Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Nome, June 13 -15

The 4:00 am airport shuttle van to the Anchorage Airport was packed, because four or five people could not get to Kodiak the previous day and had to try again on the early flight.  This included all of their luggage.  After successfully getting to the Anchorage Airport for my 6:00 am flight, I arrived in Nome shortly after 9:00 am.  I got to the Aurora Inn and got my rental vehicle, a Toyota pickup truck.  Room check in was not until 1:00 pm.  I stopped at the Subway and got a breakfast sandwich and juice, because with little sleep the night before in Anchorage, I did not have enough time to pick up breakfast in morning at the Anchorage Airport.  I picked up a sub and drink for lunch and maybe dinner in the field.  Then, I stopped at the Nome Visitor Center to look at the birds reported so far, and recorded the locations for Bluethroat, White-tailed Wagtail and Red Phalarope.  Then I headed out to search for Arctic Warbler.  Arctic Warbler, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Long-tailed Jaeger, Bristle-thighed Curlew and Willow Ptarmigan were definite target birds for this visit.  Anything else, like Bluethroat and White Wagtail would be gravy based on my previous experience in Nome.  On the way out to mile marker (MM) 11, the most reliable location for Arctic Warbler, on the Kougarok Road, I found Gray-cheeked Thrush, number 512, which would prove to be one of the most common birds seen and heard during my stay.  I found Arctic Warbler, number 513, at MM 11, hearing the loud toneless buzzy song before I actually saw one at close range.  Then I continued out the Kougarok Road to MM 22 to listen and look for Bluethroat and also checked the Salmon Lake campground area, at both of which Bluethroat had been reported recently.  I also stopped on the way to investigate singing as I drove with the windows down.  It was a warm 60 degrees and sunny on this first day in Nome, quite unusual.  At almost every stop I heard Arctic Warblers, but had no luck with Bluethroat.  I found a Yellow Wagtail at Salmon Lake and a Parasitic Jaeger, none of these are new for the year.  I met Rick Cimino of Yellowbilled Tours with clients.  They had tried for Bristle-thighed Curlew, but without success.  I offered that it took me two tries to get Bristle-thighed Curlew at MM 72 on the Kougarok Road for my Life Bird in 2005.  Rick and his clients were still looking for Bluethroat and Wandering Tattler, but I was no help on that.  Rick thought that the Bluethroats were no longer up displaying and singing.   At the end of my trip to Nome, I found out that he was right about the Bluethroats.  Otherwise birding was good with lots of singing Wilson's Warblers (a few seen well), as expected, and Orange-crowned Warblers, Northern Waterthrush, Fox Sparrow and Gray-cheeked Thrush were everywhere.  I returned to the Aurora Inn in Nome early, about 5:30 pm, checked in and took a nap, because I had very little sleep the night before in Anchorage and on the plane to Nome.  I needed the rest, because tomorrow morning would be my main try for Bristle-thighed Curlew, and I needed to leave early to get to MM 72 on the Kougarok Road early by 8:00 am and at least before 9:00 am, as recommended by the guide book and previous experience in 2005.  Before falling asleep, I ate the second of two six inch Subway subs and a bag of chips for dinner.  Just before 11:00 pm, I woke up and went out to refill the gas tank on the rental pickup truck and to pick up breakfast and something for lunch at the Bonanza Express Quick Stop gas station.  Breakfast would be milk and cereal, orange juice, my vitamins and a cold breakfast sandwich to be stored in the refrigerator and to be heated up in the microwave in my hotel room in the morning.  Almost all other businesses in Nome are closed between 11:00 pm and 7:00 am, but the gas stations are open until 2:00 am.  I needed to get up by about 5:00 am, eat breakfast and be on my way out the Kougarok Road by 5:30 am the next morning. 
Willow Ptarmigan

American Golden-plover
Varied Thrush
The next day, June 14, I was on my way to MM 72 at abut 5:30 am, and drove directly to MM 72 except for stops for four (4) different Willow Ptarmigans along the way, number 514 for the year.  I also saw a Varied Thrush and an American Golden Plover along the road.  See photos above.  I arrived at MM 72 or 73 between 8:30 and 8:45 am, the only human in this isolated area.  I packed water and a few snacks in my backpack, took binoculars and camera and started the long half mile, 30 minute hike to the top of the hill where the curlews can be found and across from Coffee Dome, watching carefully where I placed my feet due to difficult footing.  See next photos of the hill from the road at a distance, looking directly up the hill from the road and the Coffee Dome on the other side of the road.  Vegetation clumps grow on tussocks, and it is easy to sprain an ankle or break a leg on the tundra without due care in walking.  All that walking and biking on Attu and physical conditioning paid dividends in getting up this hill.  It's a tough hike.   As I got up on the top at a flat spot, I saw some Long-tailed Jaegers flying around to the left/south, number 515 for the year, and heard a Bristle-thighed Curlew calling also to the left,  giving the call that ends in a wolf whistle with some mellow notes preceding the ending.  I soon found four Wimbrel, confirmed by seeing the brown tails and rump in flight and the "ti-ti-ti-ti-ti-ti-ti" calls, quite different from the Bristle-thighed Curlew.  I also heard but could not find the Bristle-thighed Curlews.  I walked further southwest toward the curlew calls, when I noticed three other people approaching from the northeast.  The three, two men and one woman, were from Sweden, and as they approached, the Bristle-thighed Curlew calls got louder and seemed to be over my head.  As we meet and greeted each other, they asked if I had seen the curlews and then pointed out a Bristle-thighed Curlew flying low over the hill toward the northeast.  I got on this bird but heard another to the south at close range.   It flew right past us at close range not more than 30 feet away heading north just above eye level.  I got on it with binoculars as it flew away seeing the buffy rump and buffy barred tail, characteristic of this species.  I also got an earful of the call as it flew by at close range.  Success for number 516 for the year!  The three Swedish birders told me that they had driven the Council Road the evening of the 13th and had a Black Turnstone and Sabine's Gull at the Safety Sound Bridge.  I filed that away for future reference.
Approaching Hill at MM 72
Base of Hill Looking Up at MM 72
Long-tailed Jaeger on Top MM 72

Coffee Dome Opposite Hill at MM 72
I left the three Swedish birders who were trying to photograph the Long-tailed Jaegers, and arrived back at my vehicle at about 12:00 noon.  Cloud cover had arrived during the morning and a few rain drops started to fall.  I birded my way back to Nome looking for Bluethroat at all likely and reported locations but without success.  I found a Spotted Sandpiper displaying and a Semipalmated Plover as I checked all rocky streams and sand/pebble bars in streams and rivers for Wandering Tattler, unsuccessfully.  I found a Wilson's Snipe using a heavy piece of road equipment as a perch.  See photo.  At Salmon Lake, I found a male and female Black Scoter on the small amount of open water available on this lake, not new for the year but great to see on breeding territory.  Nearby there was a curious Moose.  See photo.  Partway to Nome, I found people watching a small group of Musk Ox.  See photo.  At south side of the Nome River bridge just before the Dexter Cut-off to Nome, I took a side road to some ponds and found some Red-necked Phalaropes.  See photo.  It had started to rain harder when I arrived at the hotel.  I had hoped to go to the Sinuk River bridge on the Teller Road to try for the White Wagtail that was reported there, but frankly the heavier rain
Whimbrel on Top at MM 72
was a deterrent.  I had noticed much less singing and bird activity in general as I drove back to Nome in the rain.  After I filled the gas tank and got breakfast and lunch for tomorrow morning, I ate dinner and went to bed.

Scene After Back Down from Hill  

Long Road to Nome

Wilson's Snipe on Road Equipment
Distant Musk Ox
Moose at Salmon Lake
Red-necked Phalarope

The rain was not better on the last morning in Nome, June 15.  However, it was my last day there, so I packed up except for the equipment that I needed for the day and checked out of the Aurora Inn.  After checking on the list of reports at the Aurora Inn, I headed up the Teller Road for the Sinuk River bridge at about MM 26 to try for the white  Wagtail.  Rick Cimino had reported it there on June 9.  On the way, I saw some Long-tailed Jaegers, an American Golden Plover and a small shorebird along the road.  As I watched the shorebird flew in close to the front of the pickup and landed in front of me.  It was a Western Sandpiper, number 517, in high breeding plumage.   The conditions were very poor for photography, so I did not try.   At the Sinuk River bridge, I drove slowly, watching for the White Wagtail and parked beyond the bridge.  I donned my boots and wet suit and walked the areas on both sides of the bridge, walked back across the bridge, checked both sides and checked under the bridge.  Isaac Helmericks had told me about this White Wagtail reported on Facebook Alaska before the Attu trip ended.  However, it was not to be.  I could not find a White Wagtail, but got very wet, even with a wet suit, because the rain was being driven horizontally into my face.  Arctic Terns were active as were a few Greater Scaup and Red-throated Loons in the river.  There is a colony of Cliff Swallows nesting under the bridge.  I continued out the Teller Road to MM 26 + 1500 ft. to look for Bluethroat and Northern Wheatear reported there by Rick Cimino the day before.  Nothing was active except for a few Fox Sparrows and Gray-cheeked Thrushes and a few redpolls.  I managed to find an Orange-crowned Warbler that was reluctant to come out in the open in the rain.  I continued to MM 38 where Rick Cimino had reported a Northern Wheatear the previous day on a side road about 1000 feet to the east of the Teller Road.  However, the rain was still horizontal, and I would be facing that to try to see and find the bird if I walked.  Instead, I stayed in the truck and scanned up the slope for a while but did not find the Northern Wheatear or anything else moving.   I drove north for another 2 miles to MM 40 a convenient turn-around point at the turn to Cape Woolley, turned around and headed back to Nome.  It seemed like the only birds active were larger birds, waterfowl and shorebirds.  Therefore, I continued with my original plan to bird the Council Road in the afternoon for as far south as I could until I had to leave for the airport.  I stopped to pick up some additional food and hot chocolate and topped off the gas tank on my way through Nome.  The rain seemed to have abated somewhat, and there was more activity when I passed the Sinuk River bridge with additional Red-throated Loons on the river.  I stopped at the Nome River mouth but found only Arctic Terns.  I continued south to Hastings Creek, but found nothing there.  Dave Sonnenborn had alerted me to look at this spot.  There were still very high snow drifts in the area and the bridge was just passable having been repaired recently.  I stopped in the area of MM 15-19 as recommended for shorebirds, because I found some mud flats with shorebirds.  By this time the heavy rain had stopped, and there was only mist and low clouds.  I stopped and scanned with my telescope and hoped for a rarity like Red-necked Stint or Little Stint or something rarer.  It was not to be.  I found Western Sandpipers, aggressive Semipalmated Sandpipers defending territory and copulating as well as one Dunlin.  At the Safety Sound bridge on the west side of the road, I found the previously reported Black Turnstone, number 518.  There were a lot of gulls to sort through, so I spent some time doing so after an SUV of birders passed me and stopped on the bridge.  I drove up beside them and met Wayne Easley, his son and his son's wife.  They had an Arctic Loon on the east side, which I got to see, the second one for this trip to Alaska.  Not too shabby!  I crossed the Safety Sound bridge and turned into the wayside area.  There I got a close look at a pair of Pacific Loons, a better look than the one on Attu.   See photo below.
As I drove back across the bridge, I stopped to scan the gulls again and found two Parasitic Jaegers harassing the gulls and three small gulls with black heads, Sabine's Gulls, number 519, who obliged by raising their wings and showing off their colors.  The light was poor enough that it was difficult to see the yellow tip to their bills.  The Easleys had asked me if I saw Bluethroat and said that they had Bluethroat on both sides of the road at MM 17 on the Teller Road several days ago.  I decided that this would be my last shot at birding in Nome.  I drove directly back to Nome,  picked up another Subway meal for dinner and headed out the Teller Road.  It was encouraging.  More birds were perched up and singing, but no Bluethroat.   I found redpolls, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Fox Sparrow and Gray-cheeked Thrush.  There were a few small birds that I could not relocate after flying low across the road, but the ones found were usually one of the sparrows and maybe I imagined a small size.  I headed back to Nome, filled the gas tank and returned to the Aurora Inn to turn in my rental truck.  In the lobby I met a man from Ohio, Dan Behm, who is from near Richfield,  Ohio!...of all places and to meet in Nome.  He is a friend of Matt Studebaker, an accomplished Ohio photographer, who was leading a photography tour in Nome.  Dan and Matt are friends.  Matt gave us a ride to the Nome airport.  Matt had at least another week in Nome and then a tour in Barrow.  Dan was on Matt's photography tour for the first week starting on May 30.  Then Dan spent another week in Nome on his own photographing.  Dan and I talked at some length in the lobby at the Aurora and on the plane back to Anchorage.  It was instructive to realize why I missed Bluethroat.  When Dan arrived on May 30, there still was significant snow cover, and during the first week Bluethroats were sitting up and doing flight displays.  But in the arctic due to the reduced time for breeding, that ended after the first week.  Thereafter, Bluethroat was hard to find, because the males were down low and secretive rather than displaying for females.  Recordings also had minimal impact during the second week according to Dan.  This was true also for many other birds.  This also explains why I could not find Bluethroat back in 2005.  I was too late for the short display period in the arctic.  It was a sad but good learning experience.  However, because I went to Attu this year, I could not arrive in Nome earlier than June 10, which may have been too late  anyway for the natural displaying.  There are always compromises during a Big Year.  I still have a chance for Bluethroat during fall migration in Alaska, if I make it to Gambell or Saint Paul Island.  I got great birds on the Attu trip and seven Life Birds.  Bluethroat is not a Life Bird for me but would be a great addition for a Big Year!  Such is life.          

Gray-cheeked Thrush, Arctic Warbler, Willow Ptarmigan, Long-tailed Jaeger, Bristle-thighed Curlew, Western Sandpiper, Black Turnstone, and Sabine's Gull yields a total of 519 after the trip to Alaska.  I expected to be reach 500 species after Alaska and exceeded that in addition to achieving the goal of +800 species for the ABA area.  This is the first year that I have exceeded 500 species since I started keeping year lists about 13 years ago.  Sometimes big goals like getting to 700 species in a calendar year are made of little goals on the way.  I am still having a great time. 

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