Tag Archives: shorebirds

Roaming Nome

The last three days have passed in a blur.  With 24 hours of light (including 21 hours when the sun is actually above the horizon), there is a surreal sense of timelessness.  One day blends seamlessly into the next.  Fog rolls in, fog rolls out.  Rain changes to sleet, and sleet into brief bursts of sunshine.  The pack ice on the Bering Sea blows in, and then blows out.

Bering Sea Pack Ice

The ice patches that still dot the landscape melt and re-freeze, making interesting patterns and formations.

Ice columns

Many times I’d forget whether it was time for breakfast, dinner, an outing, or bed.  I’d get back in the truck after a short hike across the tundra to find (to my amazement) that it was nearly 10pm.  One day I brushed my teeth four times, the next I forgot completely.  I couldn’t remember if an event happened earlier that day, or the previous day, or the day before that.  But the one thing I know is that Neil and I typically spent a good 14 hours in the field, sometimes longer, and we saw some amazing things.

Our trusty steed was a 2002 pickup with 149,000 miles on it.  It came with one half-flat tire, and one-quarter tank of gas.  But as soon as we pumped up the left front tire a bit and put about $100 worth of gas in it, it was good to go!

gasoline in Nome

On our first full day, we headed out Kougarok Road.  Highlights included Northern Wheatear, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, and Rock and Willow Ptarmigan. A female Willow Ptarmigan even posed in the road for us:

Female Willow Ptarmigan

We also saw Muskox; some were distant adults:

Muskox

And one adorable baby muskox briefly ran along side the truck:

Baby Musk Ox

In the afternoon we drove back along Council Road, where Neil’s sharp eyes picked out a group of four rare Steller’s Eiders floating along on a small piece of sea ice.

Steller's Eiders

They were too far away for my wimpy camera, but we got great looks through the telescopes.

The next day we explored the third road out of Nome, Teller Road.  A moose greeted us on the edge of town.

Nome Moose

Our jaunt down Teller was another great success.  We found singing Bluethroats, and Neil got some amazing photos of this Old World thrush (or is it now considered a flycatcher?) that barely ranges into Alaska.  He promised to send me some of his pictures.  Neil also found a White Wagtail, a rare bird even for the Nome area.  This Asian vagrant fluttered about the edges of the Sinuk River near a bridge, and I snapped some blurry but identifiable photos for posterity:

White Wagtail Nome June 7 2013

For our final full day in the Nome area, Neil and I again teamed up with Abe to look for the mythical Bristle-thighed Curlew.  There is exactly one accessible location in North America where this shorebird breeds, and I use the word “accessible” loosely.  First you have to fly to Nome, via Anchorage (and maybe some other places).  Then you have to secure a vehicle and drive 72 miles north on the Kougarok dirt road.  Then you have to climb across the wet tundra up a mountain ridge to the Curlew’s nesting grounds, a hike that has been described as “walking on bowling balls” due to the nature of the low but very thick plant life there.  Then you have to identify the Curlew, which looks extremely similar to the Whimbrel, another shorebird that nests in the same area.

Neil, Abe, and I left Nome very early, stopping only to search (successfully!) for Arctic Warbler about 20 miles up the road.  We arrived at milepost 72 by 9am, and began the relatively short but squishy hike up the ridge.  I have to hand it to these curlews – they picked a remote but spectacular place to raise their young:

BT Curlew Nesting Area

After getting to the top, the first large shorebird we spotted was a Whimbrel.  But a short time later, another bird came flying in, giving the Bristle-thighed Curlew’s characteristic call, and showing its distinctive unstreaked, buffy rump.  This is one of the hardest birds in North America to actually see, and we were all pretty happy about finding it.

Abe and Neil

We hung around for a while, watching an American Golden-Plover and some displaying Long-tailed Jaegers, and then headed back to the truck for the long drive back to Nome.  After vowing to “go to bed early for a change,” Neil and I were again out birding past 10pm before I finally convinced him to go back to Nome for dinner.  I was tucked in no later than about 1am.

This morning I was scheduled to fly to Gambell, a tiny Yupik village on St. Lawrence Island.  Unfortunately it is very foggy at the Nome airport today, and I’ve spent the last four hours in the waiting area at Bering Air to see if our flight will go out.  The only good part about this is that I’ve finally been able to catch up on my blog a bit.  Currently we’re still on “weather hold” and the fog does not appear to be lifting.  If the flight is canceled, I’ll try to find a place to stay in Nome tonight (the place I’ve been staying is full up!) and maybe try to get on a flight tomorrow.  Travelers to Alaska sometimes have to be flexible and patient.  But it’s worth putting up with the weather and the delays to be able to visit a special place like this.

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There’s No Place Like Nome

Nome Scenery

After a week driving north (to Denali) and south (to the Kenai) from Anchorage, I hopped a flight to Nome in western Alaska.  Nome is a small outpost on the Bering Sea.  It is surrounded by tundra, mountains, ice, and some very cool birds that are hard to see elsewhere in North America.  There are three dirt roads leading out of town (some 75 miles each), so the plan was to rent a pickup truck and drive into the wilderness to see what I could find.

I met Neil Hayward from the Boston area a few months ago thanks to the miracle of the internet and the online birding community.  Neil is doing a North American Big Year in 2013, and what a year it has been so far.  He has been doing some amazing trips and seeing some great stuff, and he agreed to meet me in Nome for four days of intense birding.

Neil at Bluethroat

I was so glad to have Neil along for this leg of my trip.  He is an excellent birder, and a great traveling companion.  I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the area with him.

We both arrived in Nome on the afternoon of June 5th, but our rental pickup wasn’t available until the morning of the 6th.  Fortunately we bumped into Abe Borker and his father Joe, who very graciously invited us to ride along with them in their truck for an afternoon of birding the Council Road and Safety Lagoon.  We didn’t need to be asked twice, and soon the four of us were off.

Nome Council Rd

We had a fantastic afternoon.  Some highlights for the day were two Arctic Loons, Red Phalaropes, an Emperor Goose, and this Gyrfalcon (and three fuzzy babies) nesting under a bridge:

Gyrfalcon nest

I got a few pictures of some birds that were close to the road, including Bar-tailed Godwits (two in their alternate breeding plumage and one still in basic winter plumage):

Bar-tailed Godwits

Numerous Red-necked Phalaropes:

Red-necked Phalaropes

And a second-summer Slaty-backed Gull (to the right of the white immature Glaucous Gull):

2nd Summer Slatybacked Gull

We also saw a fox, and the remains of a Tundra Swan that presumably had been the fox’s breakfast this morning.

Tundra swan wing

Further along the road, there were reminders of Nome’s history as a gold rush town.  Gold was discovered in this area in 1897, and a few years later the area was inundated with prospectors.  It was the largest town in the Alaska Territory by the turn of the Century a few years later.  Reminders of this era remain in many places today, like this old abandoned gold dredging machine.

Abandoned Gold Dredge

A railroad line was even planned and built in the early 1900s from Nome to Council City.  Although it was never completed all the way to Council City, the line ran for several years until about 1907.  Difficulties with construction, operation, and financing stalled the project, and in 1913 the line was wiped out by a huge storm.  The cars and engines still sit in the tundra where they were wrecked, nearly 100 years ago.

Abandoned Railway

Abe, Joe, Neil, and I explored the Council Road area late into the evening.  With sunset around 1:30 am, there was seemingly no reason to end our trip.  We finally rolled back into Nome about 10:30 pm, and were fortunate to find one local establishment still open: the Bering Sea Bar and Restaurant.  After a meal, I headed to bed.  Sunrise would come early (4:28 am), and I had three more days of birding ahead of me.

I often end my posts with a pretty shot of the sunset, but this time you’ll just have to use your imagination.

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South Florida Photo Essay

I have arrived in South Florida.  I’ve actually been here for several days, but have been too busy trying to see everything there is to see here to work on my photos and blog posts.  I’m here in the Sunshine State to see some special subtropical birds which reach the northern (or western) edge of their range here, and also to catch a bit more of spring migration as birds stream through Florida on their way north.  Also, at the end of my trip I’ll be catching a boat out to the Dry Tortugas, a set of islands in the Gulf of Mexico about 65 miles west of Key West.  (More on that later!)

Instead of taking you through my travels here so far chronologically or geographically, I’m just going to post a bunch of pictures and tell you a little about each one (or at least about most of them).

There is a lot of water in Florida.  The ocean and the gulf, ponds, canals, wetlands, mudflats, and the Everglades (which is basically like one giant sheet of extremely shallow water).

Wakodahatchee Wetlands

All of this water is a bonanza for water birds of all types: herons, egrets, sandpipers, cormorants, etc.  Here is one of my favorite, the Least Bittern:

Least Bittern

That is an adult, hunting for minnows in the shallow water.  A juvenile Least Bittern peeks out of a nest not far away:

Least Bittern Chick

Cattle Egrets are everywhere.  They often forage in the same fields with livestock, eating the insects and other small animals kicked up by the large mammals.  It’s also nesting time for the Cattle Egrets, and here are two making a nest together:

Cattle Egret nest

I think this Double-crested Cormorant is too hot, based on its “panting” behavior:

Cormorant

The riotous pink of Roseate Spoonbills are everywhere.  My daughter loves these the best.  This picture is for you, Piper!  I’ll try to get a better photo later this week.

Spoonbill

Black-necked Stilts are making a terrible racket.  Some people call them “pool poodles” due to their incessant high-pitched yapping:

Black-necked Stilt

Sandpipers, like this Solitary Sandpiper, are stopping off for a just a quick refueling on their way up to the Arctic.

Solitary Sandpiper

There are some cool plants here as well, like palm trees

Royal Palms

and many species of epiphytes (which grow on other plants):

Epiphytes

The Strangler Fig is a special kind of Ficus tree that starts life as an epiphyte.  Its seed lands in the top of a tree (thanks to a bird, who ate a fig fruit shortly beforehand, and excreted the inedible part).  The seed sprouts and lives as an epiphyte for several years.  Meanwhile, it sends runners down the trunk of its host tree, which eventually reach the forest floor and grow into roots.  The Ficus grows larger and larger, and eventually “strangles” the host tree, usually killing it.  It’s an ingenious evolutionary adaptation to living in dense tropical forests where little light usually reaches the forest floor.  Here’s a strangler fig near the Anhinga Trail at Everglades National Park:

Strangler Fig

I have a lot more cool pictures and stories to share, but it’s late (and I have a very early appointment tomorrow with a very annoying sparrow), so I will leave you with this turtles.  They have it pretty good, I think: soaking up sun by the pool, eating some flowers, and watching the gators float by.

Turtles

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More Migration Miracles

As I mentioned in my previous post, there are a number of migrant oases dotted along the Gulf Coast which can be good for seeing neotropical migrants winging their way past.  I visited a several of them, from the South Padre Island Convention Center to Lafitte’s Cove near Galveston all the way to Peveto Woods in southwestern Louisiana.

Welcome to Louisiana

Peveto Woods

But some of the oldest and most famous coastal migrant traps are the Houston Audubon Society’s nature preserves in the tiny town of High Island.  Boy Scout Woods and Smith Oaks have been attracting birds and bird watchers to this section of the Texas coast for decades.

Boy Scout Woods

When the north wind blows, Boy Scout Woods can blow your mind with an incredible diversity and sheer numbers of birds.  While I was there, a moderate southeast wind was predominant; good weather for migrating, and many birds overflew the coast riding the favorable tailwind, stopping miles inland at larger tracts of favorable habitat.  Even under these conditions, the sanctuaries at High Island produced a slow but steady influx of warblers, tanagers, buntings, and orioles.  And while small songbirds (known more formally as passerines) are the usual highlight at High Island, the sanctuaries also play host to other kinds of migrating birds, like this nighthawk, who is trying to catch a quick nap before continuing on its migration once night falls again.

Lesser Nighthawk

High Island also serves another function, a more social one for us humans.  It is one of the great Meccas of the birding world.  All serious birders eventually make the pilgrimage to High Island, and it’s a great place to meet and talk to other birders.  Some of them are from up the street, and some of them are from Europe, South America, or Australia.  Some are first timer newbie birders who marvel at the local Cardinals, and some are grizzled veterans who can ID a flying Prothonotary Warbler from 200 yards away, just by its ‘chip’ call note.

The grandstand area is the grand central station of the High Island birding community.  Audubon memberships and t-shirts are bought and sold.  Wooden bleachers have been set up near a small pond, a water drop, and a fruiting mulberry tree.  Birds and birders circulate there throughout the day to see and be seen.

High Island

There is a network of trails and boardwalks that go throughout the property, which travel through a couple of different habitats from weedy fields to mature stands of oak.

BSW Trail

The sanctuaries use to host several dozen hundred-year old oak trees, but many of them were damaged or killed by a series of hurricanes that included Ike and Rita.  While they are different places now with many of the big trees gone, the High Island sanctuaries are still good for birds, and a new generation of trees is growing up.

Of course, there are many species of birds who are on tremendous journeys of their own for whom trees and bushes offer no respite at all.  Shorebirds like sandpipers, plovers, godwits, and curlews need open fields, mudflats, and beaches to feed and rest.  Houston Audubon is doing its part to help these birds as well, and I spent an afternoon at their Bolivar Flats tidelands preserve a dozen miles or so south of High Island on the coast.

Bolivar Flats Sign

There I got to see thousands of shorebirds taking a break from their epic trips.  Some of these birds “winter” in Patagonia (during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer!) at the southern tip of South America and breed at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alaska.

This Red Knot is just transitioning into his rusty summer plumage.

Red Knot

I saw many, many Willets, including this one who was doing a dance (I think it was the Willet Hokey Pokey):

Willet dance

Each shorebird was hanging out in its own preferred habitat.  This Long-billed Curlew stalked the waterline:

LB Curlew

A Hudsonian Godwit fed in the grass:

Hudsonian Godwit

And Wilson’s Plovers loafed in the dry sand up the beach:

Wilson's Plover

Protecting this habitat is vitally important for migrating shorebirds.  Yes, they can travel 10,000 miles in matter of weeks.  But they can’t do it if they don’t have rest and refueling stations along the way.  If the entire Gulf Coast succumbs to beach condos and oil refineries, these shorebirds will be squeezed out of existence.

Oil refinery

Fortunately, groups like Houston Audubon, the Nature Conservancy, and the Texas Ornithological Society are fighting to preserve important sections of coastline, and the birds who call this area home.  One way to learn more about shorebirds and their amazing migrations is to band them.  Researchers place tiny plastic and metal bands on the birds’ legs, and use them to track the birds along their migration route.  I was fortunate enough to spot a banded Piping Plover, and used the internet to report my sighting to the ornithologists who banded it.  If you look closely, you can see the red and white bands on its legs in the picture below:

Banded Piping Plover

My trip to Texas is winding up, and it is time to go home and spend some time with my family.  Soon, it will also be time to finish planning my next adventure:  Florida and the Dry Tortugas.

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