sign - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Long-tailed Jaeger in Nome - Photos: Melissa Hafting|
|Grey-cheeked Thrush - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Bristle-thighed Curlew -Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Western Sandpiper - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Male (above) and Female (below) Red-necked Phalaropes - Photos: Melissa Hafting|
|Muskox - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Pacific Golden-Plover - Photos: Melissa Hafting|
|Northern Wheatear - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Black Guillemot - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Male Willow Ptarmigan - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Mew Gull - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Male Blackpoll Warbler - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|"White" Grizzly Bear - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Male Wilson's Warbler - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Red-necked Phalarope - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Black-legged Kittiwake - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Willow Ptarmigan in Nome - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Long-tailed Jaeger in Nome - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Muskox - Photos: Melissa Hafting|
|American Golden-Plover - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Thick-billed Murre - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Arctic Tundra flowers and slopes - Photos: Melissa Hafting|