Located on the edge of the Seward Peninsula and just south of the Arctic Circle, Nome in May and June offers up an amazing diversity of migrating and nesting birds that can be seen on the mainland of North America. From rare Asian vagrants, to long-distant migrants and hardy residents, approximately 160 bird species are recorded in this unique area of Alaska.
As a long-term dream for us comes true, Leigh and I are in Nome to participate in a birding mini-festival offered by the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Division of Continuing Studies. We will spend the next four and a half days (June 4-8) with other birders exploring the sea coast, lakes, rivers, mountains, and tundra for legendary bird life!
Day 1 begins with the arrival around noon of the other participants and our leader, Philip Martin, on the first of two commercial flights into Nome daily. After hurried introductions, we make our way to our residence for the next four nights, the National Park Service Bunkhouse. (Don’t let the name mislead you: The residence was more like a dormitory than a bunkhouse, with two people per room, women’s and men’s restrooms and showers, a very well-appointed kitchen, and good internet connection). Some of us referred to it as “Birder Hall!”
After unpacking our gear and shopping for groceries, we gathered around the large table in the bunkhouse kitchen, where Philip introduces our local guide, Pete Rob. They both provide an orientation and outline our activities over the next few days: We’ll travel the three roads that lead from Nome—one snakes southward along the coast of the Bering Sea; a second plunges inland and climbs to the majestic Kigluaik Mountains; the third ventures northward across the tundra to the edge of land—all three rich in scenery and variety of Arctic avian species. We have one van, two experienced guides, eight participants, 21 hours of sunlight, and a 100 species to be seen!
The afternoon begins with stops at the ponds, small lakes and sewage treatment areas near Nome. Red-necked phalaropes are everywhere; Pacific loons, some already on nests, are abundant. Our heads swivel as everyone spots additional species—red-breasted mergansers, greater scaup, whimbrels, long-tailed ducks, gulls, terns, peeps, and jaegers! An exhilarating abundance and diversity of birds greet us as we try to keep track of the variety and numbers of each species. Besides helping with identifications, Philip and Pete do a good job of keeping our focus and moving us along. “So many birds, so little time!” Next, we work our way southeast for a preliminary search along the Nome-Council Road.
Tracing along the Bering Sea, Council Road meanders southward through a variety of habitats, including wetlands, meadows, and coastal beaches. (All three roads leading from Nome have mile markers along their entire lengths—useful when exchanging information with other birders.) The pace is now a little more relaxed, but the route is no less rewarding. We have stunning views of hoary redpolls, harlequin ducks, Arctic and Aleutian terns, Pacific golden plovers—and then the call goes out: “Yellow wagtails at ten o’clock!”
Birding in such long daylight, you have little concept of the passage of time—the first day was a blur of birds and activity. Philip brought the group back together after dinner for a review and to set the stage for tomorrow. More than 40 species identified in the short time we were out! Tomorrow, a return to Council Road, paralleling the Iditarod Trail, and continuing southward for approximately 50 miles. The goal is to see eiders, scoters ducks, shorebirds, and longspurs.
Day 2: The weather is surprisingly warm, with temperatures forecast to be in the upper 70s or low 80s—not what we expected! Muskoxen foraging nearby look even more uncomfortable in their shaggy coats, and moose cross the road in front of us on their way upland. Our first stop at the Nome River Bridge portends what the day will bring: large mixed-species flocks of gulls (mew, herring and glaucous), and Artic and Aleutian terns are foraging on fingerling fish making their way to the Bering Sea. Gray-cheeked thrushes, northern waterthrushes, and redpolls are common in the willows along the road, more yellow wagtails are spotted, and male Pacific golden plovers are performing courtship sky-diving flight over the marsh. Further out to sea, we begin seeing flocks of common eiders and white-winged scoters.
Stopping next at a granite quarry, we have excellent views of the Bering Sea, and the parade of birds quickens. Nearby, male harlequin ducks court females along the water’s edge, and black guillemots and thick-billed murres, soon joined by a flock of black-legged kittiwakes, offer excellent camera views. Further out, eiders, scoters, long-tailed ducks, and brant fly low to the sea. Pete mentions that the rock face of the quarry usually is a peregrine falcon nesting site, and we soon spot the falcons.
South from the quarry, we make frequent stops along a narrow strip of land that separates the sea from extensive lagoons and ponds forming what is called Safety Sound. Grasslands, meadows, wetlands, and brackish lakes form a mosaic teeming with birds. Semipalmated sandpipers and Lapland longspurs are on breeding territories; and geese, swans, ducks, loons, and cranes are foraging, flying, or resting wherever you look. All three species of jaegers make passes over areas of the Sound, and a golden eagle is soaring farther inland. We search for yellow-billed, Artic and common loons that other birders had seen earlier, but the winds have increased and the surf is rough, and we dip on those. Still, we add another 22 species to our growing list.
Day 3: Again the day is surprisingly warm, and a good time to head to the high country on Kougarok Road, searching for Arctic warblers, bluethroats, and eventually, bristle-thighed curlews! K-Road follows along glacial valleys and the Nome and Pilgrim Rivers, where we see numerous harlequin ducks and red-breasted mergansers. Fox and golden-crowned sparrows and various warblers are singing in the willows and cottonwoods, and a willow ptarmigan is spotted along the roadside. Other birders advised us that both Arctic warblers and bluethroats were seen at Milepost 27. Once there, we immediately hear both species, and soon spot them singing in nearby willows. WOW! Two life species almost in the same binocular view!
Moose are in the rivers and lakes, and herds of muskox forage on the hillsides as we continue to climb. Traveling the K-Road is also a good place to see raptors; northern harriers, rough-legged hawks, and merlin are seen taking advantage of the updrafts along the cliffs. Pete points out locations where golden eagles and gyrfalcons have nested recently. We stop at a turnoff, and explore the tundra and rock faces, and a fond hope is realized: a gryfalcon perched atop a rock outcropping!
We slowly make our way to Coffee Dome, where bristle-thighed curlews are regularly reported. Before starting our steep climb, we pause for lunch and an impromptu celebration of Pete’s birthday—complete with cupcakes and candles! As we begin our climb, other groups coming down excite us with their reports of excellent views of the curlews and whimbrels. “They were just here!” The operative word is “were”— in past tense! We continued our search for over an hour—lots of whimbrels, but no curlews. Still, an amazing day with three new life species, and 19 additional species for the trip.
Day 4: Teller Road goes northwest from Nome for 72 miles, passing through early gold mining areas and pristine tundra before ending at the village of Teller. One goal for the day is to search for white wagtails that have recently been reported there. The road also passes through areas where red knots, Pacific and American golden plovers, and black-bellied plovers are known to nest. The day is overcast, windy and much cooler.
Soon after starting, we are rewarded with great views of rock ptarmigan alongside the road, and several rough-legged hawks and long-tailed jaegers perch or fly nearby. Stops also yield horned larks, American pipits, snow buntings and northern wheatears. Other off-road locations give us excellent views of a pair of red knots, both golden plovers, and black-bellied plovers—all in striking breeding plumage.
Still we press on, reaching Teller in the afternoon—but where to find the wagtails? Reports from other birders merely identify the wagtails as occurring in Teller, and although a small village, we’re at a loss as to where to search. We begin on a narrow spit of land facing a bay that separates Teller from the northern part of the Seward Peninsula, and quickly spot two horned puffins, but no wagtails. Philip advises us to spread out and report back! We wander about reviewing what we know about wagtail ecology … and finally ask two residents if they knew where the birds were seen. “There were people looking back by the water, near the school,” they said. We quickly retreat, and after a short time we spot a white wagtail—by a waste water treatment pond. Soon it is joined by a second. A call goes out, and the rest of the group joins us. Mission complete!
With darkening skies and increasing wind, we head south toward Nome. Our last night together is spent at dinner, where we once again review the day’s sightings: Nine new species seen, and for Leigh and me over the four days—ten life birds, and many new friends.
Opportunities for birding in Nome are limited and expensive, and we highly recommend this mini-festival. The cost of $900 is comparatively modest, since it includes registration, lodging, two excellent guides, and local transportation. For additional information contact Michelle Bartlett, Director of Summer Sessions and Lifelong Learning at the University, [email protected]
About the Author
Phil Creighton is a retired academic after 18 years of teaching Ornithology and Behavioral Ecology, and an additional 18 years of serving in various university administrative positions. I've been an active birder since I was seven years old, and finally creeping up on 700 NA species. My best birding buddy is my wife, Leigh.