03 June 2015

Birding Nome, Alaska - spring in the US Arctic

This May we set out on a 4 week adventure to explore some of the top birding destinations of the North American Arctic. Birding the Alaskan tundra of the Seward Peninsula is strangely familiar to our own region, the Varanger Peninsula. The landscape, the birds and even the architecture is similar in many ways. The following is the last of a trio of blogposts from our recent Biotope Alaska birding trip. We arrived Nome on May 17th and spent 4 days birding the Seward Peninsula before we flew to Gambell, St.Lawrence island on the 21st of May. We spent 4 days on Gambell before returning to Nome where we spent our last 3 days of our Alaska adventure. The timing was brilliant as we got to experience the sudden arrival of spring. In just a few days Nome and the surrounding areas exploded with life. Nome´s Safety Sound instantly became our favourite hotspot for birding. The wetlands was packed with birds as this was one of few productive places with open water.

The below Biotope aerials are taken just 5 days apart! What an amazing speed of melting. The intensity of birdlife in the sound as ´spring breaks´ was unbelievable. Duck, geese, divers,  waders and passerines in thousands foraged in the melting wetlands. 

Safety Sound on May 20th

Safety Sound on May 26th

As birders and architects we are interested in experiencing places with similar qualities as Varanger of Arctic Norway. We are also pursuing an idea of exploring the northern hemispheres top nature destinations. The Arctic regions of the world is getting more and more press, but to us it seems too much of this is from oil and gas projects. More pro nature press and awareness is needed. There are few people living in the Arctic and the communities are small and fragile in many ways. We are interested in exploring how nature based tourism, conservation and science can play a positive role in the north. In Varanger we have been part of a positive development based on the regions unique bird life and nature. The aim for all the projects we engage in is to have a positive impact on a community while keeping things local and sustainable. We believe that nature based tourism plays a key role in this. When handled nicely this generates both increased incomes in small communities, and also increased awareness and appreciation of nature.

Biotope birding Alaska, the Nome / Seward Peninsula section, May 17-20th + 24-27th.

We enjoyed days of driving the dirt roads of Seward Peninsula. 

Emperor Goose in Safety Sound. We had a total of 5 of these US Arctic specialities. Stunning birds. They stayed at the western part of the sound during the first half of our trip, and as soon as the snow and ice melted they where gone.  

A huge highlight of our trip was to see hundreds of Pacific Eiders. They where obviously hunted pretty heavily as they were impossible to get close to. Someone should make bird photo hides in Nome. This could provide some absolutely amazing photo opportunities of a series of very cool bird species. By the way: Europes first and only Pacific Eider was found from the Biotope office in Varanger, and stayed in Vardø, Varanger for more then a month. Surely the most stylish of the Common Eiders!

We had 11 Short-eared Owl in one day in Safety Sound. Amazing birds, and like the ever present Lapland Bunting (several hundreds every day) these are species we have in Varanger as well.  

Hunting Short-eared Owl in Safety Sound 

Fox Sparrow 

Golden-crowned Sparrow

The Teller Road

We took one day to drive the road to the small village Teller. The gravel road drive takes about two hours, but if you bird as you go it takes a full day to Teller and back. The treeless tundra landscape reminded us very much of Varanger. The abundance of Rock Ptarmigan and Willow Grouse was different. These birds are often few in Varanger and far apart (unless you come over the occasional 150 individual wintering flocks roaming the snowy tundra). We also enjoyed great views of Musk Ox. 

Teller village, home to 250 natives, with Brevik village in the background. Snow melting was happening much later here. 

 Musk Ox, outside Nome, on the road to Teller. What a match for the landscape!

Willow Grouse hung around the gravel roads in good numbers, and unlike the Varanger birds they provided us with nice photo opportunities.  

Rock Ptarmigan. Stunning views. 

Safety Sound

This became our favourite place to bird. The birdlife was constantly changing, and you could drive the Safety Sound road several times a day, and still have new birds coming in and discover new groups of arriving ducks and geese. During our first days in Nome there was more ice then water in Safety Sound. During the last few days the ice was almost all gone. Still as in all Arctic sites, despite sunshine and great weather the wind chill was considerable and almost ever present. This is where a few nicely situated bird hides / wind shelters would have made a great difference! 

Biotope, is like mentioned in previous blogposts, a family run architecture office. Which means mine and Elins daughter Lila joins us on most of our trips. A great learning experience and an opportunity to share our passion for nature and wildlife. 

The highlights of the Nome section of our Alaska adventure was many, but seeing the Bering speciality Aleutian Tern was a huge hlghlight. We had two Aleutian Terns on the 19th of May, sat of drift ice in the sea. By the time the ice had melted we had another 8 Aleutian Terns,  hunting and dancing (courting in a dancelike display on the beach). We also had a total of 8 Sabine´s Gulls. A great number of Long-tailed Skuas, and a couple of Arctic Skauas and Pomarine Skuas. 

Northern Harrier hunting along the Safety Sound beach grasslands 

 Pacific Diver take off. Another highlight species.

Arctic Architecture

As architects we like to study how people live and build in the Arctic. Again the similarities to Varanger, and several other Arctic destinations, is striking. It is not locally sourced materials that matter. It is rather industrial materials, reused, leftovers and repurposed. We have collected a wide range of examples by photography. Below is a couple of the cabins in Safety Sound, mostly built for summer use, for hunting and gathering food. They share the same modesty in size and price, but these cabins are brilliant in their display of personality, character, inventiveness and diversity.

Nome sweet Nome

We stayed at the Dredge 7 Inn (highly recommended) and used that as a base for our entire stay, as all places are available within a days drive from Nome town. Biotope aerials below. About 3000 people live in Nome. Surprisingly few deal with nature based tourism. We hope to come back and perhaps even one day contribute as birder architects. With the rich and amazing wildlife of this regions there certainly seems to be unexplored potential in the region. 

Check out our other two blogposts from Alaska:

Birding Alaska in spring - Homer & Seward / the Kenai Peninsula

Thanks for tuning in! 

Tormod Amundsen 

Architect & birder // twitter @BiotopeOffice  //  www.facebook.com/biotope.no