This week-long adventure has quickly become one of my favorite North American Field Guides tours - the combination of fantastic early summer birding, amazing mammals, and wild landscapes while based out of a single hotel in a frontier town is hard to beat from my perspective.
A leisurely week at Nome allowed us to spend plenty of time along the dynamic coastline and thoroughly cover the three main roads of the Seward Peninsula (Council Road, Kougarok Road, and the Nome-Teller Highway), with repeat visits made to many sites to bask in our finds and help uncover tricky species. Bird highlights were many and included the amazing fledgling Gyrfalcons, Arctic and Yellow-billed loons, Bristle-thighed Curlews, Spectacled Eider, that hard-won Stejneger's Scoter, a Red-necked Stint, Arctic Warblers in every thicket, the Bluethroat nest, gritting Pine Grosbeaks, and two White Wagtails - just to name a few.
The mammal diversity on this tour was almost beyond belief. An Alaskan Hare (dwarfing the common Snowshoe Hares) in the road near Salmon Lake, Belugas cruising around at Cape Nome, and a Walrus lounging in the shallows of Safety Sound topped our list for surprise and rarity, but it's hard to argue with great sightings of Grizzly Bears and Muskoxen, too!
We also birded through all sorts of weather AND a remarkable plume of smoke from the wildfires to our south, and compared the merits of the menus at Milano's and Airport Pizza on numerous occasions.
Thanks for joining me for this extraordinary week in western Alaska. I hope this trip list and video bring back some wonderful memories for you.
KEYS FOR THIS LIST
One of the following keys may be shown in brackets for individual species as appropriate: * = heard only, I = introduced, E = endemic, N = nesting, a = austral migrant, b = boreal migrant
SNOW GOOSE (Anser caerulescens)
We saw one individual at Safety Sound.
GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE (Anser albifrons)
Family groups were together in ponds along the Kougarok Road; another pair was near the end of the Council Road, too.
BRANT (BLACK) (Branta bernicla nigricans)
We saw small numbers of lingering birds and a few migrant flocks, mostly along the coast and at Safety Sound.
CACKLING GOOSE (Branta hutchinsii)
A few dozen were scattered around river valleys and flying by along the coast. The breeding subspecies here is taverneri, or Taverner's Cackling Goose.
TUNDRA SWAN (WHISTLING) (Cygnus columbianus columbianus)
A few dozen lingered at Safety Sound, but most had departed for breeding sites before the tour.
NORTHERN SHOVELER (Spatula clypeata)
We saw one along the Nome River from the Kougarok Road.
EURASIAN WIGEON (Mareca penelope)
A single red-headed male lingered with American Wigeon on Safety Sound.
AMERICAN WIGEON (Mareca americana)
Several dozen fed in flocks near the swans at Safety Sound.
NORTHERN PINTAIL (Anas acuta)
One of the most common dabblers that we encountered; several dozen per day, especially along the coast.
GREEN-WINGED TEAL (AMERICAN) (Anas crecca carolinensis)
We saw a few handfuls of these tiny ducks, mostly on rivers and ponds away from the coast.
GREATER SCAUP (Aythya marila)
This is the common scaup on the Seward Peninsula; we saw flocks of up to 80 birds on Safety Sound.
SPECTACLED EIDER (Somateria fischeri)
One of the most amazing waterfowl in the world! We enjoyed seeing a lovely male in a pond just east of the Safety Sound bridge. This species is rare but regular in spring and summer in the Nome area when males often mix in with flocks of Common Eiders and scoters.
KING EIDER (Somateria spectabilis)
Small numbers of females and immature males were along the coast between the town of Nome and Safety Sound.
COMMON EIDER (PACIFIC) (Somateria mollissima v-nigrum)
This Pacific form of Common Eider is the most common eider at Nome in spring and summer. We saw up to 55 birds on our forays around Cape Nome and Safety Sound.
HARLEQUIN DUCK (Histrionicus histrionicus)
Flocks of dozens paddled along the rocky shoreline near Cape Nome; we saw a few others along inland rivers.
SURF SCOTER (Melanitta perspicillata)
Three were with the scoter and eider flocks at Cape Nome.
WHITE-WINGED SCOTER (Melanitta deglandi)
Fifty or so lingered around Cape Nome, and we scrutinized these birds carefully in search of the recently split Stejneger's Scoter from Asia.
STEJNEGER'S SCOTER (Melanitta stejnegeri)
It required patience and concentration, but we caught up to a single male mixed in with White-winged Scoters close to shore near Cape Nome. This is the Asian counterpart to the [American] White-winged Scoter; males can be differentiated by their blank flanks, bulky/ rounded forehead, sharp/ blocky bill knob, and an orange-dominated bill color. A few individuals of this rare-in-America duck have been found in Nome the past few summers.
BLACK SCOTER (Melanitta americana)
A flock of up to 65 lingered off Cape Nome during our visit.
LONG-TAILED DUCK (Clangula hyemalis)
We found small numbers of these handsome divers at many locations, mostly along the coast.
COMMON MERGANSER (Mergus merganser)
Three sightings of this uncommon-in-Nome waterfowl. We had two sightings at the Nome River Mouth and another single at Salmon Lake.
RED-BREASTED MERGANSER (Mergus serrator)
Common in rivers, estuaries, and the ocean; we saw dozens every day of the trip.
WILLOW PTARMIGAN (Lagopus lagopus)
This one nearly eluded us, but we caught up to it on our final day on the Nome-Teller Highway when we found a dozen birds including a family group with peeping chicks.
ROCK PTARMIGAN (Lagopus muta)
A male showed really well for us on the rocky upland tundra above the Nome-Teller Highway.
RED-NECKED GREBE (Podiceps grisegena)
Two were flybys at Cape Nome; we also saw a pair on the Cemetery Pond where the species nests.
ROCK PIGEON (Columba livia) [I]
The free-flying birds here are part of a domesticated flock that lives near where the Nome-Teller Highway crosses the Snake River.
SANDHILL CRANE (Antigone canadensis)
A few pairs plus about a dozen birds that lingered in the grassy flats alongside Safety Sound.
AMERICAN GOLDEN-PLOVER (Pluvialis dominica)
We saw a few feeding in open, flower-rich tundra in a high part of the Council Road.
PACIFIC GOLDEN-PLOVER (Pluvialis fulva)
This was the more common golden-plover that we found along the coast and on the Nome-Teller Highway. We had ample opportunity to check the IDs and listen to the beautiful calls of these ocean-crossing migrants.
SEMIPALMATED PLOVER (Charadrius semipalmatus)
We saw small numbers in open, gravel-covered areas where they nest.
BRISTLE-THIGHED CURLEW (Numenius tahitiensis)
Our hike up Curlew Hill (near Coffee Dome) was fruitful! We found two of these rare shorebirds and had good views of one on the ground and in flight, too. Though some people get to see these curlews in winter in Hawaii, most North American sightings by birders come from this breeding area inland from Nome.
WHIMBREL (HUDSONIAN) (Numenius phaeopus hudsonicus)
Small numbers were scattered across the tundra throughout our week; by the end of the trip, numbers had markedly increased along the coast, signaling the staging of southbound migrant adults.
BAR-TAILED GODWIT (Limosa lapponica)
Just a few sightings of 2 and 3 birds at Safety Sound and the Nome River Mouth.
BLACK TURNSTONE (Arenaria melanocephala)
Two of these high contrast rockpipers were with other shorebirds at Safety Sound.
RED-NECKED STINT (Calidris ruficollis)
A very bright individual was with Western Sandpipers near the Safety Sound bridge. We spent a fair bit of time scanning for this rare-but-regular Asian migrant.
DUNLIN (Calidris alpina)
Small numbers were mixed in with other shorebirds at Safety Sound.
ROCK SANDPIPER (Calidris ptilocnemis)
One foraged in the wrack line at the mouth of Safety Sound with other shorebirds.
LEAST SANDPIPER (Calidris minutilla)
Singles and pairs were at a few different locations including Safety Sound and the Nome-Teller Highway.
SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPER (Calidris pusilla)
A common breeder, still on territories in the coastal tundra.
WESTERN SANDPIPER (Calidris mauri)
We saw flocks of over 100 birds near the coast, perhaps early breeders that were already staging for the southbound migration.
LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER (Limnodromus scolopaceus)
Four were at the Nome River Mouth.
WILSON'S SNIPE (Gallinago delicata)
Widespread in small numbers, especially along the inland river valleys where they nest commonly. We were often alerted to their presence by the owl-like hooting of their display flights.
RED-NECKED PHALAROPE (Phalaropus lobatus)
Widely scattered in small numbers, especially at the Nome River Mouth, Safety Sound, and inland ponds. We also saw a flock of 25 flying east offshore one day which suggested ongoing migration.
SPOTTED SANDPIPER (Actitis macularius)
Just a few along rivers inland.
WANDERING TATTLER (Tringa incana)
We heard and saw a distant flight display over Salmon Lake; later one showed nicely by foraging just downstream from the Cripple River bridge on the Nome-Teller Highway.
POMARINE JAEGER (Stercorarius pomarinus)
We saw three of these big spoon-tails flying along the shore at Teller.
PARASITIC JAEGER (Stercorarius parasiticus)
Our second most common jaeger - the mid-sized one. We mostly saw these along the Nome River Mouth, Cape Nome, and Safety Sound.
LONG-TAILED JAEGER (Stercorarius longicaudus)
These slim beauties were fairly common, even far inland from the coast. One of the great pleasures of summer birding at Nome is spending time with Long-tailed Jaegers.
COMMON MURRE (Uria aalge)
The most common auk we saw - mostly flybys well offshore, but a few were paddling around and diving close to the rocks at Cape Nome.
HORNED PUFFIN (Fratercula corniculata)
A few on the water and flying by at Teller and Cape Nome.
BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE (Rissa tridactyla)
These medium-sized gulls were quite common in flocks just offshore, especially around Cape Nome.
SHORT-BILLED GULL (Larus brachyrhynchus)
Apparently becoming more common at Nome; we saw small numbers in many locations, especially along river valleys and near town.
HERRING GULL (AMERICAN) (Larus argentatus smithsonianus)
A few birds we studied closely appeared to be this subspecies.
HERRING GULL (VEGA) (Larus argentatus vegae)
We had a few good looks at dark-backed, dark-eyed adults of this NE Asian form of Herring Gull. This might deserve species status.
GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULL (Larus glaucescens)
A small number of these gray-winged gulls were along the beaches east of the town of Nome.
GLAUCOUS GULL (Larus hyperboreus)
These white-winged brutes are the common large gulls on the Seward Peninsula. We also saw a Herring x Glaucous Gull hybrid fly by at Cape Nome - like a Glaucous Gull but with fine dark streaks through the primary tips.
ALEUTIAN TERN (Onychoprion aleuticus)
Oddly scarce this week compared to earlier in June; we just saw them a few times at Nome River Mouth and Safety Sound, with a max count of 6. This species has been declining in the region, and its scarcity is a bit concerning.
ARCTIC TERN (Sterna paradisaea)
Very common, especially at nesting sites and loafing beaches at the Nome River Mouth and Safety Sound.
RED-THROATED LOON (Gavia stellata)
Easily the most common loon we saw; these slim beasts were frequently seen on small coastal ponds and flying by over the shoreline.
ARCTIC LOON (Gavia arctica)
Rare in North America! We had two encounters of this Eurasian counterpart to Pacific Loon. The first was a flyby showing off its white hip patches, but the view left a little to be desired. The second bird was on the water off Teller, and we managed some good scope views.
PACIFIC LOON (Gavia pacifica)
We had plenty of opportunities to admire these stunningly beautiful loons in coastal waters as well as on breeding ponds.
COMMON LOON (Gavia immer)
We saw up to 4 individuals on our visits to Safety Sound.
YELLOW-BILLED LOON (Gavia adamsii)
From the same spot where we saw the Arctic Loon at Teller, we scoped an amazing breeding plumage Yellow-billed Loon. Fortunately it stuck around at the surface and allowed repeated nice views.
PELAGIC CORMORANT (Urile pelagicus)
Particularly common around Teller, but we also saw them between Nome and Cape Nome.
GOLDEN EAGLE (Aquila chrysaetos)
Two of these massive raptors were flying around at a nesting site inland from Nome.
NORTHERN HARRIER (Circus hudsonius)
Just one - flying around at the Cripple River crossing.
ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK (Buteo lagopus)
These long-winged Buteo hawks were seen regularly inland from the coast along the Kougarok Road and Nome-Teller Highway, including at active nests.
SHORT-EARED OWL (Asio flammeus)
Six sightings of these buoyant, diurnal owls as they hunted over the tundra.
GYRFALCON (Falco rusticolus)
Each tour has its major memories. For me, seeing those fledgling Gyrfalcons at amazingly close range alongside the road is probably my top bird highlight of this week in Nome. What a magnificent bird and a lucky sighting (we also got to admire the parents, albeit a bit farther than 10 meters away).
PEREGRINE FALCON (Falco peregrinus)
Two adults were hanging around Cape Nome and acted a bit territorial.
ALDER FLYCATCHER (Empidonax alnorum)
This boreal tyrant might be getting a bit more common around Nome as riverine vegetation gets taller. We had good views of territorial birds at the Fox River and the Penny River.
SAY'S PHOEBE (Sayornis saya)
We saw a bird on a nest on the side of a house in Teller, and found a few more at likely nesting sites on the Council Road, too.
NORTHERN SHRIKE (Lanius borealis)
We enjoyed three sightings - two times on the Kougarok Road plus once at the Sinuk River crossing.
CANADA JAY (Perisoreus canadensis)
Three made a close investigation of us at the Fox River on the Council Road.
COMMON RAVEN (Corvus corax)
Quite common around town and the landfill; less common elsewhere.
BOREAL CHICKADEE (Poecile hudsonicus) [*]
We heard one in the strip of boreal forest near Council.
HORNED LARK (Eremophila alpestris)
One was at Skookum Pass during a lunch picnic.
TREE SWALLOW (Tachycineta bicolor)
We saw small numbers along river valleys and coastal estuaries, as well as in town at Nome and Teller.
BANK SWALLOW (Riparia riparia)
We bumped into birds near nesting sites along the Kougarok Road and Council Road.
CLIFF SWALLOW (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota)
These handsome swallows nest commonly under bridges on the Kougarok Road and Nome-Teller Highway - fabulous views at the Sinuk River and the Pilgrim River.
ARCTIC WARBLER (Phylloscopus borealis)
This Old World Warbler was abundant in river valleys. We saw them several times very well, and we heard far more than we ever saw.
AMERICAN DIPPER (Cinclus mexicanus)
In residence under the Penny River bridge.
VARIED THRUSH (Ixoreus naevius)
We found an adult feeding a big, noisy fledgling along the river at Council.
GRAY-CHEEKED THRUSH (Catharus minimus)
Nome is the best place I've ever been for seeing and hearing this species - they are downright common anywhere with dense shrubs or small trees. It's amazing to drive around town and see these thrushes (which I know from the East Coast as reclusive migrants) sitting on utility wires belting out their magical songs.
HERMIT THRUSH (Catharus guttatus)
We heard one at Cape Nome and later saw one at Council.
AMERICAN ROBIN (Turdus migratorius)
A common songbird of the peninsula.
BLUETHROAT (Luscinia svecica)
This one almost gave us the slip, but we eventually tracked it down - we had a sneaky male along the Kougarok Road, and then later lucked into finding a female bringing food to a well-hidden ground nest that held 5 cryptically patterned chicks - what a strange experience!
NORTHERN WHEATEAR (Oenanthe oenanthe)
Nice views of one at the turnoff to Woolley Lagoon on the Nome-Teller Highway.
EASTERN YELLOW WAGTAIL (Motacilla tschutschensis)
We saw these slender Trans-Beringian migrants on several occasions, mostly along the Council Road, but also in the town of Teller (next to White Wagtail).
WHITE WAGTAIL (Motacilla alba)
We saw one in the Snake River by the Nome Airport, and then had super views of one at the sewage pond in Teller.
AMERICAN PIPIT (Anthus rubescens)
These noisy songbirds were defensive of nesting territories at several sites in higher, dry tundra.
PINE GROSBEAK (Pinicola enucleator)
Perhaps the highlight of our visit to Council - two males dropped down into the road to pick up grit, giving us magnificent views and some good photo ops.
COMMON REDPOLL (Acanthis flammea)
We identified slightly more of these than Hoary Redpoll during our week together. Both species are pretty common around Nome, but it can be tricky to get good views since they seem to never stop moving. We recorded lots of "redpoll sp." in our notes to account for the flyovers and distant, unidentified individuals.
HOARY REDPOLL (Acanthis hornemanni)
The paler, more northerly of the two North American redpoll species. We had some good luck when these tundra ghosts perched in roadside shrubs.
LAPLAND LONGSPUR (Calcarius lapponicus)
Very common on tundra around the Nome area.
SNOW BUNTING (Plectrophenax nivalis)
Just two atop a dry, rocky ridge next to the Nome-Teller Highway.
AMERICAN TREE SPARROW (Spizelloides arborea)
These cheerful songsters were seen frequently in river valleys as well as drier tundra habitats with small shrubs.
FOX SPARROW (RED) (Passerella iliaca zaboria)
These stout sparrows were very common in thickly vegetated river valleys.
WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW (GAMBEL'S) (Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii)
An abundant sparrow around Nome, usually found at lower elevations than Golden-crowned Sparrow.
GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROW (Zonotrichia atricapilla)
Most common at slightly higher elevations than White-crowned, though there is broad overlap on the Seward Peninsula. Their mournful "No gold here!" songs rang out from the hills.
SAVANNAH SPARROW (Passerculus sandwichensis)
A common tundra sparrow that we saw just about every day.
LINCOLN'S SPARROW (Melospiza lincolnii)
These finely streaked sparrows were at the Snake River and the Penny River along the Nome-Teller Highway. The species is scarce here compared to more forested parts of the Alaskan mainland.
RUSTY BLACKBIRD (Euphagus carolinus)
One perched up nicely for us near the Nome airport.
NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH (Parkesia noveboracensis)
These water-loving warblers were very common in thick vegetation along river corridors outside of Nome.
ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER (Leiothlypis celata)
We saw these plain trillers on several occasions in river valleys with taller vegetation.
YELLOW WARBLER (Setophaga petechia)
Common in shrubby vegetation near water, especially along rivers.
BLACKPOLL WARBLER (Setophaga striata)
Just a few sightings of this widespread boreal forest species - ours were in spruce forest near Council and also at the Snake River crossing.
YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER (MYRTLE) (Setophaga coronata coronata)
We found four in the boreal forest belt near Council.
WILSON'S WARBLER (Cardellina pusilla)
The chattering of this widespread wood-warbler can be heard in many shrubby riparian areas around the Seward Peninsula.
SNOWSHOE HARE (Lepus americanus)
This is the common hare in the Nome area; we had good views on several days, including plenty along the Kougarok Road between Salmon Lake and Pilgrim River.
ALASKAN HARE (Lepus othus)
One of the rarest sightings of the trip - this massive gray-and-white hare was along the Kougarok Road (just north of the west end of Salmon Lake). It really looked a bit like a mid-sized dog when it ran across the road. We had superb views of this range-restricted beast which can only be found in remote areas of sparsely-visited western Alaska.
ARCTIC GROUND SQUIRREL (Spermophilus parryii)
The only squirrels we saw - these grizzled "bear burritos" were often seen running off the edges of the roads as we drove by.
BEAVER (Castor canadensis)
We watched one at length as it swam around a pond along the Kougarok Road.
HARBOR PORPOISE (Phocoena phocoena)
These were the small, dark gray cetaceans that we picked out offshore a few times.
BELUGA (Delphinapterus leucas)
Wow - what a surprise! These whitish-pinkish-gray cetaceans with blunt heads were slowly cruising along the coast at Cape Nome. We initially saw them while driving along the road east of the Cape, and then we sped down to the tip of the Cape when we realized what we were seeing. A little while after we got out of the van, one of the animals surfaced quite close to us!
RED FOX (Vulpes vulpes)
A few sightings of these nice-looking canids with the thick, bushy tails - this is the common fox here.
ARCTIC FOX (Vulpes lagopus)
This tiny fox, short-eared fox was running around on an island in Safety Sound near the swan flock, presumably searching for bird eggs. This was my first time seeing the species in the Nome area.
BROWN (INCL. GRIZZLY) BEAR (Ursus arctos)
Multiple sightings of these iconic predators! It was great to spend time watching the two animals along the Kougarok Road just past Salmon Lake. After they ran off from the side of the road, scared off by our van, we found some high ground and waited until they grazed out into an open patch between patches of alders. Later, we saw another chunky bear foraging on the tundra along the Nome-Teller Highway.
WALRUS (Odobenus rosmarus)
WOAH!!! After years of seeing dead walrus washed up on the beaches around Nome, it was extremely exciting for me to see a big adult male walrus resting in shallow water at Safety Sound - a lifer for me. Though the views were distant, we could easily observe this massive pinniped's bulk (male Pacific Walrus can weigh over 4,000 pounds!) and his enormous tusks. It's rare to see Walrus from shore here at this season.
SPOTTED SEAL (Phoca largha)
One of the common seals around Nome - this one is the local seal that most resembles a Harbor Seal from farther south. Also called "Largha Seal."
RINGED SEAL (Phoca hispida)
We saw a few of these small seals (with pale rings on their backs) feeding around Teller, including in comparison with Spotted Seals.
MOOSE (Alces alces)
A few sightings of these huge, goofy-looking deer along river corridors. We even had a few sightings of gangly calves hanging out with their mothers.
MUSKOX (Ovibos moschatus)
Another big mammal highlight - these big woolly beasts are now established in several herds on the Seward Peninsula. We had some very close views in the area of the Nome airport. The species had been wiped out from Alaska by the early 1900s and was reintroduced (with animals from Greenland) starting in 1935 at Nunivak Island. Later, beginning in the 1960s, Muskoxen from Nunivak Island were reintroduced more widely at other sites around Alaska including the Seward Peninsula.
Totals for the tour: 109 bird taxa and 14 mammal taxa