Our visit to Nome has started out even better than we had hoped!
First, the flight up from Anchorage is only about an hour and 20 minutes and it passes over some of the most awesome scenery on the face of the planet. So that was a really cool way to start the trip.
Next, we arrived to temperatures in the upper 50s and low 60s, a balmy day by Nome standards, and the bright sunshine lasted until long after we went to bed at 11 pm. In fact, with the long periods of twilight before sunrise and after sunset, it never gets dark at all at this time of year. It takes a little getting used to, but it is cool to be in the land of the midnight sun. (Actually, we are not quite in the area of 24 hour days but it’s close enough.)
Reality hit this morning as we awoke to a cold and drizzly day, but the birds and other wildlife more than made up for it. Our first full day in Nome produced three new species for the 8 to 800 list. It has been a very long time indeed since I have had three new species in a day! (We were not actually in Nome itself. We drove out of town on the Teller Road for our first birding trip.)
Speaking of new species, our first lifer was actually a mammal and we saw it even before we had left the proximity of Nome. We saw two small herds of Musk Oxen on the side of the road as we headed up toward Teller. The light was very dim and my photos came out blurry, but the baby Musk Oxen in the second herd were so cute I just had to include a bad photo here.
Shortly after seeing the oxen we had another first. We saw our first Brown Bear for this trip. It saw us first and was on the run before I could get any photos, but it was nice to finally see a grizzly.
Birding started out as quite a challenge. It was cold and rainy and not much of anything was out and singing. We did manage to spot our first Gray-cheeked Thrush of the trip and there were plenty of Golden-crowned Sparrows, Wilson’s Warblers, and redpolls flying around but we could not find any of our target species.
Soon, however, we climbed up into some higher tundra and started to see quite a few Willow Ptarmigan. We kept hoping to spot a Rock Ptarmigan and after an almost imperceptible change in the habitat (less shrubs and more grass), they suddenly appeared. In the next few minutes we had seen several as we continued up the road ,,, and then they were gone. Willow Ptarmigan dominated the scene once again. So, just one short stretch of road produced our first lifer bird for the day.
We had met some birders the day of our arrival and they told us of having seen an Olive-backed Pipit along the road to Wooley Lagoon. We made our turn onto that road shortly after seeing the Rock Ptarmigan and were almost immediately greeted by our second lifer, a Northern Wheatear. We knew to look for this bird here because of its mention in our bird-finding guide for Alaska written by George West. This book has been out of print for some time and we had not had much success with it up to this point, but in this case it was spot on. Unfortunately, the dark, cloudy skies conspired to make my pictures decidedly less than spot on, but they show the field marks of this bird quite well.
We dipped on the pipit but toward the end of the road, as we approached the edge of the lagoon, we had a fly-by by three godwits. We got a good enough look but it took some time to determine that they were Bar-tailed Godwits, our third, and final, lifer for the day.
The rest of our trip up to Teller produced lots of Long-tailed Jaegers and a bunch of Hoary Redpolls but there were no other new birds for our trip list.