Sunday, August 12, 2012

Kougarok Road

Despite the many disappointments on Kougarok Road, this location was possibly my favorite of the whole trip. That's a good thing because, as you'll read, I need to return. For our first full day in Nome the fierce wind of the day before had abated only to be replaced by deep fog. As we set off on the morning of Wednesday, June 13th it was unclear how the day would unfold with the fog.  Happily, as we moved away from Norton Sound, bit-by-bit the fog lifted to reveal a bright and sunny morning.

Of all the beautiful sights of Alaska, for some reason this view of Salmon Lake was my favorite.  In fact, this location may have been my favorite of the whole trip.

This Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) pair floated placidly in a small area of open water just out of reach of the ice that covered most of the lake.

Apparently, Salmon Lake with its thickets of alder habitat is the traditional location to find the Bluethroat.  That morning we made, I thought, a somewhat half-hearted attempt to call out the Bluethroat without success.  

Stuck in the back of the van and in a seat on the opposite side of this bird, I dutifully and grumpily handed my camera up to the front row to have this photo snapped.  As the van pulled away from this beautifully perched Wilson's Snipe (Gallinago delicata), the words "oh, check your photo, it looked out-of-focus" made me grit my teeth. Fortunately, the photo is not out-of-focus.

This perched Long-tailed Jaeger (Stercorarius longicaudus) was thrilling to see so close.  This photo could have been so much better. I'll spare readers the story of that disappointment.

We arrived at the location for our Bristle-thighed Curlew search.  From the photo above, the habitat looks inviting and benign.  Prior to the trip, this habitat had been described for me by several veteran birders to Nome.  "Like walking on bowling balls," was the most common phrase. This is an accurate description.  The higher up the hill we hiked the smoother the tundra became, the tussocks less round and rolling. While it's not obvious in this photo, the tundra has scattered alder thickets, some quite large, which are best avoided not only because they are difficult to traverse but also because they can be habitat for sleeping or hiding brown bears.    

Cut to the chase, we did not see the Bristle-thighed Curlew (Numenius tahitiensis).  We drove about a quarter mile down the road from our original search site and the Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) above is the closest we came to seeing a curlew.  This bird was part of a nesting pair that we encroached upon to get it to vocalize, hoping that we would hear the unique sound of Bristle-thighed.  As soon as the Whimbrels vocalized we threw up our hands and abandoned the search for Bristle-thighed Curlew.    

Earlier we saw a very close and beautiful American Golden Plover that we had to view and photograph from behind dirty van windows.  Later while high up on the tundra for our Bristle-thighed Curlew search, this American Golden Plover (Pluvialis dominica) revealed itself and dutifully led the intruders away from its nest.  This was our beautiful consolation prize.

Moving on, we drove up (right turn) a side road of Kougarok Road. This was habitat of tundra and large rock outcroppings and our target birds here were Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) and Rock Ptarmigan.  As it turned out we probably saw both.  In the heavily cropped photo above the Gyrfalcon is perched high up.  We hiked up the tundra to try for a closer look.  About midway up one of the participants called out that he had a ptarmigan near the rocks.  Still distant for us, several had a look at a completely immobile cream-colored object.  No one could figure out what it was.  We left it as being a flower, or something, and continued on up for the gyr.  We arrived where the view was not so distant, but also not so good.  Nevermind, the bird flushed below the rock outcropping and out of sight.         

Hiking back down and with our backs to the rock, a gyrfalcon flew directly overhead.  One of a pair?  It was then that we realized the cream-colored something was gone.  My thought was that our mystery sighting was actually a Rock Ptarmigan which beat a retreat when the gryfalcon became airborne.

The Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) was found in the skree not far from the Gyrfalcon rock outcropping.  Terrible photo but good enough to document my North American sighting.  

Back at our Bluethroat habitat at Salmon Lake this pesky Golden-crowned Sparrow hopped out of the alders and followed us around an opening at the edge of the lake as it searched for seeds and insects, often right at our feet.

What followed at Salmon Lake was the largest disappointment of the day.  Our trip leader successfully called in a Bluethroat which vocalized while flying low from thicket to thicket.  We were told that the bird was not behaving as it should.  Apparently,  Bluethroats display with an aerial flight while vocalizing and then on the way down land on a perch. This bird was not doing that.  It buzzed from bush to bush. No displays, no perching.  Not the sighting I would ever count for such a spectacular bird.  The significance of this missed opportunity did not really come to me until I had time to step away from the situation and put the experience into context to think about what really occurred and how it might have been different.

The Salmon Lake sign - remember it and look for it off Kougarok Road on your birding trip to Nome.           

Back closer to Nome and still in the back of the van, I had to hand my camera forward for this shot of Willow Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus). The state bird of Alaska, we saw it at many locations on the trip - always through some obstacle like dirty van windows.  It is one of the birds for which I really wanted a photo.

Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica) in the mist of
Nome River mouth.

Back to the river mouth Nome was still shrouded in fog.  The fog finally lifted later that evening.

Western Sandpiper (Caladris mauri), Nome River mouth.

This is the quality of photo one gets when shooting through a dirty van window.  We saw Short-eared Owls (Asio flammeus) each day we were in the Nome area.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Nome River mouth and Council Road, Nome

Leaving Denali we returned to Anchorage for our last little bit of birding, to turn in the van and catch an early morning flight to Nome. Our birding stop took us to Kincaid Park where we saw our one and only bull moose of the trip - albeit a young and raggedy one.  We did not, however, find Three-toed Woodpecker as I had hoped we might and nothing was on the pond except fishermen.

We spent the night at the Intercoastal Hotel near the Ted Stevens Airport and the launching point for many birders arriving in or departing Alaska.  Needless to say, our upcoming trip to Nome had everyone on their toes with anticipation. 

The next morning, after the plane was unable to land at Kotzebue airport secondary to fog, we flew on the Nome and arrived slightly earlier than expected.  We checked into the Aurora Hotel on Front Street in the center of town and dropped everything to run back out to the van to start our birding.

It was bright and sunny but unfortunately this day had fierce winds - I don't recall how strong, but they were strong.  A daytime flying Short-eared Owl was over a field just a few minutes drive from the hotel.  On a little pond along the road a pair of Red-throated Loons we staying out of the wind.  We made a stop at the Nome dump for a Slaty-backed Gull that was reported here.  We couldn find it.  Somewhere along here we also saw our first, of many, Long-tailed Jaegers.  

We drove on to Nome River mouth.  But when we got out of the van to scope the water and shoreline the wind was so strong as to distort essentially anything.    

When one of the trip participants spotted the bird in the photo above our scopes were heaving in the wind.  I had no idea what it was, but I knew it was a new bird for me.  Bill took one look and said Red Phalarope. Wow!  I wasn't expecting this.  The single photo above was the best I could get.   

The Red-throated Loon above was on nest on a spit of land in water that is really being roiled by the wind.

There seemed to be several birding research groups around.  We passed one guy who had a team out in the field and who suggested some of the birds we might find.  He described the Lapland Longspur as "two a penny."  And he was right, but to me that's a good thing.  Here's one of a couple of decent photos I got. 

Just as Mew Gull was the most common around Anchorage and other fresh water locations and Black-legged Kittiwake was most common around the southern saltwater bays, Glaucous Gull was the most common in Nome.  The most common waterfowl species is Northern Pintail.

This Long-tailed Duck seemed close enough to the land to sneak up for a decent shot, but the wind 

Finally, a buzzy singing was heard in a thicket of alders.  Arctic Warbler presented itself and sang in the open in the low branches for about 20 - 30 seconds.  I tried for 3 or 4 still shots and the one above, terrible as it is, was the best I could get.  This is an example of where I wished that I had tried for a brief video that would have captured a couple of snipets of song and the bird would have been clear.  

The photo above is of Musk Oxen heard relaxing on a some banks of snow that remain. 

I think the strong wind finally beat us back from birding around 5:00 pm.  We returned to Nome where the winds were as strong as they had been earlier.  We had a happy hour in our rooms and then went to Airport Pizza for dinner.  I ordered a small pizza for around $25.00. Yes, that's the correct price.  Nome is expensive.  Fortunately, the pizza was good.  

After dinner I braved the wind to go out to the pond and field where we had seen the Red-throated Loon pair and the Short-eared Owl in the morning.  I should have known better because the walk away from town was with the wind at my back.  I tried not to think about the walk back. I didn't find the Short-eared Owl but I got the photo above of one of the Red-throated Loons and of the vocalizing Yellow Wagtail below.  A Red-necked Phalarope was not so cooperative. 

I took the photo above and below around 10:00 pm.  The walk back to the hotel was directly into the cold, stiff wind.  Naturally, I had walked out further than I recall and it seemed I would never get back.  Finally, I did, frozen.  

With the sky still blue and the sun still shining we closed the heavy curtains as well as possible and tried to fall asleep.  I awoke at 2:00 am and peeked out of the curtains.  Still not dark.  There was a couple walking hand-in-hand down the road.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Great One

Now enroute to Denali with a pass again by Potter's Marsh outside Anchorage.  Here, along with Tufted Puffin in Kachemak Bay, I took two other favorite photos of the trip.  

Below is a Mew Gull (Larus canus) perched on a rock in the glassy water of Potter's Marsh.

Unfortunately, we created a problem for the Arctic Terns by wandering too close to their egg which they had laid just along the edge of the water, but also along the edge of a parking area.  

When we wandered away from the egg, the Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea) perched on a rock at the water's edge and near its egg.  

Now we are enroute to Denali.  Our overnight stop was at a very nice Best Western motel right on Lake Lucille.  Beautiful!  Nice place to stay.  However, curious that I managed not to get any photos. 

Enroute to Denali, we trolled an unpaved road near the small town of Talkeetna looking unsuccessfully for Spruce Grouse.  Talkeetna is the town where climbers begin their preparation for their Denali ascents. 

Landscapes like the one above with dramatic skies are common.  This is difficult to capture in a photo but that didn't stop me from trying.

I snapped this photo of an American Robin (Turdus migratorius) during a stop at a scenic overlook.  Again, I have new respect for our common American Robin.  I saw American Robin every day of the trip.

This red Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) presented itself at a stop in the village of Old Cantwell.

Red-necked Phalaropes (Phalaropus lobatus) are common and I think we saw them nearly every day.  This bird was swimming near the shore of an inland pond on Hatcher Pass Road.  On this relatively small pond we also saw Surf Scoters.  Seemed to me like an unlikely place for them, but apparently not.  

Denali is as spectacular as it has been described.  But it's huge, remote and untouchable and unknowable.  We spent our entire visit there riding in a green school bus to the Eielson Visitor Center - 66 miles out and 66 miles back.  To be perfectly honest I saw Denali from the window of a school bus.  I'm pretty sure I will not do this again.  

During our brief stop around the Eielson Visitor Center we looked unsuccessfully in the nearby skree for Northern Wheatear.  There were plenty of cute Arctic Ground squirrels (Spermophilus parryii) around.  

The meaning for the word Denali, from the Athabaskan language of the Alaska natives living near the mountain, is 'the Great One'. Apparently, Denali is most commonly shrouded in clouds and mist and actually seeing the mountain is not guaranteed.  Leaving the Eliason Visitor Center the clouds parted momentarily to reveal the peak. As a schoolgirl I learned that our tallest mountain was Mount McKinley.  What I didn't learn is that the name Mt. McKinley is frowned upon by Alaskan natives.  There have been attempts to officially rename Mt. McKinley to Denali. This effort has been blocked by members of congress from Ohio - the home state of President McKinley.  Why am I not surprised by this?

Several fairly large, but distant herds of caribou were seen throughout the day.  These two rested close to the road where this photo was got from the bus window.

The dramatic scenery of Denali National Park and Preserve.