Birding Near Nome Alaska
Photos & Story by Stan Watson
When spring comes to Nome, I get to pursue my favorite hobby of photography by taking pictures of local wildlife. Birds are the easiest to find because they’re everywhere, arriving on their annual migration north. Alaska’s Seward Peninsula is just a stopover for some but a summer home for others.
If you drive on any of the three roads leading out of Nome, you will likely see Willow Ptarmigans. The males are very visible and often amusing as they strut around trying to attract females. They show up as bright white spots on the tundra or on the side of the road since their pure white winter plumage is only partially replaced by mostly brown summer plumage.
The female Willow Ptarmigan is much harder to spot. In late May and early June, I drove many miles on area roads looking for this elusive bird. When I found one, she didn’t fly away but no matter where I moved, she managed to keep the willow bush between us, her cryptic coloring making her almost invisible.
If you look hard enough, you can see other birds in the tundra alongside the road. They may show up as odd-colored specks at a distance, or you may notice a small movement out of the corner of your eye.
One of the birds that I am most excited to spot is the Sandhill Crane. These are large birds with loud bugling calls that can be heard for long distances. They’re not uncommon; the problem is that while you can hear them, you often can’t see them. If they are flying they’re usually a long way off. On the ground their coloration causes them to blend into the background, and since they are very shy and easily spooked, they usually see you first, and your view consists of their tail ends as they fly away. A rare near sighting is a real thrill!
Nome is on the shore of the Bering Sea; inland, the tundra is spotted by lakes affording rich breeding grounds for a number of birds.
Loons are beautiful birds that most people never get to see. I have lived many years in Alaska, but before coming to Nome I had seen them only a couple of times. Around Nome the Red-throated Loon is very common, so that after a while when I see one I think to myself, “Oh, just another Red-throated Loon”, hoping it might be the less common Pacific Loon or the Common Loon.
There are quite a few different shorebirds around Nome. They’re not always easy to spot, and some of them can be very difficult to identify, but I think that might be part of their fascination—they force me to improve my observation and identification skills.
The smaller birds that live in and around Nome are easy to overlook. These include sparrows, warblers, buntings, chickadees, swallows, wagtails, redpolls and others. Some are common and easy to see, but others because of their small size, habitat, and secretive nature are harder to see and photograph. There are also birds of prey such as eagles, hawks, owls and jaegers.
The robin is very familiar to all Americans, but newcomers express surprise at seeing them so far north, while in fact they can be seen all over Alaska except the on North Slope. My wife just felt that the wild tundra was no place for such a domestic bird.
The Lapland Longspur (L) and Eastern Yellow Wagtail (R) are synonymous with the arctic. I am always happy to see the sparrow-like Lapland Longspur. The male has an interesting display that is always fun to watch. He flies quickly to a height of fifty feet or so, and then glides gently, without moving a muscle, all the way to the ground. He also has a beautiful song which is an unexpected treat on the tundra.
The Yellow Wagtail is an Asian bird that breeds in northern and western alaska.
Of course there is other wildlife. One morning as I was driving along the coast near Safety Sound I was rewarded with a rare and wonderful sight. A cow moose had just given birth to twin calves. I watched her and the calves through binoculars and telephoto lens for about half an hour. The mother licked and nudged one still-wet calf up on very wobbly legs where it took a few steps and managed to nurse a while before lying back down. The other calf never got up and all I could see was its ears. Two and a half hours later, on my way back, they were still there.This time both calves were up, walking around much more confidently and nursing, sometimes both at once.
This experience was especially gratifying to me because once before I had seen newborn moose calves. About 41 years ago I was in a boat on the Deshka River north of Anchorage, when I saw a cow moose with newborn calves, just a few feet away on the riverbank. I grabbed my camera and took pictures but—as I found out later—the camera shutter malfunctioned and all of my pictures were very badly overexposed; my moose pictures were a few faint lines on a background of white. I was devastated. But now, four decades later, I finally have my pictures of newborn moose calves.
On the Seward Peninsula, the last of the original population of muskoxen died out in the 1800’s. From seventy-one animals that were reintroduced in the 1970’s and 1980’s the population has grown to over 2000. They are easy to spot in the Nome area; the picture of two of them butting heads was taken a mile or so west of the Nome high school on the Teller Road. The herd in the other photo was browsing on the southern slope of Anvil Mountain.
Muskoxen look like what they are—relics of the Ice Age, when they followed the receding glaciers north. They have long, wooly coats that look and move like ladies skirts. At this time of year, late May, they are still handsome in their winter coats. Pretty soon they start shedding all that winter insulation, and get to looking pretty ragged.
The main feeling I get when watching muskoxen is a sense that they are completely comfortable with where they are. Most other wild animals I have seen, even large ones, seem nervous at least some of the time. Not muskox. Once, while out driving, I turned a corner and came up to a cow with a young calf. She didn’t run; she just turned and walked purposefully away with the calf scurrying after her. Even the two adults (males?) butting heads was not dramatic. It seemed almost gentlemanly, more like a greeting than a confrontation. Or perhaps it was a spring practice for the more serious fall conflicts.
These pictures were all taken this spring during a three week period in late May and early June. This is a special time on the Seward Peninsula. Much of the winter ice and snow is gone, and the rest is melting fast. The migrating birds are returning as soon as the landscape is exposed and open water becomes available on the ocean, lakes and rivers. The landscape turns green practically overnight. And I just have to get out and see what is going on.