A weekend in Nome

Back in March, a friend of mine said “Hey, did you know the University of Alaska campus in Nome does guided one day birding trips over three Saturdays in May/June? And the trips only cost $45 each? Interested?”

random scenery shot along one of the rivers west and north of Nome.

Well, yeah, I was interested. But that $45 is a little deceiving because you still have to get yourself to Nome ($300-$700 airfare from Anchorage) and you have to get housing in Nome (~$200/night) and you might want to get a rental car in Nome (~$120-180/day if you can even find one) and and and… It’s a long story but to save costs I traded in some of my airmiles for airfare and convinced Jenny to come up from Idaho for the weekend in early June to share the rest of the costs. We never did get a rental car but apparently 3 months notice isn’t enough time to rent one when you’re going to Nome at the height of the migration season and the place is packed with birders.

Birders on Red Knot Hill where only one person saw a red knot but the rest of us saw a bunch of rock ptarmigan, some very pink-toned horned larks, and lots of lapland longspurs.

There’s three roads out of Nome. One heads to the east, mostly along the coastline, out past Safety Sound to Council, about 72 miles. You might recognize some of those place names if you’ve ever watched anything about the Iditarod race. That’s the Nome-Council Road. Then there’s the Kougarok Road (technically the Nome-Taylor Highway) which heads mostly north out of Nome through the interior of the Seward Peninsula for 86 miles and ends about 25 miles shy of Taylor at the Kougarok River. Lastly there’s the Teller Highway that heads west out of Nome for 72 miles and largely parallels the coastline to the community of Teller. On a previous birding trip (when I had been able to get a rental car) I’d done most of the Council Road and all of the Kougarok Road, but Teller was on still on my undone wish list so that’s the weekend I chose. Thankfully Jenny was able to squeeze some time out of an extraordinarily busy schedule to come with me on that weekend.

I could go on and on about the whole weekend and our scheduling of it, but that’s not the point. Nome is great from a birding perspective because it’s relatively easy to get to (especially if you’ve got a pile of airmiles on Alaska Air as I do), it’s big enough to have hotels and b&bs and restaurants and grocery stores and it’s western and coastal so you get a ton of birds coming through that nest in Arctic regions but aren’t so easily seen elsewhere.

The short of it was that I picked up five life-list birds: gray-tailed tattler, bar-tailed godwit, rock ptarmigan, white wagtail, and bluethroat. Out by the Teller landfill Jenny got a way better view of the bluethroats than I did–I mostly saw them enough to see the flight/drop behavior, never did see the blue throats–but that’s okay because there were several musk ox wandering about at the same spot and they’re always fun to watch. muskox

And the wagtail spotting was one of those funny timing moments. White wagtails are often seen at a particular spot in Teller, but you can’t/shouldn’t go there without the permission of locals. So we didn’t know if we’d see them or not. We’d been playing tag with a couple of other small groups of birders throughout the morning and one of those groups had finally taken off for Teller to see what they could see and then slowing down to bird on the way back. We stopped at a bridge about 25 miles shy of Teller and were all looking around to see what was in the riparian habitat there when that car of men stopped on their return trip. One of our crowd called to them “Did you see the white wagtails in Teller?” And one of them said “No, but we’re looking at that one over there…” And of course the rush was on and the wagtail was kind enough to hang out in a relatively bare shrub and pose for about 10-15 minutes so all of us could get a great look at him.

And of course, there were the ubiquitous birds. Longtailed jaeger after longtailed jaeger after longtailed jaeger… Not to mention the gray-cheeked thrush: nearly every small bird we saw in the morning that was perched at the top of a tree yodeling was a gray-cheeked thrush. The Wilson’s snipe were in evidence pretty regularly too. And we saw a lot of American and western golden-plovers as well. We only saw rock ptarmigan at one stop but at that stop I’m pretty sure we saw about a dozen of them scattered around the hilly area where we were walking.

So here’s a few pics to keep you occupied. First, a semipalmated plover doing the “keep away from my nest” action, then a rock ptarmigan, a pair of golden-plovers (sorry, can’t remember if American or western), the blondest moose I’ve ever seen with its calf, a long-tailed jaeger, juvenile glaucous gulls, a common eider, and a bar-tailed godwit.

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It turned out that we were the party car. The group going on the trip was largely locals, and we ended up in a car with a young couple, fairly new to Nome and to birding. Since Jenny and I both know our role (entertainment) when riding along with total strangers who are kind enough to give us a lift, we were ready to be charming and we were armed with a LOT of chocolate. It was an amazing time and I can’t thank our car hosts enough. The whole group was just amazing–there were about 15-20 of us in all and everybody was not only out to see birds but to have a great time doing so. I’m totally doing this again next year (Jenny: you want to do the Council or Kougarok Road? I’ll spring for the airmiles) but I think I’ll make my hotel and rental car reservations in the fall because if you have the time in Nome, and we did on Friday and most of Sunday, it’s definitely worth heading out some of the other roads as well.

If you have a chance and you want to bird, Nome in early summer is a spectacular destination. Either go with a tour group or get a car though, because you’ll want to get out some of those roads. You’ll see a lot in Nome itself, but you really want to get a chance to head out of town and see some more diverse habitats.

Oh, and this is Alaska. So remember that like with all other small communities in Alaska, big enough to have rental cars but off the road system so the cars have to be brought in by boat, the rental cars are a) going to be very spendy and b) probably going to be a 20 year old SUV with the check engine light permanently on, a cracked windshield, and a drivers side door that doesn’t stay open when you want it to. In Nome and many of these other communities, the cars need to go the distance and they definitely do. And gas is going to be $5/gallon or up. So going on a tour might be more economical than going yourself.

Plus you may not have cell phone reception once you get beyond the outskirts of town so be sure people know about where you’ve planned to go and what time you think you might be back (or what time they should be worrying if you’re not back yet). Also remember that you’re not going to have bathroom facilities available once you get beyond town. Also remember that these “highways” are basically unpaved once you get past the outskirts of Nome so that 72 mile excursion is not a one hour drive. Plan on taking a full day for any one of the roads. Also take good bug spray. Really good bug spray. And don’t treat the musk ox like fuzzy cows. They’re decidedly more attitudinal. But do plan to spend time walking the beach because Nome’s beaches are truly beautiful. You can watch the gold miners dredging offshore, watch for harbor seals doing spy hops, and maybe even find some beach glass. And if you’re brave you can even dip your toes in Norton Sound (part of the Bering Sea).

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