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U.S.A. - ALASKA: Nome / St. Paul

04 - 13 June 2000

by Ron Hoff

One of the few North American nesting birds that my wife, Dollyann Myers, hadn’t seen was the Red-legged Kittiwake. We decided to set up a short trip to include Nome and then on to St. Paul to pick up the kittiwake and several other species that would be difficult or chancy anywhere else. We later added Virginia and Tom Reynolds, Murray Gardler, and Wally Tordoff, to make our group of 6. All the arrangements were made easily from our home and well in advance.

While in Nome we ran across bird tour groups that included VENT, Birdquest, High Lonesome Ecotours, Massachusetts’s Audubon, and several individuals as ourselves. Everybody was willing to share information, making it like a big birding fraternity. The Birdquest guides were especially friendly and helpful. Thanks to Gerald and Mark for that. The snow apparently had just melted off a few days before we got there. The roads were clear, but there was some flooding and the runoff closed sections of the roads for a while, or made it difficult to cross the runoff cuts. The weather in Nome was pleasantly cool, in the high 40’s, and mostly sunny.

June 4

We decided to go to Nome first and arrived about 8:20 a.m. I got a taxi and had it take me to Alaska Cab and Garage to pick up our rental vehicle. They didn’t open until 9, so the cab driver took me over to the breakfast place where the owner was eating. He said he would get hold of somebody to open up and get our vehicle. I went back out to the airport to join the group for some birding while we waited. After a few minutes, they brought our vehicle to the airport. I thought I had reserved a Chevy 4WD Suburban, but what I actually got for $110/week was a 1982 Ford econoline van with high clearance.  I didn’t argue about it. I just wanted something that ran well and would make it through some snow if need be.

We later found out that it was called “old Rosie”, and had been serving birders for many years. It died on us a few times, but always re-started easily. If I had to do it over again, I would use Stampede car rental. They seemed to have newer vehicles. Alaska Cab apparently saved their better vehicles for the repeating tour groups. I can’t blame them for that, but I would have liked to have known that beforehand. We birded a bit at the airport, picking up some common birds as, Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Harlequin Duck, Long-tailed Jaeger, American Widgeon, Oldsquaw, Glaucous Gull, Common Raven, Common Redpoll, and Orange-crowned Warbler.

There are only three roads in and out of Nome (each about 70 miles long), and the scenario is to drive one or more of them each day trying to find new species or chasing rarities. All the roads have mile markers that are used for directions. The visitor center downtown Nome has a running tally of what most people are seeing and where, so you can check in the morning or any time of day and see if something unusual has been spotted and where it’s been seen. It’s very handy and useful.

We decided to go out Council Road first. On the way out of town a couple of birders told us about a short road, just past Nome river bridge on the left, going to a NOAA weather station. We drove up it and found Bar-tailed Godwits and 12 Aleutian Terns. Council road splits the ocean from a body of water called safety sound. The place was alive with birds, but you needed a scope because most of the time the birds were a good ways off.

Nome must be the Northern Pintail capitol of the world. They were everywhere. Long-tailed Jaegers were also very common. Every time we went out Council road, we saw at least 2-4 Northern Hawk Owls and a Short-eared Owl or two. Some of the species we encountered along Council road at Safety Sound were: Black Turnstones, Parasitic and Pomarine Jaegers, Pacific and Red-throated Loons, Tundra Swans, Common and King Eiders, Black and White-winged Scoters, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Red-necked Phalaropes, Greater Scaup, Dunlin and Least sandpipers. Semipalmated Sandpipers and Lapland Longspurs were very common. Both were displaying and singing like I’ve never heard them before. Murray picked out a second year Slaty-backed Gull from all the Glaucous, Mew, and a few Glaucous-winged Gulls.  We drove further out Council road to mile marker 61 or so.

We added Northern Wheatear, a pair of Surfbirds, lots of Grey-cheeked Thrushes singing and displaying, Yellow Wagtail, Orange-crowned and Yellow Warblers, Wandering Tattler, Golden-crowned and White-crowned Sparrows, and a Golden Eagle being mobbed by what looked like a couple of flies but in reality were a pair of Rough-legged hawks!

Two birds that we thought would be hard to find were Rock and Willow Ptarmigans. We saw quite a few of both on this road and got some great close up looks at them. It stays light past midnight, so you tend to lose track of the time. We didn’t get back to Nome for supper until nearly 10 p.m. We stayed at the Ocean View Manor bed and breakfast. We found it to be clean, friendly and convenient for about $75/night. The hotel across the street was in the $135/night range. During the day, we found out that the Kougarok Road was closed to traffic because of flooding. This was not good news, as that is where we hoped to find the Bristle-thighed Curlew.

June 5

We went to Safety Sound bridge early to try to follow up on a report of a Common Greenshank that had been spotted hanging around there. No luck. Although we didn’t walk out to the point at the bridge, we were told of a small colony of Aleutian Terns that were nesting there.

We then headed out the Teller road. There were 2 Musk Oxen close to the road, not far out of Nome. Our objective today was to try to locate some White Wagtails reported from Teller. On the way we found a Northern Shrike on a nest. Others birds seen on the way were: Common and Hoary Redpolls, American Tree and Fox Sparrows, and a distant, flying away Gyrfalcon. We found the Wagtails in Teller near some sled dog pens. We went out to a point on a spit into the bay to have lunch and spotted Pigeon Guillemots, a couple of Horned Puffins flying by, 1 Herring Gull, Oldsquaw, Pelagic Cormorants, and a Rough-legged Hawk.

On the way back we had a flat tire. It was a major pain to change, but eventually we got it changed out. We then ran into a couple of birders from Atlanta who showed us some displaying Bluethroats. American and Pacific Golden Plovers, Black-bellied Plovers, Rusty Blackbird, Northern Harrier, and Wilson’s Warbler were also seen on the way back.

June 6

Council Road again today. We decided to try to go all the way to Council to see if we could get into some boreal forest. We made it to Council, but the forest is on the other side of the town of Council, which is on the other side of a substantial river. There wasn’t any bridge across the river, so we turned around and started back. There were a few small patches of forest before we actually got to the river  at Council. We picked up Varied Thrush, Yellow-rumped and Blackpoll Warblers, but not much else.

On the way back, we found a Wheatear nest under a large rock on the ground at mile marker 46. One of our group members got a fleeting glimpse of another Gyrfalcon in this area. At mile marker 41.5 we saw some more Musk Ox. Right where this road gets back to where it parallels the ocean there is an old mining train left to rust. It’s called the “last train to nowhere”. Perched on the end car was a Say’s Phoebe.

At mile marker 24 there was an exposed mudflat and we had Sanderling, Black Turnstone, Least and Semi-palmated Sandpipers, and Dunlin. The whole time we were in this area we heard reports of a Red-necked Stint, but we never found it. There were tons of Brant Geese in the area and Murray managed to pick out one Emperor Goose. We then checked out Safety Sound bridge again and turned up an adult Thayer’s Gull. There were reports of a Yellow-billed Loon off Nome point by the quarry there. We looked but didn’t find the loon. We did find some Common Murres though. The latest news was that Kougarok Road was still closed by flooding runoff. The Dept. of Transportation there does a good job, but with only 3,000 permanent residents, they are limited by resources and equipment. We were hoping they would have it open by our last morning so we could have a shot at the Curlew. In the meantime, we checked out every Whimbrel we found very closely.

June 7

Council Road early again. We managed to turn up Canvasback, Eurasian Widgeon, and a flyby Sabine’s Gull. We later had an adult Sabine’s sitting on some ice only about 50 yards away. What a beauty!

We chased reported Red-necked Stints and Common Greenshank again but couldn’t locate them. Wally then spotted a pair of gorgeous Yellow-billed Loons fairly close to shore. We got great scope looks at them. We decided to try Kougarok road anyway to see what we could find. On the way there, we stopped by the local landfill to try for a reported adult Slaty-backed Gull, but didn’t find it.

We got as far as mile marker 26, but could go no further. At mile marker 16, there was a Golden Eagle on a nest, and at mile marker 21 we found Bluethroats. We checked the visitor center and saw there was a report of a Mongolian Plover up the Teller road, at mile 17.8. We went out and checked it out, but again couldn’t locate it. It was on the side of a large gravelly hill. Even though we didn’t find the plover, there were loads of alpine flowers blooming. On the way back we drove up on a mother grizzly bear with 2 cubs. They ran away from the road, but we were able to spot them down in the valley and watched them for about 15 minutes. What an exciting experience!

That evening we went back out to Nome point at the quarry to try to track down a reported Arctic loon. We didn’t find the loon, but had a Peregrine Falcon on the cliffs above the quarry.

June 8

This was our last day in the Nome area. We went to Council road again to see what we could find. Every day we went out this road, we usually saw either Pomarine and/or Parasitic Jaegers. There were hundreds of Tundra Swans on the sound side of the road and after much scanning Murray picked out one “Bewick’s” race. We had our best look at King Eider near Safety Sound bridge, along with 4 Common Mergansers, 4 more N. Hawk Owls, another Eurasian Widgeon, and a Thick-billed Murre near the quarry. The birds of the day were found by Wally as he was scanning the ocean. He managed to find 2 Arctic Loons that were in fairly close to shore. We got pretty good looks and were able to see enough plumage differences to separate them from Pacifics.

We then decided to drive back out on the Kougarok road to see if we could add anything else. We found a Rough-legged Hawk nest on a cliff face. Around mile marker 18 or so, we ran across a couple of birders who told us they had heard Arctic Warblers earlier that day there. Wally had a small tape recorder and a tape of the warbler, so he tried it and to our surprise the Warbler answered it and showed itself. This ended the Nome portion of our trip and we flew back to Anchorage in the evening.

June 9

Murray knew of a local park that had reported Three-toed Woodpeckers so we headed out there in the early morning to see if we could find them. We went to Hillside Park and thanks to Wally’s tape, called in the woodpecker and had a great look. Also seen at the park were: Swainson’s Thrush, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-capped Chickadee, American Robin, Black-billed magpie, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and White-winged Crossbills. We then went over to a school near the entrance to the Anchorage Botanical Gardens and went behind it and found a Black-backed Woodpecker at a nest hole.

We were scheduled to fly today to St. Paul in the Pribiloffs, by way of a town called Dillingham. We got to Dillingham fine, but as we landed, an oil line blew and we had to wait there for several hours before Reeve Aleutian Airlines could divert another plane to come and fly us back to Anchorage for the night. While we were waiting we did some birding around the airport and picked up Bald Eagle and boreal Chickadee. As it turned out, the weather on St. Paul was too severe to land the plane anyway. Reeve’s put us up for the night in a hotel near the Anchorage airport and gave us a voucher for a meal.

June 10

Reeve’s managed to get their only jet to Anchorage and they flew us directly out to St. Paul Island, where we landed at 8:30 a.m. St. Paul is a very small island (8 x 14 miles), with about 700 permanent residents. We were met at the airport by the St. Paul Tour Company people in a nice, large van to take us around for some quick birding. Another van took our bags to the King Eider Hotel. The tour people working for St. Paul Tours know all the hot spots on the island and are in radio communication with each other all the time. They normally take people out 3 times a day; in the morning, after lunch, and in the evening. Our first stop took us to a small lake where we saw the island’s main attraction, the Red-legged Kittiwake.

We then went to reef point, not far from the town. There was lots of activity there and we got great, close looks at Least, Parakeet, and Crested Auklets, Northern Fulmar, Red-faced Cormorant, Horned and Tufted Puffins, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Northern Fur Seal, and Harbor Seal. The island is the main breeding area for N. Fur Seals. There were a few “beach masters” in when we were there, but the guides said that later in July, when the females come in and have their pups, there are upwards of  750,000 seals. It’s been estimated that this is one of the largest masses of mammals in the world. Arctic foxes are common and run around town like dogs. There are lots of Lapland Longspurs and Grey-crowned Rosy Finches here.

Others species found today were Snow Buntings, 1 Immature King Eider, Northern Pintail, 1 female Bufflehead, and green-winged Teal.

June 11

Unfortunately for us, the weather was too good to bring in any rarities or vagrants. The wind blows almost constantly here, but you really need somewhat bad weather to have a chance at things like Greenshank or Mongolian Plovers, etc. Before we ate breakfast, we found a Winter Wren near the fish cannery. We drove around the island all day, but only managed to find 1 Green-winged Teal of the Eurasian race. We did finally get Rock Sandpipers up close and got great looks at them. They’re very pretty. There was also one hybrid Snow Bunting that tended towards McKay’s in plumage. We got pretty close to it and it was beautiful.

June 12

We finally picked up a couple of vagrants. There was one Wandering Tattler at south-west point. Later at Antone Lake, we found a male Red Phalarope that our group had seen the night before, while my wife and I stayed back at the hotel to rest up. There were no new species for the rest of the day. We flew back to Anchorage in the afternoon.

Personal Observations:

1 – The King Eider Hotel was fine and clean. They also had a satellite television. I thought the food at the cannery cafeteria was pretty decent, but there is a grocery store across the street from the hotel where you could buy your own food. It was not open on Sunday. There was also a place called the hamburger palace that served deli sandwiches and burgers, but it was only open at certain times.

2 – The St. Paul Tour Company guides were excellent. They were knowledgeable about the island, all the birds and mammals, and the history of the people there.

3 – If I was going to do it again, I think I would go about a week or two earlier. You would probably have a better chance of seeing more vagrants.

4 – The weather was windy (always) and in the 40’s. The wind chill sent it down into the 30’s I’m sure. We layered up and it seemed to work pretty well. I did feel kind of funny walking around in several layers, while some of the local kids were out in tee shirts!

5 – This place is a great opportunity for photography. You can get close to a lot of the birds and it doesn’t seem to bother them much. I took some of the best bird photos of my life (or so I thought), only to find out when I got home that my camera was broken and all I got was 5 rolls of blanks!

6 – Thanks to Murray Gardler, Wally Tordoff, and Virginia & Tom Reynolds for their spotting and company.

Although this trip was a bit pricey, it was well worth it. Go!! St. Paul was a great birding experience. I’ve tried to be accurate in this report, but if there are any errors, they are mine alone and I’d like to hear about them (


The numbers following the bird species are the days of June that we had it, along with some comments.
Red-necked Grebe- 5 Northern Fulmar- 10-12
Red-faced Cormorant- 10-12 Pelagic Cormorant- 4-8
Tundra Swan- 4-8 Emperor Goose- 6 (only one for the trip)
Canada Goose- 4,5 Brant- 4-8
Eurasian Widgeon- 7,8 American Widgeon- 4-8
Green-winged Teal- 4-8,10,11 Mallard- 6-8
Northern Pintail- 4-8, 10-12 (thousands) Blue-winged teal- 6 (one bird only)
Northern Shoveler- 4-6 Canvasback- 7 
Greater Scaup- 4-8 Common Eider- 4-8
King Eider- 4,6-8,10,12 Harlequin Duck- 4-8, 10-12
Oldsquaw- 4-8, 10-12 Black Scoter- 4-8
White-winged Scoter- 4,7,8 Bufflehead- 10,11
Red-breasted Merganser- 4-8 Common Merganser- 8
Bald eagle- 9 Northern Harrier- 5,6,8
Rough-legged Hawk- 4, 6-8 Golden Eagle- 4,8
Gyrfalcon- 5,6 (by others) Peregrine Falcon- 7,8
Willow Ptarmigan- 4-8 Rock Ptarmigan- 4-7
Sandhill Crane- 4-8 Common Snipe- 4-8
Bar-tailed Godwit- 4-8 Whimbrel- 5-8
Lesser Yellowlegs- 5 Wandering Tattler- 4,5,8,12
Ruddy Turnstone- 4-6,12 Black Turnstone- 4-8
Long-billed Dowitcher- 4-8 Surfbird- 4
Red Knot- 4,6 Sanderling- 6-8
Semipalmated Sandpiper- 4-8 Western Sandpiper- 4-8
Least Sandpiper- 4,10 Rock Sandpiper- 10-12
Dunlin- 4-8 Red-necked Phalarope- 4-8, 10-12
Red Phalarope- 12 Pacific Golden Plover- 5
American Golden Plover- 4-7 Black-bellied Plover- 4,5
Semipalmated Plover- 4-10 Mew Gull- 4-8
Glaucous-winged Gull- 4,5,7,12 Glaucous Gull- 4-9
Thayer's Gull- 6 Herring Gull- 5,7
Slaty-backed Gull- 4 Bonaparte's Gull- 4-6
Sabine's Gull- 7 Black-legged Kittiwake- 4-8, 10-12
Red-legged Kittiwake- 10-12 Arctic Tern- 4-8
Aleutian Tern- 4,6,8 Pomarine Jaeger- 4,7,8
Parasitic Jaeger- 4-8 Long-tailed Jaeger- 4-8 (very common)
Common Murre- 6-8, 10-12 Thick-billed Murre- 8, 10-12
Pigeon Guillemot- 5,6 Parakeet Auklet- 10-12
Crested Auklet- 10-12 Least Auklet- 10-12
Horned Puffin- 5, 10-12 Tufted Puffin- 10-12
Red-throated Loon- 4-8 (fairly common) Arctic Loon- 8 (one pair only)
Pacific Loon- 4-8 (fairly common) Yellow-billed Loon- 7 (one pair only)
Rock Dove- 9 Northern Hawk Owl- 4-8
Short-eared Owl- 4-8 Three-toed Woodpecker- 9
Black-backed Woodpecker- 9 Alder Flycatcher- 9
Say's Phoebe- 6 Black-billed Magpie- 9
Common Raven- 4-9 Northern Shrike- 5,7
Varied Thrush- 6-9 Gray-cheeked Thrush- 4,5,7
Swainson's Thrush- 9 American Robin- 4-9
Bluethroat- 5,7,8 Northern Wheatear- 4,6
Red-breasted Nuthatch- 9 (heard only) Tree Swallow- 4,5
Bank Swallow- 5-7,10 Ruby-crowned Kinglet- 9 (by others)
Arctic Warbler- 8 Boreal Chickadee- 9
Horned Lark- 7 White Wagtail- 5
Yellow Wagtail- 4-8 American Pipit- 4
Hoary Redpoll- 5,8 Common Redpoll- 4-9
Gray-crowned Rosy Finch- 10-12 White-winged Crossbill- 9 (by others)
Orange-crowned Warbler- 5,6,8,9 Yellow Warbler- 4,5,7,9
Yellow-rumped Warbler- 6,9 Blackpoll Warbler- 6
Northern Waterthrush- 4-8 Wilson's Warbler- 5,6
Lapland Longspur- 4-7, 10-12 Snow Bunting- 10-12
Fox Sparrow- 4,5,6,8 White-crowned Sparrow- 4,5,8,9
Golden-crowned Sparrow- 4,5,7,8 Dark-eyed Junco- 9 (heard only)
Savannah Sparrow- 4-8 American Tree Sparrow- 4-8
Rusty Blackbird- 5 -

Ron Hoff

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