April 29 to May 2 – Nome (Trip 3 for 2018)

I returned home yesterday from a 3-day trip to Nome. I took over 1100 pictures, so although I have attempted to eliminate most of them for this post, there will be very many photos. Although many are rather dark, due to the cloudy darkness most of the time, they still show what things in Nome were like on this trip.

It was lightly raining/snowing when I arrived and it snowed at least briefly each day I was there, with the temperature hovering around the freezing mark. The roads varied from bare wind-blown gravel to very icy, and changed to what appeared to be quite icy beyond the signs posted saying not to travel farther. On my last day there as I was beginning to drive out Teller Road, I watched a truck that had just passed me spin around on the road in a complete circle, finally coming to rest at the edge of the road facing the direction it had been travelling, and then just driving on. I decided not go any farther, since I’d been out that road multiple times the previous days. Although the sun briefly attempted to make an appearance, the weather had so far not done much to melt the rivers or ponds, except for a couple of slivers of creek showing through the snow.

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It did not appear that much melting had occurred off the roads and everything on each side of the roads still remains snow-covered. On one large expanse of snow near the mouth of the Nome River (Council Road) I found my first gulls. All but one (a Herring Gull, not in photo) appeared (to me, not a gull-person) to be Glaucous Gulls of various ages and mantle shades of gray.

On one drive in that area, a Common Raven was fighting a small struggling seabird that I could not see very well as it kept being pushed down by the raven. I assumed (because I saw them later) that it was a murre. But when I looked at my photos, it appeared to be a Least Auklet. Comments?

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In that same area later that day I saw distant speck that was a living Common Murre sitting on the snow. The next day, probably that same murre was dinner for a flock of gulls that arrived after one of them found it just as I arrived at the spot.

At first I thought the sea ice was mostly broken up and that I might be able to bird the open water from shore, but the steady winds the next night pushed the ice together toward the shore and very little water could be seen except in the far distance.

The final day, there were some open areas in the ice pile-up, and Long-tailed Ducks and a single Common Eider became visible as barely identifiable dots (through the spotting scope) in the open area toward the jetty. A Thick-billed Murre had also been reported there and I was able to see a few of them, also basically little black and white dots, with the black-and-white pattern on their breast helping to identify them.

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This trip was a last-minute addition to my year of exploring Nome birding, added mainly because I wanted to learn more about the pace of change of the Willow Ptarmigans’ plumage molt. In early April when I was last there, most of them had not started their spring molt with only a few of them showing any brown feathers. I learned on this trip that while many of them now have partial or completely brown heads and necks, most of them were still all white. But at first I couldn’t find any ptarmigan. Finally I found a small flock on Teller Road, where in early April they had been numerous.

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The next day on Kougarok Road I was delighted to find that there was, as earlier in April, a large flock of ptarmigan almost to the Nome River bridge. They were eating (presumably gravel) on the road and were spread across the snow on both sides of the road. I estimated at least 80, but there could have been twice that many, as they were quite camouflaged on the snow.

Although Snow Buntings were seen periodically along the roads, they were mostly not present at the sites where they had been feeding earlier during the winter, except one time when there was a flock of Snow (about 85) and McKay’s (probably about 2) at the downtown parking area where some grass stems protrude above the snow, and where they were buffeted by the blowing snow.

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Other birds seen and photographed included a single Northern Shrike.

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Other highlights of this trip include the musk oxen seen every trip on Teller Road, usually either lying down or with their heads partly buried in the snow as they browsed. They appeared to be split into at least a couple of herds. At one place quite near the road I saw two groups totaling 49 animals. Their backs appear somewhat golden, sometimes with snow on top of that. In some of the pictures they are partly obscured by heavily falling snow. Most of them were large but some appeared smaller, possibly last year’s young. Mostly they just seemed to be motionless, but upon careful observation, one could see, and sometimes videotape, their movement.

Other mammals on this trip were my first-for-Nome fox, which I had thought was probably an arctic fox, but seems from my photos to be more likely a scruffy red fox (pictures taken in the very early morning hours when it was still quite dark). Comments anyone?

I also saw my first-for-Nome arctic hare, and then more of them. The first one was all white, on Kougarok Road, but on Teller Road I had four at the Snake River bridge, which were changing to brown, chasing each other around, and another two doing the same thing near the Nome high school.

My next trip to Nome will be toward the end of May. I certainly hope (as do the Nome people I talked to) that the snow will be gone, at least on and along the roads, and that greenery (and more birds) will be beginning to be seen.









April 28 – Ketchikan Visit

I have just returned from Ketchikan, where I gave a bird-talk last night. I arrived there on Thursday (4/26) afternoon, and birded then, much of Friday, and this morning before my flight back to Anchorage. It’s a totally different world there, lush and green moss and budding trees and flowers in yards, and a bit warmer than Anchorage.





Highlights were mainly at Ward Lake, one of my favorite birding spots there, and included lunchtime time birding with Steve Heinl and Andy Piston yesterday. Photos below are of: Varied Thrushes (everywhere I went), Red-breasted Sapsuckers (photos of vigorously scratching and preening bird, and their favorite tree at Ward Lake), Golden-crowned Sparrows, a Great Blue Heron, Band-tailed Pigeons (north of Ward Lake), Savannah Sparrows, and Townsend’s Warbler, all new birds for the year.

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Also photographed and new for the year was a typically skulky Pacific Wren. I recorded the song with my video camera – don’t bother to try to find the wren in the video – it is not there.

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(Note: I think there’s a video above this sentence, but it’s not showing in my version of the blog post).

Other new birds for the year include: Fox and Lincoln’s Sparrows, Belted Kingfisher, Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warblers, Golden- and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Red-winged Blackbird, Tree and Barn Swallows, Killdeer, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Rufous and Anna’s Hummingbird (1 each), Chestnut-backed Chickadee, American Pipit, Hooded Merganser, Hermit Thrush, and Bonaparte’s Gulls [no, I’m not doing a big year, but I just have to pay attention to new birds for the year, every year].

Tomorrow I go to Nome for my third trip there of the year. It’s supposed to snow and blow the whole time, so it may be difficult to find anything, but we shall see.

April 17 – The Waiting Continues

The birds are waiting for the ice to melt, and I am waiting for more birds to arrive.

At Potter Marsh yesterday (April 16) there were Canada Geese, Mew Gulls (as well as a few larger Herring/Glaucous-winged hybrid types), Green-winged Teal and Northern Pintails out on small puddles or icy expanse:

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Again there were moose, this time five of them, two of which are shown here.

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The Black-billed Magpies were not waiting, and were working on a nest that is mostly obscured by branches, as are they.


At Hood and Spenard Lakes, there was no open water, and no noticeable activity by birds or humans.


Spenard Crossing, however, was busy. Close by the parking lot were the usual Mallards and Common Mergansers, along with both species of goldeneye.

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Resting Mew Gulls (and possibly a few larger gulls mixed in) were out on one of the big remaining expanses of ice, clearly waiting.

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The previously reported Canvasback was way out on a distant patch of open water. While I was watching it and trying to get photos, two Buffleheads appeared.

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My last stop was out at Ship Creek, where I was delighted to find my first American Wigeons of the year in addition to the Gadwalls, Mallards and Canada Geese.

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I’m trying to not just sit back and wait for new species, so right now I’m leaving my computer to check out a few areas and see if anything else has arrived.

April 13 – Early Spring Highlights

Most of the recent new birds for the year have been waterfowl, including Northern Pintails (Spenard Crossing and Potter Marsh), a Gadwall (Spenard Crossing), four Green-winged Teal (Potter Marsh), and Canada Geese (nearly everywhere there is water). Also shown in the photos below are Common Mergansers, one of the Trumpeter Swans, and some of our backyard Mallard visitors on the increasingly snow-free lawn.

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Other newcomers to Anchorage are more and more Herring-type gulls (Herring, and Herring x Glaucous-winged hybrids) and just today, my first Mew Gulls at Potter Marsh.

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Early this morning I drove to Girdwood, stopping along the road at Potter Marsh to photograph the sunrise.


At Potter Marsh were 12 (!!!) moose all visible at the same time, spread out across the marsh. Yesterday at Potter Marsh a moose crossed the parking lot right behind me, walking between me and my car.

In Girdwood, the Northwestern Crows were collecting nesting material.

Although there have been reports of more than usual numbers of Red Crossbills in southern parts of the Anchorage Borough, a small flock of them in Girdwood near the gas station/intersection was my first sighting of the year.

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Also, just behind the Girdwood gas station, two American Dippers were calling and diving along the edge of the rushing river.

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On the road between Girdwood and Portage Road, I saw a raptor, much smaller than an eagle, sitting along the road as I whizzed by. I did a U-turn at the first opportunity. The bird was still there, but immediately flew as I slowly drove toward it, so I only got one picture. Its dark belly and black patterned wings made me conclude that it was a Rough-legged Hawk. I was worried that it might be a smallish immature eagle, but my picture of one of those from yesterday (picture below the hawk picture) was clearly different.

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At this time of the year, it is very difficult to quit birding and do chores – there are too many places to check for new birds, and likely new birds just around every corner. Each year it’s a new adventure.





April 6-9 – Nome Report, Part 2

This part of my blog covers everything non-ptarmigan from my recent trip to Nome (I checked my records and I actually took about 1700 pictures during those three days, a large percentage of which were of ptarmigan; see yesterday’s post for my all-ptarmigan post). I couldn’t resist including a couple more ptarmigan pictures here in which the birds blend in nearly completely with the snow:

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Following are pictures of some of the landscapes, including a view of the tiny area of the Nome River where I could see water flowing, landscapes with snow nearly covering everything, and landscapes with trees (yard-full plus one on distant slope):

On the second full day (April 8), I got up in time to be out on Kougarok Road as the sun rose on the cloudy morning (the other two days were mostly clear):

Periodically along the road, particularly near the ends, there were many parked vehicles and snow machines, but rarely did I see people near them.

The ocean view was mostly rather boring as it was all ice as far as the eye could see, except for a few dark bumps that turned out to be either distant people or apparently Christmas trees that had been placed on the ice to make a little open forest. There were also numerous tire and sled trails out there. With binoculars, it appeared that there was open water glinting way out, but nothing close enough to bring in visible birds if any were out there.

I had photographed the windmill-hill on the flight in, which I later found was located on Teller Road. On my second drive on the road I saw  dark lumps at the top, which turned out to be the wandering musk ox herd.

Other mammals seen were a single reindeer outside the nearby the empty reindeer pasture, and four moose wandering along the frozen Nome River, way out in the open (presumably it’s not hunting season).

Birds in addition to Willow Ptarmigan of particular interest to me were the continuing Snow (mostly black and white) and McKay’s (less numerous; nearly all white) Buntings at seeds put out on Round the Clock Road and flitting about in a plowed parking lot downtown where brown grass (and presumably grass seed), was protruding through the snow. Possibly it is only due to their whiteness, but it seems that the McKay’s Buntings are slightly larger than the Snow Buntings. I did notice that they often appear to be more aggressive and to chase away nearby Snow Buntings.

There were also a couple of Black-capped Chickadees, and dozens of Common Ravens, the latter mostly at the landfill on Kougarok Road.

I so enjoyed this trip, and so want to see the ptarmigan as their molt progresses and the land as it is gradually exposed and the rivers can be seen, that I have added a short trip toward the end of April. If I hadn’t booked so many non-bird activities in Anchorage and other bird-related trips away from Anchorage this spring, I would probably add even more trips to Nome, but I do have a couple more before summer is in full swing (such as it is in Alaska).





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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April 5 – Anchorage Waterfowl

Although most nights have been significantly below freezing lately, the temperature has gotten enough above freezing during most days so that much melting has occurred. In our back yard, this means we have actually had a very little “lake” (a big puddle really). This has delighted the Mallards that periodically descend upon our yard.

This morning I quickly birded a handful of Anchorage sites today before heading off to a morning meeting. All that appeared at Potter Marsh were distant Black-capped Chickadees, a Downy Woodpecker and a Bald Eagle. I expect that things may open up soon, but not yet.


At Cuddy Park the only waterfowl were the zillion Mallards and the two continuing Common Goldeneyes, mostly invisible as they repeatedly dove.

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At Spenard Crossing the two Trumpeter Swans were still around, as were the goldeneyes and a couple of Common Mergansers. Nothing new, but soon….

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Tomorrow afternoon I am scheduled to fly to Nome for my second trip of the year. This time I’m staying more than a day, and hope to drive outside of town and at least add a few Willow Ptarmigan to my year list. From my review of prior records, however, few spring migrants are likely to have arrived. But that’s the point of these trips – to bring the past records alive to me and see what’s around, month-to-month.