Alaska '98 Trip. Week 3. Glenallen, AK to Anchorage, to Nome

Hi all. Here's Week 3. We're on top of the world. Well not quite, but we're getting lots of daylight.

Week 3 Day 1. Friday June 5. 15th day. Day trip from our camp at Tolsona Wilderness RV Park near Glenallen, Alaska into the surrounding mountain roads searching for a Great Gray Owl, plus Black-backed and Northern Three-toed Woodpeckers.

Up and out about 630am. Uniform gray skies, light sprinkles, they soon stop. We drive the entrance road out to the Glenn Highway, head back east.

In a couple of minutes, we notice a light-colored bird with long wings, gliding back and forth across the wide swath of the highway. He looks a little like a Northern Harrier, with those long wings, but he is flapping his wings in an awkward manner, and besides his colors are light tan and medium brown. Back and forth, back and forth. He can see for moles and moles. As we approach, he crosses to our left and lands in a tree. We quickly pull off and get him in our binoculars. It's an owl. But which one? "It's a Short-Eared Owl," I say, about 80% sure at that point. We look him up in our National Geographic and Stokes books. He looks a bit darker in these books than the one we are - were, looking at, as he has flown off. Also we didn't notice whether our bird had the Short-ear's black eye rings. Sharon argues for a possible Snowy Owl, but our owl has a definite dark ring outlining his face. No Snowy. Not a barn owl - they're not this far north. We drive back and repeat our original path, find him again, but he won't land. We go forward about a half-mile, and there he is again. But he disappears into the woods for the last time. His behavior finally convinces Sharon. We agree on SHORT-EARED OWL*, even with the lighter colors.

Sharon's birding contact last night by phone told us that there have been a couple of Great Gray Owls around the Gulkana (near Glenallen) airport over the past few months. We take a perimeter road, and see another long-winged bird patrolling the airport runway and environs. "Short-eared Owl," I yell, "Another one!" After studying further, this owl turns out to be a male Northern Harrier.

We see a couple of Canadian Geese standing next to the runway. We noticed this down in B.C. too. They must enjoy watching the planes take off, wondering where they're migrating to.

Sharon reads the Milepost and learns that we are going to cross under the pipeline [was actually over]. I hadn't realized it was this close. We arrive at our gravel to-the-woodpecker-site road, and within a mile or two, we cross over the buried pipeline. We can see it in the distance, above ground there, dropping down a steep mountainside. Impressive. The Alaska Pipeline. We stop when we are exactly over, take a video, and make some proclamation, but I don't remember now what it was. Maybe the Sierra Pipeline (pee-puh-LEE-nee) joke. The wind has picked up significantly.

We're on the gravel Klutina (kloo-TEE-nuh) River Road, up on a ridge paralleling the river, about 2000 feet below. Seems straight down, but it really isn't. Just almost. We soon hear, then see the GOLD-CROWNED SPARROW, which we get in our San Jose back yard in the winter. But his gold stripe down the crown of his head is wider and much brighter than our birds. His "Oh Poor Me," plaintive notes are easily recognizable however.

About seven miles up the road, Sharon finds a tree with three woodpecker holes. We wait around to see if there is any movement, there isn't. Except for two guys driving by in a pickup, with a dog running beside them. I hope the dog requested this exercise.

We drive on, find a much better hole. We wait here forty minutes. No activity. Except for three guys in camouflage outfits in a camper-shell pickup who pulled even with us, traveling the same direction as the exercising dog. They ask us, "Did you all see a moose just pass through?" "No, but we just got here. Why?" we ask of them. "We just saw a baby moose go over the cliff. We saw her tracks and her mother's and a wolf. So we are afraid that the wolf got the mother, and orphaned the baby." I can't help thinking about the 2000 foot drop [Looking at the videos, it is probably about 500-600 feet], although not exactly straight down. "So was it killed by going over the cliff?" I ask. "No, it just walked over," they say, not sharing my fears. I defer to their relaxed attitude and decide the baby moose is probably ok. Must have known some trail down.

After they leave, we remember the dog running, and figure that they saw those tracks, not those of a wolf. Birding is interesting.

We drive on, and come to a huge clearing. We see a robin flying. "Robin," I offer, looking with the naked eye. Sharon puts her binoculars on the couple of robins chasing each other. "Robin chasing a Varied Thrush," she says. I look again, and she's right, as usual. Dohp.

I watch a bird fighting the wind to land in the top of a tall tree. He lands, and I put the scope on him. He's holding on for dear life, and I ask Sharon to look. A MERLIN, I say, and Sharon agrees. He's getting his exercise in today, with the big wind. We see a Townsend's Solitaire and Gray Jay while we're waiting.

But no woodpeckers. We turn around, and head back. We see a couple of soaring birds along the ridge - Bald Eagle, Harlan's Red-tailed Hawk.

Along the way we see tiny birch or aspen trees, the smallest 1/2 or 3/4 inch in diameter. Something has chewed the bark off starting about two feet higher than the ground, but only up to about two feet above that. The bark is intact higher than that. We can't figure it out. Elk, moose, deer? Later when we get back to our camp, Mary Ann (desk clerk and owner, with her husband) tells us that in some years, when the snow is on the ground and food is not plentiful, the rabbits don't have enough to eat, so they eat the bark off, as we saw. They eat up as high as they can nibble, but of course are standing on the snow. Another mystery solved. They don't eat below the snowline.

On the way home, we see a counseling center called "Insight Passages." Pretty clever.

Since a few days after we left San Jose, Sharon has been asking what is hitting the bottom of the pickup as we travel, and where the objects are coming from. Her picture is of our pickup falling apart. I finally realize what they are. When we travel on gravel, little rocks get stuck into the deep treads of our Goodyear Trackers on our Chevy Silverado pickup. They are stuck in different "tightness" ranges.

When we drive from a gravel road to a paved road, and I accelerate, first the looser rocks are thrown out of the tires, hitting the pavement and bouncing up hitting the truck bottom. Then the thirty-mile-an-hour rocks fly out, hitting the bottom of the truck. There are more rocks at each forty, forty-five, fifty and fifty-five mile-an-hour plateau, as I accelerate to the next level. Each new speed throws out tighter pebbles. Then when we pull over, there are STILL some rocks stuck in the tire treads. The persistence of these hanging-on rocks reminds me of Sharon scouring the woods for a lonesome bird, when we're not sure if there's any bird present. Back in the campsight, we follow the song of, and finally identify the two-trees-rubbing-together bird. Not a lifer, as we've had him before.

We pay Mary Ann for another night, since it's late, there's good birds around, and it's our favorite camp so far. Also, they let me use their extra phone line for tying in to AOL. Mary Ann finally puts a source to the piles of oval droppings we've been seeing - moose.

Sharon wants to take a shower. It's five minutes for a quarter. She can't decide if one quarter is enough, and decides to go with one. She soaps, scrubs, rinses, shampoos, rinses, and says, "OK, I'll use all the remaining time just to luxuriate in the shower." But the water stops between 'show' and 'er.' Way to hustle, Sharon.

Day's Best Birds: Short-eared Owl*

Life birds: 1 today (Short-eared Owl), 13 total

Trip birds: 3 today (Short-eared Owl, Gold-crowned Sparrow and Merlin), 113 total.

Tolsona Wilderness Campground. Rating A.


Week 3 Day 2. Saturday June 6, 1998. 16th day. Tolsana Wilderness Campground near Glenallen, Alaska to Anchorage RV Park in northeast Anchorage.

Sleep in till 745. Feels great. Head out of camp, see flicker in his nest hole, stop, get out camera, flicker back-down-in-the-hole. Drove by Atlasta House, a rambling, home-made house so-named by its owners, having rented all their lives.

You have to get the picture of Sharon, riding shotgun, The Milepost open on her lap, and her counted cross-stitch work on that, looking for Spruce Grouse as I'm driving. Lots of people in San Jose have their own computer. Here, lots have their own airplane. We go past Tazlina Lake Lodge, where a guy has an airplane parked next to his house. The airport is right across the highway, so he starts up the airplane, taxis up to the Glenn Highway, checks both ways before crossing, taxis across the road to the airport, then takes off from a roller coaster of a gravel runway, like a little launcher. We don't see him do this, but it's obvious that's what he does.

I gotta get a picture of this, a mailbox on a post by the highway, but the mailbox is completely inside a colorful large-mouth bass. The mailman just tosses the mail into the fish.

As we approach Gunsight Mountain, we see three vehicles stopped on the road. We know what that means so we quickly pull over. A caribou herd has crossed the highway, and about six more are waiting. We stop for lunch to wait them out, but they just continue eating and waiting us out. They win.

We're parked at the bottom of a curve, on a downhill grade. As we start to get into the pickup, we watch a little pickup heading down the hill pull over. A man gets out, looks up the hill and just waits. We look up the hill and notice a lone tire, rolling happily down the hill, down the highway. The man anticipates the path, catches the tire, tosses it into the back of his pickup, and takes off again.

Time to fill up. We pull into a Tesoro station, I fill to exactly $30.00 by digital readout, go inside. "$30.01," the lady states. In my twenties, I would have paid and stewed about it for two hours. In my thirties, I would have argued for twenty minutes that it is only $30.00. In my mellower fifties, I hand over my visa, say "great," and take one cent from the leave-a-penny-take-a-penny tray.

As we prepare to pull out of the station, I notice a husky in the back of a pickup. He is cleaning off the back of the rear window by licking. His technique needs improvement.

We pull into the only domesticated musk ox farm in the world. Except for all the ones in Russia and China, I suppose. We buy neat souvenirs and ask if it's ok to film the herd from outside the fence, without going on the $7 tour. "Anything you can see," came the answer. It's raining, but we get some video and stills.

We cross Ship Creek, Sharon says this is the original name of Anchorage. I suppose the without-a-paddle saying forced the change. We arrive at Anchorage RV Park, and it's sparkling. We set up, Sharon calls and finds a meeting, and we buy the last Anchorage Daily News in the rack. There is an inconceivable story about a goshawk nesting on Alaska Pacific University campus in Anchorage. She is incredibly territorial, especially towards approaching humans. She nested there last year too, and has inexplicably moved her nest about 150 yards closer to the student through-the-woods-short-cut paths between classes. She has sliced one guy's ear (hospital), and another guy's head (emergency room). It goes on to say that it's behind the communications building, and its broadcasting tower. We laugh, knowing that these things never turn out in real life as they appear to in the paper. We joke about going tomorrow. Sharon goes to a meeting, and it rains most of the night.

Love to sleep in the trailer when it's raining. Qualify that to read "if the trailer doesn't leak."

Wild Animal: Caribou

Fish Mail Boxes: 1

No new birds on this travel day.


Week 3 Day 3. Sunday June 7, 1998. 17th day. The Goshawk

Pouring down rain when we get up at 6am. We decide to get our rain gear, do some birding and check out Anchorage. I discover a leak in the bathroom along a ceiling seam. Dohp! Most of the leak is into the shower, lesser leaks on the floor. Can't do anything till the rain stops (given that the leaks are small).

We meet a couple in a Cruisemaster (huge RV). They have every U.S. state and Canada province/territory on their decal map. We ask how on earth they got Northwest Territory. They say they drove up the Liard (lee-YARD) Highway, and it was terrible. "Worse than the Cassiar, I guess, huh?" I volunteer. "Are you kidding me?" the guy says, "Nothing is as bad as the Cassiar. But there's lots of dust on the Liard, and it all seems to get into the back of your RV." We re-introduce the idea of doing the 80-mile-one-way side trip into the Northwest Territory, all for a little sticker.

Joking, we drive onto the Alaska Pacific University campus. Sharon spots the broadcasting tower mentioned in the newspaper article, and we drive to the back, park. Then we recognize the small utility building mentioned in the paper. Sharon notices a sign saying something like "AGGRESSIVE GOSHAWK NESTING IN THIS AREA. SUGGEST TAKING ANOTHER PATH," but being the Lutmans we keep going, see another sign identical to the first, but this time there is also a red pole. Danger?

"Kahk," we hear a long way off. We look at each other, then overhead. Gull. We keep walking. It's raining and we have umbrellas over our heads. We joke about using them to defend ourselves if the goshawk attacks. "Kahk," we hear again, a little louder. look up, two more gulls overhead. We continue. "Kahk, ahk, ahk, ahk, ahk" we hear in a constant stream - THIS is not gulls. "Gulp," we gulp. I scan 360 degrees in half-a-second. Nothing. "KAHK, AHK, AHK AHK," a little louder and definitely in front of us, down the trail. Then SCREAMING, "KAHK, AHK, AHK, AHK!" Directly in front of us and from out of the leaves and around a corner of branches banks an enormous hawk.

We had talked about this and figure she would give us a warning pass or two, ten or twenty feet over our heads. She comes straight at my face. The last thing I see is her flaring her wings and tail, stretching out her talons and widening her eyes, like she's gonna shred me. I draw the umbrella down over my head and duck. Sharon is already down, behind me.

"WHOOSH," she passes over us exactly where our umbrellas were. She banks and we figure she's coming back. Instead she flies up to a branch where she can view us. Constant "KAHK, AHK, AHK, AHK," never stopping the whole time since we first heard her. "I think we can claim NORTHERN GOSHAWK*. Let's get outta here," I yell, scrambling back up the trail, behind Sharon, who suddenly can move like Michael Jordan. We keep our umbrellas over our heads. "KAHK, AHK, AHK, AHK," she reminds us as we get back to the pickup. I can't unlock the door fast enough. We know she has attacked tower maintenance men exactly where we are standing, slicing one's ear. Into the truck we pop. "I wanna go back and get a video," I say. Sharon looks at me. She thought I was serious. We're outa there. Our adrenaline is at 800% for about two hours.

We drive around Anchorage, and notice drive-up Espresso kiosks all over town. Are these the Alaska equivalent of Starbucks? We drive to Hillside Park, near Hilltop Ski Area Reports of Black-backed and Three-toed Woodpeckers here. We're all over the trails but don't find any, although we hear three woodpeckers from the parking lot. We bump into another birder, Russ Widener from Arizona. He's wearing a Nome baseball cap, and is just back from there. It's spectacular, he reports. I ask about the weather. He says you basically ignore it - it's sometimes wonderful and sometimes terrible.

We head for a McDonald's, finding one inside a convenience store. We eat and shop, then move to the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. We're after twp mudflat birds, and get them both - a HUDSONIAN GODWIT* and a SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER* (DOW-it-churr).

We have dinner with Sharon's cousin and her family in south Anchorage and they catch up on old and new times. Leanne's husband Doug gives us the name of his travel agent - Don Wilson, owner of Quality Travel, in Anchorage. We decide to see if he can get us to Nome, based on new information we got today from our birder acquaintance at Hillside Park. Back to camp, fill up propane tank. Regular gas is $1.159 while propane is about $2.15.

Day's Best Bird: Northern Goshawk*

Trip Life birds: 3 today (Goshawk, Hudsonian Godwit, Short-billed Dowitcher), 16 total

New Trip birds: 3 today (all lifers), 116 total.


Week 3 Day 4. Monday June 8, 1998. 18th day. Preparation for flying to Nome.

Shower, send/collect new email. Learn I can access AOL in Alaska but not Earthlink, where I update our homepage. That'll have to wait till we get back into the lower 48 it seems.

We go to Potter's Marsh, but very rainy and windy. We see a moose, which I first think is another statue. We drop by Quality Travel and learn that everything is a GO - Alaska Airline round trip tickets (fly Tuesday, back Saturday - four nights), Stampede Rent-a-Car and Stampede apartment. We can't believe it's going to happen. Believe it.

We go to Xpress Lube for an oil change. After inspection, they try to get me to service the transmission for an additional $99. "Have you been pulling a heavy load?" the kid asks me. "Not too heavy," I reply. He shows me the dipstick and the transmission fluid is an orange color. "That should be deep red. This means something is starting to burn." I just had the transmission serviced in San Jose the week before we left. It's only got 4000 miles on it, vs. a recommended interval of 15000 miles. Unsuccessful, he tries the same approach with a lady and two kids, waiting for their car's oil change. I wish I was doing an expose' for 60 Minutes and had a hidden camera.

We drive away, and hit a couple of downtown souvenir shops. We go home, and the weather has turned sunny and nice. I patch the fifth wheel roof in good sunlight, and it is fast-drying. I'm pretty sure this will take care of the problem. We won't really know till we return from Nome. Nome? Are we really going?

Paid for the next five nights at Anchorage RV Park. I know, I know - we're paying to sleep in two places. Don't care. This is the best way.

No new birds today.


Week 3 Day 5. Tuesday June 9, 1998. 19th day. Flew from Anchorage to Nome. Picked up our rental Bronco. Set up in our apartment. Birded rest of day.

Alarm at 435am, but we wake at 400am and shut off the clock before it can whistle. A little chickadee lands while we're loading into the truck - a good sign, we hope. Love the small life bits here. Driving to the airport, we come upon a jeep at a stoplight, license plate LVMYJP. There's a FOR SALE sign in the back window.

I park in $6-a-day long-term after dropping Sharon and our luggage off. In the terminal, we learn that our 615am flight is canceled, we're on the 915am flight "automatically." We meet Brian Small, who writes photography articles for Wild Bird magazine (we subscribe, by coincidence). He's headed for Nome for three weeks to photograph nesting tundra birds. He's frosted at the flight cancellation too, but nobody can't do nothing about it.

Finally we're in the air. "Look out to right. You can see Denali and Mt. McKinley." We have a most fantastic view, but it's clear that no one on the ground can see the big peak, so that's kinda fun. A "benefit" of the 915am flight is that instead of a non-stop, we have a "direct flight," which means you get to stop off somewhere you don't want to, on the way to your real destination, although you don't have to change planes.

This one is Kotzebue (KOT-suh-byoo). We land in steady rain. A helpful flight attendant says we can get out and each pick up a North-of-the-Arctic-Circle certificate. Suddenly this stop is cool. We deplane and just have time to pick up our papers.

On the way to Kotzebue, Sharon asks the Alaska-native-looking lady sitting next to her whether she lives in Nome or Kotzebue. "Mississippi," she says. "I haven't been back for 17 years. I can't wait to see my sisters. I grew up about 75 miles north of Kotzebue." As we're landing, I'm looking out the window at the teeny tiny village. "Kotzebue has changed a lot in 17 years," the Eskimo lady says, smile on her face. Smile on mine.

We take off, finally landing in Nome. Not raining, but has recently. Here's our car rental instructions over the phone from yesterday: "Ask the Alaska Air ticket lady for the car keys. They'll be in an envelope." We do, they are, and we are off. Almost. I put our scope together quickly, and immediately see a raft of eight birds flying by overhead. They have long tails, with knobs on the end. "POMARINE JAEGERS* (PAH-muh-reen YAY-gurz)," I call out. Then I look in our NGS, and at first glance, it seems like they're not here. "Guess not," I say. Later we read more carefully, and it's clear that that's what they were. Life bird, right in the airport. It's the only ones we see in our entire Nome stay. Be alert.

We stop by the Stampede office, pay four days at $75 per day for the Ford Bronco, and $99 per day for four nights for the apartment. The Bronco has to be returned in two days because somebody else has it. They have a pickup reserved for us to change to at that time. There's unlimited mileage. Hey, where ya gonna go? No exit from the Seward Peninsula.

Don't get the Seward Peninsula confused with Seward the town. The town is NOT on the Seward Peninsula. Rather, Seward the town is a little southeast of Anchorage.

We check into our apartment. It's wonderfully large, and seems almost brand new, but is in terrible condition outside. We love it. Refrigerator, stove, bath, washer and dryer, cable TV - all the good stuff.

We're in and can't wait to bird, so out we go. We get GLAUCOUS GULLS* in the Nome River mouth. Actually they're the most common gull here. RED-THROATED LOON* in the Bering Sea. Fantastic YELLOW WAGTAILS* everywhere after we are farther than about five miles from Nome. They're gorgeous, with lots of personality. We find LONG-TAILED JAEGERS* on and over the tundra, and COMMON REDPOLLS* in the small willow bushes.

We decide to get out and scan, we're on opposite sides of the Bronco. I set up the scope on a colorful looking little guy. As I'm about to call Sharon, she says, "Bring the scope, quick!" " I can't", I reply. "Hurry," she says, "or it'll get away. You need to see it." I say nothing, marvelling at the scope bird. Finally, "No, you come over here." She says, "I got one of those longlap spur birds." "Me too!" I yell. She finally comes over, and joins me in viewing an absolutely gorgeous little LAPLAND LONGSPUR*. "Mine was closer," she says, and we both laugh, amazed that we had exactly the same bird at exactly the same time. Next we find a pair of BAR-TAILED GODWITS* down by a creek flowing to the sea. We have to work at the identification a little, but claim a wonderfully colored Pacific Golden Plover. This is technically an upgrade, but we weren't very certain of our first one, at a sewage treatment plant north of Stockton. It's 6:20pm and still like noon. HOARY REDPOLL* in the willows. We get to Safety Sound - the inlet to Safety Lagoon. COMMON EIDER* in Safety Sound. His face is like a cartoon.

We stop at Safety Sound and inspect all the gulls. Black wingtips, black legs - BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE* (KITTY-wake). We watch a number of gulls jumping up out of the water, into the air about a foot, then diving headfirst into the water. They are so buoyant though, that their heads go under the water only a few inches. Very peculiar behavior I've never heard of for these Glaucous Gulls. Then we hit a big one. Sharon spots a gull heading right towards us. Its wings have white trailing edges, it does not have black legs, the wingtips are black with some white mixed in. It's a SLATY-BACK GULL* and a lifer, of course. We continue looking and find a SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPER*. He is black and white with no distinct colors, and does not have a drooping bill.

Now it's 925pm, and still completely daylight. We finally get a good look at a singing bird, and ID a GRAY-CHEEKED THRUSH*. And while we are chasing him, we see a ptarmigan pop out of a ditch. It's either Rock or Willow. We see it really well, and the clues say WILLOW PTARMIGAN* female. A minute later, we see a wonderful male Willow Ptarmigan eating willow bits.

At 1045pm, we are done birding, can't find an open restaurant. We finally locate Milano Italian Restaurant, which serves Italian and Japanese. We order a large pizza with everything-that-is-meat on it, then go across the street and buy tomorrow's breakfast and lunch at the liquor/convenience store. We return, pick up the pizza, take it home, and each have a couple of pieces. It's excellent, though I'm already missing the convenience of our trailer. But with these birds, we're willing to take the food downgrade.

At 1230am, the sun is still entirely visible. Don't care, go to sleep easily.

Day's Best Birds: Yellow Wagtail*, Lapland Longspur*, Common Eider*, Willow Ptarmigan*.

Life birds: 16 today. 16! (Day's Best Birds + Pomarine Jaeger, Glaucous Gull, Red-throated Loon, Long-tailed Jaeger, Common Redpoll, Bar-tailed Godwit, Hoary Redpoll, Black-legged Kittiwake, Slaty-back Gull, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Gray-cheeked Thrush, American Golden Plover), 32 total.

New Trip birds: 24 today (Lifers + Oldsquaw, Whimbrel, Brant, Red-breasted Merganser, Western Sandpiper, Pacific Golden Plover, Common Murre, Greater Scaup), 140 total.

Apartment: Sappola Building, Apt. #6, Stampede Adventures & Rentals, 4 nights: B, by Nome standards.

Stampede Car Rentals: B, probably the best in Nome.


Week 3 Day 6. Wednesday June 10, 1998. 20th day. Birded Teller Road, the second of the three roads leading out of Nome. It heads west, along the coast, and goes to the Eskimo village of Teller, 71 miles away.

Slept great, Sharon has a sore throat, probably mine from a week or so ago. Intentionally, we didn't set the alarm, get up at 9am. We take off, heading up the Glacier Creek Road behind the high school on a tip, and see a wild musk ox. First we thought he was a rock. We eat our breakfast on the road. Frosted (chocolate) donettes and minute maid orange juice for me, crumb donettes and tomato juice for Sharon. Although she separates hers in time so they don't mix, I mix mine.

The Nome road system was created to serve the gold strike in 1899, and is a birder's paradise, reaching into locations unparalleled anywhere else. We see a big sign near ponds and gravel that says "Proudly Reclaimed by Windfall Gold-Mining Company."

We then head off for Teller. The Nome High School mascot is the Nanook, which Sharon tells me means polar bear in Eskimo. All these years I thought Nanook was the name of a little Eskimo girl, and the story was about her. Our target birds on the Teller Road are Gyrfalcon, White Wagtail and Northern Wheatear. If we get two, I'll consider it a miracle. The weather today is cold, windy, overcast, and somewhat rainy. We see a pair of gorgeous Pacific Loons on a pond. Not a lifer, but much closer than the ones we saw in Tetlin NWR. A little later we spot a Red-necked Grebe.

On the way to Teller, we see several white Ford vans. So far, they have been loaded with birder groups. They pull off the road ahead of us. We follow them, thinking we'll shirt-tail off of their information. One of the vehicles says "State Troopers," or something like that. They start putting up targets. It's a shooting range. About a half-mile later, we're stopped by an oncoming pickup who tips us to a pair of grizzlies ahead, on the left side of the road. We hurry, but I see only one, running across open country, soon running into some woods. Our first grizzly.

At Penny River Bridge, there is still snowpack near the river. There are Hoary Redpolls all over it, pecking at something on the snow. We find a Yellow Warbler nearby, then a moose past the scrubs of the area, then notice a couple of Sandhill Cranes beyond. "Emu," Sharon yells. Ohhhh-kaaayy. "No, Sandhill Crane." That's better.

We come to the Wooley Lagoon turnoff, and head down it, towards the Sea. On the way down, we come upon nest after nest. One BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER nest is about five feet from the road. We go past, slow down and stop. We get out to look, as the mother does her broken-wing thing, to get us away from the nest. We check it carefully and quickly, four eggs in reindeer moss. Very good camouflage. We move on, watching her double-broken wing imitation. Then I see her run back across the road to her nest, in the rear view mirror. We see wonderful Pacific Golden Plovers and RUDDY TURNSTONES, plus PARASITIC JAEGERS*. There are nests everywhere. They like the combination of tundra, creek nearby, and the Bering Sea easily accessible for food. We have lunch at the lagoon, then drive back out and resume our trip to Teller.

We stop to scope a musk ox across a valley. While Sharon is on it, I'm scanning the other direction. I notice a fairly large bird gliding, with his wings tucked in a little. I call Sharon, and we start eliminating possibilities for the area, based on visible characteristics. We get down to the a gray-phase GYRFALCON*. Then we see another soaring bird coming to join our Gyrfalcon. At first we think it's the mate, but just as it gets close, it unfolds its wings, and we watch a ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK make a passing attack at the Gyrfalcon. It doesn't seem serious, just a "hey, this is my territory" sort of swipe. The Gyrfalcon flies over our head, in the direction of the musk ox. I watch as long as I can in the scope, but have to switch to binoculars as it passes straight overhead. We watch it disappear over a ridge. Spectacular lifer!

We continue on and see a nice Gold-crown Sparrow and then a Northern Waterthrush, the warbler that looks like a thrush. We see a Northern Shrike on the limb of a small bush (more on this later). As we're rising into the mountains, we see a Robin, but it's sitting next to what? A white bird looking like a snowball. Snowy owl? On a rock? We doubt it. Then as we get closer, we realize we're getting a good view of a ROCK PTARMIGAN*. It's all white, but with a black mask covering its bill and both eyes.

We look around, and can see the Bering Sea from way up here. We hear the "oh poor me" of a Gold-crown Sparrow, then we see another Northern Shrike. As it flies away, I am bothered by an unexpected bright white rump patch, and I say so to Sharon, while Sharon grabs our NGS bird ID book, with the same concern. "What about a Northern Wheatear?" she asks. Then she accidentally turns to the Wheatear page, looking for the Shrike. Then checks the shrike page. Broad, bold white patch, can't be a Northern Shrike. It's our first NORTHERN WHEATEAR*. Or maybe it's our second one, since our earlier Northern Shrike call was probably a Wheatear. We officially claim the current one. The book says, "A small, dapper bird of the arctic north, flitting from rock to rock, fanning its tail and bobbing." This little bird is very active, and has a wonderful black, white and gray color scheme.

As we near the bottom of a hill, we see a 4-wheel ATV stopped in the right-hand lane, its rider working on the back of the vehicle. We pull alongside and Sharon says, "Do you need any help?" He looks at us with his weathered Eskimo face and says with a smile, "Just run out of gas," and waves us on. He's got three or four gas cans strapped to his ATV. Just then an old red van flies by on its way to Teller. As it passes, we see "Teller Cab Co." hand-painted on the side.

As we approach the village of Teller, we can see the Teller spit sticking out into the bay. The waters outside of the spit are about 80% covered with ice. The inside of the spit has only a few pieces of ice in it.

As we're slowly driving through Teller, taking it all in, a guy runs out onto the porch of his house. He sees us looking at his yard, where there's a musk ox hide, several seal skins, and a couple of dead seals, waiting their turn at hidedom. The guy yells, "It's for sale." We shake our head and continue through Teller.

We drive to the beginning of the spit and start birding, hoping for the little wagtail. There is ice everywhere, but it doesn't look strong enough to stand on. Sharon starts scanning and picks up a Pelagic Cormorant and a couple of guillemots. We can see that the white patches on the guillemots' sides do not have the little black "peninsulas" sticking up into the bottom of the white patches. We are looking at another life bird - the BLACK GUILLEMOT*.

I begin putting away the scope, while Sharon continues scanning the ice with her binoculars. A little old man comes up to here and asks, "What are you looking at?" Birds, she says. "Boats?" he asks again. No, birds, says Sharon. "Yes, we have boats. They are used by hunters." Uh, thanks, says Sharon. She comes back to the Bronco, and we drive out to the end of the spit, turn around and come back. No wagtails.

It's very, very cold, mostly from the combination of no sun but lots of wind. And being in the arctic may have something to do with it. We start to leave, but I decide to check down by the breakwater one more time. No wagtails.

We start looking for the only store in town. Maybe they have a bathroom. We find the store - CLOSED WEDNESDAYS. We notice active gas pumps that look exactly like the antiques we see in some antique-decorated restaurants and other shops. They have a transparent bubble, through which the gasoline passes, so you can watch.

The standard gear to have, apparently, if you're a Teller Eskimo includes a pickup truck, a snowmobile, about 12 dogs in a fenced-in back yard - each dog having its own separate doghouse, and most dogs sitting on top of his or her own. You must have a dog sled, a couple of rusty junker pickups, a 4-wheel ATV, a small boat with a motor, and an old rickety house.

There doesn't seem to be anywhere to get rid of big junk. Everybody just parks it in the yard. In San Jose, everything can be sold, given away, or put out for trash pickup. Then hauled off to a dump, out of everyone's sight. Not so here.

On the other hand, everybody has electricity and the town has one big satellite TV dish. We figure the whole town might be hooked up to it. There are two cemeteries, so you've got your choice there.

We see two more Rock Ptarmigans on the way home. One is still all white, but with the red "eyebrows" over his eyes. The second one has the red eyebrows, but about a third of him has changed to their wonderful reddish-brown summer colors.

We come upon a herd of reindeer, they're all females and babies. A few miles later we come upon another herd. They're all males, with antlers.

We arrive back at our apartment at 11pm. Sharon heats up her Mexican TV dinner, and warms me up a couple of pieces of that great pizza we started on last night. The pizza is almost as good as last night.

We turn in about 1230am again. I picture the Rock Ptarmigan and Gyrfalcon as I go to sleep. Then I remember that the most common Gyrfalcon food is Willow Ptarmigan. Ah nature. Sleep comes easily.

Day's Best Birds: Gyrfalcon*, Rock Ptarmigan*, Northern Wheatear*.

Life birds: 6 today (Days Best Birds + American Golden Plover, Parasitic Jaeger, Black Guillemot), 38 total

Trip birds: 9 today (Lifers + Black-bellied Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Rough-legged Hawk), 149 total.


Week 3 Day 7. Thursday June 11, 1998. 21st day. Birded the Taylor highway, the third and last road out of Nome, 86 miles one way. It heads north, inland, through upland tundra.

This morning I fill up the Bronco, go to the Stampede office, and swap it for a Ford F-150 4WD pickup truck with only 8000 miles. It's in much nicer condition than the Bronco was. There is enough room behind the seats to store our scope and tripod and some other gear. And Sharon has a handle up high, inside the door opening, to pull herself up into the high cab. We put the still camera between us and the video on the floor, just behind the dash. You can never tell when a grizzly may come up, asking to be in the movies.

We go to the visitor center and pick up tips on locating Bluethroats and Bristle-thighed Curlews. And people have been seeing the Arctic Warbler. On the way out of town, and in the first few miles, we see a Hudsonian Godwit, a herd of reindeer, a Willow Ptarmigan and two or three nesting Long-tailed Jaegers. Soon thereafter we see a moose with no antlers and no babies. We stop to look for Arctic Warblers, and see Savannah Sparrows and Gold-crown Sparrows. I hear an incredibly weird sound, and look up to see a white bird flutter in and land - a Willow Ptarmigan.

A little farther on, we have a dickens of a time, but finally ID a FOX SPARROW*, with his rusty-reddish wings and tail. We hear a familiar "wuwuwuwuwuwuwuwu" call, and ask the driver of a birding van stopped nearby if he knew what it was. "That's a winnowing snipe," he says, and we both remember the same call at Dead Man's Lake in Tetlin NWR days ago. Common Snipe.

We drive on, and Sharon hears a bird fly by her open window making a ting-ting noise (she swears it's true). She looks up the Bluethroat in her Stokes book, I think, and it says their song oftens starts with a ting-ting. We turn around and come back to search. No luck, so we continue in our original direction. We start to drive through an area where the terrain slopes down to a river, then pull over and stop. It has a wonderful panoramic view of Bluethroat territory.

We begin to notice a little bird which flies high, then flutters down almost parachute-like, singing on the way. He lands on a high branch for a second, then goes down to the ground. Early signs suggest Bluethroat, so we both begin scanning in earnest. After several "just-misses," one lands on a high twig and stays there for about a minute. We both get spectacular looks at our BLUETHROAT* life bird. He is a wonderful combination of blues, oranges and browns, with an orange diamond surrounded by blue centered between his throat and breast. He's in the sun and we just can't believe it.

We continue on and stop at a creek. I pick up a couple of HARLEQUIN DUCKS in the river. Not a life bird, but a very nice trip bird. We find a couple of Northern Wheatears, and watch them for a while. We stop for lunch beside the road at likely-looking Gyrfalcon territory. Our pickup has a nice, clean bed-liner, and we set up our picnic in it. We hear a Varied Thrush, and I spot it, but he flies down before Sharon can see. We see an AMERICAN TREE SPARROW completely, with his clear belly and chest, except for the little black spot in the middle of his chest. Great songster.

We continue on and find a BLACK SCOTER in a little tundra lake. "Likes boreal coniferous forests," one of our ID books says. We can just see him being in the lead of a wedge of migrating scoters. Everyone peels off behind him, at a nice boreal forest, but he doesn't realize they're gone. By the time he is tired, he sits down, turns around and notices he's the only one there. What the?

We find a Northern Harrier nearby, and continue on. At milepost 72, we stop and begin looking for the "displaying" Bristle-thighed Curlews. No luck. An elderly couple comes walking down the road and stops nearby. We learn that they're in a group of two vans, most of whom are doing a 3 mile round trip walk over the tundra to a known Bristle-thighed Curlew area. This is NOT easy stuff to walk on. It's incredibly easy to twist an ankle. Then where'd you be? We don't want to do that.

We ask them what birds they've been seeing, and they start ticking off familiar birds. Then they say "... and an Arctic Warbler." Where? When? I ask. They've got all my attention now. "About halfway up to the top of this hill. He's really easily spooked, so you have to be very quiet. Sharon and I are already birdwatch-armed and we continue on up. We find two small trees, with a Willow Ptarmigan under one. We know he's been there a while, because there's about two dozen white feathers on the ground, from his molt.

Sharon scans in the reported curlew direction, while I start slowly walking the scrub beside the road. I see some movement and freeze. I softly call to Sharon. Slowly the little bird works his way to the middle of the scrub, then drops down again. As we both look, he comes up again, this time all the way to the top. We get it all. Dark olive bird, with light olive underparts, and a yellowish-green eyebrow. It's our lifer ARCTIC WARBLER*. And we've been looking for him for days.

Toward the end of Taylor Highway, we see a nice female Northern Harrier. She's brown, instead of the gray of the male, but also has the white rump patch. She circles overhead, and we get good looks. Not a new bird, but great views.

We return home, taking the Pilgrim Hot Springs turnoff, in hopes of seeing McKay's Bunting, reported a couple of days ago at this location. No buntings. We make it back to the Teller Highway, and continue home. We pass nearby to our lunch spot, and both notice an explosion pile of white feathers on the road. Neither one of us says anything. We bump into our Pennsylvania friends in their red-and-white van, and we swap bird stories. They tell us about coming upon a pile of white feathers, stopping, and scanning the surrounding rocks. They found a Peregrine Falcon, having dinner. Dohp!

We get to town at 951pm. We try a couple of restaurants that are either closed or don't appeal to us, then go back to the Milano Italian Restaurant, and both have Japanese food. I have a great Steak Teriyaki and Vegetable Tempura dish. Sharon has the same but with Chicken Teriyaki. We celebrate another successful day in Nome.

Day's Best Birds: Bluethroat*, Arctic Warbler*.

Life birds: 3 today (Days Best Birds +Fox Sparrow), 41 total

Trip birds: 6 today (Lifers + American Tree Sparrow, Harlequin Duck, Black Scoter), 155 total.


We have one more full day in Nome, which will start off next week's report.

Previous Report
Next Report
Alaska Weekly Report List
Back to Birding Trips