Perhaps our most anticipated destination of the year, Nome is over 500 miles WNW of Anchorage, on the south side of the Seward Peninsula, along Norton Sound, which opens to the Bering Sea. Like the rest of the western half of Alaska, it cannot be reached by road, but uniquely among arctic destinations in North America, it does have a significant road system that can be explored by rental car once there. The three longest roads total 230 miles and sample a wide range of arctic habitats, including open sea, beaches, estuaries, braided rivers, fast-flowing streams with riparian willows, coastal moist tundra, alpine dry tundra, and cliffs often good for nesting raptors. Daily flights from Anchorage to Nome are only about $250, and a room plus rental car might run about $400 per day – overall, fairly inexpensive by arctic standards.
Our two principal targets while based in Nome were Bristle-thighed Curlew and Muskox. The curlew, having an estimated total population of only 7000 birds, breeds in just two places, on the Seward Peninsula, and slightly farther south, along the lower Yukon River. The Nome road system barely reaches their breeding grounds, providing the only practical access to them anywhere in the world. Bristle-thighed Curlews winter on Pacific islands, flying non-stop to the northwestern Hawaiian Islands or beyond.
Muskox formerly occurred fairly widely in both hemispheres, near the edges of ice sheets during glacial periods, and in the high arctic during interglacial periods. But they had become extinct in the Old World by around 2000 years ago, probably due to climatic change. In the New World, they disappeared from Alaska and the Yukon a century or more ago, probably at least in part from hunting, leaving the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and Greenland as the last strongholds of the species.
But in what must rank as one of the greatest animal reintroduction efforts in history, 34 Muskox secured in Greenland by Norwegians in 1930 were brought to Nunivak Island, AK, by way of: ship to Norway; another ship to New York; train to Seattle; ship to Seward, AK; train to Fairbanks, AK; steamship down the Yukon River to the coast; and finally, barge to Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea (the barge nearly sinking in a bad storm at sea)! The animals did so well that they have been used as the primary source of reintroductions elsewhere in Alaska, Canada, and even Russia.
Our flight to Nome was on June 10, with return on June 16. Our outbound flight tried twice to land in the fog but could not, so we returned to Anchorage and eventually made it on the evening flight, arriving about 8 hours late. We checked in, got our rental car, bought groceries, and got to sleep at a reasonable hour, in preparation for an early start the next day. We headed out around 5 a.m. to drive up the Kougarok Road, which goes 85 miles north into the heart of the Seward Peninsula, ending at the Kougarok River. To get as early an attempt for the Bristle-thighed Curlew as possible, we resolved to drive straight to the best location, at Mile 72.4, stopping only for any Muskox.
We were thrilled when we reached the high point of the road (elevation around 1000 feet), at Mile 51, and spotted a herd of Muskox about 100 yards off! The herd included some adorable calves, and some animals had nice pelage, though the majority were moulting and shedding their fine inner coat of qiviut, among the softest and most expensive natural fibers in the world. We found a second herd of Muskox at Mile 59.5, which crossed the road and then waded through water about two feet deep, foraging on willows. We were able to hear these animals giving grunting calls as they foraged on willows at close range!
To look for the curlews at Mile 72.4, we took a wet and muddy trail, marked by a wooden stake and rock cairn, to the west. After 0.4 miles, the trail degenerated, and we took a GPS waypoint to relocate it in the way down. We continued another 0.2 miles west, cross-country over the tundra, placing us on the northern aspect of a very flat-topped dome (latitude 65.28493, longitude -164.81023). Based on past records, this is a prime area for finding the curlews. Because they fly such long distances during their courtship flights, the best approach is probably to sit in one place and listen for birds giving their distinctive vocalizations, which immediately distinguish them from Whimbrel, a similar species that also nests here. We soon detected at least three birds in the area, Eileen spotting a bird on the ground while simultaneously I watched two birds flying and vocalizing! We got excellent looks at the bird on the ground, saw the birds pretty well in flight, and heard them beautifully many times!
We spent most of the rest of the day driving to the end of the road and botanizing in dry tundra, where we found 11 new species, two of which were in new genera. With a life bird on its North American breeding grounds, a charismatic life mammal, all the new plants, and beautiful scenery, this will surely rank as our finest day of field work this year!
On our second day, we explored areas closer to Nome, including Anvil Mountain and the Nome River Mouth. We found additional herds of Muskox just NW of Nome and on Anvil Mountain, the stony summit of the latter also being quite good for wildflowers. Bird photography opportunities were excellent, with one caveat – the temperatures were so high (going into the low 80s) that heat distortion was rampant, largely precluding photography except at rather short distances. This was a problem the whole time we were in the Nome area. The Nome River mouth had a handsome male Bar-tailed Godwit, a primarily Eurasian species which has a fairly limited breeding distribution in Alaska. There was also a nice colony of ethereal Aleutian Terns north of the bridge over the Nome River.
The following day we drove the length of the 72-mile Teller Road, which goes NW to the native village of Teller, on the coast. Here we heard our first Arctic Warblers. This primarily Old World species arrives much later than most breeding songbirds, typically not showing up in any numbers until around June 10. They were singing many places by the time we left. We had Harlequin Ducks and Wandering Tattlers in fast-moving rivers, and found two Muskox herds towards the end of the road. The side road to Woolly Lagoon, near Mile 40, had lots of Long-tailed Jaegers and Pacific Golden-Plovers (providing a nice comparison with American Golden Plovers we saw at higher elevations on the Kougarok Road). The Mile 40 area was also very good for native plants, and we found scat there that we were fairly certain belonged to Alaskan Hare, a species we dearly hoped to see, but all the animals we saw on the Seward Peninsula were smaller Snowshoe Hares.
June 14 was our 33rd wedding anniversary, and we spent it driving the length of the Council Road, promising ourselves a nice dinner out when we got back to Anchorage (and it was an excellent dinner indeed!). The Council Road goes NE for 73 miles, of which the first 32 miles are along or very close to the coast, and then high country is encountered, topping out at Mile 54 at 1300 feet elevation. A Short-tailed Shearwater at the Nome River mouth was a nice surprise, and we were thrilled when east of Safety Sound to see a couple of Emperor Geese, a species we last observed 30 years ago. It was also exciting to find an occupied Rough-legged Hawk nest at Mile 48. A Muskox herd in the high country was our seventh and final herd, with a grand total of 145 individuals, or about twenty animals per herd on average.
Our remaining time was spent revisiting the Kougarok Road, where we added a number of plants to our list by sampling lower elevation areas. We were also pleased to photograph both Willow and Rock Ptarmigan, which are species of grouse that turn white in the winter to blend in with the snow. Thanks to a tip from a local birding tour leader, we finally connected with Bluethroat, a spectacular Old World thrush, with a limited North American breeding range from the Seward Peninsula along the coast to northern Yukon.
Like most of the other fundamentally Asian birds that have colonized Alaska across the Bering Strait, in fall migration, Bluethroats first follow the path of colonization back to Asia, and then migrate normally to the Old World wintering grounds, so they are rarely seen farther south in North America. Other species following this pattern include Arctic Loon, Bar-tailed Godwit, Red-necked Stint, Northern Wheatear, White Wagtail, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, and Arctic Warbler. In this group, migration essentially recapitulates colonization.
We were truly sad to leave Nome – there really is nowhere else quite like it – but we took with us memories of majestic Muskox and perpetual light.