On this Nome-focused tour, we spent a whole week based out of a single comfortable hotel in Nome, Alaska on the Bering Sea coast. Each day we headed out to different sites on the Seward Peninsula to maximize our chances of meeting some of the region's alluring birds and mammals. And each evening we returned to celebrate our finds over tasty food and beverage in town (sidebar—I wonder if the beer has been restocked yet at Airport Pizza?). This schedule gave us a bit more time to explore the Nome area at a relaxed pace.
And it paid off - during our week together, we saw many truly fantastic birds including Spectacled Eider, Stejneger's Scoter, Willow and Rock ptarmigan, Bar-tailed Godwit, Bristle-thighed Curlew, Slaty-backed Gull, Aleutian Tern, Arctic Loon, Gyrfalcon, Bluethroat, Eastern Yellow and White wagtails, Northern Wheatear, Arctic Warbler, and a lot more. Oh, and throw in a bipedal Grizzly Bear and herds of Muskoxen to round things out!
Though the weather didn't always cooperate, we figured out ways to maximize our birding time even on those rainy and foggy days. One day, we made it out to the end of the Nome-Teller Highway at the small village of Teller. Though we saw very few people or activity around the town itself, we did get to scan through a big feeding flock of kittiwakes, cormorants, murres, and seals at the tip of the spit. At the other end of the Nome road system, we visited the seasonal fishing and hunting camp of Council, home to the area's only road-accessible belt of spruce forest (and Pine Grosbeak, Boreal Chickadee, Canada Jay, and more). In the middle of the peninsula, we drove 72 miles up the Kougarok Road to make the pilgrimage in search of Bristle-thighed Curlews. Preparing ourselves for a long walk over uneven tundra, we were lucky to find the curlews just partway up Curlew Hill without wearing ourselves out too much!
The late spring this year meant that a lot of the birds were under pressure to nest in suboptimal conditions (cold, wet weather, lingering snowpack, etc). Having seen Nome in different conditions over several spring seasons, my impression was that many shorebirds and other species were simply deferring their breeding, either until later this summer or even until next year. With high degrees of variability in spring and summer weather in the far north, many animals are used to these kinds of ups and downs, and they try their best to adjust accordingly. Despite the tough breeding season around Nome, we managed to find an impressive variety of species (including some that were pulling off their own impressive nesting victories).
I hope you enjoy the photos and annotated list from the tour. Hopefully it brings back some memories of our time together on the edge of The Great Land. Thanks for joining me in one of my favorite birding spots on the continent, and I hope to see you in the field again before too long.
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
GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE (Anser albifrons)
A few were with other migrant waterfowl at Safety Sound Lagoon, but most of our sightings were of small groups near Council and along the upland lakes of the Kougarok Road.
BRANT (BLACK) (Branta bernicla nigricans)
A few dozen lingered on the flats of Safety Sound Lagoon, and we saw a few flocks migrating along the coast, too.
CACKLING GOOSE (Branta hutchinsii)
We found pairs and small flocks of these "Taverner's" Cackling Geese along coastal tundra and river corridors. This is the regular nesting white-cheeked goose of Nome.
TUNDRA SWAN (WHISTLING) (Cygnus columbianus columbianus)
The large loafing flock of 110 at Safety Sound Lagoon dwindled in number during our visit.
NORTHERN SHOVELER (Spatula clypeata)
Small numbers along ponds and coastal estuaries.
AMERICAN WIGEON (Mareca americana)
We saw up to 23 on a single visit to Safety Sound Lagoon.
MALLARD (Anas platyrhynchos)
Pairs at Safety Sound Lagoon and the Nome River Mouth.
NORTHERN PINTAIL (Anas acuta)
The most common dabbler around Nome in summer.
GREEN-WINGED TEAL (AMERICAN) (Anas crecca carolinensis)
Small numbers, mostly in pairs on well-vegetated ponds.
CANVASBACK (Aythya valisineria)
Up to four males were with scaup at Safety Sound Lagoon.
GREATER SCAUP (Aythya marila)
Flocks of dozens were on Safety Sound Lagoon, and we saw a few other scattered pairs along the way, too.
SPECTACLED EIDER (Somateria fischeri)
We picked out a snoozing male from a flock of Common Eiders at Safety Sound Lagoon. He seemed pretty content to nap and only showed off his full head and bill on a few brief occasions.
COMMON EIDER (PACIFIC) (Somateria mollissima v-nigrum)
Dozens were along the coast, mainly at Safety Sound and Teller. The males have carrot orange bills, quite unlike the Atlantic-breeding populations.
HARLEQUIN DUCK (Histrionicus histrionicus)
We routinely saw flocks of these lovely diving ducks along the coast, primarily around the rocks at Cape Nome. We also found pairs along the riverbanks inland from the coast.
WHITE-WINGED SCOTER (Melanitta deglandi)
We saw flocks of up to 35 individuals along the coast (mostly males).
STEJNEGER'S SCOTER (Melanitta stejnegeri)
Given a spate of recent sightings this spring, we were anticipating a chance at this rare seaduck. Fortunately, we caught up with a black-flanked, knob-billed male mixed up with a flock of White-winged Scoters on the ocean off Hastings Creek. Though the bird was distant, we were able to work through the important field marks that separate this Asian scoter from the American look-alikes.
BLACK SCOTER (Melanitta americana)
Small flocks of up to 15 birds were mixed with flocks of other ducks along the coast.
LONG-TAILED DUCK (Clangula hyemalis)
Small numbers along the coast and at Safety Sound Lagoon; mostly in male-female pairs.
COMMON MERGANSER (Mergus merganser)
Two coastal sightings: 7 flew past at Safety Sound Lagoon and another 4 flew past at Cape Nome.
RED-BREASTED MERGANSER (Mergus serrator)
We saw these slender diving ducks at many stops on the coast and inland. This is one of the most common summer ducks of the Nome area.
WILLOW PTARMIGAN (Lagopus lagopus)
We saw remarkably high numbers of these entertaining grouse in what was clearly a boom year for the species. Highest numbers were along the Nome-Teller Highway and the Kougarok Road, though we saw them nearly everywhere away from the immediate coast. Most interesting was the flock of 25 males gathered on a rainy day on the Nome-Teller Highway. The Birds of the World account suggests that this may have been a bachelor flock brought together during bad weather.
ROCK PTARMIGAN (Lagopus muta)
Not as common as Willow Ptarmigan, but we still saw higher-than-typical numbers, especially in the rocky uplands of the Nome-Teller Highway. We ended up with 8 sightings of these odd grouse.
RED-NECKED GREBE (Podiceps grisegena)
These handsome waterbirds were nesting on a floating platform in a pond near the Nome airport.
SANDHILL CRANE (Antigone canadensis)
We encountered just small numbers during our travels with a max count of 14 birds on the flats at Safety Sound Lagoon.
AMERICAN GOLDEN-PLOVER (Pluvialis dominica)
A white-scarfed male strode over the tundra in the uplands of the Nome-Teller Highway.
PACIFIC GOLDEN-PLOVER (Pluvialis fulva)
These were the golden-plovers we regularly found in wetter, coastal tundra. We practiced identifying them by plumage (extra white on the flanks and undertail coverts compared to American) and structure (short-winged, long-legged, stout-billed compared to American).
SEMIPALMATED PLOVER (Charadrius semipalmatus)
On territories at many gravel-covered locations. The female on her nest at Skookum Pass (see photo) was wonderful to see up close. Such camouflage!
BRISTLE-THIGHED CURLEW (Numenius tahitiensis)
About halfway up the "Curlew Hill" across from Coffee Dome, we started hearing the distinctive "pee-o-wit" calls of these rare shorebirds. All told we saw three adults involved in flight displays and aggression toward their Whimbrel neighbors. This was quite a spectacle in one of the most scenic places in the Nome area with the snow-covered Kigluaik Range in the background to the south.
WHIMBREL (HUDSONIAN) (Numenius phaeopus hudsonicus)
A few were on coastal tundra but most of our sightings were well inland on drier upland tundra.
BAR-TAILED GODWIT (Limosa lapponica)
These are the impressive shorebirds that move along the edge of the Pacific Ocean twice a year on migration. It took until the last full day to find that territorial pair showing off near the nesting Long-tailed Jaegers along the Nome-Teller Highway.
BLACK TURNSTONE (Arenaria melanocephala)
Perhaps the same bird fed along the beach at Safety Sound Lagoon on two separate occasions.
DUNLIN (Calidris alpina)
Small numbers were mixed with peeps on the flats at Safety Sound Lagoon.
SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPER (Calidris pusilla)
These gray and brown peeps were displaying and holding territories along the coast, but they were less abundant than usual.
WESTERN SANDPIPER (Calidris mauri)
Small numbers of breeding birds were inland, and we saw flocks of dozens of migrants on coastal estuaries, too.
LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER (Limnodromus scolopaceus)
A bright orange adult stopped briefly in a coastal pond just outside of town on our first morning of birding.
WILSON'S SNIPE (Gallinago delicata)
The spread-tailed, winnowing display flights of these bizarre shorebirds followed us around the tundra on every day of the week. The most amazing scene was when we walked up to House Rock and were surrounded by the doppler sound of at least 4 flight-displaying birds overhead at the same time.
RED-NECKED PHALAROPE (Phalaropus lobatus)
These small, swimming shorebirds were seen commonly on ponds (where they nest) and along the coast. We even saw some larger flocks (like 90 birds at Safety Sound) that may have been migrants.
RED PHALAROPE (Phalaropus fulicarius)
A snazzy female paddled around in the flooded mouth of Hastings Creek during a strong southerly storm. She had likely been blown in off the ocean and was taking refuge here.
SPOTTED SANDPIPER (Actitis macularius)
These widespread teeterers were along rivers on all three main roads out of Nome.
WANDERING TATTLER (Tringa incana)
Hooray! After much anticipation, we finally saw a breeding plumage adult on the rocks along the banks of the Sinuk River.
PARASITIC JAEGER (Stercorarius parasiticus)
We saw small numbers of both light and dark morph birds along the coast, mostly at the Nome River Mouth and Safety Sound Lagoon.
LONG-TAILED JAEGER (Stercorarius longicaudus)
We enjoyed dozens of sightings of these streamer-tailed marvels. Several were occupying nests while others were seen hovering over the tundra in search of small animals to catch.
COMMON MURRE (Uria aalge)
Though we saw some at distance off Cape Nome, our only close views were from the spit in Teller.
BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE (Rissa tridactyla)
Dozens were flying by the coast on most days, but we also saw a feeding frenzy of at least 250 birds in the gut at the end of the spit at Teller.
SABINE'S GULL (Xema sabini)
Up to three of these glamorous, hooded gulls were feeding on the beach near Safety Sound Lagoon and paddling around at the Nome River Mouth. These are migrants that don't breed locally.
SHORT-BILLED GULL (Larus brachyrhynchus)
This mid-sized gull was quite common, especially close to town and along rivers.
HERRING GULL (VEGA) (Larus argentatus vegae)
A dark-eyed, darkish-mantled adult gave us a nice comparison to a Slaty-backed Gull at the Nome landfill. This is the East Asian subspecies (or maybe species one day!) of Herring Gull.
SLATY-BACKED GULL (Larus schistisagus)
A dark-mantled bird showing the white "string of pearls" in its wingtips joined the paler flock of Glaucous Gulls on our first afternoon of birding. This is a rarity from Asia that occurs regularly here in small numbers in spring and summer.
GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULL (Larus glaucescens)
We saw a few grungy, black-billed first summer birds mixed in with the Glaucous Gulls.
GLAUCOUS GULL (Larus hyperboreus)
This white-winged gull is the common large gull species that nests around Nome.
ALEUTIAN TERN (Onychoprion aleuticus)
These nomadic breeders were likely affected by the flood events from spring storms. However, we still regularly saw small numbers of these crisp, well-appointed terns around the Nome River Mouth and Safety Sound Lagoon.
ARCTIC TERN (Sterna paradisaea)
This is the most common species of tern here. Their colony at the Nome River Mouth was flooded out by the strong southerly winds on at least one day.
RED-THROATED LOON (Gavia stellata)
This slender diver is the most common loon in spring and summer around Nome. They nest commonly on many smaller ponds and lakes right around town.
ARCTIC LOON (Gavia arctica)
After getting a nice look at an adult on the ocean near Safety Sound Lagoon, we were excited to study two at mostly frozen Salmon Lake. I have never seen them inland on the peninsula before. We had good opportunities to study the darker gray neck, bold white neck stripes, and white leg patch that set these rare loons apart from the more common Pacific Loons.
PACIFIC LOON (Gavia pacifica)
These smooth beauties showed off numerous times—it's the second most common loon here after Red-throated. The wary pair that swam past us at the Safety Sound Bridge was nice and close.
COMMON LOON (Gavia immer)
One swam at great distance on Safety Sound Lagoon. We made sure to confirm that it had a black bill!
PELAGIC CORMORANT (Urile pelagicus)
Higher-than-normal numbers were passing by the coast at Nome, and we saw 300 more at Teller close to where they nest.
DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT (Nannopterum auritum)
One was a flyby with Pelagic Cormorants at Teller. The species is scarce this far north but is expected now in small numbers around Teller.
OSPREY (Pandion haliaetus)
We saw one of these locally scarce raptors in flight near Safety Sound Lagoon on two occasions.
GOLDEN EAGLE (Aquila chrysaetos)
It was exciting to see these big raptors in flight and at their nest sites a few different times in the uplands outside of Nome.
NORTHERN HARRIER (Circus hudsonius)
A few were along the Kougarok Road uplands. One male in particular flew very close to the van as it hunted the roadside tundra.
BALD EAGLE (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
The ratty immature that flew by over Curlew Hill amplified the ire of the local Bristle-thighed Curlews, Whimbrels, and Long-tailed Jaegers. This species is actually pretty scarce around Nome.
ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK (Buteo lagopus)
A few sightings of territorial birds along the Kougarok and Council roads. Most interesting was the pair attending a stick nest very close to the edge of the Council Road. The male was a typical light morph but the female was a mostly whitish leucistic individual—very striking and unlike any Rough-legged Hawk I'd seen before.
MERLIN (Falco columbarius)
A few folks saw one of these smaller falcons in flight at the Fox River near Council.
GYRFALCON (Falco rusticolus)
We staked out a nest site in the mountains outside of Nome and watched a perched adult from a respectful distance on our second visit. On our first visit to the site, we could just see the top of the head and the back of one adult sitting on the ledge nest, so the perched looks on round two were a big improvement. A majestic raptor at any distance!
PEREGRINE FALCON (Falco peregrinus)
A nesting pair had an uneasy relationship with the local ravens at a rocky coastal site.
ALDER FLYCATCHER (Empidonax alnorum)
Two pipped and showed off in the thickets along the Fox River near Council.
SAY'S PHOEBE (Sayornis saya)
On a breezy and rainy day at Teller, we admired a relatively dry-looking phoebe on its nest inside a vent on the side of a small house in town.
NORTHERN SHRIKE (Lanius borealis)
The big news here was the pair of adults feeding a hungry brood of nestlings in a neighborhood on the edge of town. Fantastic, close looks at these predatory songbirds.
CANADA JAY (Perisoreus canadensis)
Two of these curious jays approached and got a closer look at us at the Fox River crossing near Council.
COMMON RAVEN (Corvus corax)
The highest number we saw was about 30 birds concentrated around the landfill. Lots of recently fledged juveniles were hanging out near their nests, often on bridges or atop old mining equipment.
BOREAL CHICKADEE (Poecile hudsonicus)
Two called from the spruces near Council and we had some nice views of one of these shy songbirds.
TREE SWALLOW (Tachycineta bicolor)
A rather common swallow near town. We saw large numbers feeding over ponds on cold, rainy days.
BANK SWALLOW (Riparia riparia)
Our high count was 35 birds along Center Creek Road by the airport.
CLIFF SWALLOW (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota)
These colorful swallows were nesting under bridges along all three major roads. The best looks were at the Sinuk River bridge.
ARCTIC WARBLER (Phylloscopus borealis)
These small Old World warblers were downright common in the river corridors and willow thickets outside town. We heard their grinding trills during many stops and got to see several singing birds perching up atop willows.
AMERICAN DIPPER (Cinclus mexicanus)
A pair was feeding hidden young in a nest under the Penny River bridge.
GRAY-CHEEKED THRUSH (Catharus minimus)
These long distance migrants are very common on the Seward Peninsula where they often take exposed perches on treetops or utility wires. Along the river edges, we were rarely ever out of earshot of their jangling songs.
HERMIT THRUSH (Catharus guttatus)
One sang from the alder slopes at Cape Nome.
AMERICAN ROBIN (Turdus migratorius)
Regular sightings both in town and along the rivers outside town.
BLUETHROAT (Luscinia svecica)
We spent time enjoying sightings of displaying, exuberant males along the Kougarok and Council roads. At one high, upland site on the Kougarok Road, we caught a glimpse of a female as she disappeared into a grassy hummock—a nest! A quick inspection revealed a lovely hidden cup nest with six eggs.
NORTHERN WHEATEAR (Oenanthe oenanthe)
Fortunately we caught up to a snazzy male at the edge of his boulder-strewn territory just outside of Nome. These Trans-Beringian migrants seemed a bit scarce this year.
EASTERN YELLOW WAGTAIL (Motacilla tschutschensis)
These Eurasian songbirds are at the edge of their breeding distribution in western Alaska, but we still managed to find plenty of them. The flight-displaying bird on the terrace above the Sinuk River offered a superb chance to see this beautiful songbird in action.
WHITE WAGTAIL (Motacilla alba)
We staked out a nesting site in a dilapidated building near Nome harbor and saw adults on two different visits. These Trans-Beringian migrants are quite rare around Nome so we were fortunate to catch up to them (especially since we didn't see any during our visit to Teller where they are typically easier to see!).
AMERICAN PIPIT (Anthus rubescens)
These tundra-breeding songbirds were strutting around in open, rocky areas in the uplands, mostly on the Nome-Teller Highway and along the Council Road.
PINE GROSBEAK (Pinicola enucleator)
A male-female pair of these huge finches put on a real show in the boreal forest along the Bear River near Council. The bold male even dropped down near us to pick up grit from the middle of the road.
COMMON REDPOLL (Acanthis flammea)
At Hastings Creek, we were able to directly compare a few heavily streaked Common Redpolls with the more numerous, paler Hoary Redpolls. We also saw them in other spots, but the driftwood at Hastings Creek seemed to be the best place to get good views on this visit. Many flyover redpolls went unidentified, too.
HOARY REDPOLL (Acanthis hornemanni)
These frosty songbirds were common at many riverine and coastal sites we visited. The views at Hastings Creek were particularly nice, and we even had a pale pink-chested male perch up at close range for a little while before bouncing away.
LAPLAND LONGSPUR (Calcarius lapponicus)
Though unfamiliar and alluring to most visitors to Nome, this species is one of the most common tundra songbirds in the area. We enjoyed their flight displays along the coast at Safety Sound Lagoon on many occasions, and also spotted them picking for food with sparrows and finches.
SNOW BUNTING (Plectrophenax nivalis)
During a seriously foggy day on the Nome-Teller Highway, we were happy to land binoculars on these striking black-and-white songbirds in the uplands above Woolley Lagoon.
AMERICAN TREE SPARROW (Spizelloides arborea)
A common shrub-nesting sparrow with a thin, musical voice. Close looks at Hastings Creek.
FOX SPARROW (RED) (Passerella iliaca zaboria)
These are the gray-cowled "zaboria" version of Red Fox Sparrow. We heard and saw plenty of them in shrubby river corridors.
WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW (GAMBEL'S) (Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii)
One of the common songbirds of the riverine shrublands.
GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROW (Zonotrichia atricapilla)
These lovely sparrows overlap broadly in habitat with White-crowned Sparrows here, but Golden-crowned are more common at higher elevations.
SAVANNAH SPARROW (Passerculus sandwichensis)
The abundant short-tailed sparrow we found in open tundra habitats.
RUSTY BLACKBIRD (Euphagus carolinus)
After a few brief flybys, we caught up to a singing bird in the river-edge trees at the Sinuk River on our second-to-last full day.
NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH (Parkesia noveboracensis)
Their choppy, rollicking songs frequently rang out from river-edge thickets, and we saw several as well.
ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER (Leiothlypis celata)
One in particular gave a close show as it probed leaf clusters for insect larvae at the Snake River bridge on the Nome-Teller Highway.
YELLOW WARBLER (Setophaga petechia)
Very common along rivers.
BLACKPOLL WARBLER (Setophaga striata)
Several sightings in the boreal zone near Council where we had some open views of singing males.
YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER (MYRTLE) (Setophaga coronata coronata)
A few of these widespread boreal breeders were in the spruce belt near Council.
WILSON'S WARBLER (Cardellina pusilla)
We heard their chattering songs from many wet thickets along the way.
SNOWSHOE HARE (Lepus americanus)
Dozens ventured onto the Kougarok Road near Salmon Lake and at the Pilgrim River.
BEAVER (Castor canadensis)
We enjoyed a few close sightings of these industrious aquatic mammals, and admired their dams and lodges along the river corridors, too. Beavers are increasing and moving north through the Subarctic and Arctic, and seem to be significantly modifying ecosystems as they go.
RED FOX (Vulpes vulpes)
Several sightings of grayish and blonde-colored foxes. The animals here tend to be fairly large and fluffy.
BROWN (INCL. GRIZZLY) BEAR (Ursus arctos)
It was incredibly exciting when one of these iconic mammals stood up in the thickets next to the Grand Central River to check us out. We then followed the bear along for a while [from a very safe distance] as it foraged in the river terrace. This was a very blonde-colored specimen typical of the local grizzlies.
SPOTTED SEAL (Phoca largha)
Several of these "true seals" were keyed in on the same school of fish that attracted the kittiwakes, murres, and cormorants to the waters around the tip of the Teller Spit.
MOOSE (Alces alces)
Numerous sightings of these massive deer along the area's rivers. Several sightings involved cow-calf pairs.
MUSKOX (Ovibos moschatus)
We saw lots of these beasts (over one hundred, easily), but we didn't tire of seeing their woolly coats and amazing horns. Following their extirpation, the Alaskan population was reintroduced to the landscape with animals from Greenland; now they're doing rather well around Nome, and they regularly come into conflict with dogs and humans around town.
Totals for the tour: 102 bird taxa and 7 mammal taxa