Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Alaska Day Three: Taylor/Kougarok Road

 Alaska 2014 Continued:

Day three started out the same--a quick breakfast of cereal and yogurt and then into the van. Sunday was the day we'd search for the Bristle-thighed Curlew, among others. The day was much like Saturday--cold, breezy, foggy. I wore my winter coat, which I had packed at the last minute, and wished I'd worn it the day before.

Nome and the Bering Sea from Taylor Road

I got to ride shotgun this time and watch for birds, which would also enable me to get better pictures. I think this was the prettiest of the three drives, with wide valleys and the snow-capped Kigluaik Mountains all around us.

Our first big sighting of the day wasn't a bird but another small herd of muskox. We stopped to watch them, as this was not an animal we would see downstate.  Such magnificent creatures, so well adapted to this environment.

Muskox eye us warily.

It didn't take them long to decide we were a bit too close. But to watch them run was a treat, with their long guard hairs flowing out behind them.

We paused for a while at the campground at Salmon Lake, where there was a pit toilet, and spent 20 minutes or so exploring the area. Only a few waterfowl could be seen on the lake, all at a far distance.

Salmon Lake, still mostly iced over.

An old cabin sits along side the Salmon River.

There were a few breaks in the clouds which allowed us better views of the mountains, but for the most part it stayed cloudy.

Kigluaik Mountains.
We made it to the area where the curlew was known to nest around 11 am. Bill decided to forego the path that was farther down the road and we instead climbed right up the hill. This was extremely difficult walking, as the ground is covered with small hummocks of grasses and forbs surrounded by mud and small pools of water. While my boots got pretty wet and muddy I managed to not fall down, though several others were not so lucky.

Mile marker 72, Coffee Dome area.

I took several photos of the area with my cell phone, and even recorded a video or two, but I can't find them now. At any rate, we climbed high above the road, and as the hill curved up we eventually lost sight of the van. As usual I got a bit bored as the curlew eluded us, and began examining the ground, where flowers were beginning to emerge.

Diapansia lapponica, or cushion-plant, blooming low on the tundra.

After our search for the curlew we began the drive back to Nome. We took a short trip down Pilgrim Hot Springs Road and stopped at an area known to harbor Northern Wheatears. By this time the sun had begun to shine more regularly, and the hike up the hill to the rock outcroppings was quite pleasant as this ground was solid and fairly flat.

The Tors region along Pilgrim Hot Springs Road

We did not venture all the way to the hot springs, but it was nice getting to spend a little time exploring this area.

While my aunt and I explored the large outcropping, several of our party tramped off to another where the wheatear had been heard singing. I was tired, and told my aunt that unless the bird landed within 15 feet of me, I wasn't going to chase it. We had seen one the day before so my motivation was low. But not 30 seconds later I heard a bird singing, and looked up to see the wheatear doing some areal acrobatics. He landed perhaps 30 feet away on the lichen-covered granite behind us, and paused long enough for me to get some photos. Guess I should threaten the birds more often!

Northern Wheatear.

We drove back to Nome and finished our day with dinner at Airport Pizza, a place with a surprisingly diverse menu. As with all of Nome, food was quite expensive, and they didn't always have all of the ingredients (I recall they were out of tomatoes, among other things) but the food was good and worth the price.

Looking down at the van along Pilgrim Hot Springs Road.

Next: The hunt for the Bristle-thighed Curlew

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Alaska Birding Tour Birds, Day Two (Teller Road)

Alaska 2014 continued:

On top of all the amazing mammals we saw on our second full day in Alaska (see the previous two posts) we saw a good number of birds, too! The first bird we saw that day, Saturday May 31, was a Wilson's Snipe perched up on the end of what looked like an old fence post. The last birds of the day were two Long-tailed Ducks, one chasing the other away from its mate, very near where we saw the muskox herd with the calves.

It was not a nice day, gray, rainy, even some snow flying, and I was in the back of the van looking through dirty tinted windows, so some of the images are pretty poor. We drove from Nome to the village of Teller and back, taking a detour on the Wooley Lagoon Road to look for the Northern Wheatear--twice. In all I saw 36 birds, 10 being lifers.

Bar-tailed Godwit*

Bar-tailed Godwit. We saw the female too and I got a few pics of her but they were poor. Note the slightly upturned beak. On Teller Road.

Pacific Golden Plover* 
American Golden Plover

American Golden Plover. Not a first, but a first in breeding plumage. Note the black head, full black from belly to undertail coverts, and goldish color on back. On Teller Road.

Black bellied plover*

Black-bellied Plover. Note the lack of black on head, and white undertail coverts/vent, as compared to the American Golden Plover. Along Wooly Lagoon Road.

Orange-crowned Warbler

Golden-crowned Warbler. I know I've shared a pic of this bird from day one, but I love this straight-on shot. On Teller Road.

Golden-Crowned Sparrow*

Yellow-crowned Sparrow. We watched this fellow singing while Bill listened for Arctic Warblers, which we did not see. On Teller Road.

Pelagic Cormorant*
Common Raven
Willow Ptarmigan*

Willow Ptarmigan. This was a bird I had really wanted to see. They reminded me of my chickens back home. Note chocolate head and back pattern. On Teller Road.

Rock ptarmigan*

Rock Ptarmigan--on a rock! Note lack of brown compared to Willow Ptarmigan. I LOVE the red eyebrows. (Note also the rain streaking by.) On Wooly Lagoon Road.

White-crowned Sparrow
Northern Pintail
American Widgeon

American Wigeon. Not a new bird, but cute, so why not? On Teller Road.

Green-winged Teal
Greater Scaup*
Harlequin Duck
Red-breasted Merganser
Wilson's Snipe
Red-necked Phalarope
Cliff Swallow
Lapland Longspur
Red-throated Loon
Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone. Not a new bird, but I'd never seen it in breeding plumage. Quite distinctive. On Wooly Lagoon Road.

Canada Goose
Long-tailed Jaeger

Long-tailed Jaeger. We had seen this bird the day before but this was such a great shot. Perched on a pole right next to the road, I practically had to lay in my mom's lap to shoot it. On Wooly Lagoon Road.

Arctic Tern*

Arctic Tern. We will see this bird again. On Wooly Lagoon Road.

Northern Wheatear*

Northern Wheatear. This is a bird that breeds in the Arctic but winters in AFRICA. There are now two known populations of this bird, one that migrates east to Europe and down to Africa, and one that migrates west across the Bering Strait through Asia to Africa. We will see this bird again, too. On Wooly Lagoon Road.

Red-Necked Grebe

Red-necked Grebes. I missed an opportunity later in the trip to get some closeup shots of a pair in the morning sun in Wasilla because I did't have my camera. On Teller Road.

American Robin
Northern Waterthrush
Fox Sparrow
Northern Shoveler
Long-tailed Duck

Long-tailed Duck (formerly Old Squaw). I like this shot as it shows the bird's feet which I think are interesting. First time in breeding plumage. On Teller Road.

Mew Gull
Glaucous Gull

Next: Day Three, Kougarok Road and the hunt for the Bristle-thighed curlew.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Caribou and Muskox Along Teller Road

 Alaska 2014 continued:

The ride back from Teller was a bit subdued, even with the sharing of all the goodies we'd gotten at the Native Store. I think we were all a bit shook up by it--I know I was. But our spirits were lifted when we came upon a herd of caribou near the road. We paused to watch, and I did my best to shoot through the tinted and rather muddy rear window.

Caribou along Teller Road.

The herd moved steadily along, seemingly unbothered by our presence.

Both male and female caribou have antlers, though in June they were all still in velvet. This male stood out from the others.

Not too much farther down the road, as got closer to Nome and the sky began to brighten somewhat, we spotted a pair of muskox. We had seen one briefly along Council Road the day before, but it was gone over a ridge before everyone in the van had seen it. These two were laying at the edge of the shrubs, probably chewing cud.

Muskox along Teller Road.

This time Bill let Ed and I out of the van so we could get some better pictures. While we were likely to see caribou when we moved back downstate, this would be the only place we would see muskox as they only inhabit the Seward Peninsula and points north.

I once had a dream, long ago when I was maybe 10 or 12, of running around our house and coming face to face with a muskox. I can see it as if I just dreamed it last night--that shaggy hair, and the broad expanse of horn across its forehead. I'm pretty sure at the time I didn't know what it was, though I must have seen a picture of one somewhere. I remember my shock when, several years later, I discovered it was a real animal.

We made a few more bird stops, then, with the city of Nome in view, we came across yet another, larger herd of muskox, this time with several calves among them. I was very lucky in all this that the animals were all on my side of the van.

Muskox calf near Nome.

According to Wikipedia, the muskox, along with bison and pronghorn, are survivors from the Pleistocene era, and may have survived the last ice age by finding ice-free areas where there were no people, or they may have been hunted to extinction. It also states that the population currently in Alaska was introduced, after being extirpated by hunters.

Muskox stand four to five feet tall. Females range from four to six feet long while males can reach eight feet in length. Both sexes have horns. They average around 600 pounds but can weigh as much as 900. Their coats are characterized by the long guard hairs, which blow dramatically in the tundra winds. Fabio, eat your heart out.

Such stately creatures they are. They eat grasses and pretty anything else they can find. They are known for their habit of forming defensive circles when threatened. This herd, which held maybe 10-12 individuals, did not exhibit that behavior.

Eventually they tired of our presence and began to move away, and so did we. But what a treat to be able to see them up close, and especially to see calves. I suspect there will be muskox art in my future.

Next: the birds of day two, Teller Road

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Wildflowers and Moose Along the Road to Teller

Alaska 2014 continued:

Our second day in Nome began much like the first day had ended--damp and dreary. Not that the previous day had ever really ended--while the sun officially set at 1:09 am, it never got dark before the sun came back up at 4:52 am. Going to bed was a struggle, even as tired as I was. I am not one to sleep while the sun is up, but we had to be up by 5:00 am so I did my best to clip curtains closed to keep out the light. Still my body was well aware that THE SUN IS STILL UP! and was not letting go of wakefulness easily. Once asleep though I slept very well.

Part of Nome from the hotel window. Most of Nome is tidy but muddy, and it was especially gloomy while we were there. Once disturbed the ground has a tough time yielding plants and paved roads are difficult to maintain on the tundra.
Note the seal skin stretched on a rack leaning against the near building.

A VERY approximate map of the Nome-Teller Road, about 70 miles.

We were on the road by 7:15 am, driving north through the tundra towards the Inupiat town of Teller. The grey-ness of the day followed us.

Tundra and mountains from the back of the van.

We made several stops for bird sightings, and took a few longer hikes into the tundra looking for birds. But as usual, my eyes were on the ground. Plants on the tundra were just beginning to bloom, and what looked like a barren rocky wasteland from the van turned out to be anything but. Small, stubby flowers were blooming among the rocks, and I set aside my quest for the Black-bellied Plover long enough to revel in Alaska wildflowers.

We were all smitten with moss campion, which was growing in bright clumps all around us.

Wild azalea had not quite opened its buds.

As yet unidentified plant growing along Teller Road.

Wooly lousewort shows off amidst the tundra stones. It was cold this day
so there were only a handful of insects out pollinating

Back in the van someone up front spotted a young bull moose along the road. We stopped to take a look, and I was glad he was on my side of the vehicle so I could get some pics.

Young bull moose along the Teller Road.

We paused long enough that I had time to pull out my long lens and get a few close ups.

Closer look at the bull moose. 

Further on we turned down a side road that led to Woolley Lagoon. (I have yet to locate either the road or the lagoon on a map.) I loved this boulder-strewn area, with its hidey-holes for all sorts of critters--including the elusive Northern Wheatear, who we were searching for among the rocks.

Watching and listening for the Northern Wheatear. (Don't worry, pics will follow.)

There is an abundance of life on the tundra in summer--it's just all within five
feet of the ground.

An unknown stream drains snow melt to Woolley Lagoon and the Bearing Sea.

We eventually made our way to the town of Teller. To say that we were shocked would be an understatement. I don't know what we expected, but it wasn't abject poverty. Granted, everything looks worse in the gloom, and it was a dark, cold, windy day that spit rain and snow. No one was about, so the place really looked deserted. The real reason for that though was the conditinon of the homes. They were so run-down, and patched together with whatever folks up here could find, that it seemed impossible that people lived in them. I don't know what these folks do in winter--they may well be out on the sea ice hunting seals. I hopped so. The homes here provided only the barest of shelter.

I didn't take many pictures. It seemed...rude and intrusive. These people's lives weren't for our amusement. They live in a harsh environment with limited means and even more limited goods. It's costly to get thing to Teller, and costly to remove them, so you go without while at the same time being seemingly overrun with the flotsam and jetsam of daily life.

We were encouraged though to go shop and spend a few dollars at the store in town. We all trooped dutifully in, and I was again appalled at the offerings on the shelves. There was virtually no fresh anything, although I guess historically these folks didn't eat much fresh fruits or vegetables. The vast majority of what was on the shelves was sugary processed food. So we all left with handfuls of sweet snacks, which we passed around the van as we drove back to Nome.

The Teller Native Store, where we purchased snacks for the ride back to Nome.

On the way out of town I got a few shots of Teller from the back of the van. I simply cannot imagine this place in winter. Thoughts of this place hung on my mind for days and days.

Teller from the ridge above town.

Next: Caribou and Muskox along the Teller Road.