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Alaska birding and mammal safari June 2023


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Crazy good day, just fantastic. Funny you'd get do excited about a Lesser Whitethtroat in the middle of all these spectacular creatures. (I do understand the rarity appeal of course.) 

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June 19 was our last full day in Utqiagvik.  We planned to try for rare birds again but also spend time photographing some nice species we had been passing over for rara avis.  


We began on Nunavak Road and spent some time with a fairly obliging American Golden-Plover.





We could tell it was an American, rather than Pacific Golden-Plover (which also breeds in and migrates through Northwest Alaska) due to several clues. A big clue is the white  border between the bird's black underparts and its gold-speckled upperparts.  The white stripe ends midway down the breast, rather than continuing all the way down the bird's side.   A bigger clue is that the bird's folded wingtips extend well beyond the tail tip.  This indicates American Golden-Plover, as Pacific Golden-Plover has wingtips equal to or only slightly longer than the tail tip.  We could tell the bird was a female from the white stippling on the undertail - a male American Golden-Plover would have all-black undertail, flanks, belly, etc.


By the way, Golden-Plovers are some of the world's fastest birds in level flight.  They have to be, in order to survive predation by Peregrine Falcons, Gyrfalcons, and Merlin.


Almost immediately after the Golden-Plover encounter, we saw three Jaeger species in rapid succession - Long-tailed, Parasitic and Pomarine.  


The Parasitic Jaeger was a dark morph individual - I think they are better looking than light morph birds.


Stercorarius parasiticus



I had lighting and exposure challenges for the Long-tailed and Pomarine Jaegers, but here are a couple of record shots.






This Dunlin allowed a close approach, but in terms of aesthetics - the bird had mud and grass bits stuck to its bill after foraging.   Almost every time I get a very cooperative bird it is muddy, missing feathers, or otherwise disheveled.  



This Long-billed Dowitcher was very cooperative and looked stunning in full breeding plumage.   But the tall grass gave me fits trying to get a clear shot.




We were amused to see this sleepy Western Sandpiper - it could barely keep its eyes open.




We enjoyed more good birding along Nunavak Road, but once again we missed seeing any Yellow-throated Loons in the ledes in the ice at the end of the road.


We decided to visit Freshwater Lake Road next.  We saw this male Long-tailed Duck bathing in a pond that was still about 70% frozen.  He had just surfaced, and was making a tight turn, so his long tail was carving a furrow in the water behind him.  





And shortly afterwards, this drake Greater Scaup gave us good looks.  According to the books and field guides, this is a rare bird in the north slope and around Barrow in particular.




We enjoyed watching Phalaropes - both Red-necked and Red.  Here is a Red Phalarope feeding frenetically in a roadside ditch (video shot with my iPhone):



A bit farther along we saw this one in better looking plumage:



Then we found a male Red-necked Phalarope flushing and pursuing small insects in some tall grass along the shoreline of a small pond.  It seemed to be catching and then carrying several of the insects, rather than eating them on the spot.  Shorebirds don't usually carry food to their young - who begin walking and feeding themselves after hatching.  I figured it must be collecting them to give to its mate as she incubated the eggs in their nest.  No other explanation made sense.








For a shorebird enthusiast like me, these intimate looks at shorebirds going about their daily lives on the breeding grounds were priceless.  


At the end of Freshwater Lake Road, a Sabine's Gull was walking around foraging on a melted section of shoreline.  They are such dapper and dainty gulls.





By this point, we were well into the afternoon and decided to end the day at Ikoravik Lake Road.  


We had been loon-challenged this trip, partly due to the late ice melt, partly due to luck and weather conditions.  It seemed whenever we saw a Pacific Loon or Red-throated Loon, it was very dim light, the heat shimmer was ripping, or some other challenge dogged us.  Once again, the light was poor when we encountered this Pacific Loon, but I managed a photo showing its delicate necklace of white spots.  Winter Loons are dull-looking but in breeding plumage they are quite a sight.  




This female American Golden-Plover kept a close eye on us.



We had a nice few hours of birding and found a pair of Steller's Eiders.   We were able to stalk and get close without flushing them, take photos, then leave them as we found them.  Here is a shot showing the male's intricate back pattern and little "ducktail" coiffure.




Here are Mr. and Mrs. Steller's Eider



The next morning, we would do some quick birding and be back at the King Eider Inn to check out at 10am.   But they let you wait in the lounge next to the lobby where there are sofas, tables, chessboards and chairs to pass the time.  We walked over and checked our luggage a couple of hours before the flight arrived, then returned the rental car a few hundred yards down the street.  Then in a couple of hours we flew to Anchorage to overnight before heading to Nome the next day.  

Edited by offshorebirder
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More excellent shots, and the bird in the video was indeed feeding frantically!

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  • 3 weeks later...
Posted (edited)

June 21


Nome is another town in the Alaska bush that is not reachable by road.  Roger and I got off to a troubled start with our air travel.  Our morning flight had to abort a landing due to a very low cloud ceiling and return to Anchorage.  We managed to get ourselves on the late afternoon flight to Nome, but had to wait in the Anchorage Airport for 7 hours before departure.   On top of that, only Roger's checked bags made it with us to Nome - so it goes.


After waiting for the chaos surrounding the baggage claim process to subside, we collected Roger's luggage and I filled out a missing baggage form with an Alaska Airlines representative.  She said to come back the next day at 6pm when the flight from Anchorage would be unloading.  


We caught a van-cab to the Aurora Inn with some other travelers and after checking in, also collected our rental vehicle.  It was a Ford Explorer and had four wheel drive - a better vehicle than I had expected, with lots of room and good ground clearance.  If you are visiting Nome, the Aurora is the place to stay and also rent a good vehicle.  


I had packed some clothing in my carryon and was wearing hiking boots, field pants, and a warm jacket - but I had not packed long underwear.  So in addition to groceries, I bought some long underwear when we visited the Alaska Commercial Company before supper.  We decided against buying bear spray, since you cannot take it on a plane and it is not fully effective.  Youtube is full of videos showing bear spray not stopping Brown Bears.  When they really want to get you, they will run right through it.  One Alaskan told me either carry a gun or don't but he did not bother with bear spray.  I am of mixed emotions on the subject.


We were having trouble locating the long underwear in the sporting goods section of the store, and a native gentleman looking at camouflague pants pointed out where it was hanging on a stand.  We got to chatting and when he heard I was from Charleston, he said "I was stationed at the Navy Base in North Charleston for ten years".  Small world indeed.  


Also before supper, we went by the local Subway restaurant and got two sandwiches to eat in the field the next day.  Nome really needs a better sandwich shop.  After putting the sandwiches in our fridge at the Aurora Inn, we were finally ready to eat.


The restaurant options in Nome have decreased over the past year.   Typhoon Merbok caused a fire which destroyed the Bering Sea Bar and Grill.  That had been the best option in town.  The Polar Bar and Cafe informed us that they were not currently serving food.  So we tried Husky Restaurant on Front Street.  They serve Asian food - mostly Japanese and Korean, plus American food.  We did Asian - the food was fairly good but lacked vegetables.  


At that point it was after 8pm and we had been through a long and tiring day, so we retired to the room for a beer and make plans for the next day.  We decided to leave early and head up the Kougarok Road in search of Bristle-thighed Curlews, Bluethroats, Arctic Warblers and other goodies.  Then in the late afternoon we would check out Safety Sound and the Bering Sea along the road to Council.

June 22


The Kougarok Road out of Nome is an 84 mile long dirt and gravel road, with a 25 mile ATV trail at its terminus which leads to the town of Taylor.  Our destination this morning was Coffee Dome, a large tundra-covered hill at mile 72.  It is famous among birders as THE place to see Bristle-thighed Curlews, one of the rarest shorebirds that breeds in North America.  They perform incredible migrations to and from their wintering grounds on islands in the South Pacific - Hawaii, Fiji, Micronesia, and others.  


Bristle-thighed Curlews have a hauntingly beautiful song - exuberant yet melancholy.  




Another primary target along Kougarok Road was Bluethroat, a small secretive thrush whose Alaska population migrates across the Bering Strait to winter in southeast Asia.  Arctic Warbler was another major target for the safari (which we missed on the Denali Highway and Delani NP) and we hoped to see and photograph them in willow thickets along our route.  


Getting Bluethroat and Arctic Warbler is difficult in the same trip.  Male Bluethroats stop singing and advertising after about mid-June and Arctic Warblers do not arrive until mid-June or a few days earlier.  


Though we knew we needed to reach Coffee Dome as early as possible, we could not resist stopping where the road crossed the Nome River about 13 miles north of town.  There were sections of forest along the river and on an island in the middle.  From the bridge we could look out over the top of the canopy.  We heard several Wilson's Snipe making their tooting call/song.  And we saw a Blackpoll Warbler which we were able to lure a little closer with judicious use of its song from a bird app.  


Blackpoll Warbler



And down by the river, first foraging and then flying past, was a Wandering Tattler.  These are streaked gray shorebirds that winter on rocky coasts but breed on rocky northern streams.  


Wandering Tattler





It was also here that we had our first Arctic Warbler!   It was rather distant and the early morning light and light cloud cover worked against us, but here is a photo:



We were thrilled to see an Arctic Warbler at last, after having missed them on the Denali Highway and Denali National Park.


Just north of the bridge over the Nome River, there is a dirt track leading down to a rough boat landing.  We walked down it to see if a Bluethroat was in the willow thickets.  We did as bear safety protocols advise - saying "hey bear, just us here bear" and other greetings.   The hair on the back of my neck stood up when we saw a relatively fresh set of bear tracks - large tracks next to smaller tracks.  Mother bear and cub - not something we wanted to come upon suddenly.   So we backed up the track and returned to the car to get underway - had to keep our eyes on the prize and not get sidetracked.  Difficult though, with such a smorgasbord of wildlife and nature tempting us.


Fresh bear track




After getting back underway and traveling several miles, we came to an open tundra area with low copses of stunted willows.  We saw a Rough-legged Hawk coursing low, at an agle away from us - so I stopped the car and we hopped out.  The hawk went in a little dip and we lost sight of it, so I ran up a small snow-covered hill.  As I reached a ridge leading to the top of the hill, I saw a male Willow Ptarmigan crouched at the top.  I froze, snapped three hasty photos and slowly withdrew, while not looking at the bird.


Thankfully, it did not fly, probably thinking that its camouflage had saved it.  






We did not end up resighting the Rough-legged Hawk and continued on our way.  We were constantly passing up opportunities to stop for intresting wildlife, flora, wetlands and geology.   When we came to a stretch with Snowshoe Hares at regular intervals we could not resist stopping for a snap or two.   Unfortunately the heat shimmer was really ripping and the hares would not let us approach closely enough to overcome it.   But it was nice to see them for the first time.  


Snowshoe Hares






We also had to stop for some Muskox




Muskox calves are as cute as they come





At Mile 72, we came to Coffee Dome.  There is a small cairn beside the road there to mark a trail that ascends through tundra that is covered in lumpy tussocks. We proceeded uphill on the trail slowly and carefully.  We saw a potential Curlew but it turned out to be a Whimbrel, which look very similar.  But Bristle-thighed Curlews have a pale buff-colored rump and a cleaner white belly.  We cautiously continued and soon spotted a Bristle-thighed Curlew in our spotting scopes!   This was perhaps my most-wanted bird of the trip.  


Unfortunately the Curlew soon flew a short distance to the right and stalked behind a small group of bushes.  Seeing it in flight was exhilarating.  We slowly did an oblique approach towards the sun, to put us in a better position in terms of lighting.  But when we could see behind the row of bushes, the Curlew was gone.  So we went a bit further uphill and worked left, then right along a ridge line, scanning for the Curlew but only seeing more Whimbrel, American Golden-Plovers, Western Sandpipers and Savannah Sparrows. 





Whimbrel and American Golden-Plover




Western Sandpiper keeping an eye on us


I had to stop at one point and photograph a striking pair of butterflies that were mating.  I had to do some research to ascertain their species, which is Northern Marble - Euchloe creusa.  




My butterfly enthusiast friends are jealous about that sighting.  They encouraged me to submit the sighting to BAMONA - the Butterflies and Moths of North America online database (the butterfly version of eBird, essentially).  I put some time and effort into submitting a detailed report with photos of plants and the landscape at the sighting location:



Here is a view from a ridge near the "summit" of Coffee Dome:



Despite our careful search, the Curlew gave us the slip after the brief initial views.  It was a humbling experience.


On the walk back down Coffee Dome we had a fun encounter with a Willow Ptarmigan.  While we were paused and scanning for the Curlew, the Ptarmigan walked up beside us from some dense cover.  It noticed us and froze and we stayed still, looked elsewhere and feigned disinterest.  Soon the Ptarmigan began slowly walking away but allowed some close range photos.  I had to wait a bit, since at first the Ptarmigan was inside my camera lens's minimum focal distance.  


Male Willow Ptarmigan close at hand.




Since we had a long way to go to get back to town, we turned around and began the trip back.  For a late lunch, we ate our sandwiches that had been kept cool with a couple of frozen water bottles in a bag.    


We enjoyed some good sightings on the return trip - a pair of Cackling Goose in a roadside pond, Pacific Loons in other ponds, a couple of more Arctic Warblers, and Hoary Redpoll, a highly sought-after species for North American birders.  Yellow Warblers and Wilson's Warblers also graced shrubs along the way.  


Arctic Warbler



Hoary Redpoll






Yellow Warbler




After reaching Nome, we proceeded through town and along the Road to Council, between the Bering Sea and Safety Sound.  We stopped and parked beside the bridge over the Nome River and were treated to views of Arctic Terns hovering and foraging, as well as a major target for this trip - Aleutian Terns!   This was a life bird for both of us.  


Aleutian Tern



Aleutian Tern 2




Later as we reached the Bering Sea shoreline on the northern half of Safety Sound, a few pairs of Common Eiders flew past us at close range, heading inland.   No photos unfortunately as they took us by surprise as we came from behind a dune.  But then we saw a pair loafing on the beach that allowed some photos.


Common Eider pair.



At this point it was getting late and we were getting hungry so we headed back to town for supper and then to our room to plot the next day's adventure. 



Edited by offshorebirder
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Zim Girl

Still really enjoying this.  Great pictures of the Ptarmigan!

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Thank you for the encouragement @Zim Girl


Here is a closely cropped portrait of the obliging Ptarmigan




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sorry you didn't get the curlew (yet),but you did well with the others. agree with the great shots of the ptarmigans. 

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More great sightings, it does sound like a brilliant place. Excellent birds

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June 23


Our next destination was the Teller Road that runs northwest of Nome to the Inupiat village of Teller 73 miles away.  We left early, heading north on Bering Street, which bends west and becomes the Teller Road.   We were able to take the pace we wanted, and not hurry to a far-off target bird like the day before.


Not far out of town, we came upon a sight that is quintessential Alaska - a Wilson's Snipe perched on a crude sign.


Wilson's Snipe




At the bridge over the Kougarok River, we saw two pairs of Arctic Terns hovering and fishing


Arctic Tern




We also saw some American Tree Sparrows in some flooded brush, along with the ubiquitous Yellow Warbler.  Soon we came to a tundra area and saw a very confiding Willow Ptarmigan hen.


Willow Ptarmigan hen looking over her shoulder



Willow Ptarmigan hen snapping up some fresh greens




The she-Ptarmigan was walking along slowly and when she came to young willows with tender green shoots, she would quickly take snapping bites and then slowly proceed.   We were grateful to see a Ptarmigan at close range on her breakfast stroll.


As we came into a rocky area of hills and ridges we saw a male Willow Ptarmigan and a male Golden-crowned Sparrow singing from a low willow and also feeding on the ground.


Golden-crowned Sparrow




Then we flushed three Willow Ptarmigan in quick succession, before coming to a scattered herd of Muskox near a copse of trees in a protected corner against a ridge.






Then we came to more open tundra and were greeted by a Long-tailed Jaeger that was hunting lemmings.





More tundra birds like American Golden-Plovers were also at regular intervals.  As we transitioned into rocky habitat again, we finally got a good look at a Rock Ptarmigan.   This is a male in postbreeding plumage - a bit scruffy after the breeding season and all its challenges, but still a magnificent sight.


Rock Ptarmigan male


Then we got to see the Rock Ptarmigan eating his breakfast!   









Today was obviously "Breakfast with grouse species" day.  We were thrilled despite the poor light conditions.  


Later we came back into tundra habitat and saw another herd of Muskox.  Teller Road was productive for Muskox sightings.


Muskox on ridge




Eventually we turned back at around mile 62 - and headed back to Nome and then to Safety Sound.  We enjoyed good birding and had a nice encounter with a Gray-cheeked Thrush in the brush beside Hastings Creek.


Gray-cheeked Thrush



We came to the sound and alternated between looking north to scan the sound and south to scan the beach and the Bering Sea.  At one point, we were looking at some Northern Pintails and other ducks on the far shoreline of the sound, when Roger and I exclaimed at the same time "Emperor Geese!"   This was a species we did not think we had good odds of seeing this late in the year, and a super special bird.  This was one of our best sightings of the trip.


We saw three Emperor Geese and their orange legs and feet, black necks, dark gray breasts and bellies, white heads, small pale bills, and bluish cast to their back and wing feathers.   One of them was being bossy to the ducks and moving them off the grass flats the geese were feeding upon at low tide.


The very long distance over water in the afternoon made for fierce heat shimmer.  I hesitate to post a photo but here is a proof shot


Emperor Geese




We enjoyed some more good birding with Pacific Loons, Common Eiders, Black Scoters, other ducks, various shorebirds, and more.   By then it was getting late and we returned to Nome for supper.   We tried Milano's pizza.  In addition to Italian, they served various types of cuisine - like everywhere it seemed.   I had fried halibut which was mediocre.


The next day we would bird the famous Road to Council.  It had been washed out in a couple of points along Safety Sound during Typhoon Merbok in September 2022 and we were amazed it had been repaired so soon.  Especially since winter mostly shuts down such work.



Edited by offshorebirder
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The Musk Ox is an amazing creature.

I think the goose photo is a worthy addition because it shows what is there, but also the real conditions. I enjoyed your Ptarmigan shots

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This is such a fascinating report. I would love to one day visit this part of the world. Thanks for sharing and inspiring

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Impressive Musk Ox and you are spoiling us with the wonderful Ptarmigan pictures.

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wonderful report- I love the eider species photos @offshorebirder

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Thank you for the kind words @TonyQ, @lmSA84, @Zim Girl, and @Towlersonsafari.


I was afraid I was getting close to Ptarmigan overload and that people would tire of seeing them.


@Towlersonsafari - I wish I had taken the time to pursue more butterfly photos.  You would really like the butterflies in Alaska.   Not as diverse and numerous as in wilderness areas in southern latitudes, but some really stunning species.


@lmSA84 - at the end of the trip report, I am going to post recommendations on potential itineraries, lodging, vehicle rental, airline strategies, groceries and supplies for self-drivers into the outback, and more.  There are also excellent tour operators who take set tours of people to hot spots around Alaska, though these have their drawbacks.   Set tours are the best option for a single traveler, without breaking the bank.



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I was just going through some iPhone photos, and realized that I forgot to mention our visit to the Iñupiat Heritage Center when we were in Utqiaġvik.


In a nutshell:  you should definitely make a visit part of your itinerary.  The displays of clothing, boats, tools, foul weather gear, photos, and more from the old days are well worth the time and the voluntary entry fee.  They also have many taxidermied animals, which may not be everyone's cup of tea.   For me, it was interesting to see how small some of the birds are - that we pursue with lenses and binoculars.


Also maps, a large hanging Bowhead Whale model, multimedia presentations, etc.



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June 24


We set out early for our adventure along the Road to Council.  We traveled southeast past Cape Nome, then northeast along the narrow sandy barrier between Safety Sound and the Bering Sea.  Then a causeway led inland, meeting the mainland at Solomon - a tiny community where the Solomon River meets the sea.  The road then traveled northeast through tundra, rolling hills, canyons, mountains and even some Boreal Forest before ending at a small off-the-grid town named Council.


We saw some Sandhill Cranes in the high marsh beside Safety Sound and some Arctic and Aleutian Terns at the Nome River mouth, but did not stop for them.   Then we saw two Aleutian Terns perched on a piece of flotsam out in the Bering Sea, and had a pair of Common Eider hens fly up the coast at medium distance.


Aleutian Terns



Common Eider hens




Soon the road curved inland as we neared Solomon.  As we came up onto the edge of the mainland, things got busy.  We saw a lone Moose walking across the marsh/tundra interface.  Behind it was a wrack line - where the storm surge of Typhoon Merbok had probably piled a line of dead trees and other flotsam.  


Moose and wrack line in the background



Then we saw some Sandhill Cranes before spotting a Northern Shrike on a brushy hillside near the bottom of the driveway for the Solomon Bed and Breakfast.  Northern Shrike was a major target that had eluded us thus far - it was my first ever, though Roger had seen them in winter in the northern Lower 48.  Sadly I did not have any photos of the shrike turn out.  We were able to admire it and see good details in a spotting scope but the heat shimmer and mist killed any chance at a decent photo.


Nevertheless, here is a proof shot through the haze.  Northern Shrike




Suddenly an Eastern Yellow Wagtail flew up from the coastal tundra into the same shrubby treeline as the shrike!   This was another major target and a lifer for both of us.  I was so happy at all the good action, I exclaimed "I Love Solomon!".   


We got underway and stopped for some American Pipits foraging in the coastal tundra that was awash in flowers.  


American Pipit



In a streamside willow thicket, we saw an Orange-crowned Warbler foraging 



We enjoyed more good birding and soaked up the incredible scenery and eventually came to a small, brushy ravine to the left of the road.  We thought it might offer a chance at a Bluethroat, and had quietly approached, then stood still while watching and listening.  


I was getting ready to play a judicious bit of Bluethroat song from a bird app - when out of the corner of my eye while scanning the bushes for Bluethroat, I saw a small mammal at the back of the ravine.  It was long and skinny and was moving around on the ground.  "Funny place for a Red Squirrel" I thought, and looked at it squarely.  That's no squirrel, I realized - it's a small weasel!   Not so small as a Least Weasel and with a much longer, black-tipped tail - it was an an Ermine.  We could not believe our good fortune.


Ermine at the entrance to its burrow



Pausing to look around




Roger and I were as quiet as possible and kept our movement to a minimum, but it did not matter.  The Ermine paid us no attention as it went into a burst of activity - scampering about, sniffing here, scent marking there - running into a burrow at the base of a gnarled willow tree, peeping out a back entrance, then running out, across the top, and down a branch above the burrow entrance.  Then it began scampering around the snow-covered ground around the burrow entrance.  It leapt in obvious joy and excitement, spinning around.  I hesitate to anthropomorphize, but it was obviously happy and seemed new to the location - or at least newly empowered.   





Leaping (out of focus area)





The ravine was in the shade and the snow had not yet melted - just in a couple of spots.  It was incredibly difficult to focus our cameras on the fast-moving and erratic Ermine.   There were many branches and twigs between us, which kept fooling our autofocus systems.  Eventually I focused the camera on bare zones and waited for the Ermine to cross them.   When it explored the area around the burrow entrance, and scent marked on a branch, it was still and predictable enough to get a few photos.  We also put our cameras down and enjoyed the amazing little critter with our binoculars.  This was tied for my favorite sighting of the trip - and most unexpected.


Scent marking



Peeping out a side exit




Eventually the Ermine began investigating / foraging in an area back behind a screen of willows.  So we said goodbye, took notes on the exact location, and got back underway.  

Soon we came into several stretches of brushy riverine or wetland habitat with Arctic Warblers singing and establishing territories.  Most stayed in cover like this one.


Arctic Warbler in the brush



But some came out in the open like this one



We were happy at the opportunities to get to know Arctic Warblers and their habits.  Then we came to some tundra habitat and saw a pair of Long-tailed Jaegers.  Then more forested habitat with Willow Ptarmigan and Orange-crowned Warblers settling a territorial dispute.  Then we had a nice encounter with a Northern Waterthrush (a warbler that looks like a thrush) and the ubiquitous Yellow Warbler (what we had taken to calling them).


Northern Waterthrush



Yellow Warbler




Eventually we drove up into the mountains, at times on a narrow cliffside road.  Then we descended and before long came to some boreal forest habitat.  This was to be our last chance at boreal birds and we were tempted to go hiking out in the woods away from the car, but it was dense habitat without a good view.  We decided against poking around for fear of encountering a Brown Bear or even a Black Bear with cubs at close range.  In terms of birds, things were very quiet so we pressed on.  


After crossing tundra and wetlands we came to the end of the road - in Council, Alaska.  Most of the village was across the river but there were a few dwellings hidden back in the trees near the parking area at the end of the road.  We walked down to a boat landing and scanned the river and soaked in the soundscape.  After eating lunch and birding a bit, we headed back to Nome.  


We stopped for a few more Artic Warbler encounters and when we neared Solomon, we saw a delightful scene out on the tundra/marsh interface.  It was a flock of Sandhill Cranes feeding beside a herd of Muskox.  It looked for all the world like a scene from the Pleistocene epoch.


Along safety sound, we saw some Arctic Terns and Aleutian Terns again - one of the Arctic Terns made a few close passes as it looked over a school of fish.


Arctic Tern




We also enjoyed a pair of Pomarine Jaegers loafing beside Safety Sound, a flyover flock of Sandhill Cranes, and some Muskox close at hand.






Then we turned right on Beam Road to go north and then work west back to town on Anvil Rock Road - this is a popular birding and mammal watching route.   A few hundred yards down Beam Road, we came to a male Eastern Yellow Wagtail singing from perches on low bushes, carrying food, and skylarking - hovering and singing in a display flight.   Some fog had rolled in, so the light was not the best but we were transfixed by the skylarking Wagtail. The looks were much better than the distant wagtail from the morning.


Eastern Yellow Wagtail





Since the fog was getting thicker, we decided to call it a day and returned to town for supper and a beer before bed.  Tomorrow we would give the Kougarok Road and Bristle-thighed Curlews another try.


Edited by offshorebirder
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Lovely sequence of the Ermine in and around the tree.

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A wonderful sighting of the Ermine. A beautiful animal and beautiful photos. Another excellent day

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just love the ermine sighting @offshorebirder

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Thank you @Zim Girl, @TonyQ and @Towlersonsafari.   


If you had told me before this safari that I would see both Polar Bear and Ermine at close range and watch each of them for over 20 minutes, I would have said no way!


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  • 2 weeks later...

June 25


There is a well-known quote from Hemingway that says “I never knew of a Morning in Africa when I woke up and was not happy.”   I feel the same way in Alaska.  But a visit in winter might change things.


June 25 was our last full day in the field.  We chose to take the Kougarok Road and visit Coffee Dome again, to try for better looks and some photos of Bristle-thighed Curlew.  The night before, in reflecting on our safari, I realized I had spent too much time on photography and had not taken enough breaks from the camera.  So on our last full day, I decided to soak it all in and use my eyes, binoculars, and spotting scope more and camera less.  


Since it was right on the way, we stopped near the beginning of Beam Road to visit with the Yellow Wagtail that was on territory there.  We watched it perching and foraging a bit in the early cloudy morning gloom.  


Zipping along, we drove for about an hour, forcing ourselves not to stop for several sightings.  But we could not resist a cooperative Willow Ptarmigan near the road.


Willow Ptarmigan 



Then we stopped briefly for three different Arctic Warblers that were singing from low perches.  


This is the first one taking off in dim cloudy light.  



This one gave us good looks as it sang from a small Willow tree






After a while we came to many Snowshoe Hares scattered along the same stretch of a few miles of the Kougarok Road






Then sixty-something miles north of Nome, we came to some wetlands where this Bull Moose was feeding.  He was our most cooperative moose yet!







We also stopped for a couple of Rusty Blackbird sightings, as well as some Golden-crowned and White-crowned Sparrows.  


When we reached Coffee Dome, at mile 72 of the Kougarok Road, we stepped out of the car with no other humans or vehicles around.  And we heard a Bristle-thighed Curlew singing!  We were amazed and transfixed.  Hearing Numenius tahitiensis singing its haunting and mournful song was beyond anything we expected.  To have heard the song of the Bristle-thighed Curlew on its breeding grounds was a priceless experience.


 The song seemed to be coming from uphill and to the right - about 2:00 from our present position, looking straight at Coffee Dome.  I posted the link before, but I will again - Bristle-thighed Curlew has one of the most striking bird songs I have ever experienced.  This one was recorded on Coffee Dome:




We gathered our cameras, tripods and spotting scopes and began ascending the path up Coffee Dome.  We went slowly, staying low and trying to appear nonchalant.  We headed off-trail at an angle towards the Curlew song, stopping frequently and scanning for our quarry.  We reached a sharp ridge on the side of Coffee Dome and approached it.  Suddenly I saw a herd of Muskox just over the ridge, not far from us at all.  We ducked down, and beat a slow and silent retreat away from them, before continuing uphill much farther away.   Muskox are very dangerous and unpredictable if you are at close range and on foot - I was relieved a bull had not charged us.  


But they had blocked us from the Curlew - most unexpected.  I had not heard of Muskox being a problem on Coffee Dome but obviously they can be at times.  We went up to the "summit" and didn't see any Curlews, then worked as much to the north as we dared for fear of encountering the Muskox again.  Then we worked back south and then downhill, in a search pattern.  We had some nice encounters with Whimbrel, a male Western Sandpiper and some newly hatched chicks, American Golden-Plovers, and another confiding Willow Ptarmigan.  


Willow Ptarmigan






When we were finished at Coffee Dome (admitting a humbling defeat by the wily Bristle-thighed Curlew and his Muskox accomplices), we headed further north on Kougarok Road.  We were curious what was beyond Coffee Dome.  After six miles, we decided to turn back, return to Nome and explore Safety Sound again.   After a few miles, a low tire pressure warning light lit up on the dashboard.   I clicked the display to show our tire pressure and the rear driver's tire was dangerously low - nineteen pounds!  


I drove slowly south, and we gradually lost more pressure.  When we descended a downhill slope towards a bridge over a river and a tiny community beyond, I stopped on some flat ground with seven pounds of pressure and a tire that was essentially flat.   Our Ford Explorer had a little donut spare tire, rather than a full-sized one.  After blocking the wheels with rocks, we got out the jack and tire iron and Roger began loosening bolts on the wheels.  It took some doing and he was careful not to bend the flimsy tire iron.   The tire rim also had to be rocked back and forth to pull it from the wheel mount.  


Examining the tire, we saw it had a small cut in the side wall.  I must have punctured it on a sharp piece of gravel as I was turning around.  When we got the donut spare tire installed, I now had to drive about seventy miles on a rough gravel road on a flimsy little tire.  I had to drive slowly and carefully and concentrate the entire way, avoiding anything remotely hazardous.  Needless to say, this put a damper on our sightings and upped the stress level.   But we made it back to town, and had some interesting sightings along the way.  


This machine was an unusual sight for us - a Foremost tracked mining vehicle.  


Foremost Nodwell - AKA 'Noddy'.  Thanks to @inyathi for researching this vehicle and its interesting creator.





Edited by offshorebirder
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12 hours ago, offshorebirder said:

The night before, in reflecting on our safari, I realized I had spent too much time on photography and had not taken enough breaks from the camera.  

We, on the the other hand, are very pleased you did, as we get to enjoy the results.

Absolutely love that second Ptarmigan picture.


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Thank you @Zim Girl.   That Ptarmigan with its fluffed up collar reminds me of a Beefeater at the Tower of London.


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More awesome sightings! Love the Ermine, and the Moose Bull is very cool too. 

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