Thursday, December 26, 2013

It's Nome: McKay's Bunting, December 10

Last night I made reservations to fly to Nome and return on the same day using the same strategy that my friend Neil Hayward had used.  I also made reservations to leave Anchorage at 12:50 am to fly through Portland, Oregon to Phoenix, Arizona.  I arrived at the airport early and asked the rental car agent if I could park my car in a rental slot, because I was going to Nome for only the day.  He said yes.  Neil had also done this.  I had packed only essentials, such as my wet coat with hood, face mask, several pairs of extra gloves, extra pairs of warm socks, a new pair of wet pants that I had bought from REI last night and bag of bird seed in my backpack.  I was wearing my long johns, warm socks and coat and boots also bought in Anchorage before my trip to Gambell.  The first flight of the day was at 10:05 am to arrive after a direct flight at 11:40 am.  We boarded on time, and then came the announcement.  The flight is delayed due to some mechanical problems!  Uh oh!  Not again!  But as Neil Hayward texted, "Welcome to Alaska!"  Whatever did I expect?  Our fight was delayed about 20 to 30 minutes.  After resolution of the mechanical problems, out flight was uneventful.  We arrived between 12:00 noon and 12:30 pm and the sunrise was still evident to the south.  See photo.
View from Nome Airport at 12:30 pm
Continuing Nome Sunrise
It was clear and 12F with 20 mph wind, which yields a substantial wind chill.  I called Mr. Kab, still had their card from my visit to Nome in June, and got a short ride of about a mile to Icy View Subdivision on the Teller Road.  I asked to be dropped off at the intersection of Fore and Aft and Round the Clock.  The reaction of the cab driver and his coworker was priceless.  Don't you want to be dropped off at a house?  No, I'll be fine.  I told them I might need a ride back if my cell phone worked after being out in the cold.  And so I was off on my own.  The house with the feeders, No. 706, was a short distance north on Round the Clock, and I could see it easily from the corner.   See photo.
House with Feeder for McKay's Bunting
photo by Neil Hayward
With great anticipation, I walked the short distance to the house.  I could see as I approached that there were no birds at the feeder in front by the short fence.  The only birds in the area were Common Ravens.  It looked like no one was home.  I checked the feeder and ground.  No seed!  Uh oh!  John Habig, my friend from Ohio, wished me luck and hoped that the homeowner was still feeding.  Did the homeowner stop feeding since Neil's visit?  I pulled out my seed bag and scattered several hands full of seed on the ground and waited for a while.  I noticed a pick-up truck idling at the north end of the Round the Clock and walked in that direction.  There was a small herd of Musk Oxen very close to the subdivision, which the driver was watching.  I was so focused on McKay's Bunting that I forgot to take some photos of the herd at close range.  They are amazing animals!  I decided to walk around this small subdivision to look for other feeders or for the McKay's Buntings.  It was cold but I was warm and toasty in my warm clothes.  I did not need the wet pants, because I was walking a lot keeping my legs warm.  The driver of the pickup stopped to ask me if I needed a ride, and asked me why I was there.  I told him my story, and how McKay's Buntings breed on Mathews and Hall Islands and spend the winter on the west coast of Alaska.  Nome was the best place to see them in the winter.  He thought that was cool.  When I described the McKay's Buntings, he recalled that he had seen them by the house with the feeder when he drove by last week.  Good they were still in the area.   We shared our amazement at the Musk Oxen, and how they can survive out in the cold winters.  He told me that it was unusual that Musk Oxen were near town a this time of year.  They usually head for the mountains.  I did not find any other active feeders in the subdivision, and returned to the feeder house, watched for awhile and then walked west away from the house contemplating checking the grassy and tundra areas around the subdivision.   I noticed that a red pickup truck returned to the house with feeders.  Then, I walked down the street to look at the Musk Oxen. 

Then it happened.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash of white wings by the house.  I walked as quickly as possible and tried to stay unobtrusive as possible.  I'm not sure what that means to a McKay's Bunting.  I did not want to flush any birds before I could see and photograph them.  A flock of about 12 to 15 buntings were flying around the house and landing on the power lines along the street.  It was 1:30 pm.  Several were investigating the feeder and the seed that I had scattered.  All of them were McKay's Buntings.  From below, they were all white showing a smaller amount of black on the primaries than for Snow Buntings, and a very small amount of black in the middle of the tail when the tail was slightly spread.  In flight from below, they were so beautiful--all white except for the reduced amount of black in the primaries.  Sitting on the ground and on the fence near the feeder, they were all white except for the brownish wash on the head, face and back characteristic of winter plumage male McKay's Buntings and with very little black evident in the wing tips. See photos below. 
McKay's Bunting
First view

McKay's Bunting
Where's my seed?
McKay's Bunting
McKay's Buntings

The McKay's Buntings stayed for only about 10 minutes, and then flew back out into the tundra toward the south from the subdivision.  I walked down the street to  photograph the Musk Oxen.  The herd was gone, only one remained and it seemed to be in a hurry, perhaps to join the herd possibly hidden in a swale out on the tundra.  It looked like a moving haystack out on the tundra.  See photo.
Musk Ox
I still had some seed left, so I rang the door bell of the house with the feeder and met the man and woman who lived there and their young daughter.  I thanked them for feeding the McKay's Buntings and gave them the remaining seed.  They told me that their 11 year old son was supposed to fill the feeder in the morning, but had apparently forgot to do so.  I got excellent advice from Neil Hayward about taking some seed with me.  I told them that a friend (Neil) had visited to see the McKay's Buntings one to two weeks ago, and the man remembered Neil Hayward's visit.  They had also enjoyed watching the Musk Oxen herd.  I left Icy View Subdivision at about 2:00 or 2:30 pm and walked the mile back to Nome.  The wind had decreased, the sun was out but dropping in the sky and it was a beautiful arctic day in Nome.  I was quite warm with the exercise from walking and my warm clothes.  When I was about seven eights of the way back to Nome, the people with the feeder passed me on the Teller Road and offered me a ride back to town.  I thanked them, but I was so close to my destination that I continued walking.  I walked to the harbor to scan for birds, hoping for an Ivory Gull or anything alive, but found only one distant immature large gull flying northwest, probably a Glaucous-winged Gull.  It was about 3:00 to 3:15 pm and the sun was setting.  During the day the sun got just above the distant clouds.  See photo below.
Nome Sunset
Then I walked to nearby Airport Pizza, which came highly recommended by Neil Hayward.  It was excellent as recommended.  I had a bowl of hearty chicken vegetable stew, chicken sandwich and a large hot chocolate.  Excellent.  I called Mr. Kab and returned to the airport.  It was a shared ride with another client; therefore, I got to see downtown Nome and a few Christmas lights strung across the main street, Front Street.  See photo below.
Nome, Front Street
a few Christmas lights
My flight was on time to leave Nome at 8:20 pm, arriving in Anchorage at about 9:45 pm.  In Anchorage, I turned in my rental car, took off some clothes layers and repacked my checked duffle bag and carry-on luggage.  Then I checked in for my flight to Phoenix, Arizona through Portland, Oregon and got a late dinner in the airport.  My flight to Phoenix was a red-eye leaving at 12:50 am with a five hour lay-over in Portland.  I slept fit-fully on the overnight flight to Portland, Oregon, but was wide-awake during the layover in Portland, Oregon.  I arrived in Phoenix between 2:00 and 2:30 pm.  Quite a change from Nome, Alaska to Phoenix, Arizona in such a short time!  By the time I picked up my luggage and rental car, it was about 3:30 pm.  I was tired from the red-eye flight, and needed a good night of sleep.  I stayed in the Phoenix area that night December 11.  I planned to get up very early and head for Bill Williams NWR in northwest Arizona to try for the Nutting's Flycatcher.

McKay's Bunting is new for the year raising the total to 712 + 3 provisional species (White-cheeked Pintail, Common Redstart and Eurasian Sparrowhawk).

I am writing this entry from Spokane, WA.  Time is short and my Big Year is coming to a close.  Today I look for Gray Partridge.                 

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