March 6 – McWonderful Nome

I only spent a day in Nome (March 5), and I only saw 3 bird species all day, but it was a great day. The trip started the late afternoon before that, and was a bit nerve-wracking, even though it was a beautiful clear day for the first half of the trip and we were able to get a view of distant mountains to the north and of Denali, partly obscured by clouds by the time the plane got close enough for me to get a picture.


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We flew to Nome via Kotzebue, which was almost invisible  in the foggy, blowing snow.

When the plane reached the Nome area, the visibility was even worse and the pilot came down quite a bit and then went back up and circled a couple of times, trying to see the airport. He told us that he would try to see the airport one more time approaching from the west, and if that didn’t work, we would have to go back to Anchorage. He apparently saw something as we got lower and lower, and decided to lower the wheels and wingflaps (I forget what they are called) for landing, but looking out the window I could not see anything until seconds before we landed. Even then everything was vague and blurry. There was much applause and cheering as we landed.

I stayed overnight at a wonderful airbnb, where I have stayed before, Remi’s – two friendly hosts and their cute pets:

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The next day had a bit more visibility, enough to see nearby birds anyway, although looking out to sea or across the land away from town all was white and frozen.

I drove to Round the Clock Road as it began to be light out, the traditional place to find my goal birds, McKay’s Buntings. Two residents there put out birdseed at the traditional site to find the buntings on the ground in the driveway near the road and another site with a platform feeder nestled in the few low trees near the end of the road (feeder of Jim Dory, who had posted his bunting sightings there on March 2, so I knew they were around this year, and whom I met as I did my bunting vigil). I added birdseed to the driveway site and periodically got out to try to remove newly fallen snow so the seeds could be found by the birds.

I spent the entire snowy day there sitting in my car waiting for buntings to show up, except for time spent returning in late midday to go to my room and then to go to an enjoyable visit with two new acquaintances, Pastor Charles Brower and his wife Janet, including discussion of the Poor People’s Campaign, a National Call for Moral Revival.

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As I said, birding was slow. It was a long morning, mostly birdless except for a few Common Ravens flying by and a very quick glimpse in mid-morning of four buntings, one of which seemed to be a McKay’s Bunting. It was not until early afternoon when more buntings appeared, a very welcome flock of about 25, about half and half McKay’s and Snow Buntings. They did not stay long and only came back once before I left for my nonbirding activities. Later in the day after a short drive along the frozen ocean, I returned to find a mixed flock of about 42 buntings flitting between the two feeding areas and disappearing across the fields and reappearing.

Although both species are mostly white, they generally can be distinguished by the McKay’s having a white or at least a whiter back, and much less black and brown on them elsewhere. Because the species hybridize, however, and because the plumages of winter birds can be very similar, especially in the females, not all birds are easily identified as to species. My pictures show birds in quite a variety of plumages.

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As I sat there, listening for buntings and then watching and photographing them when they finally appeared, I was curious to see if I could hear any difference in the sounds of the two species, as none of my apps had recordings of the sound of McKay’s. Mostly I could not tell which bird(s) were making sounds, however, except when I got a short video of two McKay’s Buntings on a power line, but I still could not tell whether their sounds were different from those of Snow Buntings. In the video the sound unfortunately are very faint.

The above still photos of the buntings do not at all reveal how jumpy and constantly in rapid motion they were as they fed on the seed, as can be seen from video below:

Most people that go to Nome to bird go there around early June, and rarely at other times except to chase particular rarities, such as the Pied Wheatear that came there last summer. People interested in adding McKay’s Buntings to their year-lists or life-lists go there in winter, one of the best places and times to find them, which is of course what I just did. I am also interested in finding out what birding is like there at other times of the year. I have more trips to Nome planned in early April, mid-May and early June, and will add later summer and fall trips after that. Like doing big years, this Nome exploration is for me mainly a way to have an excuse to go birding somewhere interesting that is not just around my home. Stay tuned to find out what my Nome-year is like.

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