Birding Nome: The Final Day
I knew first thing when I woke up that this was going to be a good day. I tell myself that every morning, but today it felt different. As I lay in my sleeping bag atop some wooden pallets I’d stacked on the beach the night before, a light rain began to fall. This was probably the rain forecasted to arrive yesterday, but the weather held off all day as we explored the further reaches of the Nome road system.
About four hours before we had enjoyed a beautiful Alaskan sunset, with the sun hanging low in the sky and disappears over the mountains in the northern sky, but never completely sets- a trick of the northern summer.
A few feet away my birding buddies still lay asleep, paying their dues after a long day of birding yesterday. In the early morning hours we chose this spot to camp, tucked behind a sand dune which offered some protection from the wind. It was the perfect spot to rest after a long day exploring the third road system that leads out of Nome. Before falling asleep we watched a feeding flock of over 40 Sabine’s gulls cruise along just offshore. Alaska is the best!
After quietly grabbing my binoculars and scope from the truck where Brandon was still asleep, I walked out to the waters edge to look closer at the flock of gulls that was forming nearby. I wanted to refind and get better looks at a “mystery gull” we had seen the night before, a bird I wasn’t able to reach an ID on.
The Mystery Gull
In a matter of minutes, I was looking closely at the same mystery gull we had debated the night before. It stood a little larger than the nearby gulls and had a thick all-black bill, which broke the Glaucous-type bi-colored bills I was used to seeing around Nome. The wingtips were pure white, which didn’t fit Slaty-backed gull although the structure and bill seemed to be a match. After some observation I thought I might pull out the h-word...
The four of us had fallen asleep well after midnight, despite the sun being low in the sky almost behind the distant mountains, it was still very much light out. Therefore, each morning we slept in until 10am or later, since it was light all night and some of the best light was late into the night when the sun was lowest.
Stopping every few hundred yards, we checked out every loon and eider, methodically looking for a loon with white flanks visible while swimming and an Eider lacking a black cap. The more abundant “Pacific” Common Eider was prolific, and males and females lounged on the beach, bobbed in the waves of the Bering Sea, and flew overhead towards inland waterways.
Clouds of mosquitos so thick it looked like smoke drifted along the shoreline. They were more interested in mating than in drinking us dry, luckily. We stopped, scoped, and loaded back up. We stopped to check out a Eurasian Widgeon pair, and a sleeping eider with his head tucked caught our attention. This was our bird!
As the widgeon flushed, the drake raised his head, showing off his gleaming white spectacles framed with neat black trim. Albeit unnecessary at this point, the greenish-tinge to the nape and grayish breast were quite clear and clinched the ID.
I high-fived Alex- this was his 700th ABA bird! I know what it takes to travel across the continent and search out 700 different species and this was a huge milestone! I broke out the camera and captured a victorious pose.
We continued our way back along the road towards town, stopping next at Cape Nome. This granite provides the building material for Nome’s roads, and rock for building different projects in the area. The rocky point that sticks out into the sea is a great vantage point for seawatching and spotting some good birds as they fly by.
The seas were surprisingly flat, which made the first initial scan of the Bering Sea quote easy. Several loons, cormorants, and duck species flew past, but overall the bird activity was low. My eyes were tired from looking through a scope all morning, so I decided to walk out to the tip of the spit and check out the dead walrus that the guys told me about yesterday. (Everyone went to see it yesterday but having seen a dead walrus up close before, I opted to keep Sea watching) I immediately smelled it as I approached the waters edge, and saw two bodies laying along the shoreline. The first was long-dead and rotten, and the other looked much more fresh laying face-down in the rocks. I looked through my binoculars before approaching, and could see hundreds of flies buzzing across the brown wrinkled back. I snapped a quick photo before approaching for a closer look.
When I reached about 20 feet away, I stopped to take another photo. As I raised my camera, the walrus slowly raised his head too. HOLY BUCKETS! “Walrus!” I yelled. The guys came running. I shot off a few frames as the behemoth rolled over and oozed over the rocks like The Blob, disappearing with a surprisingly small splash into the water. A series of expletives might have followed as we stood motionless among the rocks as we processed what had just happened. Just then the walrus surfaced 40 feet away, and the guys fired off a volley of shots to capture his surprised expression. I’d interrupted his nap, and likely this was a very tired and hungry walrus as the nearest sea ice is quite far away.
We retreated to the truck from where we spent a little bit of time watching the walrus return to the shoreline where he cautiously eyed us as he swam around. We tried in vain to send texts to update the other birders/photographers we knew would appreciate knowing about the sighting before we left to check a few other spots on the way back to town to return the rental car.
Stopping briefly at the Derby River, we quickly checked the lagoon and outflow creek for the Lesser Sand-Plover which other groups had seen here recently. No luck, although the Eastern Yellow Wagtail provided some confiding views as he flew around, letting us know his nest was nearby.
On the road out, Brandon found a Semipalmated Plover nest. These birds boldly nest on or sometimes in the road- taking a chance that their eggs or chicks will get run over by cars or an ATV. Hopefully this nest and future chicks stay hidden!
As soon as we got into town and connected to cell service, Jeremy checked his phone and told us a Common Cuckoo had been reported in Nome! The hours-old Facebook post indicated the bird was seen and heard last night between mile posts 10 and 11 of the Teller Road. We grasped for any more details, knowing that we could probably chase this before our flight left in a few hours time. With no photos, recordings, or other leads, we put the truck in gear and headed back towards Teller.
A little after mile post 10, we jumped out of the rental truck and began walking along the road, listening hopefully for the song of the Common Cuckoo. The four of us walked quietly for a mile, until we reached mile post 11. Our occasional calling using playback went unanswered, and we met up strategizing about how to best move forward. We decided to check a little outside that one mile stretch of road, and I followed a hunch to walk the same stretch of road- again.
While retracing my footsteps, I listened to the same Arctic Warblers, Common Redpolls, Fox Sparrows, and Golden-crowned sparrows sing their hearts out. The wind picked up into a stiff breeze, and the blue skies we had enjoyed for most of the days were beginning to fade. I was overcome with gratitude for how smoothly the trip had gone, with every detail worked out on the fly in real-time. Despite not seeing any new birds, I was grateful to explore and share this place with friends.
Over the wind I heard an unfamiliar call-
That was it! It sounded faint, but was nearly identical to the song we had played earlier. I turned around just to verify I was hearing the bird in the right direction and then called Jeremy and told him to come back fast. We played a short game of hide and seek as we climbed above the road, bushwhacking through thick willows to get closer to the bird. It was calling from inside a bushy tree, and Alex helped me get on the bird. We all shared identifiable looks until the bird flew down near the road. After we caught up to it singing in a thick line of trees along the toad, the bird flew out in response to the call note which was played out of curiosity. It drove the bird nuts. I took some decent photos as it flew past uphill to the original area we heard it, and again when it returned past us downslope to an open island of trees below us in the valley. I’m no expert, but it seemed like this bird was being quite territorial!
We marked the location with a small stone cairn in hopes it would help others relocate the bird, and took a GPS reading to also record the spot, and send messages out to the others we knew were in the area and would have a chance to look for the bird. (I found out later that they did!)
With huge grins, we made the quick 10 mile drive back into town (stopping to photograph some roadside Bohemian Waxwings) and dropped off the rental car with plenty of time to repack our bags, make some hot drinks, and grab a $7 taxi to the airport.
Now, we are scattered in different seats on our flight back to Anchorage, where the guys will continue their Alaskan adventure without me. My plan is to swing by Seattle for breakfast with my parents, then continue to Denver to start prep for my week on Hog Island Maine!
Thanks for following this adventure- can’t wait to share the next chapter with you soon!