At 3:15 A.M. yesterday morning. Bill Osborn, who had already showered, rustled through his luggage and woke me up. I groggily opened one eye to peer out the window. It was already light out! Nobody wants to get up at this hour, but it had to be done. This would maximize our chances of seeing them. I woke Jim up, then showered myself. It was the start of what would be a very long day. A hearty breakfast was served at the Solomon B & B at 4:00 AM and after some confusion with the keys our Wings group was on the road by 4:40 AM. The journey led us up the Kougarok Road. The Kougarok – one of the three wilderness roads out of Nome and a legend among birders for what lay ahead at mile marker 72 ½. Ten days ago the Kougarok was still closed for the season due to snow beyond mile marker 26, but fortunately was now open. It was a three-hour drive not including a few stops along the way for Bluethroat, Rock and Willow Ptarmigan, and a search for Gyrfalcon Each of these birds were happily viewed and certainly important to me from a “Big Year” perspective, but the prize lay ahead. We all knew that.
Alaska is the last great wilderness and the Seward Peninsula is one of the wildest. No National Parks with boundaries, just treeless, wild land composed mainly of willows and tundra. Moose, Musk Ox and Grizzly were all seen yesterday. Songbirds were singing everywhere in the early morning sun.
Harlequin Ducks swimming in the wild, untamed rivers that crisscrossed the Kougarok. The arctic tundra burst forth in bloom with wildflowers. All these images swirled around me as we drove towards mile marker 72 ½. Somewhere along the way we joined forces with Wilderness Birding Tours for the climb up Coffee Dome.
Eventually we all arrived. It seemed an eternity but was actually around 10:00 AM . So twenty some odd birders began the ¾ mile climb. Four others remained at the vehicles hoping to glimpse Our target was the Bristle-thighed Curlew. A rare bird anywhere, the world population is only somewhere between 5,000-10,000 birds. They breed over a limited range in western Alaska on high tundra ridges and winter on small tropical islands across a large expanse of the Pacific Ocean. They weren’t even discovered breeding on the Kougarok Rd. till the late 80’s!
All of a sudden the haunting cry of a Bristle-thighed Curlew rang loudly above me. What a sound. I quickly located the displaying bird and watched it land next to it’s mate on the upland tundra. Everyone was thrilled with the stunning views. A beautiful, clear, sunny blue sky was the backdrop for these handsome curlews surrounded by arctic wildflowers. This was special – the bird, the setting and the thrill of exploring one of America’s last wild roads – The Kougarok.
I should add that the trip back added Grizzly Bear, Rusty Blackbird, Northern Wheatear and even a couple of gray phased Gyrfalcons.