There are no roads to Nome, Alaska; you can only get there by plane or boat. I took a plane from San Francisco to Seattle, Seattle to Anchorage, Anchorage to Kotzebue, and Kotzebue to Nome. I had a four hour lay over in Anchorage and so I walked out of the airport and went for a walk. My friend, Ken, had told me about a trail nearby but I had left the house that morning without time to download the directions and so I just walked toward Cook Inlet. It took me a long time to get to Cook Inlet but across the inlet I could see the top of 20,320 foot Mt. McKinley, the highest point in North America. I could also see downtown Anchorage in the opposite direction. But then it was time to turn around and walk back. I saw a Black-billed Magpie, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Savannah Sparrow on the walk back. It took all day long to get to Nome and I didn’t arrive until 11:30 PM. It was still light out but raining and dismal so after picking up my rental car at the Aurora Inn I just found a safe place to park on the beach in Nome where you are allowed to camp for free and slept in the car. I just didn’t have the energy to put up a tent in the rain.
I didn’t sleep well with it light out all night long but I got up Sunday, June 8, 2008, and decided to just try a loop around town. I stopped at some ponds on the road to the airport and saw some Long-tailed Ducks, Greater Scaup, and Northern Pintails. It was raining and I had to film through the window. I saw a very large bull Moose in the just barely budding red willows. I drove from there up to Anvil Mountain. I walked the road a bit and saw a Lapland Longspur walking in the snow. This bird is abundant in Nome. Next I saw a Northern Wheatear a new bird for me and then a Common Redpoll, another new bird. There were some Yellow Warblers and Northern Waterthrushes in the willows near the Anvil Mountain Correctional Center. After thoroughly checking Anvil Mountain I turned back to Nome Bypass where I saw my first ever American Tree Sparrow. A Common Snipe was perched in a telephone wire. I stopped at some ponds where Nome Bypass ends at Front Street and there were more ducks, Red-necked Phalaropes, and two Red-throated Loons in breeding plumage. Then I headed over to the grocery store to pick up some food. I bought 8 bananas (not sure where those came from), 8 apples from Washington State, a loaf of bread, box of crackers, two propane canisters, and a small pack of napkins and it cost me $45. However, gas was only $4.29 a gallon, far less than in San Francisco.
It was still early and so I decided to try some more birding. Though there are no roads into Nome, there are three roads out of town, Council, Teller, and Kougarok, all ending in tiny Native Camps about 70 or more miles out. I decided to try Council Road and took it as far as the Solomon Bridge. Council Road follows along the Bering Sea for the first 30 miles or so until it reaches the Solomon River mouth and then turns inland until it reaches the edge of the boreal forest. After leaving town I drove over the Nome River Bridge where I stopped to check some shorebirds on the river banks. They were all Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers. So I continued. Just past the bridge I pulled over at Fort Davis, a fort built during the gold rush to restore law and order. Some Aleutian Terns were flying over the field. Across the street aLong-tailed Jaeger was sitting in the tundra; they nest in Nome along with Parasitic Jaegers. At the brushy creek mouths I stopped to look for passerines and saw singing Gray-cheeked Thrushes, Yellow Warblers, and Common Redpolls. Next I came to a rock quarry where the rocks are being used to make a short jetty into the Bering Sea. I walked out onto it and it began to rain. There were several Glaucous Gulls on the shore along with a few Mew Gulls and a female Eider I was not able to identify. After the jetty the habitat opens up into grasslands. All along the Bering Sea people have built summer homes. There are no services past the Nome River Bridge, no sewage, no electricity, no water services. So most of these are little shacks, some more elaborate with decks and two stories but mostly little lean tos with outhouses. All along this stretch there were many Lapland Longspurs which nest in western Alaska in large numbers. Tundra Swans were in the river which paralleled the sea at this stretch. Finally I came to Safety Sound, a well known rare bird migrant area. I pulled over at the bridge and saw two Pacific Loons in breeding plumage. I drove across the bridge and pulled over to check the sound more closely. In the sound was a much rarer Arctic Loon. They look very similar to a Pacific Loon except for a white patch going up their rumps. I saw this clearly as it sat perched in the water. I walked along the sound and found an injured Murre pulling up to the shore. I looked at it closely and saw that it was a Thick-billed Murre, a bird I have never seen before. In the grassland I saw my first ever Yellow Wagtail circling and circling while singing before finally landing in the grass briefly. At the Solomon River Bridge I stopped to look at the remains of a train the miners had tried to build there to connect a gold mine claim at the Solomon River Mouth to another mine 50 miles away in the tiny mining town of Council at the end of the Council Road. The train was never completed most likely due to the harsh conditions in that part of the world. It started to rain again and was getting late so I decided to turn around there. I drove all the way back into Nome and then pulled into the Kougarok Road and drove another 38 miles to the Salmon Lake “campground.” The lake was still mostly frozen and the campground was nothing more than a road that went to the lake edge. However, it had an outhouse with toilet paper so I decided to camp there. The sun finally emerged and even though it was midnight was shining brightly when I got into my sleeping bag and tried to go to sleep.
June 9, 2008, I got up as early as possible and drove straight from Salmon Lake to milepost 72 at Coffee Dome on Kougarok Road. I pulled over and began to walk up a tussocky hill to a ridge where the rare and elusive Bristle-thighed Curlew nests. I had gone no further than a quarter of a mile when one flew over my head singing. It landed not far away and another one flew in as well. I was able to film it showing the pumpkin colored rump that differentiates it from the very similar looking Whimbrel which also nests on the tundra. There was also a Long-tailed Jaeger sitting on a tussock that let me get very close to it. The closest I had ever previously been was when seeing them far out at sea from a boat on a pelagic trip or through a spotting scope from the Cliff House at home in San Francisco. It began to snow so I had to return to the car and put the camera away. I drove almost to the end of Kougarok Road and then parked and decided to go for a walk to the end. I left my camera in the car as it was raining steadily by then. I had only walked about 20 feet from the car when a Bluethroat flew up right in front of my face singing away circling and then landing not twenty feet from me perched in a willow. It would have made a brilliant shot if it hadn’t been raining and my camera hadn’t been stowed safely in the car. I continued down the road. On one side it dropped off steeply down an embankment to a broad river. Far below I saw a female Moose eating beside the river. She kept looking back and looking back at me and I couldn’t figure out why when I was so far away and so harmless. Just about then I saw an enormous rack of a huge bull moose sitting in a willow patch just twenty yards or so from me. It looked at me and I got a little bit scared and turned back for the car. As I drove back toward Nome I came across a Short-eared Owl perched in a tree. There was another large whitish bird on the other side but I never could tell if it was a Snowy Owl or a light morph Gyrfalcon before it flew over the ridge and away. On the way back after Salmon Lake I stopped at the Grand Central Bridge and there were many warblers singing away in the trees, mostly Blackpoll Warblers, Wilson’s Warblers, Yellow Warblers, and Northern Waterthrushes but also Arctic Warblers and some Tiaga subspecies of the Fox Sparrow. There were some Harlequin Ducks in the river.
June 10, 2008 I decided to drive the Council Road all the way to the tiny mining town of Council. I stopped at the Nome River Bridge and there was a male and female Bar-tailed Godwit on the river bank. I stopped at Safety Sound and walked along the Bering Sea Beach where I found an injured Thick-billed Murre coming to shore to die. On the other side of the sound a Yellow Wagtail was singing and circling above but only landing ever so briefly. A Short-eared Owl was hunting for food at the mouth of the Solomon River. That night I camped on the beach in Nome.
June 11, 2008 I decided to take the Teller Road. It was overcast and as I began my trip down to Teller, a native camp 70 miles away, it began to snow hard. I came across a large herd of reindeer in the tundra and finally a Rock Ptarmigan, another first. It was snowing so hard but I made out an American Golden Plover in breeding plumage in the snowy tundra. At the Bluestone Bridge the snow turned to rain. Cliff Swallows were nesting under the bridge and there was a Northern Shrike in the willows on the river bank. As I approached the tiny village of Teller the sun finally emerged. I parked at the end of the road just before the spit that goes out into Grantley Harbor and walked out toward the end of it. The sea was still full of ice chunks. Far out on another little spit were some Jaegers chasing Arctic Terns. Some Pigeon Guillemots flew by as well as Pelagic Cormorant and Common Eider. White Wagtails which are much rarer than Yellow Wagtails, nest in Teller but despite my best efforts I was unable to locate one. So I turned around and headed back to Nome.
June 12, 2008, I decided to take a day trip to St. Lawrence Island on Bering Air. The plane didn’t leave Nome until 9:00 AM so I went first to the Nome River mouth. There were some Glaucous Gulls on a sand bar and one Slaty-backed Gull. The gulls were very skittish and flew if I even got anywhere near them. Up on the Nome River Bridge I was a Bar-tailed Godwit, Western Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, and Dunlin. Next I checked out the Ponds at Front Street and there were the usual Long-tailed Ducks, Red-throated Loons, and one Hoary Redpoll.
I was nervous about going to St. Lawrence Island. The plane is a twin prop that lands on the tiny island unassisted. So whether you make it or not on any given day is very much weather dependent and the weather so far in Nome had been rather miserable. But I made a reservation to leave at 9:00 AM and return the same day with a pick up at 5:00 PM. I don’t know what I would have done if the plane hadn’t been able to pick me up because I had nowhere to stay on that god forsaken island. But the weather was outstanding that day. We took off right on schedule and landed in Gambel, St. Lawrence Island around 10:00 PM. As I deplaned the plane was surrounded by native Suvuks on ATVs picking up their relatives as I wandered around looking for the bathroom. There was no bathroom—nothing there but an airstrip. A man on an ATV said something in some strange language and I finally figured he wanted to drive me around for a fee so I pulled out my wallet but he said no I don’t want your money what are you looking for and I said I wanted to look around so he said hop on I’ll take you to a bathroom. We pulled up to some building and the lady at the door said I could use the toilet. I didn’t know if it was her house or what. After coming out of the bathroom she said now you need to pay a fee to walk around the island. She handed me a form to fill out and extracted $50 from me just for the privilege of walking around that horrible trash filled island full of crazy people riding around in circles on noisy awful ATVs. St. Lawrence Island is 190 southwest of Nome, AK and just 40 miles from Siberia right out in the Bering Sea and a perfect platform to watch millions of seabirds flying by on their way to the tundra where they nest. This in turn attracts hundreds of birders each year to this tiny island to watch the spectacle and hope to catch an Asian stray bird or two that either lands on the island or flies past the point. I walked away from the pay house but it was foggy and I wasn’t exactly sure where the point was so I just started walking. Soon the fog lifted and I could see a giant sea cliff that came down to the sea. This is where three species of auklets and several other birds nest. It was extremely hard to walk there as the entire island is gravel. I was so tired by the time I made it to the cliff that the sweat was coming straight through my down jacket. As I walked along the coast I noticed a seabird very close to shore and stopped to film it not even sure what it was. At the cliff there were thousands of Least Auklets, Parakeet Auklets, and Crested Auklets as well as a few Pigeon Guillemots, at least one Black Guillemot, Horned Puffins, and two Snow Buntings. It was a truly amazing sight to see all those sea birds right there in front of me on the sea cliff. After enjoying that thoroughly I decided to walk to some “boneyards” near the town. St. Lawrence Island has been inhabited by humans since at least 1500 BC. These boneyards are middens left by these ancestors throwing the marine mammal bones they had used. The nutrients from these boneyards have seeped into the soil making an ideal place for plants to grow in this otherwise barren island. The natives living on Gambel live by subsistence activities of fishing, whaling, and harpooning walruses and seals. Every house had sticks strung with drying seal meat for the coming winter. Migration was actually over as it ends on June 10 generally so nothing much was happening at the boneyard other than a Lapland Longspur and a Semipalmated Plover so I kept going all the way to the point. I parked there and watched the show as hundreds of Horned Puffins, Tufted Puffins, Auklets, Harlequin Ducks, and other sea birds flew by in a steady stream. It was very exciting but as the sweat dried and I stood without moving I began to get cold so I moved around the island and found a gigantic whale bone in someone’s yard and some natives digging up a boneyard looking for some hidden ivory tusk on a walrus buried by their ancestors maybe. Then it was time to catch the plane home. Fortunately it was still clear and the plane landed right on time to take me back to Nome. It was still light out when I got back so after checking some bird sighting records at the Visitor Center I decided to try for a sighting of a Bluethroat on Kougarok Road seen by someone at milepost 38. I drove out there but only saw a Say’s Phoebe, Willow Ptarmigan, and Arctic Warbler. So I turned back and drove back to my campsite on the beach in Nome.
June 13, 2008 was my last day in Nome so I decided to try Council Road one last time all the way to Council. I had seen at least one new bird each day but I figured the only chances I had left at that point were the ever elusive Red-necked Stint possible at Safety Sound or a Boreal Chickadee in the Spruce Forest at the end of Council Road. At Nome River Bridge there were some Tundra Swans and Bar-tailed Godwits. At Safety Sound there was a huge flock of Semi-palmated Sandpipers and Western Sandpipers but I could not find any Red-necked Stint. So I pressed on. At the tiny native village of Solomon there were a couple of Yellow Wagtails. I stopped at Lee’s abandoned mining camp not long after Solomon and found the only two butterflies of the trip—an Arctic Blue and an Anna’s White but no White Wagtail which allegedly nests there. I pressed on to the Boreal Forest. It was so muddy in some parts of that road as it climbed up to the forest that I thought the car might bottom out but it did just fine. It was a Ford Escape with good mud tires on it. Near the crest of the road I stopped where I saw a Northern Wheatear perched. Then I pressed on to the forest edge where I heard a Varied Thrush and several Snowshoe Hares were crossing the road. Near the town of Council I got out and saw a Whimbrel near the road. Then I stopped at the Bear Creek Rest Stop and walked around. Incredibly a Boreal Chickadee came out of the forest out into plain view! I walked around a pond lined with willows and saw several Yellow Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Blackpoll Warblers, and Northern Waterthrushes but got scared when I came across some enormous paw tracks in the mud. I returned to my car and started my drive back. When safely away from the bear tracks I got out and took a two mile walk but didn’t see anything except some Tree Swallows at the Fox River Bridge. So I headed back to Nome.
June 14, 2008 was my last day. Before walking to the airport I checked the Front Street Ponds and saw American Tree Sparrow, Common Redpoll, and Yellow Wagtail and then I briefly saw a bird pop up that looked like it might have been the White Wagtail reported there earlier in the week. But it was time to walk to the airport so I had to turn back and leave Nome.
June 19, 2008