Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Alaska, Part 4: Birding the Nome-Council Road

Red-throated Loon on nest

Nome is on the Bering Sea, so many of the unusual birds that turn up here from Eurasia are waterbirds. So naturally our birding group spent more time on the one road out of Nome that traces the shoreline. The Nome-Council Road, a 72-mile gravel road between Nome and the Niukluk River, traces the coast of the Seward Peninsula along the Bering Sea for almost half the road's length. 

Much of the coastal birding we did near Nome starting the day we arrived was along the first stretch of the Council Road, which passes Cape Nome, the Nome Harbor, and the Safety Lagoon. The stretch between Nome and the no-longer-existing coastal town of Solomon is part of the Iditarod Trail. The Safety Roadhouse, on Safety Sound 22 miles east of Nome along the Council Highway, is nicknamed “the best dive bar on earth” and serves as the final checkpoint of the Iditarod before the finish line in Nome.  

Safety Roadhouse: The last checkpoint for the Iditarod

Sign near the Safety Roadhouse

At Solomon, the Council Road turns inland and heads northeast, ending abruptly just before it reaches the river and the community of Council on the far side. No bridge crosses the Niukluk, and to discourage people from attempting to cross in their vehicles, the end of the Council Road is very clearly marked. 

End of the Council Road

We did a bit of the Council Road the evening of June 13, after birding the Teller Road all day. At Cape Nome I got my lifer Thick-billed Murre. 

Thick-billed Murre

On June 14, we birded the Council Road all the way to its end. When we reached the Solomon area, we found a lifer Eastern Yellow Wagtail.. My photos weren't good, but this turned out to be the only one we’d see on the entire trip.  

Eastern Yellow Wagtail

When we worked our way inland, we watched saw moose again. 

Moose cow

Moose calf

I got a taste of home seeing distant Northern Harriers and a closer Rough-legged Hawk—two species that migrate in good numbers over Hawk Ridge. 

Rough-legged Hawk

We also got to see four Gyrfalcon chicks on the nest and one of their parents, probably the mother, standing guard on a distant cliff. 

Gyrfalcon nestlings

Gyrfalcon

I had more trouble photographing the Boreal Chickadee, American Tree Sparrow, and American Pipit here than I usually do in Duluth, but somehow birds nesting in such a remote area so far from my home are magical anyway. 

American Tree Sparrow

When we made it back to the Safety Lagoon outisde Nome, Erik Bruhnke spotted an extremely rare Arctic Loon at quite a distance. The Arctic Loon is an old world species; the almost identical Pacific Loon breeds and winters in North America. The Arctic Loon’s important distinguishing feature is its white flanks. I got clear looks through both Erik and Barry’s scopes, but the water obscured the bird’s sides most of the time, so I had to watch steadily for full minutes at a time in order to get clear glimpses of the white flanks when the bird was at the crest of a wave. My photos are singularly poor, but at least hint at the defining white flanks. 

Extremely distant Arctic Loon

As if to celebrate, all four other species of loons showed up that very day, though the Yellow-billed Loon was a fly-by and I couldn’t get a photo in time. A VERY close Red-throated Loon on a nest was too close to the road for us to pile out of the van for photos, which would have disturbed her. So my pictures were taken through the window.

Red-throated Loon on nest

I also got a distant quick look at three Emperor Geese as they took off. Only a few of us even got to see them so I can hardly whine about not getting a picture.  

That was it for our full day on the Council Road. We birded a short stretch of it again before our flight out of Nome on June 16th, when I saw my lifer Stejneger’s Scoter (a Eurasian species split from the White-winged Scoter in 2019). That bird was a long distance away, and like the Arctic Loon, I had to be patient to see its defining characteristics—black rather than brownish flanks and a much more pronounced knob on its bill. The bird was in a long line of scoters and eiders, and I can’t be 100 percent certain that the bird in my photographs is the definite Stejneger’s Scoter we saw through the scope. 

Possible Stejneger's Scoter (left) at a great distance.

Within that flock were also the only breeding King Eiders I’ve ever seen in my life, so the great distance was frustrating—breeding male King Eiders are stunning! 

King Eider

But birds go where they want, not taking some strange birder’s photographic yearnings into account. If I wanted birds to pose for me, I’d go to a zoo. 


Alaska, Part 3: Birding the Nome-Teller Road

Bluethroat

Three roads diverged in the city of Nome, and unlike Robert Frost, my Alaska birding group didn’t have to choose between them. We gave each a full day.  

The Nome-Teller Road runs 73 miles northwest from Nome to the Inupiat village of Teller. During the Gold Rush, Teller was a boom town with more than 5,000 people; now it’s home to about 250 people, over 90 percent of them Inupiat. 

We drove on the Nome-Teller Road twice but didn’t get close to Teller either time. It was the first road we explored in Nome, starting after lunch when we arrived on June 12. That afternoon we just went as far as Mile Marker 15, stopping where our leader knew we had a good chance of finding our first Bluethroat.  

Bluethroat

This gorgeous relative of the European Robin can be found in North America only in northern Alaska and the Yukon. One of the easiest, most reliable places to find Bluethroats on this continent is along the Teller Road, which comes closer than any North American road to the species’ primary range in Eurasia.  

Bluethroat

Before we’d found the singing Bluethroat, we’d already seen two other important target species. The dainty, understated Arctic Warbler, like the Bluethroat, is a songbird whose primary breeding range is northern Eurasia.  

Arctic Warbler

The iconic musk ox is native to Arctic areas of Northern Canada, Greenland, and Alaska, but the Alaskan population was wiped out in the late 19th or early 20th century, primarily due to hunting. Reintroduction programs are bringing them back to the Alaska landscape.

Musk Ox

The next day, June 13, we set out to explore the Teller Road more extensively. Weather conditions were what a pessimist might expect on a June day in northern Alaska: windy with drizzle, sleet, and snow. I was glad we got the Bluethroat the day before because little songbirds were trickier in this, and at many stops we all stayed in the van, observing, and photographing, birds through the van windows. That's why many of my photos are a bit fuzzy.

We got a few opportunities to enjoy Alaska’s state bird, the Willow Ptarmigan. 

Willow Ptarmigan

My students back in the 1970s named the Willow Ptarmigan the winner of their contest to find “the weirdest bird call in the universe.” Unfortunately, our group on the Teller Road merely saw these ptarmigans—it was too windy to hear them even if they had been calling. 

Willow Ptarmigan

We also saw such wondrous creatures as a Gyrfalcon and Whimbrels, too far for photos. 

Around Mile 34, near an isolated mountain dome high enough to create its own weather, where the rocky ground and sparse tundra vegetation provide ideal habitat for Rock Ptarmigan, we encountered them both coming and going, including a female returning to her nest.  

Rock Ptarmigan

Rock Ptarmigan

Rock Ptarmigan on nest

We also saw a displaying Red Knot, breeding Pacific Golden-Plovers... 

Pacific Golden-Plover

...a host of Long-tailed Jaegers...

Long-tailed Jaeger

... and one or two Northern Wheatears. I’ve seen this bird only once before, in Duluth of all places. Even though these Teller Road birds were quite far away, I was thrilled to finally get pictures. 

Northern Wheatear

At about Mile 40, we took a side road to Woolley Lagoon. This little side road is owned by the King Island Native Corporation and runs from the Teller Road to the King Island people's traditional fishing camps at Woolley Lagoon. Although this is a public right-of-way road in summer, the land is private, belonging to the Native King Islanders, and visitors are asked to stay near the road.  We saw breeding Dunlins, more Pacific Golden-Plovers, and a male Black-bellied Plover doing his broken-wing display. 

Black-bellied Plover

As unpleasant as the weather was most of the day, we didn’t have to deal with heavy precipitation—either in rain or snow form—or freezing temperatures. Highs had been in the low 40s here in Duluth most of May, so the drizzly 40-ish conditions felt rather homey to me. Some people stayed in the van for our lunch of Subway sandwiches, but Russ and I enjoyed ours out on the tundra. 

Lunch on the tundra

Where we turned around to head back toward Nome was and will almost certainly remain the farthest west I’ve ever been in North America. I’d had a wonderful time, and there were still two more roads stretching out before me. 


Friday, July 1, 2022

Independence Day as Freedom Ebbs

Black-capped Chickadee

This Independence Day, as I look out at my red-blooded, all-American chickadees, each one free as a bird, friendly but with a clear “Don’t tread on me!” attitude if anyone threatens it, I can’t help but think about the freedoms a great many of us stand to lose in the coming days. 

Russ and I got married in March 1972 when we were both undergraduates in college. We’d been good friends since high school, shared the same values about fundamental issues, and our life goals were well aligned. We hoped to have children after he finished his Ph.D. and had a job as a scientist. I’d finish my degree and become a teacher for a time, but the same enjoyment of and love for children that led me to a teaching career in the first place also made me want to be a stay-at-home mommy when we had our own. 

Russ and Laura right after we were married.

That was a professional choice I made, knowing myself as a person, not any kind of belief that taking care of children is somehow naturally woman’s work. In every way, Russ and I felt like equals, though of course we weren’t, legally speaking. I was the one who was not legally entitled to take out a loan or a credit card in my own name without him or my father co-signing. An officer at one of the banks I worked at said it was perfectly fair to pay men a higher wage than women for the exact same job—men were “the heads of households, with dependents!” When I responded that a lot of the men working there, including him, were single, and one woman with at least ten years seniority was financially responsible for her children and her disabled Vietnam-veteran husband, yet was paid less than two men she was training, this officer didn’t see an issue. 

But I was hopeful: before we got married, the U.S. House of Representatives had voted to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, and the Senate followed suit four days after our wedding. The Amendment had to be ratified by 38 states within the next 7 years, but it had such widespread, bipartisan support that I had no doubt it would be the law of the land by the time I had my first baby. Either a son or a daughter would be equally protected. 

Then in 1973, we had a pregnancy scare. We knew we wanted children, but Russ had just started working on his master’s degree, I was still an undergrad, and we had zero savings, barely getting by month to month. If we had a baby, one of us would have to leave college to work full time. Logically, and in all fairness, that would have been me—Russ was far more intellectually, emotionally, and practically invested in his planned career than I was in mine, and to get there, he needed advanced degrees. But without even a bachelor's degree, I'd have been stuck working in a bank or waitressing to keep food on the table when I longed to provide my own childcare when the time came. Russ and I agonized for days about what I would do, but then fate, or God, or a roll of the dice made the decision for me. I miscarried. 

Fifty years later, there’s no way of knowing how either of our lives would have turned out had our family started in 1973 rather than 1981. Even if I’d managed somehow to finish my degree and become a teacher, I wouldn’t have had free evenings and weekends to invest in my students the way I wanted. And I’d not be a birder at all, or would not have started when I did. Even without a baby, Russ and I were barely getting by from month to month. If we’d been scraping by with a baby, we’d have been focused on practical needs, and he wouldn’t have asked his mom to get me binoculars and a field guide for Christmas in 1974. No way would I have had the time or leisure to spend so much time studying birds anyway, and ornithology classes would have been completely out of reach, financially and in terms of time. 

Laura's new binoculars!

Virtually all of us think about the ways our lives could have been better if only this or that had happened differently. I wish I’d discovered birding as a child, or at least in time to major in ornithology when I started college. I wish I’d had the money, time, and courage to start traveling to other countries before I was 50. I wish I’d remembered my earplugs or not gone to the noisy Orlando venue in 2006 when I lost my high frequency hearing. I wish I’d taken up bird photography much sooner. 

But I can’t help but think of ways my life could have been much, much worse. I’m grateful that Russ’s and my plans worked out pretty much the way we’d hoped back in 1972, and that we ended up with the particular children and grandchild we so deeply love. I'm also grateful for the amazing richness birds and birding have given me—something I never imagined on our wedding day.

An owl and his human

I'm glad I didn’t have to make a decision in 1973, but I’m also glad that at that point in American history, any decision was mine to make. I learned later that I had a poor chance of surviving a pregnancy then. We had no way of knowing that a bizarre cyst was growing on one of my fallopian tubes until it tied itself around my intestines in 1979. The surgeon told me I probably wouldn’t have survived a pregnancy before it was discovered and removed. If I’d made the choice to continue the pregnancy, that terrifying outcome would have been my own responsibility. If a Supreme Court decision had forced me to continue the pregnancy against my will and it ended up killing me, that would have been unforgivable. 

In such deeply private, personal matters, Americans should be as free as chickadees to choose our destiny without the Supreme Court stealing our agency. On this and every Independence Day, I want every woman to be able to say, "I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul." 

Black-capped Chickadee waiting for mealworms

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Alaska, Part 2: Nome!

Russ and me in Nome, photo by Erik Bruhnke
Erik Bruhnke took this photo of Russ and me in Nome at the end of a long but triumphant day, when we saw the Bristle-thighed Curlew. 

At the height of the Gold Rush in 1900, Nome (on the southern shore of the Seward Peninsula in Norton Sound in the Bering Sea) was the largest village in Alaska, listed in the U.S. Census as having a population of 12,488. During the following decade, as the Gold Rush ebbed, Nome’s population dropped by almost 80 percent. The 1910 census listed just 2,600 residents, putting Nome behind Fairbanks in population. By 1920, after losing fully half of the Native population in the flu epidemic, only 852 residents remained. A hundred years later, Nome’s population in the 2020 census was 3,699, making it the 31st largest city in the state.  

Seward Peninsula showing three roads out of Nome
This Track My Tour map of the Seward Peninsula shows the three roads out of Nome.

The saying may be “All roads lead to Rome,” but NO roads lead to Nome. Three gravel roads do connect Nome with tiny villages, but not a single highway or railroad line connects Nome with any larger city—to get there, you must travel by air, water, or sled dog.  

Nome is of course famous as the destination where, in winter 1925, a relay of sled dogs carried ampules of diphtheria antitoxin to save Nome’s people during an outbreak. The only aircraft that could quickly deliver the medicine from Anchorage was frozen and would not start, so officials transported the serum north to Nenana by train, and then northwest to Nome via a relay of more than 20 sled dog teams. The famous Balto was among the team that made the final run to Nome, saving thousands of lives. The Iditarod sled dog race was inspired in part by that “Great Race of Mercy.” 

The Iditarod makes its sentimental start in Anchorage with a great deal of fanfare, but that first leg of the race is purely symbolic, the time not counting until the race’s “restart” the next day, currently 80 miles north of Anchorage in Willow Lake. (Climate change threatens this: in 2015, due to unusually warm conditions and lack of snow, the restart was temporarily moved to Fairbanks.) I didn’t see the starting point in Anchorage, but our group passed the finish line in Nome several times, and one day we rode past the last checkpoint, at the Safety Roadhouse, on the Council Road.  

Safety Roadhouse

We arrived in Nome on June 12 in late morning. While our two leaders, Barry and Erik, went to get the rental vans and the rest of us waited outside at the airport parking lot, we saw our first three Nome birds—a Long-tailed Jaeger and White-crowned Sparrow, both of which we saw over and over throughout the next four days, and a White Wagtail perched on a power line, right there in front of us for several minutes. 

White Wagtail

We figured it must be pretty common, so when we mentioned seeing it to Erik and Barry, we didn’t realize that it would be our group's only sighting, which the leaders missed! Oddly enough, the next day the two of them saw one that the rest of us missed. 

We piled into the vans for the short ride to Nome's Subway restaurant, which doubles as the town’s movie theater. 

Subway in Nome

The Bering Sea from Subway

We ate our lunches at tables looking out on the Bering Sea as rumbles from the new Jurassic Park movie leaked in, and then our group headed out to see what we could see a bit east of town at the mouth of the Nome River. In just a tiny hike here, I got my first two lifers of the trip—dainty and beautiful Aleutian Terns... 

Aleutian Tern

Aleutian Tern

...and distant Bar-tailed Godwits.  

Bar-tailed Godwit, Black-legged Kittiwake

We also saw lots of birds we'd see again, such as Red-throated Loons...

Red-throated Loon

...Western Sandpipers...

Western Sandpiper

...and Long-tailed Ducks.

Long-tailed Duck

One of the three gravel roads out of Nome, the Nome-Teller Road, runs northwest for 72 miles until it reaches the Inupiat village of Teller. For the remainder of our first afternoon in Nome, we birded the first 15 miles of this road, seeing our first musk oxen... 

Musk Ox

...and an American Dipper...

American Dipper

...as well as two more lifers for me—Arctic Warbler...

Arctic Warbler

... and Bluethroat. 

Bluethroat

Then it was time to return to Nome, check into our hotel, and head to dinner.  

Aurora Inn Nome

That night I did something utterly unprecedented: I skipped an optional after-dinner birding outing to Cape Nome in search of a vagrant Brambling that had been hanging around. I’ve seen that species just once in my life, in February 1989 when one turned up in East Grand Forks. I'd have dearly loved to photograph one, but I was just too exhausted. As it turned out I didn’t miss anything unbearable—the handful of birders who did go saw neither the Brambling nor any other birds that the rest of us wouldn’t see later. The optional trip did yield an unusually bushy-tailed Red Fox that I’d have loved to see; I didn’t see a fox on the entire trip. Whether or not I saw new birds and mammals, though, it was disconcerting to stay back, making such a concession to the aging process. Fortunately, that was the only time I missed any birding opportunities on the entire trip. 

We’d return to Cape Nome, the mouth of the Nome River, and Nome Harbor several times in the following days, when we'd get our only looks at a Slaty-backed Gull (along with more frequently seen Glaucous-winged Gulls)... 

Slaty-backed Gull (first cycle) and Glaucous-winged Gull

... and a lifer Thick-billed Murre. 

Thick-billed Murre

We took a whole day each to bird the three roads out of Nome, but each deserves its own blogpost.

Nome is located 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, making it the farthest north I’ve ever been in my life. And when we reached the 72.5 mile marker on the Kougarok Road on June 15, that became the farthest north I probably will ever be—we were closer to the Arctic Circle than Duluth is to the Twin Cities! Being there the week of the Solstice, we never did see any real darkness at night.  

During the four days we spent in Nome, we saw or heard 114 species, of which 10 were lifers. This was a truly thrilling adventure I could never forget even without the 2,000 photos I took during those four days. As it is, I have those lovely memories AND a whole lot of pictures! 

Bluethroat