Grand Alaska Part I: Nome & the Pribilofs Jun 09—17, 2013

Posted by Kevin Zimmer


Kevin Zimmer

Kevin Zimmer has authored three books and numerous papers dealing with field identification and bird-finding in North America. His book, Birding in the American West: A Han...

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Our 2013 Grand Alaska Part I tour began, as usual, in Nome, my favorite place to bird in all of North America.  There is something indescribably special about the area surrounding this old gold rush town.  The mix of special breeding birds on the tundra and large numbers of migrants staging at Safety Lagoon and other points along the coast, coupled with the very real chance of finding some rare stray from eastern Asia always makes for exhilarating birding.  When you throw in a full complement of large mammals (Musk Ox, Moose, Grizzly, Reindeer), a kaleidoscope of emerging spring wildflowers, impressive sub-Arctic scenery and a real wilderness feel, all set to 24-hour daylight, what’s not to love?  As is the case with other high-latitude spots, no two springs or even short visits to this region are the same, and that unpredictability only serves to add to the excitement of a trip here.

Willow Ptarmigan, Nome, Alaska, June 2013

Willow Ptarmigan, Nome, Alaska, June 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

This year was no different.  After checking into our hotel and grabbing lunch, we headed out the Teller Road, hoping to score on Rock Ptarmigan and several other species that we had just seen the day before with our Gambell-Nome group.  But weather conditions had changed dramatically in the intervening 24 hours.  The entire Nome area had been cloaked in fog the previous day, which was a damper for displaying shorebirds, but a boon for ptarmigan wary of being picked off by a Gyrfalcon.  Now, with the fog lifting, and the alpine tundra bathed in sunlight, we found an abundance of singing and displaying shorebirds (including both species of golden-plovers and a very confiding pair of Red Knots that foraged without apparent concern while a nearby lone male was relentless in his overhead aerial song bouts), but nary a Rock Ptarmigan was to be found!  We did delight in watching a Short-tailed Weasel (or Ermine) zigzagging his way through the alpine block fields, no doubt looking for shorebird nests to pillage.  Long-tailed Jaegers and Rough-legged Hawks patrolling the tundra, and male Willow Ptarmigan along the road edges provided other “welcome to Alaska” moments on this, our first day in the field.

The next few days were a blur, as we concentrated our efforts on the other two major roads, the Kougarok and the Council.  As is always the case, birding highlights were so numerous that it is difficult to single out just a few.  However, it would be difficult to top the dazzling male Bluethroats that performed so well along the Kougarok Road.  These iconic little colonizers from the Old World are spectacular for their aerial song bouts as well as their vivid colors, and they have been an annual highlight of our Alaska tours ever since 1987, when we were the first group to discover them breeding in the Nome area.  Sadly, we could not relocate the Bristle-thighed Curlew that we had seen so nicely just a few days earlier with the Gambell-Nome group, no doubt in large part because we hit a warm, sunny day, the kind of weather in which the curlews and other large shorebirds are often inactive.  Some folks did get nice looks at a male Rock Ptarmigan during the hike, which was a good pick-up during what was clearly a down spring for the species.  We did have superb views of multiple Arctic Warblers, which had only arrived in full force in the Nome region within the previous few days.  A fabulous pair of Ospreys (rare in the Nome region) refurbishing their nest atop the bridge over the Kuzitrin River was a welcome sight since high winds had blown much of the nest down just three days earlier.  The Council Road treated us to scope-filling studies of a nesting Gyrfalcon with three fuzzy chicks and more distant, but still exciting studies of a sow Grizzly and her cub.  A Double-crested Cormorant at Safety Sound was exciting for its local rarity, but not nearly as exciting to us as the two Slaty-backed Gulls (one adult and the other nearly so) in the same area, or the four Aleutian Terns that were sitting on the nearby sand spit.  Late in the day, as we were skirting the coast, someone spotted a flock of eiders flying parallel to us.  A quick binocular check revealed both Spectacled and Kings among the group, so I gave chase.  Luckily, we were on a very straight stretch of road that hugged the immediate coastline, enabling me to overtake the eiders, get a short distance in front, and then stop in time to watch them fly past once again.  Photos revealed 9 Spectacled Eiders (including 3 adult males) and 3 Kings—a real bonus given that we had missed Spectacled Eider at Gambell the week before.  An optional post-dinner excursion out the Teller Road on our last night produced multiple Rock Ptarmigan for the folks who had missed the male seen by some during the curlew hike, and also turned up our only Black-bellied Plover and Ruddy Turnstones for this section of the trip.  Finally, I would be remiss not to mention our multiple encounters with Musk Ox, including a herd that was frequenting the coastal strip near the Nome River mouth.

Gyrfalcon with chicks, Nome, Alaska, June 2013

Gyrfalcon with chicks, Nome, Alaska, June 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

The Pribilofs leg of our tour began, as it so often does, with a weather-based “hold” of our scheduled flight out of Anchorage.  Upon finally getting clearance to take off (meaning that the ceiling at St. Paul was above the minimums), we headed for Dillingham, where we refueled and got one last weather update before launching our final push for St. Paul.  Well into the flight, I noticed that we were banking without descending, and although the pilot made no announcements for the next 15 minutes, I knew what this meant—we were circling the island because it was too foggy to land.  Finally, the pilot announced what was happening, with the warning that the conditions had worsened, and that if things didn’t improve within the next 20–30 minutes, he would be forced to turn around and head back to Anchorage.  After a tense 15 minutes, the plane abruptly started to descend—clearly, the pilot had decided to give it a go.  The descent seemed interminable, especially given that we could not make out even a sliver of land or water.  There was nothing to see but fog, fog, and more fog.  And then, without warning, the ground was rushing up to meet us, and within mere seconds, we had touched down.  All things considered, it was a remarkable demonstration of skill and nerve by the flight crew, and one that elicited a big cheer from us when we realized that we would not be turning around for a flight back to Anchorage.

Upon arrival, we learned from local guides that the vagrant picture was pretty bleak, except for the White-tailed Eagle that had been present, at least on and off, since last year.  Unfortunately, as had been the case in 2012, the eagle was playing hard-to-get, appearing seemingly at random at scattered locations across the island, and seldom in the same spot twice.  We never did connect with it.  But then again, Asiatic vagrants should always be thought of as a bonus—icing on the cake if you will.  If they’re there—terrific, but if they aren’t (and there’s a reason those things are called “accidentals”), hey, the real show, as always, is on the cliffs.  Reef and Ridgewall produced as always, but I particularly enjoyed our hike to Zapadni Cliffs, my favorite of St. Paul’s many bird cliffs.  The repeated point-blank views of Horned and Tufted puffins, Thick-billed and Common murres, and Parakeet, Crested, and Least auklets made the hike more than worthwhile, and is an experience that I find more impressive with each exposure.  We were also treated to Northern Fulmars gliding past at eye level, as they played in the winds swirling above their nesting ledges.  Red-faced Cormorants showed nicely at North Point (Marunich), as did a posse of four migrant Parasitic Jaegers that flew past the point.  Flocks of elegant Harlequin Ducks frequented the harbor and several coastal locales, noisy Rock Sandpipers were seen displaying with one wing up across the tundra, and hulking Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches always seemed to pop up wherever we went.  A nearly adult drake King Eider hanging out in the harbor area was a treat, as were the bathing Red-legged Kittiwakes at Antone Lake on our last morning.  The biggest highlight for most of us was the fabulous Snowy Owl (a rare migrant here) that sat indifferently as we approached to within photographic range.  Once this bird made a real move, it was not to flee from us, but rather to launch a stealth assault on the Least Auklets adorning the tops of the boulders along the beach.  The owl, on what was clearly not his first rodeo, deftly picked off one of the little gnomes—not often that one gets to watch a Snowy Owl snag a Least Auklet!

Snowy Owl, St. Paul Island, Alaska, June 2013

Snowy Owl, St. Paul Island, Alaska, June 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Our departure from St. Paul was not without some suspense of its own.  Pen Air decided to make an unscheduled stop at nearby St. George Island, for the purpose of dropping off some FAA technicians who had been waiting for three days for the weather to clear enough for them to reach the island so they could perform some equipment checks and maintenance.  The weather conditions at St. George were not what they were at St. Paul, and we endured yet another suspenseful landing in the fog.  Sitting on the airstrip at St. George, our flight crew was awaiting a flight manifest from the ground crew when one of the ground personnel ran out to the plane.  Nope, she didn’t have a manifest (turns out there wasn’t one because no new passengers were getting on), but she was hoping to score some cookies from the Pen Air flight attendant!  Once this transaction was successfully completed, we were cleared for takeoff—only in Alaska!  On top of everything, the guys getting off at St. George had over 900 lbs. of gear between them, which meant that because of weight limitations, Pen Air had bumped most of our luggage from the flight—something they neglected to tell us until we arrived back in Anchorage.  Fortunately, our bags caught up with us the following day.
Back in Anchorage, we said our goodbyes to some folks who were leaving, while those continuing on to Part II of Grand Alaska enjoyed a relaxed day of local birding.  I never cease to be amazed by the wealth of birding and wildlife viewing opportunities available within the Anchorage city limits.  Of particular note was the flock of 14 Hudsonian Godwits loafing on a small grassy islet in Westchester Lagoon, while we enjoyed nearby close comparisons of Greater and Lesser scaup, foraging Red-necked Grebes, and scope views of a pair of Bald Eagles atop their massive nest on the far side of the lagoon.  At other stops we enjoyed a nice assortment of boreal forest passerines, among them a very responsive Northern Waterthrush, Olive-sided Flycatcher, and a pair of Boreal Chickadees.  Our biggest prize was a male Spruce Grouse feeding in the middle of the trail.  It allowed a fairly close approach, and then, when I played a few hen Spruce Grouse calls, the bird went into full courtship mode, fanning his tail and really strutting his stuff, all the while continuing to walk nervously toward us. At the last minute, the grouse decided we weren’t a roving flock of available females after all, and he flew up to a nearby spruce to collect himself.  All in all, it was a remarkable show from one of the most easily missed birds of the boreal forest.  We concluded our day of Anchorage birding with a visit to Potter Marsh, where we were treated to stellar studies of a lovely Horned Grebe (in full breeding plumage) near its nest, proving once again that part of Alaska’s appeal is the opportunity to enjoy familiar birds in different plumages and unfamiliar settings.

Spruce Grouse, Anchorage, Alaska, June 2013

Spruce Grouse, Anchorage, Alaska, June 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Despite some fog and drizzle at Nome, and our slight delays and suspenseful flights to and from the Pribilofs, we were actually very lucky with the weather throughout our trip, but several groups were not as lucky with the weather as we were.  In closing, I would like to share a poem, copyright 1983 by Larry A. Beck (and shared by Bering Air back in 1989).  It nicely cuts straight to the one unchanging, undeniable truth about air travel in Alaska—everything you do is “weather permitting.”
      Weather Permitting
      Way up in Alaska, wherever you are
       If you’re headed out close or you’re headed out far
      And you’re going by plane you can add (and it’s fitting)
       I’ll be there good buddies, weather permitting.
      It could really care less what you’re planning on doing,
       An operation, oration, a wedding or wooing
      When you go to the airport you may need your knitting
       For you’ll only be flying with weather permitting.
      I have fretted and stewed, I have stamped on the floor,
       I’ve shouted and screamed and I’ve started to roar
      But there’s no use in fuming or fussing or snitting,
       You’ll always face this:  It’s weather permitting.
      So don’t get disheartened in the far golden north
       If you suffer delay as you sally on forth.
      Just learn to relax without fretting or quitting,
       You can depend on one thing, it’s weather permitting.
      When the rich folks all come with their clothing so fine
       With their high fashioned wardrobes and special French wine
      They’ll stop for awhile then continue their flitting,
       Go on with their jet setting, weather permitting.
      And whether you’re working or playing around
       Flying through mountains or over the sound,
      In what kind of season your travels are hitting
       I will guarantee this:  it’s weather permitting.
      And it gets in your blood then wherever you go
       So I said to my sweetie, Hon I love you so
      She said I adore you, come close where I’m sitting
       And I’ll do what you want me to, weather permitting.
      And when the Grim Reaper comes I can see it all clear,
       I’m alone in my shroud, Happy Heaven is near
      I’m coming, Saint Peter, this old world I’m quitting
       And I’ll be along soon, weather permitting.
      Valdez Airport
      First Draft
      October 8, 1983
      Copyright 1983
      Larry A. Beck
It was great fun traveling and birding with each of you, and, as always, I genuinely enjoyed sharing the natural history marvels of North America’s last frontier.