April 6-9 – Nome Report, Part 1 – White on White

It was only 3 full days for this Nome trip, but I took about 1000 pictures, most of them of Willow Ptarmigan, which will be the subject of this post. I will cover the other birds, mammals and general scenes in a later post (or posts). Most of my pictures taken on this trip were of mostly white subjects (Willow Ptarmigan, Snow Buntings, McKay’s Buntings) on the white snow background, requiring me to take as many photos as possible of course. Of course, most everything was some sort of off-white, blue-white, gray-white, etc. The ptarmigan were generally the most white things around. Even when no ptarmigan were visible, their tracks were everywhere showing they had been there (or as I called them in 2008, “ptarmigan ptracks”).

There are three main roads that lead out of Nome, all of which are still mostly snow-covered and impassable except by snow machine. With my rental car I went to the end of each where a sign (and big berms of snow) told me to turn around. That allowed me to go about 6 miles on Teller Road (from the subdivision where Round the Clock and buntings are to the Snake River), about 13 miles on Kougarok Road  (from the beginning of the road, where it is called “Beam” road, to the Nome River bridge) and about 4 miles on Council Road from Beam Road. So I drove each of these roads multiple times, more on the first two roads where Willow Ptarmigan were present. Usually there would be miles without ptarmigan and without much brush, but where there were clumps of brush protruding through the snow, there were often ptarmigan flocks.

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On my trips on the drivable length of Kougarok Road I counted 109, 72, 125 and 46 ptarmigan and on Teller Road, 75, 20 and 121 ptarmigan, depending on the day. On Kougarok Road the birds were generally found near the dump (where the ravens congregate) and at the Nome River, while on Teller Road the birds were often just past the high school and near the Snake River. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to when the birds were around, but it did appear that they came down to the road area more in the afternoon, and could be quite scarce or distant from the road in the early morning. Because of their color they were often extremely difficult to see, but usually when they weren’t snuggled in the bushes, they could be spotted by the white lumps that weren’t snow, often slowly or quickly moving lumps, out on the snow or up on the branches.

When they were on the road, they were much easier to see, of course, especially because they were usually on exposed areas of dirt (the vehicles are parked along the road, usually where someone has taken off on a snow machine or has a nearby house and an unplowed driveway).

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While they were feeding in the branches, their footing was usually quite tenuous, resulting in laughable poses as they reached for yet another bud.

Mostly when I slowed or stopped my car, they would look up and stay put, or sometimes would seem to ignore me and just scurry across the snow to get to a juicy bud.

But if they were on the road, which they often were, they sometimes flew. Very rarely I was able to get a flight shot that wasn’t through the front window.

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Without noticeable exception all ptarmigan seen the first two days, and almost all on day 3, had only white feathers with the only other feather color being their black tail feathers. On the last day, however, on Teller Road (but not on Kougarok Road), I noticed about 5 birds that were beginning to get their rusty-brown neck feathers (although I did not notice it when taking the picture, one ptarmigan had a red comb over the eye but no new colored feathers). Spring is coming to Nome.

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