Grand Alaska Part I: Nome & the Pribilofs Jun 09—19, 2014

Posted by David Wolf


David Wolf

David Wolf is a senior member of the VENT staff and one of our most experienced tour leaders. After birding the U.S. and Mexico for over a decade, an interest in the wildli...

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Grand Alaska Part I got off to a roaring start, with the group arriving in Nome on schedule on a beautiful sunny morning. There is something indescribably special about the area surrounding this old gold rush town. The mix of special breeding birds on the tundras and large numbers of migrants staging at Safety Sound and other points along the coast, coupled with the very real chance of finding some rare stray from Asia, always makes for exhilarating birding. When you throw in a full complement of large mammals, emerging spring wildflowers, impressive sub-Arctic scenery, and a real wilderness feel, all set to 24 hours of daylight, what’s not to love? As is the case with other high-latitude spots, no two short visits to this region are the same, and that unpredictability only adds to the excitement of a trip here.

Spectacled Eider

Spectacled Eider— Photo: David Wolf

This year was no different.  Since our rooms were not ready we quickly dug out our binoculars and hit the ground running, driving a few blocks to the Nome harbor where the leaders knew of a big surprise—a male Spectacled Eider present for over a week! It took a few minutes to locate the bird in the boat slips, but then we were able to drive around to the area and walk right up to it on a floating dock as it calmly paddled around a few feet away. This was literally one of the first birds seen on the tour and it set the stage for a great trip that was chock-full of rare surprises. After everyone had studied and photographed the eider to their hearts’ content, we began to get distracted by the other birds around us, gaining an introduction to the spectacular breeding avifauna of the Seward Peninsula. A pair of Pacific Golden-Plovers paraded in a nearby marsh, where Red-necked Phalaropes chased around in the puddles and Arctic Terns and Long-tailed Jaegers fluttered overhead. Then it wasn’t long before we were watching Red-throated Loons, Glaucous Gulls, and Long-tailed Ducks on nearby ponds, all in full breeding plumage. Few of these birds are familiar to us in the Lower 48, but here they are as typical as can be. The herd of 40 Musk Ox frequenting the marshes right on the edge of town seemed very out-of-place, but also gave us great opportunities to watch them. That afternoon we made our first excursion to the vast wetlands complex at Safety Sound, highlighted by a rare Red-necked Stint on a mudflat, courting Aleutian Terns (a very localized Alaska specialty), and a surprise Slaty-backed Gull at the Nome River mouth on our return to town. This latter bird was in crisp, nearly-adult plumage and was the first one of these Siberian strays reported in the area in weeks. Very lucky indeed!

Musk Ox at Nome

Musk Ox at Nome— Photo: David Wolf

The next three days at Nome provided the usual great experience here as we visited a broad array of “beyond the tree-line” habitats and tracked down one specialty after another. Our first full day, spent working our way 70 miles out the Kougarok Road to the interior of the peninsula, began with an amazing sighting of a large Gray Wolf steadily hustling its way through the valley brush far below us. This iconic animal is very rarely detected in this vast region! We then spotted a male Rock Ptarmigan high up on a mountain ridge; we were very lucky, as all ptarmigan were way down in numbers this year. A few miles further inland we walked out onto the tundra to watch a dazzling male Bluethroat in flight display, and later that day we found Northern Wheatears on a rocky alpine ridge and encountered a group of migrant Arctic Warblers that allowed a closer approach than the birds singing on territory. Only the enigmatic Bristle-thighed Curlew disappointed us and failed to put in an appearance, as is often the case on a sunny day this late in the season. The vast wetlands complex at Safety Sound was good to us too, with sightings of a pair of Arctic Loons in the near-waters just offshore, a surprise male Eurasian Wigeon, several Bar-tailed Godwits, and a wide array of commoner waterbirds. Inland, thanks to Aaron’s incredible eyes, we were treated to an agitated Gyrfalcon circling over several rocky knobs for a long time, clearly disturbed by the presence of several rock climbers. Very few visiting birders were able to find this species this year, likely because of the extreme scarcity of ptarmigan (their major prey item), and again we were very lucky. Great birds continued to appear for us right up through our final day at Nome, with close views of singing Eastern Yellow Wagtails and 2 lovely breeding-plumaged Sabine’s Gulls on a final check of the Nome River mouth.

Our time around Anchorage was productive too, offering a very different set of birds from the treeless expanses of Nome and the Pribilofs. A morning hike in the woods produced Boreal Chickadees, a lifer for many, but little else was found. Our luck shifted that afternoon on a trip to the spruce forest, where we watched a pair of American Three-toed Woodpeckers repeatedly bringing food to a noisy youngster in the nest-hole and found several pairs of White-winged Crossbills that sat and sat for long scope studies.

American Three-toed Woodpecker

American Three-toed Woodpecker— Photo: David Wolf

The tiny Pribilof Islands, remote and isolated in the middle of the Bering Sea, were especially good to us this year. Our flight to St. Paul actually arrived on time—these notoriously foggy islands make flight schedules difficult to keep—and we began a great visit here with a “chase” our first evening, searching for an Oriental Cuckoo that had been present for several weeks. With a little effort and luck we found the bird tucked into a depression that was sheltered from the persistent wind. It flushed out onto the open tundra where we were able to follow it with the scopes, noting its complex field marks as it foraged on the grass, quite out-of-place in this tree-less environment. There are very few confirmed records of this rarity in North America, so it was a real treat to see it so well.

Our full day on St. Paul started with the usual great seabird show on the breeding cliffs, with murres, puffins, fulmars, and auklets practically at arm’s-length. Then, as we pulled into the parking area at the Southwest Point of the island, two large birds came flying in off the water and passed right beside the bus. They were clearly geese, one a white Snow Goose, but the other a huge dark goose that dwarfed the Snow in size—a bean-goose! Bean-goose has now been split into two species, both extremely rare in North America, and photos would later confirm that this one was the large-billed Taiga Bean-Goose. Another prize bird!

Tufted Puffin

Tufted Puffin— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

The day was by no means over however. After lunch a call came in that a Common Cuckoo present for several days had been relocated in a rocky gully up in the hills. We went for it, and it wasn’t long before we had this rare migrant from the Old World in good view, studying it carefully and mentally comparing it with the much rarer Oriental seen the day before. In the end, the Common was so close that it practically flew into the bus! A systematic check of the island lakes later that afternoon did not produce anything very different until a large shorebird was glimpsed flying into a marshy pond just as we were leaving. We backtracked, found the bird, and it proved to be a very attractive male Ruff, with a black-and-chestnut “ruff.” On our final swing of an already great day we checked “the cut” on Hutchinson Hill at the Northeast Point of the island. For all of the many times that I have been here, and slowly and quietly approached this spot, nothing of note has ever appeared in it for me. This time was to be different. As we got near the cut, a small drab bird suddenly sky-rocketed out of the hole in the bank and was blown over the brow of the hill. Our experienced Pribilof guide, Scott Schuette, quickly devised a strategy for relocating the bird, sending himself and one participant in a sweep around the side of the hill in hopes of flushing it back into the cut while the rest of us waited quietly nearby. Amazingly, everything worked exactly as planned! The bird pitched back into the cut, lingered in scope view, and soon we were all studying a female Common Rosefinch. What an incredibly plain bird this was, but yet another prize rarity to add to our North America lists!

Red-legged Kittiwake

Red-legged Kittiwake— Photo: David Wolf

Though this was one of the best visits ever for vagrants, the Pribilofs are much more than rarities. Here we also enjoyed super close-ups of Red-legged Kittiwakes, as well as the Red-faced Cormorants and alcids on the cliffs; found a female King Eider amidst a flock of lovely Harlequin Ducks; saw lots of male Northern Fur Seals up on the rocks and beaches; and learned a bit about the culture and tragic history of the Aleut people. All too soon it was back to the mainland, the first segment of our Grand Alaska tour complete.