Seward Peninsula, Birding Nome and Wales
Seward Peninsula offers even much longer days and short nights than so far experienced and it also has a supply of cold and windy weather from its coastal to rugged mountainous habitats , all of which attracts birds and birders. Kotzebue Sound laps at the northern neck of the peninsula. The Arctic Circle cut through the sound and over the top of the peninsula. Vast Norton Sound marks the southern side of Seward Peninsula. The Continental Divide plummets into the Bering Strait near Wales, where it is not a fantasy that one can actually see Russia from the western tip of the Seward Peninsula.
Nome, the largest settlement on the Seward Peninsula, has a relatively modern infrastructure annually welcomes hundreds, if not thousands, of birders looking for species of birds not found elsewhere in mainland Alaska or are by far easier to find in the vicinity of Nome than anywhere in the state. As a birding hotspot, the region provides access to breeding Bristle-thighed Curlew. Although Nome boasts three roads from its center, each less than 90 mile in length, the Eskimo village of Wales is limited to one ATV route to a neighboring village and neither localities roads connect to roads leading to interior of Alaska.
26 May 2013
The alarm jangles me up at 7 a.m. Quietly, except for running the microwave for a hot cup of tea, I rummage around the motel room in Eagle River for something to eat, practice a little grooming and get dressed. Linda, believing she might hold me back traversing such rough terrain, elected, despite her intense interest, to stay behind. I wake her for a long kiss minutes before my ride takes me away to the Anchorage airport. By some unexpected organizational fluke, checking in for my flight is quick and easy and navigating TSA is relatively pleasant. The 727 jet is nearly full. I am sitting on the left side of the cabin. From Anchorage, the plane crosses Cook Inlet, and then over the Alaska Range, the same mountain range of Mt. McKinley to the north. The range stretches southwest and butts close to the Aleutian Range that dominates the Alaska Peninsula. From my height, my southward gaze is paralyzing. The grand snow-covered mountains, with the more steely-blue color of lofty crags too steep for snow to grasp, lift upward like fingers reaching toward the plane. About 590 miles from Anchorage, in the Aleutian Range, Mount Pavlof began burping lava and spewing ash and steam on 13 May. I do not see a menacing plume, which is probably a good thing. Luckily, I had a quick view of Mt. McKinley during the taxi ride, but across the empty seat of the plane, a passenger advises I should sit on the same side during return for an aerial view of the mountain. Perhaps Pavlof will dog my view upon returning to Anchorage.
In short order, I realize the passenger is a birder, although at first I did not understand his pants. They are U.S. Post Office issue, winter pants I have seen on more than one mail carrier in the lower 48. James Huntington, from Iowa City, Iowa, is leading a Wilderness Birding Adventures tour on their way to Gambell at the northwestern end of St. Lawrence Island. I learn he went to Attu on several occasions, the birding mecca of the Aleutian Islands that no longer hosts its famous tours. James offers advice on birding Nome. He had been to Wales three times, experienced mostly bad weather, including incessant wind. His experience is not encouraging. He birded primarily around the village, which is my plan. Besides birds, we have something else in common: he is currently a government employee of the Postal Service and me, a retired government employee. Both pretty much in the lower echelon of government, we agree of being weary of the public at large thinking government employees are lazy freeloaders. We also know some of the same birders and exchange pleasantries about Jon Dunn, Paul Sykes and Dan Gibson.
Our conversation wanes as James must provide attention to his flock of birders. The plane roars northwest traveling under high layers of gray flat clouds, with not a hint of lower clouds or fog. Again, reveling from my window seat, I marvel at the rough scenery below. I see only white blanketing precipitous crags, long glaciers too far below to hear them grinding down a valley and millions of acres of tundra in the grip of winter. The plane crosses the less formidable Kuskokwim Mountains running from northeast to southwest. Two rivers flow through the white below. The first, I believe is the Kuskokwim, the second, and further northwest, appears gigantic and has to be the Yukon River. Unfortunately, none of the crew of the plane announces any prominent locations. Large and small lakes, some revealed by their flat white tops, some showing dark blue water of melted ice and river after river mark the snow-scape. It is almost unimaginable that the Iditarod competition took place somewhere below only a couple of months earlier, mushing over 800 miles from Anchorage to Nome. The Iditarod primarily consists of trails of Native Americans, fur traders and miners and began as a competition in 1908 as a winter dog sledding sport. As fascinating as the Iditarod, I train my eyes on one last set of mountains just west of the meandering Yukon River. The landscape flattens first over tundra and snow, then the open water of Norton Sound. Uncountable chunks of ice ranging from small to large, sizes I cannot estimate from the jet are scattered over the water. Then, we are over more tundra and suddenly the Bering Sea comes into view. From my moving overlook, ice appears to be floating along a gray beach, but further offshore, more solid ice covers the horizon.
Believing I am in remote Nome is difficult, especially upon realizing that outside the tiny airport are throngs of people. Designated by a cartographers misreading of the word name, Nome is home to roughly 3600 people, a population considerably less than just 12,000 in 1900 when it was the largest city in Alaska. Today, a mix of Inupiat Eskimos and non-Natives occupy 21 square miles, with 41% being water, in this place called Nome. From the plane, I can see remnants of what an 1898 gold rush started, holes scrapped by rusting hulks of giant dredges. A book and movies chronicle the Gold Rush. Wyatt Earp built a saloon during the rush and today placer mining for gold, now worth over a $1000 per ounce, is part of the economy of Nome. A large building, according to a passenger, is a new hospital, which is the largest economic driver in Nome. Nome is a port during summer and its modern airport made for a smooth landing.
Today the throngs of people all seem to be outside, driving vehicles ranging from a rare sedan and more common pickup to noisy ATVs. After all, it is Sunday; the sun is shining through the thin layer of wispy threads of clouds and five inches of presently melted snow had fallen only a couple of days earlier. I decide to walk into town. With every item that I predict I will need for the next four days stuffed in a backpack and a small satchel, I begin the trudge from the airport. I maintain a close eye on the Snake River flowing to my right. The water is not far from flooding and chunks of ice bigger than the birdmobile bumped with the current. River water also is flowing over frozen parts of the river, indicating a rapid thaw upstream. Am I too early, too late, or is my timing going to bring the species I hope to find soon.
A driver in a pickup stops to ask if I want a ride. By now, I decide I am not going to see a new ABA species along the Snake River and gladly accept the help. The pickup is marked as belonging to Nome. I ask the driver if is he is the local constable, fearing the law is checking up on the only person crazy enough to walk along the Snake River with a backpack. He laughs, saying he works for the water department. Relief allows me not to worry about someone thinking I am a near-do-well, and the temperature is too warm for an average late May day in Nome. The driver asks where I need to go. He takes me to the Aurora Inn and Suites, where I cannot afford to stay, but also the location of Stampede Vehicle Rental providing my vehicular stead. I recall the webpage. A man stands in front of a vehicle. He is dressed as if emulating Wyatt Earp. A pleasant woman looks up my reservation and an unpleasant man, not Wyatt, brings a large SUV to the front door. I later learn he left the motor running; burning what I guess must be sky-high gasoline. The vehicle is one of the largest of SUVs and although new, will never acquire a miles per gallon below the trusty birdmobile left with Linda in Eagle River.
Back down Front Street, the main street that parallels the ocean beach, is the Nugget Inn. Built in 1966, the 47-room hotel has an atmosphere of late 1800’s, the walls, staircase, everything carved out of the gold rush days. My reserved room is small, but contains a microwave and tiny refrigerator. Wi-Fi is even available. The halls are quiet, but I imagine birders chatting when many will come to Nome next week when most birding tour companies migrate here.
Stepping into the larger than life SUV, I pull away from the curb in front of the Nugget, away from the finish line of the Iditarod maybe 20 feet from where I had parked, and push eastward on Front Street. Council Road is the continuation of Front Street. Council Road will take me to Safety Sound where James Huntington suggested I go first. However, I stop at two ponds barely out-of-town. One is teeming with Red-necked Phalarope, there are three pairs of Long-tailed Duck and I hear a Wilson’s Snipe. Another pond, more isolated than the first is a loon. No, actually three loons, but the one that catches my eye is an Arctic Loon. The others are Red-throated Loons. Across the street, where the pavement ends, is a beach and miles of ice, not open water I thought I saw from the plane.
Front St. in Nome Abandoned gold dredge
Snow covers over 80% of tundra near the road and most potential shorebird habitat remains frozen. About a quarter of a mile from the junction with Nome Bypass Road are a few small houses lined on both sides of Council Road. Most are on the ocean side and appear empty. Groups of people walk along the sand; some are cooking on what is surely a small barbecue, while most are driving the dusty and bumpy road. A tent, sitting on what looks to be skids stands on the forbidding ice. Someone sits outside the tent near a parked ATV. I wonder if the set-up, the only one seen, is for fishing. Almost four miles from town is the bridge over the Nome River. The region’s reputation is one full of rarities, birds I would love to see including Terek Sandpiper and Great Knot. The late spring or lingering winter, whatever it is, again is not shorebird friendly. An Aleutian Tern flies overheard so as not to dampen hope for new ABA lifers. Random stops yield more Long-tailed Ducks and, finally, a Common Redpoll. It seems inconceivable that a trip to Nome is necessary finally to get such an allegedly common species. More ducks, this time festive Harlequin Ducks forage a pond. A jaeger, which I am certain is not a coveted Long-tailed Jaeger, stoops near the road, but calling the species of the bird is not, as they say, in my toolbox. Cape Nome brings more Harlequin Ducks. Red-breasted Merganser fills in the list of ducks with Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Trumpeter Swan and Greater White-fronted Goose.
In about three more miles, Safety Sound is in view. It is as dreaded, with much too white snow and ice. West’s finding guide listed Emperor Goose, three species of eider and Yellow-billed Loon as “somewhat regular species” of the sound. However, I am not hearing any of those species. I do hear gulls, most of them lounging on the ice north of the road. Glaucous and Mew Gulls dominate the scene, with Herring sitting among them. One of the Herring Gulls sports a mantle darker than the rest. Is this the subspecies vegae, proposed by Dick Banks as a separate species? I am not sure, either that the dark bird is vegae or that if it is, I cannot speak to its taxonomic status. There are two small gulls standing together, as if watching the other gulls. They are smaller than the common Mew Gulls nearby. A black collar separates an otherwise whitish head from a whitish body washed with a pinkish cast. The two virtually identical birds are Ross’s Gulls, a species not even on the main list of craved for species.
During the drive back to Nome, another jaeger hunts over a patch of bare tundra. Had the windows been up, I would not have heard the strange call, a vocalization unfamiliar, and a scratching defiant sound, almost a harsh bark of an unknown breed of dog, causing me to skid to a stop and slamming my jacket, water, and field guide into an abyss on the right side of the boat of a vehicle. The bird, to my left continues calling and slowly flapping ahead of the long streamer of its tail. At last, I had seen my third jaeger, a Long-tailed Jaeger, number 670 on the ABA hit parade. The jaeger is scouring the tundra and I creep forward, following the hunter as it parallels the road. It calls again, but something else is vocalizing. The new sound is one familiar one heard numerous times on the CD of Alaskan birds. It calls “your jerk, you jerk” repeated over and over in a rough and gravelly voice. It is a Surfbird. I never see the sandpiper and the jaeger is apparently looking for different prey.
Returning to Nome around 5:30, I pick up a sandwich at the town’s only fast food joint, a Subway. I then checked out a small grocery store near the hotel, purchasing a can of beans and crackers. This was sticker shock all over again. The 12-inch sub cost is not so much more than Oregon’s price tag, but the beans and crackers came to $7.32. A candy bar was $1.75, about a dollar above what might be the price in Oregon. I did not buy the candy, stopped at the hotel to stash the sandwich for a hungrier time and drove north, out of Nome.
Center Creek Road might take me to Eastern Yellow Wagtails, redpolls and others boreal species. A small roadside pond bolsters good things to come at the sight of a small plover. The first millisecond of seeing the bird sparks me to think Semipalmated Plover, but its striking large supercilium stops the hasty identification. There is much too much black in the face and the especially wide upper breast band matches it with a bird seen a couple of years ago in central California. I am looking at a male Common Ringed Plover, a rare species in and around Nome. Sitting in the rental, I carefully fish around the passengerless seat to my right for my camera. Even though I think the plover cannot see more than my surprised noggin, something apparently signals the bird to take wing. Not heard in California, this time I hear the call, which matches the “soft, fluted pooee” described in my field guide. A rare bird and no proof, no photo, just my word, does not help my already rattled psyche.
The road passes the local prison and comes to a junction. A left turn runs northwest. To the right, a paved road connects to the Dexter Cut-off and on to Kougarok Road, famous to birders for access to nesting Bristle-thighed Curlews. Because of late snow, Kougarok Road is closed around the 35-mile mark, and Anvil Mountain and nesting curlews is almost 40 miles beyond the closure. Even if the road was open today, I might rely on the midnight sun to guide me, but alone on an unacquainted road in very unfamiliar territory would brand such a journey foolhardy, especially considering the 140 plus mile roundtrip would require hours. Bristle-thighed Curlew is one of several species I will forgo to timing and unpredictable seasonal snow and ice.
Taking a left onto Teller Road is the logical alternative this late afternoon. Not far from the junction, the pavement ends and I find a likely place, I think, for Bluethroat. Instead, Fox and American Tree Sparrow and Gray-cheeked Thrush overwhelm silence. James and some his crew on the plane from Nome and almost all other sources indicate I am at least a week too early for Arctic Warbler. Nonetheless, my eyes and ears strain for the Old World warbler, but instead I hear the all too familiar trill of an Orange-crowned Warbler. Maybe a mile further up the road, a Long-tailed Jaeger bathes on melt water of a pond. A Mew Gull looks on. Yards up the road yields Golden-crowned and Fox Sparrows and something different comes into view. As I register its white rump and “wheat” call, I realize that finally I can check Northern Wheatear. Although deemed moderately easy to find over much of Alaska, my ABA 671 comes as a difficult bird for me to find. Half a mile onward, I hear curlews calling. First is at least one Whimbrel, which another different curlew follow the chorus. From multiple plays of recordings of curlews, I am sure the second bird is Bristle-thighed Curlew. I must be hearing things. I stop the vehicle, thinking perhaps I can chase the birds, but the wet terrain promises to be more unforgiving than my desire is willing to trade. With little more time to ponder, the curlews are flying over the road and two of them appear grayish brown compared to a third individual, which is clearly buffy. The mystery bird displays its unspotted and buffy rump, bestowing a satisfying behind. Although I, of course, did not see the bristles of its thighs, but the coloration and its call are positively diagnostic. Having the two species side by side likewise leaves no doubt in my mind that the buffy bird is a Bristle-thighed Curlew. What grand luck.
Daylight was all around during the drive back to Nome and Teller Road had more to offer. Far to my right are several dark lumps on the paler tundra. There are at least 12 muskox grazing busily. Although appearing calm, the hump above their shoulders conveys tremendous power from an animal, according to accounts from Nome and other localities, that muskox do not always give ground to barking dogs and children foolish enough to get too close to these hairy ice age hulks. Nothing can compete with these Pleistocene relicts, except humans, and, like most large mammals, man drove muskox to near extinction. Having read about these 400 to 600 mammals, I find any that I see in Alaska are relatives of reintroduced muskox probably from northern central Canada or Greenland. A few are hunted by qualifying subsistence hunters, but the muskox is otherwise protected from its two-legged predator.
Retracing my route, I am unable to relocate the Common Ringed Plover. The Nome waterfront is quiet, mostly iced over and cooler as the sun dips at an angle. I drive out Front Street, past the hotel and Subway to the end of the pavement and bounce along Council Road to the mouth of the Nome River where nothing bird wise is remarkable. At 10 p.m., I am back at the hotel. My only window faces westerly, with a view of Bering Sea, nearby buildings and sun blazing sideways into my room. Luckily, the window opens and cool fifty-degree air flushes out the heat. After a shower, I write notes and plan tomorrow before nodding off at midnight.
27 May 2013
Long shadows fill the street and more people than birds stir the silence. The visitor center will not open until tomorrow, but the Subway is open for breakfast and something with egg in it sounds inviting. If I cannot see them, I can at least eat them. I then drive up to the ponds near the end of the pavement of Council Road. Arctic Terns seen yesterday are hovering over water temporarily home to Long-tailed Ducks and a Northern Pintail. Red-throated Loons, Red-breasted Mergansers and Red-necked Phalaropes in breeding garb float in and out of view. I rush back through town and start out Center Creek Road. Another pond reveals a scaup, with a black back. The bird looks so similar to a Tufted Duck that I get out the scope. I think I catch a ting of green iridescence typical of Greater Scaup on a sunny day, and I cannot find any swept back feathers that distinguish Tufted Duck. The black-backed Greater Scaup or the Tufted Duck experiencing a bad head feather day is likely a hybrid. Ducks will do it with almost anything. I should watch my back.
A pond to the left had a Fox Sparrow singing from some Willows yesterday. Today, something is foraging in the same place, but the only way of identifying it is driving down a dirt road that parallels the other side of the pond and is closer to the willows. A Northern Waterthrush jumps into sight. No, that was not the bird seen from the other side. I wait. Something is moving, but it remains hidden in the leafless branches. I spish. Nothing. I spish again, careful not to have spittle land on the binocs and I wait. Just as I am about to purse my lips for another spish a warbler bolts to a perch, displaying its warbler-like appearance, but it is rather dark olive. The bill of this bird is heavier than the warblers I know. A nice line, its supercilium, streaks noticeably above its eye. A faint wash of yellow below adds up to an Arctic Warbler. From a point out of view is heard a buzzy song, the same sound heard and dismissed yesterday. Was the call from an Arctic Warbler? Maybe, no probably, since what else could it be but from the same species, my ABA 672, my first representative of a leaf warbler, Phylloscopidae of the Old World, an Arctic Warbler. Certainly, it is early, but not an impossible find. Last year, someone found the species off Teller Road on 19 May. This is a late spring, but from the itineraries of birding tours, most birders are in the Nome region at least a week later than I am. Even so, I know what I saw, but I do wish I could have gotten the camera on it before it dove out of view.
Habitat beyond the prison and a left on Teller Road, the place visited yesterday, is great for what I come to expect, Fox Sparrows, but this time Northern Waterthrush are everywhere. They are singing everywhere. Several Yellow Warblers and Savannah Sparrows pop up to sing or just to check out the huge white SUV lumbering along the road. Spring seems to be catching up with this part of the Seward Peninsula. I check vegetation at a site also occupied by a junked twin-engine plane, its aluminum skin still shinning and a 20 plus foot rusted boat. The place is birdless, but worth a picture. Back in Nome, I check the waterfront. Nope, ice continues to dominate the state of the water. Winter is close by. On the other side of town, I hit the dirt of Council Road, the gravel knocking inside the fenders until I get to the bridge over the Nome River. There is more activity than yesterday, with Trumpeter Swans, Red-necked Loons, several species of ducks, terns, gulls and essentially nothing else. It is time to gather my things and be ready at the airstrip for the flight to Wales.
Not wishing to jeopardize the chance to visit Wales within my budgeted time, my early arrival at the airstrip seems prudent. With a ticket in hand, I walk back to the parked rental to retrieve the heavy coat almost left behind. I recheck the section of Snake River hurrying chunks of ice to Nome’s waterfront. Inside the terminal are three teenagers from the village Brevig Mission, where, according to homework, 90% of a population nearing 400 is Inupiat Indians, with 43% of the village below 18 years of age and only 4% over 65. Rounded off, the average percentage for the entire U.S. is 24% under 18% and 14% over 65 years of age. Why the disparity? Could it be the 43% poverty rate in Brevig Mission, which is more than twice the national average of 15%? Data on Wales told me 36% are under 18, 6% are over 65 and the poverty rate is 28%, values similar to those of Nome. Lest I fly off into a demographic or sociological tangent, I look over the list of birds I hope to find at Wales then back to the reality of the air terminal with the thought that I will be an elder in this region. The three native girls, perhaps 13 or 14 years of age each have infants, all certainly less than one-year old. Linda would know. The tiny infants were snuggly tucked between the presumed mothers’ backs and their heavy winter coats. Once inside the terminal, each girl demonstrates attention to her infants that neither cry nor whimper. All members of the party exude happiness and good health. Well, mostly, one of the girls has a deep raspy cough and all three take turns outside the terminal to inhale a cigarette. How can they afford to smoke, monetarily and medically?
Minutes after noon, we board. The girls, clutching their infants, sit near the front, one to the left, the other two take up seats along the right side of the plane. An adult male sits in front of me. I am the last passenger, strapped into a shoulder harness and sit immediately in front of the rear door. Cargo is loaded below deck. The open space to the left of the seats is for additional cargo held in place by a system of hooks and straps. The pilot had earlier asked me if I was looking for birds—my identifying binocs hung around my neck, ready for bear. I told him of hopes to see White Wagtail and Eurasian Dotterel. He said the former nested in the hills north of the airport in the 1970’s. I will have to let Dan Gibson know about that. The pilot climbed into the front. The copilot seat is empty as the Cessna Caravan 208B, a single-engine propjet, rumbles onto the runway. The powerful engine, the pilot had told me, will take us up to 200 miles per hour and we will be low enough for some good pictures. I think I prefer high enough for some good photos.
The pilot kicks the plane above Nome. I see abandoned hulks of gold dredges and houses of Nome residents and miles and miles of dark, gray-brown tundra pockmarked with large and small patches of snow and ice. At first, our route parallels Teller Road. Further from Nome, it is easy to see winter continues to hold hostage much of the tundra. Once again, I am aghast by mountains as the snow-drenched Kiglnaik Mountains roll into view, with sharp peaks, cirque lakes that look mostly frozen, and glaciers, the only glaciers of Seward Peninsula. Reaching up to around 4,000 feet, some peaks are nearly eye-level and any exposed rocky slopes do not have that far away blue cast as seen flying from Anchorage. The cliffs are gray, sharp and clearly are hard rock, not something a plane needs to meet. Despite the variable terrain, the flight over or should I say through the Kiglnaik Mountains is smooth. Teller, reached by the 73-mile road from Nome passes unnoticed and in minutes, we are over Port Clearance, and then banking down to Brevig Mission. I can see there are two runways, one perpendicular to the other. Our intrepid pilot choses the runway that slopes upward. I guess that from the bottom of the runway to its top is a gain of 20 or more feet. The plane hits the runway hard, and although it does not bounce, the gravel on the runway and the ground speed causes the Cessna to fish tail enough that everyone but the pilot became white-knuckled. Thankfully, we slow and come to a merciful rest, where upon the girl sitting behind the pilot said “thanks for the butterflies.” Even that remark did not seem negative coming from the good nature of the passengers breaking into laughter as they step onto terra firma.
Flying over the Kiglnaik Mountains East side of Cape Mountain
Tin City, the next stop, is 45 air miles north of Brevig Mission. The passenger sitting in front of me begins checking his pockets and readying for his destination. He is to replace a member of contractors who keep an Air Force radar station operational should, I suppose, Russia decides to lay claim to Seward Peninsula. Out the door, the passenger talks to a younger and jubilant man he is to replace. Another person, stares on. Having had time at the Pentagon in, let us say, monitoring other people, I could since the same unpleasantness that often exudes from practitioners, let us say, in the business of monitoring. The replaced energetically strapped himself into his seat. He is very talkative and friendly, and reveals he had been at his duty station for three months, that he had weathered a good portion of winter, and that he had little to no experience at Wales, a mere10-mile away. The pilot takes us up and around the east side of Cape Mountain and I spot a tram that lifts supplies and staff to a 2100 foot station that functions as an aircraft control and warning site that has long-range radar. I suppose the station is watching over us as we essentially follow the road around the mountain and out over the Bering Strait. The passenger points out Fairway Rock, Little Diomede, and, in Russia, adjacent Big Diomede. From our elevation, and because of the clear air, I barely make out Siberia’s 2500-foot mountains of Cape Dezhnev some 52 miles away. I see from one side of the Bering Strait to the other. Also in view from the plane, now banking toward the runway, is ice extending far out into the strait, the snow-covered village of Wales and frozen Lapp Lagoon. I wonder if the birding is going to be productive. I wonder how cold my next 24 hours will be.
Besides soaking in Bailey’s 1922 account of Wales, I also came across some facts about the region. First, the village is one of the oldest of its kind in the Bering Straits region. Its native Inupiaq name is Kingigin, the native name of Cape Mountain. A population of 500 to 600 lived in Wales before contact with the outside until 1918, when the Spanish flu killed half of the people. Today, there are about 160 residents who depend on subsistence fishing, hunting and trapping as they did during Bailey’s visit.
Thoughts return from my homework to the present, and in short minutes, the pilot unloads cargo onto a trailer towed by a women driving an ATV. Deb, who is the airline’s agent in Wales, offers me a ride, but I decline and walk several yards west from a large garage near the end of the runway. It is cold and windy. My jaunt leaves me wondering if I will see anything, but as I trek the gravely road south toward Wales birds begin popping into view. Wet tundra borders the half-mile route and it is alive with calling and numerous displaying Dunlins, more Semipalmated Sandpipers than I have ever seen in one locality, a few Pectoral Sandpipers, and a couple of Western Sandpipers. They are all in breeding plumage, calling and close in proximity. A lone shorebird calls for a halt. Actually, its call, its vocalization, does not resemble the “churp” of the Semipalmated Sandpipers. The bird looks to be an odd appearing Semipalmated Sandpiper, but the bill and plumage are wrong. Although said to be difficult to discern, I can see between its toes and there is no hint of webbing. The bill does not droop at the end and the plulmage is much too rufous to fit any of the nearby Semipalmated Sandpipers. This is, in every way not a Rufous-necked Sandpiper, known years ago from a breeding plumaged individual off course on the shore of Lake Erie. My mystery bird is a Little Stint in breeding plumage. Expectations for ABA 674 did not include this species of shorebird, but the unexpected makes birding fun.
Onward, past pools of water are dainty Red-necked Phalarope and topping off the shorebirds I hear the haunting sound of a lone Wilson’s Snipe followed by ice crunching under my boots. At a small bridge, Snow Buntings give course announcements and flit from a rooftop. A large building containing a grocery store sits a few yards beyond. From its door, I see the gray beach sand, miles of cold hard ice and the two Diomede Islands. Icy wind and obtaining a land use permit ($100) from the Terry Crisci, the General Manager of the Wales Native Corporation necessarily distract me from the shorebirds. I discuss my plan with Terry to climb the northerly slope of Cape Mountain and ask about bears since three months ago someone from Wales told me that there were problems with brown bear. Terry smiles and says that was last year and I should not worry. She tells me someone will be at the General-purpose Building soon. I hurry back to the building and wait on the porch of the Multi-purpose Building, a large and newish structure built for the occasional visitor, meetings and other activities. From my vantage, about 10 feet or more above the ATV road between high banks of snow, I witness three Sandhill Cranes fly high over the shore. Vanessa Tingook, who has an office at the Multi-purpose Building, issues me a key for my one-night visit.
Front of Multi-purpose Building Wales and Cape Mountain
It is now late afternoon and tomorrow around noon the plane back to Nome leaves Wales. With less than 24 hours, I hurry down the beach on what seems the best route to the foot of Cape Mountain and a chance at finding Eurasian Dotterel. The dark sand provides solid footing except sometimes it is soft from the wheels of ATVs. In a quarter of a mile, I realize six children are following me. They are between 6 to 10 years of age and full of vim and vigor, with considerable jumping up and down while occasionally waving their arms and giggling. The higher pitches I take to be girls, but it is impossible to be sure since they are bundled up with heavy coats, scarves and hats. Except for the scarf, which I wish I had, I am dressed much like a large version of them. One boy shows me English walnuts he is finding on the beach and asks me to take his picture. I do. Mew Gulls, one Slate-backed Gull and several vegae type Herring Gulls pass time on the beach, at the edge of the ice. The vegae gull goes on my escrow list.
The Mew Gulls remind me that this gull actually might represent a species different from a Mew Gull encountered long ago during a winter on the East Coast. That particular East Coast bird possibly represented the taxon breeding in European. I hasten to add that the subadult gull that another birder pointed out to me might not have even been a Mew Gull, and, if it was, it might not have been the European Mew Gull. Another choice is that the gull was from the western subspecies brachyrhynchus, which is casual to the Atlantic Coast in winter as far south as Virginia, the very same state where someone yelled the words “European Mew Gull.” I could not be sure what subspecies or species of gull then, and I cannot be certain today.
The gulls on the beach today consist of two “types” of Mew Gulls. All but one is typical in every way to Mew Gulls I have observed here and elsewhere in the west. Stupidly, I did not take pictures, but the gulls on the beach today allow ample time to observe that one of these birds does not resemble the others. That one bird, compared to the rest, has a darker mantle, appears larger and has blacker wing tips. My dark mantled Mew Gull must represent what is currently Larus canus kamtschatchensis. That taxon might be a subspecies of the European species if is split it from the usual Pacific birds or it might represent a third species breeding in eastern Asia. The jury is presently undecided on the Mew Gull complex. My jury of one, yours truly, is not accepting the old Virginia observation as any species. As for the kamtschatchensis gull, someday the fate of that taxon will be decided. In the meantime, I replay a version of the quandary. It seems worth repeating, besides I love the old days at the museum when sifting through taxonomic problems was fun and concurrently frustrating. As for Mew Gulls, the complex may remain as is, with all presently named taxa of Mew Gulls remaining as subspecies. A split might mean recognition of Larus canus and Larus brachyrhynchus. The gulls identified as kamtschatchensis might prove to be a subspecies of the new Larus canus or they might be known as Larus kamtschatchensis. I will wait the taxonomic outcome and allow the kamtschatchensis gull to be a solid candidate for my escrow list.
I am also reminded that the name mew for Mew Gull has little if nothing to do with Mew Gull vocalization. According to some scholars, “mew” is the Germanic equivalent of the Celtic “gull.” The Dutch use the term “meeuw,” which resembles the cat-call “mew” more than alleged equivalents in German (“mowe’) and French (“mouette”). Accepting the etymology, Mew Gull is actually Gull Gull.
Near the end of the beach, I see a reasonable place for beginning my ascent to the slope of Cape Mountain. My entourage follows. Turning, I very apologetically tell them I need to go on alone, knowing that their exuberance would frighten any self-respecting dotterel or any other bird that might be on the mountain. I could see their disappointment on their faces as I reluctantly squelch their enthusiasm.
A large patch of snow a few vertical feet above the beach bares the way. My weight is no match for the white surface, and, in four steps, my right leg plunges down to stop only because of my suddenly chilled crotch. I cannot move my leg. I can barely wiggle my foot and fear losing my boot. I do not have time to dig out my boot. Perhaps Linda was correct about the toughness of the region. My frustration causes some change in increasing body heat. Perhaps I can melt my way free. Wiggling and pulling finally works and reaching snow free tundra now means climbing and being careful on the soft footing full of tussocks and tiny rivulets of melted snow from above. Ears strain, listening for dotterels and lungs strain, carrying me up and across the Arctic terrain. From my elevation, I now see an open lane of ice-free sea, wider than many of the channels navigated by our ferry days ago.
Open water near horizon, Wales on right Tunda on north slope of the cape
In addition to the tussocks of lichen and moss, the deeper than boots rivulets of melted snow, there are occasional outcrops of large loose rocks. Every step could mean falling and anything under the snowfields above me quickly freeze hope of gaining the summit of the first ridge, let alone crossing the Continental Divide. Although the divide crosses the summit of Cape Mountain, I had thought I would look for it somewhere east of that summit. Of course, assuming I could find the Continental Divide, the weather, terrain and time preclude any such misadventure. Besides, large and widely spaced tracks, although apparently old, were the mark of a polar or grizzly bear, animals I only want to see at a distance and preferably from a vehicle, with the motor running. It is time to be practical, file away those mountain climbing days of yesteryear and get down to the business of birding. A pair of Common Ravens helps bring me to reality. A single Rough-legged Hawk hunts the slope. It is larger and paler than any other Rough-leg I have seen, and causes me to wonder if it belongs to a Siberian subspecies. Decades ago, I made shallow stabs toward the taxonomy of Rough-legged Hawk, but that is a story for someone else. The majestic hawk vanishes somewhere toward the unseen Continental Divide.
Almost half way to the snow fields blocking my ascent I spy several redpolls, one of which is close enough to see the salient field marks and is white enough that I am sure I can count my first Hoary Redpoll. Out of breath, I sit on a lichen-carpeted rock while gazing at the village below. The kids are still combing the beach. Suddenly, in the foreground, perhaps 100 feet away, a flock of 20 Eastern Yellow Wagtails magically flies onto the tundra sloping below. Did they just now fly across the Bering Strait? Will this new family and new species, ABA 676, stay long enough for a picture. What gorgeous birds, but they disperse, but not before obtaining an identifiable photograph. Something takes their place. A pipit flies up into the incessant wind, and gives a display song, treading the air long enough to see that it is a Red-throated Pipit. Walking east and maintaining elevation, I come to a snowfield that I decide to cross since the tundra and rock on the other side look promising. That is when a gust of wind and an extra slick patch combined with the law of gravity causes a three-point landing, on one hand and two buttocks. After regaining my composure, I gaze across the snowfield and spot a large white bird sitting on boulder. How could I have missed seeing it before cooling my heels, so to speak, on the snow? Did the bird sit on the rock for a better view of my landing? This is not a Willow Ptarmigan, and, allowing long study and a photograph, it gave the final clue to its identification with its hoarse call. A female, further confirming my suspicions, follows its presumed mate, a Rock Ptarmigan, on the flight path down and out of sight. The male is barely hinting summer plumage, the female, with fewer white feathers, has a plumage more advanced than the male. The two birds remind me that every specimen of Rock Ptarmigan I examined in a study of the species, regardless of the spring through fall months of collection, exhibited varying stages of molt. It would have been no surprise to see loose feathers flying off the two ptarmigan today.
On my descent to the village I run into parts of the sloping tundra so wet that it is impossible to avoid. The lower I get, the wetter and the less chance I have for finding a Eurasian Dotterel. Near the school, the ground is saturated, and, so are my socks. I might have been ok using the route of ascent, but I might have missed the ptarmigan or decreased my chances for a dotterel. Deep and soft snow blankets the main route through the village, Kingkinkgin Road. Most everyone uses the beach, but getting there was almost as difficult as on the slope. I slog past the long closed grocery store and cross the bridge at Village Creek. Snow Buntings are fussing in this late hour. In my almost 4-hour absence, melting ice and snow nearly blocks the last few feet to the Multi-purpose Building. A couple is using the office computer. We talk a few minutes about living in Wales, the birds, the ice, and about Bailey. Before they leave, they show me a clothes drier I can use to dry anything I need.
My room is cozy, with a window looking out on a snow-covered expanse of tundra and most of Wales. A small table with a lamp sits at one side of a comfortably firm mattress. An overhead light takes away the shadows most motel rooms breed. Not only is the room exceptionally clean as is the hallway, kitchen and other common areas of the building, a remarkable condition considering the number of people tracking in outside grit and snow. Even the bathroom, honeypot and all look and smell clean.
28 May 2013
Cavorting Dunlins woke me. The sun has barely dipped below the horizon and now lights a clear sky. Much of the almost submerged tundra of yesterday is frozen by the below 25 degree night. The water pool out another window looks frozen, but a foursome of Red-necked Phalarope paddle in an open patch. I start the community coffee pot, down a can of sardines with the brew and take advantage of the honey pot down the hall. This is the price I must pay for regularity, but lack of running water is not so terrible an inconvenience. After another cup of coffee, I head out to relocate the Little Stint. No luck. Snow Buntings are at the Village Creek Bridge. A trip down the beach, toward the cape, reveals Herring, Glaucous and Mew Gulls. Offshore is a flock of a couple dozen white-fronted geese, presumably of the Greater species. Six King Eider are winging northward. Luckily for me, the birds are males and their black backs and faint glow of their frontal patch distinguish them from the other eiders. These birds remind me of a youthful time on the coast of Maine during winter of 1963. Although not in my notes, I have had for years a nagging feeling I saw a male King Eider. Did I forget to record my observation or is this a king-sized figment of my imagination? Today, I quickly write my observation and relish that it is ABA life bird number 679.
Two or three, I lost count, planes land and take off from the Wales airstrip. This is surprising, but I learn 4 to 5 flights are routine. Returning to the Multi-Purpose Building, I meet Fred Tocktoo, a Native American, who works for the National Park Service as a liaison between the service and Eskimos. He is from Shishmaref, a village northeast of Wales and home to Ken Stenek, who emailed me about Nancy Dean, a teacher in Wales. I had emailed Nancy over a month ago about dotterels and other birds of Wales, but I am getting ahead of myself. Fred had come in on one of the flights I heard and he is here for a meeting. It turns out he and I have lots in common since we chose to make a career working for the Department of Interior. We aired our common grievances and praises, the good, bad and ugly of being a government employee. We talked about the plight of natives living in the North Country.
My plane is to arrive a little after noon, so I head back out to the beach. Before the bridge, I meet a woman, who asks me if I am the bird person. I have been called worse and will answer to most. She introduces herself as Nancy Dean. I tell my name and that yesterday I spent several hours primarily looking for Eurasian Dotterel on the slope of Cape Mountain. She said she had heard what she took for dotterels while visiting at the southernmost house. I told her I had birded near there, but did not find any shorebirds. Nancy also said that when she received my email back in early May, she checked the ice and saw a couple of Ivory Gulls. Clearly, it is all in the timing.
Bolstered by Nancy hearing what she thought were dotterels puts me in the mood to walk down the beach and glass up the slope near the last house. Maybe I will hear something, but the stiff chronic breeze has grown into a cold and biting wind. I hear nothing. The slim chance of seeing a dotterel fly up just for my sake is futile. A jaeger sails along the sea ice, swoops by showing a tail of a Pomarine. It is getting late. Reluctantly, I say a silent goodbye to the beach, which is empty since, as Nancy informed, is her first day teaching summer school. Near the grocery store, I meet two residents of Little Diomede, who tell me the island is alive with birds. Glancing west, I see the outline of the island that is too expensive for a visit. Subsistence hunting and fishing at Wales has now been delayed by weeks. A man with a gas-powered drill is determining the depth of the ice nearly a quarter of a mile from the grocery store this morning at Wales.
I gather my gear and walk out to the airstrip. Shortly after my arrival, I walk a gravel road that takes me between the runway and the beach. Just maybe I will find a White Wagtail, a species I had been reasonably certain of finding in Wales. I scare up both species of redpolls, more Snow Buntings, two Lapland Longspurs and a smattering of Golden-crowned Sparrows, perhaps one or two that attend the feeder back in Medford, Oregon. The wind ratchets up a notch and a thin vial thickens over Cape Mountain and the hills to east of the village. Fortunately, the fog stays over the higher slopes, at least at first. There are Red-throated and Pacific Loons in one nearby pond and Northern Pintail and Mallards at another. In a more distant body of water are two Trumpeter Swans. I make my way back to the garage that houses snow removal equipment to keep the runway clear. My winter coat is doing its job, but the knit cap under a hoody that is under the hood of my coat is barely keeping my noggin from freezing. The building offers much needed shelter from the northeast wind that chilled my cheeks to the point that talking is difficult.
High overhead and past the beach are hundreds of northbound Snow Geese and flocks of unidentifiable ducks too far away to call. Northbound Spectacled Eiders, picked out of a flock of probably more of the same, are identifiable on the bases of their drab underwings, pale heads (I cannot make out a greenish crown), which lack the black crown of the also white-backed Common Eider. The Spectacled Eider is another species I think I may have seen years ago on the Oregon coast. It was a female, but the memory is fleeting and possibly incorrect, and certainly not given ink in my bird notes. Today, although not the best of conditions, I feel confident about the Spectacled Eider should be ABA 680. Eventually, a fog obscures the village, but not before a pair of Sabine’s Gulls makes a sublime flight across the runway and up the coast. The cold is getting the best of my coat. This is becoming ridiculous, but two jaegers, first a Parasitic and then a Pomarine Jaeger, take turns hawking over the runway nearly hidden minutes ago. The fog lifts above the village, but clings to the higher slopes. It is now past 3 p.m. and I am beginning to think my noonish plane is not coming. I had read warnings that it is possible to be marooned at Wales, but I feel confident I will get back to Nome for my scheduled flight to Anchorage the day after tomorrow. The trudge back to the Multi-purpose Building put the final chill on actually a pleasingly productive time birding. My cell phone is almost out of juice. Vanessa is in the office and offers her cell. I am still in awe that Wales has internet and cell service, but I am grateful I can phone Linda and give here the news. “I do not know when I will return to Nome.”
Another airline, one said to have better instruments, flies frequently to Wales and a quick call offers promise of a plane at an unspecified time. I will be able to get back to Nome today. I hope so since I brought only enough food in my already stuffed pack for slightly over 24 hours. I am down to my last can of sardines and anything at the local grocery is beyond the cash I am carrying. Fred, apparently used to the sudden changes in weather, also hopes to fly out with me. We wait for a call from the airline’s agent, who will be in radio contact with the plane. The agent, whose name I forget, finally phones the Multi-purpose Building. He is coming. Long minutes creep by before hearing the ATV engine sputter to a halt. He offers us a ride. Fred climbs aboard. I decide this is my last walk on this part of Seward Peninsula and take the cold walk back to the garage and the end of the runway. The wind is in my face and I am grateful for the shelter from the front of the garage. In addition to Fred and the agent, a small boy, maybe 12, huddle outside the garage door. The agent tells us of one unusually warm day he was surprised by seeing his first dragonfly at Wales. He also mentions a polar bear frequenting the region last winter.
The plane sets down. Fred, the boy and I are whisked into the plane, one of the same ilk of my arrival, but with a copilot. Loading is quicker than getting on a Washington, D.C., subway car during rush hour. The pilot races down the runway, turns to face into the wind, there is some instrument checking, the fog is rolling angrily over the hills, the couple already on the plane grasp each other’s hands and the pilot pulls the throttle. It is petal to the metal, floor boarding the little plane into the air and banking hard as we rapidly climb out over the sea ice. Seconds later, we pass the homes of Wales and the beach that I had walked. Sadness prevails, but it is immediately in its place is fear. We are now opposite the Cape of Prince of Wales and Cape Mountain and the plane is pitching violently up and down and sideways. Holy crap. Am I going to die with only 680 ABA species? Linda seems to look on and tell me to imagine I am on a carnival ride, one of the hair-raising type that almost make your sardines curdle in your stomach, one that will soon be over. I hope so. The ice below not only looks cold, it looks hard. The pilot and copilot appear calm. Maybe there is nothing for concern, but… We climb higher and out of the turbulence for a smooth flight mostly over the strait, that skips Tin City and Brevig Mission. In short order, the little plane that could taxis to a stop at Nome and oh, thanks for the butterflies.
There seems to be more open water near Wales, but at Nome there looks to be more ice along the shore than I recall. It is warm, but the Kougarok Road remains closed. Worse, is rapid melting snow washed out Council Road at Hasting Creek thereby cutting access to Safety Sound, a location I want to bird before returning to Anchorage. These conditions are reason to cut my time on the Seward Peninsula. Checking in at Alaska Air, I determine changing my flight will not cost any penalties.
29 May 2013
Last night I welcome running water with a hot shower. I pack, check out of the hotel and drive to the local Subway for breakfast.
The usual haunts out Center Creek Road fail to produce the hybrid duck, the Old World warbler or the ringed plover. It did produce more Yellow and Wilson’s Warblers, apparently new arrivals coming into what many have said is the latest spring in memory. Considerable melting is clearing the blanket of snow, but too rapidly. Not far beyond mile 25 on Kougarok Road, a washout is swiftly eroding the route.
Kougarok Road was, nonetheless, not a wash. At mile 22, I scare up a female Bluethroat. The abundance of melt-water and lack of at least knee-high rubber boots dashes any thought of scaring up a likely nearby male. Driving on and periodically stopping along what is surely the Nome River, I am surprised to see another vehicle. It is Fred from Wales. He tells me he and his employee are going to drive to the closure, which is at mile 37. I might also, but once I cross the washout I decide to turn around and crossing it again believing that every vehicle and every drop of cold water may further close Kougarok Road. Seeing that Bristle-thighed Curlew days ago was pure luck since accessing the breeding grounds of the species is impossible.
A short cut, the Dexter Cut-off, connects with Teller Road. There is time, perhaps to make it to a site where someone had seen a Gray-tailed Tattler last year. What are the chances? Birders often risk large odds, but that tattler gravel bar, according to two birders, the first ones I have seen on the ground, tell of region frozen solid. I turn back after a stop for lunch at Cripple Creek where I meet an Australian couple. We joke about the over-sized rental they are also driving, talk travel and weather, including listening and feeling the large chunks of ice clunking into the metal frame of the bridge. Road culverts are barely, and sometimes not at all, keeping up with the run-off. On Cripple Creek and many other localities, I see that water is running over ice of streams formed in winter.
Passable here but not far beyond Cripple River
Rushing back to Nome, I again check the waterfront and stop at a dredge next to Council Road. This may be the dredge Dan mentioned as a hangout for White Wagtail. It is not, at least today. With part of the mud scrapped from my boots, I drive Council Road to the point of its closure at Hastings Creek.
At the 8:45 p.m. flight, birding Seward Peninsula is over. It ends without a male Bluethroat, but it ends with ABA life bird 681. I did not die with only 680 species and I am alive and well, with this afternoon’s bird including Whimbrel, Semipalmated and Black-bellied Plovers, all in breeding plumage, one Slaty-backed Gull, three Long-tailed Jaegers and Aleutian Tern. Inaccessible Safety Sound must have been a birder delight, but that is for another time.