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.

No comments: