Monday, September 29, 2014

Birds From Council Road, Nome, Alaska

Alaska 2014 continued:

While I tried to take in as much of the scenery as I could during this trip it was clear that this was a birding trip. We did not often stop for pretty views, but we did stop a lot for birds. We didn't always stop long enough for everyone to get out of the van. With nine of us in a full-sized passenger van, it took a while to get everyone out, then back in. If you were unlucky enough to be on the wrong side of the van from whatever critter we had spotted you were just outta luck. If you were trying to take photos and were stuck in the back, like I was on this first day, you had to shoot through the window, which was tinted and often mud-splattered.

At any rate, I kept a list of the birds I saw on this trip, which ended up being six shy of what the group saw--or at least a majority of the group. If five or more people saw the bird, it counted.  All in all, on that first day, I identified 35 birds, 21 of which were new to me. I ended up with 66 new birds on this trip, which is 22% of all birds on my life list. (I am at 299.) So here is a list of the 35 birds I saw along Council Road, with photos of a handful of them. While I got photos of most of the birds, many were poor, and good only as proof of having seen the bird. (Asterisks denote new species.)

Cackling Goose*
Tundra Swan
American Widgeon
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Greater Scaup*
Common Eider*

Common Eider pair near Point Nome, Norton Sound.

Harlequin Duck*
Black Scoter*
Long-tailed Duck
Red-breasted Merganser
Red-throated Loon*

Red-throated Loons near Safety Sound

Pacific Loon*

Pacific Loon on nest in a pond across Council Road from the Last Train to Nowhere.

Sandhill Crane
Semipalmated Plover*
Semipalmated Sandpiper

Semipalmated Sandpiper on a hunk of the Last Train to Nowhere. (Note partially webbed toes, hence semi-palmated.)

Pectoral Sandpiper
Baird's Sandpiper*
Western Sandpiper*

Western Sandpiper, shot through the van window. (Note rusty bit above eyebrow.)

Red-necked Phalarope*

Red-neck Phalarope in shallow pond behind the Last Train to Nowhere.

Parasitic Jaeger*

Parasitic Jaeger looking for lunch near Safety Sound. (Note ice on the sound, as seen from the air in photo from previous post.)

Long-tailed Jaeger*
Mew Gull*

Mew Gulls on nest.  Markings on primaries are a good indicator of this species.

Slaty-backed Gull*
Glaucous Gull*

Glaucous Gull. (Note lack of markings on wings.)

Sabine's Gull*
American Robin
Orange-crowned Warbler*

Orange-crowned warbler. I might have seen one of these in Lansing last year but never got a positive ID. 

Orange-crowned warbler showing a bit of its orange crown. We had pulled off onto a rutted two track to eat lunch when we spotted this fellow.

Northern Waterthrush*
Fox Sparrow
Lapland Longspur

Lapland Longspur. I had seen these birds before, in the fall at Sleeping Bear Dunes, but had never seen them in breeding plumage. They were all over the place in the Nome area.

Hoary Redpoll*

Hoary Redpoll. I'd seen Common Redpoll but not their close cousin.

Next: We travel the Teller Road to the Inupiat village of Teller.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Driving the Nome-Council Road--Alaska Day 1

Alaska 2014 continued:

On our first morning in Alaska we met with our full group for the first time for breakfast at the Coast International Hotel. I could tell this was going to be a fun group of people. Many were avid birders and had done tours before. My mother and my aunt were probably the least "birdy" of the bunch. Our tour leader, Bill Sweetman, had lead several tours in Alaska before, and it's one of the reasons I was happy to see Alaska for the first time on a guided tour--going to a new, vast place with someone who has been there before can put a person at ease.

Alaska showing Anchorage and Nome

We flew from Anchorage to Nome late morning, Friday, May 30. Most of the way was cloudy, and we had to circle the airport in Nome several times waiting for fog to clear. It gave me an opportunity to get some pictures of the coastline. Little did I know that we would be driving along the coastal road that very afternoon. 

Council Road, seen at the bottom. Above that is Safety Sound, still with ice.

There are no roads to Nome. No railroad. The only way to get there is to fly, or by boat. It's also the only way to move goods--or remove goods. It's a big deal in the spring when the Bearing Sea thaws and those first barges can get through. But because moving goods is so cumbersome and expensive, most of what ends up there stays there. Why pay to have stuff removed? It looks very untidy in places, with junked cars, snowmobiles and pretty much anything else you can think of piling up. My aunt made a good point, though, saying that those old machines and rusty bits might be able to be used to make repairs to other things.

There are three roads that lead from Nome--or converge at Nome, depending on how you look at it--and all are about 75 miles long. To the north runs the Nome-Teller Road, that leads to the Inupiat village of Teller.  To the northeast is the Nome-Taylor Road, also known as Kougarok Road, that leads to the Kougarok River Bridge. To the west, along Norton Sound and the Bearing Sea, is Nome-Council Road, which leads to the community of Council. While the roads in Nome are paved, they are all dirt outside the city limits.

We didn't waste any time getting on the road. We stopped at the Aurora Hotel to drop off our bags and get our gear together, the made a quick trip to the grocery store for lunch fixins, and we were off, driving west along Council Road.

Map showing the extent of our drive, from Nome to mile marker 40 on Council Road.

There were so many things about this trip that I was excited about, and seeing the tundra was certainly one of them. I admit that if I were planning a trip to Alaska, Nome and the Seward Peninsula would not be on my itinerary. But it was a fascinating landscape, and I'm glad I had the chance to experience it. The tundra is characterized by three essential things--it lacks trees, it contains permafrost, and it's relatively flat. Permafrost is a layer of soil below the surface that remains frozen year-round. It is the primary reason trees don't grow there--although winds and lack of sunlight six months of the year contribute to that. There are shrubs, some that reached well over six feet, but for the most part the view across the tundra is unbroken. (If you are interested in reading more about this landscape, I HIGHLY recommend Barry Lopez's book Arctic Dreams.)

We were birding in this region for one simple reason--it is loaded with birds in summer. Many species breed in the Arctic. There's lots of water and LOTS of insects, high protein nibblets that feed hungry young birds. The Seward Peninsula also offered another gem--three birds that come from across the Bearing Straight from the western Pacific to nest in Alaska. These birds--the Northern Wheatear, Bristle-thighed Curlew and Bluethroat--don't migrate through the United States, so the only opportunity to see these birds is in Alaska, or...Tahiti. Or Africa, in the case of the wheatear.

This day, however, we were looking mostly for waterfowl--loons, ducks etc. We kept a fairly frantic pace--many stops we did not leave the van (an 11-passenger Ford E-350), which proved problematic for someone with a camera (me) who was trying to record each bird we saw. We did get out now and then to search for songbirds, or to try to get a closer look at a raft of waterfowl.

Bill leads us into the tundra. 

The weather was ever changing, once sunny, then foggy. It was colder the three days we spent there (late May/early June) than it had been in January. They'd had a very warm 2013/2014 winter season, warmer at times than it was in Michigan. January 5th they set a record high of 51 degrees, and the region saw its warmest January on record. The average high for the season was nine degrees above normal. But by June 1st, the day we searched for the Bristle-thighed Curlew along Kourgarok Road, it was spitting snow.

Council Road looking west.

We passed by the Safety Roadhouse, which is located about 20 miles east of Nome. It is only open during summer (we must have been early) and for a brief time in March. It serves as the final checkpoint in the Iditarod dog sled race.

Quiet day at the Roadhouse.

Speaking of the Iditarod, these markers could be found along the road, and Bill thought they were markers for the race, as these roads are not plowed in winter.

Possible marker for the Iditarod.

Some thirty miles east of Nome is the ghost town of Solomon. Back in the late 1800's gold was discovered in the region, and small towns popped up all over the place. It wasn't long before someone decided a railroad would be a good idea, to move people around the region, and one day have it connect to Vancouver, British Columbia. The railroad was begun in 1903. But within a matter of years the gold stopped panning out, so funding dried up. Only 35 miles of track had been laid, and the train, including its three 1880's-style locomotives, were left to rot on the tundra. The Council City & Solomon River Railroad is now better known as The Last Train to Nowhere.

The Last Train to Nowhere sits in a rusty heap on the wet tundra. The Bendeleben Mountains are in the distance.

So fascinating to us are remnants of our past. We examine them like an elephant caressing the bleached bones of a dead relative. They remind us of the impermanance of not just our individual lives but also of the things we labor so hard to create.

The Last Train to Nowhere.

At Solomon the Council Road bends to the northeast and leaves the Bearing Sea. We drove along the Solomon River to mile marker 40. Along the way we saw more remnants of the past, like this dredging machine, which was used to scoop up large quantities of the river bottom in search of gold. One can only imagine the damage these things did to the river habitat. Things grow and change slowly on the tundra and there were still large plies of gravel and barren areas left by the dredging.

Along the Solomon River, Council Road.

Into the foothills of the Bendeleben Mountains we drove. We were too early for the explosion of tundra plants that would start in a few short weeks, so everything looked a bit drab. It made geological features stand out all the more.

Even though it was nearly mid-summer, there was still snow tucked away on the north sides of slopes. The days were astoundingly long to this Mid-westerner--the sun rose at 4:30 am, and set around 1:30 am. It never really got dark. But the angle of the sun is so low that snow clings to the protected areas in some cases all summer long.

Creek near mile marker 40, Council Road.

We retraced our steps and drove back to Nome, where we had dinner at Airport Pizza. It was jam packed, due in part to the presence of a "rival" birding group. My mom, aunt and I split a pizza. Remember what I said about the difficulty moving goods in the region? Well, that was no more apparent that in the price of food. Wow. A 15" pizza cost $29.00. But were where happy for it, and it was yummy, and nobody complained.

To read more about the Last Train to Nowhere, follow this link

To read more about the roads from Nome, check this out.

Next: The birds of Day One.

Friday, September 19, 2014


Another crazy summer, another three months with no blogging. I just have to accept that no coherent blog can be written by me in the summer. Since my last post I've spent 11 days in Alaska in June, had three shows in July, spent 12 days (and did two shows) in the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan's U.P., and traveled to Bloomington, Indiana and Atlanta, Georgia for shows in late August/September. I honestly don't know how artists who spend their summers on the road do it. I'm exhausted and I get to spend most nights in my own bed.

So I debated about which trip to blog about first--the Alaska birding trip I took with my mom and aunt; our trip last summer to North Dakota and Theodore Roosevelt National Park; or various birding trips of the past eight months. Alaska won out because, well, it's ALASKA.

This trip was a birding tour lead by Bill Sweetman of Bsweet Tours. It had been advertised on Michigan Audubon's Facebook page, and when I saw it in January, my mom and I were in the midst of trying to find a trip to do together this year. The price seemed more than reasonable for a 10-day tour, and included all travel in Alaska, lodging, breakfast and lunch. All we had to do was get to Anchorage and buy our own dinners. My mom paid for the tour itself, as that was beyond my artist's means, even at the relatively low cost. My aunt found out about our plans and joined us. In all there were nine participants plus Bill.

We arrived at Detroit Metro early on May 29th to catch our flight to Seattle. Mom had the window seat but I could catch the views too. I took some shots out the plane window with my iPhone. I had chosen seats that would place us on the north and east sides of the plane so the sun wouldn't be blasting in.

Potholes region of North Dakota. We drove through this area last summer.
It is a huge breeding area for waterfowl.

The sky was clear until we reached the mountains, where cracks in the clouds revealed snow-covered peaks below. I am not certain which peak this is, but it might be Mt. Ranier.

Mt. Ranier? peaking through the clouds.

Our descent to Seattle-Tacoma airport brought us above the city. You can see the Space Needle in the center of this image.

Seattle and the Puget Sound.

We had a layover in Seattle of a couple hours which allowed us to have a leisurely lunch. Several of the other tour participants met us there, including Bill and my aunt Terry. We boarded an Alaska Airlines flight to Anchorage, which took us up along the Northwest Coast. It was a spectacular sight.

Northwest Coast.  Canada? Alaska?

This is from my journal, written as we flew above the coast:

"Soaring along at 35,00 feet, high above the clouds, I look down through the gaps and see snow-capped peaks and the jagged edges of the coast, green islands surrounded by blue. I am struck by the vastness of it, the seeming endlessness of it all. There is so much to do, so much to see, that I would need three lifetimes to do it all. The world is an infinitely beautiful place. I want to experience as much of it as I can in the time I have left. I want to revel in it. I want to see it and feel it and taste it. I want to fall in love with it, over and over again. I've lived half my life. I've spent far too much time feeling afraid, or lonely, or guilty. I'm done with that. I'm done with negative things. I am ready for joy. For love. I am ready to be shattered."

Heady stuff at 35,000 feet!

As we neared Anchorage the clouds thickened and lowered, so that when we finally slipped below them we were flying low above what I believe is the Kenai NWR. The Chugach Mountains rose up in the distance.

Kenai NWR from the air.

By the time we got to the Coast International Hotel, which is right next to the airport, it was around 7 pm, which was 11 pm Eastern time. I was tired but needed to stretch my legs after so many hours sitting. I found a path near the hotel that eventually led to a park (I did not get the name). The first thing I saw was this notice posted on a board at the parking lot. Welcome to Alaska!

Moose warning! Cow separated from calf and she's mad about it!

The park offered good views of the nearby mountains, though I have no idea which ones these are. The unfamiliar surroundings plus the low clouds and flat light meant I didn't know which direction I was headed.

View from the park trail.

Who can resist paper birch!

I did not see an angry moose, thankfully, but did add my first new bird during my walk, a Black-billed Magpie. I would eventually add 66 new birds on this trip.

Back at the hotel, I did my best to sleep. The sun doesn't set in Anchorage in late May until 1 am or so. By the time I settled into bed it was 2 am Eastern time--I'd been up for 20 hours. That was doable when I was 25--not so much at 47!

Totem pole outside the Coast International Hotel.

Next: Flight to Nome, Safety Sound and Council Road.