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May 19 - June 5 2004

by Mike Mulligan

I always look forward to returning to Alaska, but I'm not really sure why.  Certainly not because of wonderful offshore weather, or five-star hotels, or a big bird list (I've yet to hit 250 for the state).  But something attracts me.  Part of it has to do with the community of Gambell---its geography, its inhabitants, their way of life close to subsistence living.  And Nome also, with (this year) musk oxen grazing on the edge of town.  Nome is an anomaly, a rough-and-ready seaport without a harbor, an artificial town created by gold fever.  Alaska is an exciting mix of can-do and potential, of Natives and residents and Outsiders, of fishing and mining and petroleum.  It's an visceral experience.

And, of course, I go for the birds.

We are eight excited birders: Audrey Evers (Minnesota) has been to Costa Rica and Panama with me.  I first met Jay Grover (California) when I co-led a Sierra Club birding tour several years ago in Arizona.  Frank Sturges (California) and I spent some time in Kenya and Tanzania.  He brought along his friend Mary Lou Early.  Chris and Ken Havard are Calgary birding chums.  And Kim Risen (Wild Horizons, Minnesota), organizer and guide, put it all together.  Kim and I have shared birding experiences in Alaska, Costa Rica, Mexico, Ecuador, South Africa and other neat locations.

Here is a brief story of our time together.  (Please note that birds are usually mentioned only the first time they are seen.)

May 19, 20 

I fly from Anchorage to St.  aul Island (Pribilofs) to get in a couple extra days of birding.  I'm lucky to see several species (Tufted Duck, Common Snipe, Snowy Owl) which were not found later by others.

May 21 

Mary Lou and Frank, Chris and Ken and Kim arrive late afternoon and settle in at the comfortable and elderly King Eider Hotel.  I'd met our resident guides, Gavin Bieber and Rick Knight, here a couple years ago; they immediately show us some terrific birds.  At Weather Bureau Lake near the airstrip we watch both Black-legged and Red-legged Kittiwakes and study how to separate them.  The sea cliffs provide wonderful close-up views of Parakeet, Least, Crested and Rhinoceros Auklets, both Tufted and Horned Puffins and Northern Fulmar.  Several Red-faced Cormorants perch nearby.  Pumphouse Lake and Antone Marsh provide both races of Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, Harlequin Duck, Common Greenshank, a couple Wood Sandpipers, Least and Rock Sandpipers, Red-necked Phalarope and Glaucous-winged Gull.  We break for dinner at the Trident Fish Plant "Gallery" and head out again, finally quitting about 9:30pm.  Other birds seen today: Short-eared Owl, Lapland Longspur, Snow Bunting and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch.

May 22 

Buckets of rain do not deter this group.  We check Northeast Point, Big Lake, Webster Lake and Salt Lagoon.  After lunch in heavy-duty wind and downpour we visit Reef Point, Dump Lake, and the crab pots.  We're joined by Tim Leahy, an old friend of Kim's and mine, and new friends Judy Scheig and Kent Nelson.  We add Red-necked Grebe, Northern Shoveler, Eurasian Wigeon, Greater Scaup, King Eider, Long-tailed Duck, Bufflehead, Bald Eagle, Pacific Golden-Plover, a trio of Wandering Tattlers, Bar-tailed Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone, Dunlin and a stunning female Red Phalarope.  Seabirds include Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot and Ancient Murrelet.  And we're delighted to find one male McKay's Bunting.

May 23 

Polovina Hill, Webster Lake, Reef Overlook, Southwest Point, Blubber Dump, Antone Marsh, Weather Bureau Lake.  The landmarks are becoming familiar.  Better weather today, but not good enough for our plane to land.  It's one more night at the King Eider.  We do find Long-tailed Jaeger and Thick-billed Murre---and finally spot one of the local outsized Winter Wrens (a possible future split).

May 24 

Back to Anchorage, meet up with Audrey and Jay, overnight at the Puffin Inn near the airport.

May 25 

Fly to Nome, with a stop at Kotzebue just above the Arctic Circle.  Kim collects our rental van, we drop our stuff at the Aurora Inn and head east along the coast to Safety Lagoon.  It's cool here, about 10C/50F, but no rain---nice.  Lots of new birds: Red-throated and Pacific Loons, Pelagic Cormorant, Tundra Swan, Brant, Canada Goose, American Wigeon, Common Eider, Black Scoter, Red-breasted Merganser, Northern Harrier, Peregrine Falcon, Sandhill Crane, American Golden-Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Whimbrel, an estimated 60 Bar-tailed Godwits, Black Turnstone; Semipalmated, Western and Pectoral Sandpipers, Red-necked Stint, Long-billed Dowitcher, Parasitic Jaeger; Mew, Glaucous and Sabine's Gulls, Arctic Tern, Horned Lark, Common Raven, American Robin, many Yellow Wagtails, Wilson's Warbler; American Tree, Fox and White-crowned Sparrows and Common Redpoll.

May 26 

In the morning we check part of Kougarok Road plus the sewage lagoon and waterfront dock area.  Lunch at Fat Freddie's (a Nome tradition), then back to Safety Lagoon with a stop at the Nome River bridge.  Noted are Canvasback, Redhead, Common Merganser, Rough-legged Hawk, Golden Eagle, Gyrfalcon, Willow and Rock Ptarmigan, Red Knot, Wilson's Snipe, Pomarine Jaeger, our only Aleutian Terns, Orange-crowned Warbler, Savannah and Golden-crowned Sparrows and a bright Hoary Redpoll.  We also spot moose, caribou, arctic fox, musk ox and harbor seal.

May 27 

The Polar Café feeds us a fine breakfast.  Then Cape Smythe Air wings us to the Native village of Gambell on the western tip of St.  Lawrence Island.  On approach we enjoy a terrific view of the Siberian cliffs.  We manage to get settled in Joni and Eddie Ungott's house, along with a bunch of Ungotts.  Kim prepares a tasty lunch and we tour the near boneyard, the boatyard and seawatch.  After supper it's the far boneyard and cliff face.  We quit shortly after 10pm.  It's easy to get carried away here as good light persists well past midnight.  New: "vegae" Herring Gull, Slaty-backed Gull, Northern Wheatear, White Wagtail, American Pipit (japonicus race).  I sleep surprisingly well on the living room couch.

May 28 

In the morning we repeat yesterday's route.  After lunch and a nap we catch rides on ATVs to the south end of Troutman Lake and bird the wetlands and sloughs.  We pick up Steller's Eider, Common Ringed Plover, another Wood Sandpiper (a Gambell first for me), and Jay finds us a Townsend 's Warbler in the old village.  We also see minke and gray whales plus collared lemmings in the boneyards.

May 29 

On our way to the near boneyard we stop at the airport ponds and admire a Red-necked Stint---a much better view than we had at Safety Sound several days ago.  We make the usual rounds and climb the rocks a bit at the cliff face.  Tens of thousands of nesting alcids race off the cliff rocks in search of food.  An occasional Black Guillemot bobs in the sea nearby.  Seawatch provides a never-ending spectacle of passing loons, murres, puffins, sea ducks.  In the boatyard several Red-throated Pipits pose for us and we're able to recognize their call notes.  A reported Pechora Pipit is never found.  At chez Ungott Kim continues to create excellent cuisine in unusual conditions.

May 30 

This is not Costa Rica---no worries about hundred-species days.  Learning to ID the ten resident alcids is challenge enough.  At seawatch Audrey picks out an Arctic Loon.  Ken finds a Dovekie.  White-winged Scoters cruise by.  We all examine a Black-backed Wagtail at the airstrip pond.  Many birds seen here we noted at St.  Paul: Northern Fulmar, "crecca" Green-winged Teal, King Eider, Harlequin and Long-tailed Ducks, Wandering Tattler, Rock Sandpiper, Dunlin, Red-necked Phalarope, Long-tailed Jaeger, Black-legged Kittiwake, Lapland Longspur, Snow Bunting.

May 31 

Seawatch really pays off this morning.  Two Arctic Loons wing by (one nicely close), a Yellow-billed Loon gives us excellent views, a single Emperor Goose, a half dozen Steller's Eiders (great looks), Red Phalarope, and a Dovekie for all.  And we score a female Brambling near the boatyard.  Then it's time to pack up and fly back to Nome with our friendly Cape Smythe crew.  After dinner we drive to the Solomon Bridge for a Ruff search.  Lots of shorebirds on the tidal flats there, but no target bird.  We do find several Short-eared Owls on the way.

June 1 

Early we're up Kougarok Road to the famed Bristle-thighed Curlew nesting site, almost 80 miles north of Nome.  Two years ago the gravel roadbed was impassable, but today we make it.  Sighting many ptarmigan (both species) along the way livens the drive, and we also find Gray-cheeked Thrush and Northern Waterthrush.  Frank spots a Cliff Swallow.  The hike up through the tussocks is difficult, slow work---it's easy to lose your balance on this slope.  A bright sun warms us, and we're rewarded with a distant view and sounds of the calling rare curlew.  Our field lunch back on the road is well-earned.  Along the return drive we watch a singing male Bluethroat.  Lovely!  Following dinner a final trip to Solomon Bridge yields Surf Scoter, Sanderling and Tree Swallow.

June 2 

We sleep in just a bit, breakfast late at the Polar Café, and head for Anvil Mountain.  At this unusual rock formation just outside town we walk up on a group of musk oxen, as close as I've ever approached them.  They appear to be more designed for the Ice Age than for a mild morning in Nome.  We've time to check the Penny River on Teller Road before returning to pack and transfer to the air terminal.  Spotted are Yellow Warbler, Mallard, Greater Yellowlegs and Violet-green Swallow.  In Anchorage we pick up our rental vehicles, drive to Seward and overnight at the waterfront Breeze Inn Motel.  Also seen: Black-billed Magpie, Black-capped Chickadee, Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warblers.

June 3 

Steller's Jay, Northwestern Crow, Hermit and Varied Thrushes, Song and Lincoln's Sparrows are found during our morning walk.  We board our boat for the Kenai Fjords National Park trip.  Mountain goat, black bear, orca, Steller sea lion, minke and hump-backed whales, sea otter, Dall's porpoise are all seen.  We visit Holgate Glacier and feast on a salmon dinner at a private island.  New "boat" birds are Double-crested Cormorant and target species Marbled Murrelet, plus up-close views of Red-faced Cormorants on nesting cliffs.  We add Barrow's Goldeneye somewhere.

June 4 

Kim leads us along a nearby road where we spot Rufous Hummingbird, Gray Jay, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, both kinglets and Pine Siskin.  At a seaside marsh we find Red-winged Blackbird and an unusual Swamp Sparrow.  It's time to head for Anchorage.  We visit the east side of Resurrection Bay and the Exit Glacier unit of Kenai Fjords NP.  A stop along the highway gives us Common Loon and Trumpeter Swan.  We enjoy a longish final dinner at the Millennium Hotel.

June 5 

It's fly-home day, but some of us have time to bird Hillside Park on the outskirts of Anchorage.  Trip birds added are Northern Flicker, Swainson's Thrush, Dark-eyed Junco and White-winged Crossbill. 

Mike Mulligan

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