Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, July 7, 2022

Alaska, Part 6: Birding the Nome-Taylor, or Kougarok, Road

Driving through the tundra

Now that our Alaska tour group had birded the road heading out of Nome to the northwest—the Teller Road—and the road heading to the northeast—the Council Road—it was time to head more directly north, on the Nome-Taylor or Kougarok Road. 

We didn’t drive the entire 85-mile road on June 15—the plan was to bird our way to what birders call “Curlew Mountain,” at Milepost 72.5.  

Seward Peninsula showing three roads out of Nome

The birding along the Kougarok Road was spectacular. Birds of prey included a few Short-eared Owls and a distant Golden Eagle on its nest.

Golden Eagle on nest

American Golden-Plovers were stunning. 

American Golden-Plover

American Golden-Plover

That was a day when Russ and I were sitting in the last seats in the van, but since most of the travel didn’t involve getting in and out of the van—everyone saw most of the birds through the windows—it didn’t matter much until a pair of Pacific Loons in a pond swam right next to the road for amazing views. That was the moment I wished the hardest that the van windows opened. Two layers of window glass made what could have been shockingly wonderful photos hazy, but it was still thrilling to see them and the pictures I took may always be the best Pacific Loon photos I’ve ever taken. 

Pacific Loon through the van windows

Pacific Loon through the van windows

Pacific Loon through the van windows

We arrived at Curlew Mountain about 2 PM as one discouraged group was coming down, not entirely certain they'd seen one. (To be successful at finding new species, we birders really do need to study up to make sure we can recognize the ones we want to see. People do often mistake Whimbrels for Bristle-thighed Curlews, so learning how they differ in plumage and sound is essential!)

A birding group coming down "Curlew Mountain"

Barry and Erik had allotted 3–4 hours to either find the Bristle-thighed Curlews or get discouraged enough to turn back. As soon as we stopped, everyone put on boots. Birding websites strongly recommend NEOS overboots, which is what our leader Barry Zimmer wears for this particular trek, so Russ had bought a pair specifically for this hike. Erik Bruhnke told me he wears rubber boots for this hike, and I figured I could probably get by with my trusty old LaCrosse rubber boots.

Booted up and ready to tackle Curlew Mountain!

On some of these trips, every participant falls at least once—tundra tussocks look innocuous but are very difficult to negotiate while keeping your balance—but at least there’d be a soft landing onto thick herbaceous vegetation. The big danger is twisting an ankle. I knew I’d need a little more ankle support than my rubber boots could give, so before donning them, I wrapped my ankles in Ace bandages. I also grabbed one of my hiking sticks—I can’t use both because one hand is always holding my camera—and as soon as all of us were booted up, we headed up the dome. 

Bristle-thighed Curlew

Erik led the group up a trail that was worn into the hillside by so many birders, over so many years, making this same quest. Barry set off on a different route to widen the area that he and Erik could see and hear. Our climb was narrow, muddy, and slippery, but not what I’d call arduous, and with my walking stick, it was a piece of cake. Barry, off to one side on the tundra vegetation, was the only one out of all of us who fell. 

Half the people who try to find the Bristle-thighed Curlew fail. I thought about the other half—the half I wanted to be part of—and focused my eyes and ears on searching for the bird. We hadn’t hiked more than ten or fifteen minutes—the vans were still in view and we were still quite a distance from the crest of the dome where most sightings are made—when Barry saw one, and then a pair! Erik made a cool imitation with his own voice and they flew over! Hokey smokes! Two Bristle-thighed Curlews before any of us had broken a sweat. 

Bristle-thighed Curlew

I got photos of one flying over and then of the male, who landed a couple hundred yards from us, allowing very good scope views and some marginal photos. 

Bristle-thighed Curlew

We took photos of our triumphant, happy group, the curlews still in view, and then headed back down, making it to the vans a mere 37 minutes after we’d headed out! 

Success! (a reenactment)

We birded the way back, picking up a very distant Northern Shrike (the only one we’d see on the whole 2-week adventure) and a lovely Merlin, closer, perched in the fog. 

Merlin in the fog

We also saw musk oxen for the last time in Nome.

Musk Ox

When we got back to town, we got a group photo by the Iditarod finish line.

End of the Nome leg of the trip

Erik took a photo of Russ and me there. What a perfect way to end a perfect Nome adventure. 

Russ and me in Nome, photo by Erik Bruhnke

The next morning we'd be flying back to Anchorage for the Grand Alaska Tour, Part II. 

Heading back to Anchorage from Nome