The Snowbirds of Nome

I awoke to 4” of fresh snow this morning and it was still snowing.  This could be good if I could find any feeders in town with seed in them because birds are always drawn to feeders during a snow storm, but it could be tricky driving east on the Council Hwy where the snowbirds (wht the locals call McKay’s Buntings) have been seen foraging in the dune grass the last week.  Nome is indeed a frontier town.  These people are rugged. In fact yesterday when I scouted the Icy View subdivision at dusk there was a musher on his cross-country skis being pulled by his sled dogs.

A Musher and His Sled Dogs in Icy View (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

A snow covered backyard and 30° F temperatures couldn’t deter two young kids from playing on their monkey bars.

Nome Children Playing After School (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

I’m still pretty sure there ain’t no lattes in Nome.  In fact while I was brushing off the snow on my Ford Explore this morning, a lady walked by in the dark with a paper cup of coffee. Temptation was just to great, I had to ask her, “Hi there, is that a latte your holding?”  She looked at me as if to say “what are you talking about…are you dense…do you think I live in Boulder?  There are NO lattes in Nome” then actually replied, “no it’s a coffee from the Tessero gas station down the street”.

Even though it was 8:00 AM, it was still pitch dark outside so I decided to grab breakfast.  I desired the antithesis of croissants and lattes and I found it at the Polar Café. Two eggs scrambled, hashbrowns and reindeer sausage! Mmmmmm…it was delicious.  Anyway, at 9:45 AM it was barely light enough to drive around though way to dark yet to ID a snowbird so I drove back over to Icy View. I had noticed a house with several empty feeders on my scouting trip so it seemed a good place to begin.  As I turned the corner in the predawn gloom two flashes of white exploded from the deck of that house, but they were gone immediately. It had to be them.  I stopped the car and snooped around. The feeders were empty, but there were bird tracks in the platform feeder. Fortunately, I had some bird seed of my own, lugged all the way from Colorado. I’d almost tossed it before the Bering Air flight to Gambell (Bering Air has a strict 50 lb. maximum weight rule), but figured I might need the bird seed at some point.  So I sprinkled some into the platform feeder and left.

I decided to explore the Council Road, but with 6 to 7” of snow on an unplowed road it was chancy.  I made it about five miles without seeing any snowbirds  and narrowly didn’t get stuck before I carefully turned around and returned to Nome.

The Council Highway East Out of Nome (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

It was time to check Icy View again. This time I went the opposite direction so as not to spook anything and Bingo! Two McKay’s Buntings – the snowbirds of Nome – were perched on a post next to the feeder I had filled.  How cool was that?

McKay's Buntings - The Snowbirds of Nome (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

McKay's Bunting in Icy View, Nome, AK (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

I actually ended up seeing a small flock of nine snowbirds in Icy View later in the day

All in all an exciting day and an adventuresome Alaskan trip. There are at least three thoughts I’ll take home with me.

  1. If  ever read the Twelve Days of Christmas to my grandchildren, I’ll always insert “Oriental” before “Turtle Dove”.
  2. I like reindeer sausage better than lattes
  3. I’ll always remember the snowbirds of Nome
This entry was posted in Blog. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to The Snowbirds of Nome

  1. Bill Kaempfer says:

    Too cool, John–what a neat bird. I suppose late-October tourists in Nome are even more unusual than lattes; but wait to you get home, we had about 6 inches of our own overnight.

  2. william vanderpoel says:

    Great bird and picture..the owner of Tanuki, a Japanese resturant in Sierra Vista remembers everything..she said Hi and goodluck with your Birding

    Bill V

  3. Peter Gent says:

    Great post John and congratulations – Rock Dove Tours is proud of you !!
    8″ of snow here in Boulder, CO and scheduled to snow the rest of the day.

  4. John says:

    What that guy with the dogs is doing? They have a name for that: skijoring.

  5. John says:

    …though I probably should add that it looks like he might just be taking his dogs for a walk.

  6. Marilyn Rhodes says:

    Congratulations on both birds, John! They are both absolutely gorgeous creatures. I am soooo envious. I love following this adventure of yours and know it won’t be long until you break 731…

  7. Steve Bobonick says:

    From the MA listserve:
    James P. Smith is currently looking at a PINK-FOOTED GOOSE on the Turner’s
    Falls Power Canal, Franklin Co., MA, with about 100 Canada Geese. He says it
    is hugging tight to the east shoreline, so going down the bike path could be
    very good for photography. James, as usual, got some digiscopes that he says
    he’ll be posting later. I expect he can give some advice on refinding the
    bird too, but one good bet would be the Power Canal at dawn and/or dusk

    This is the fourth state record, with the previous ones from Dennis and
    Falmouth in Barnstable County and last year’s bird in the Sudbury River
    Valley. This is also the state’s earliest record by a month or so.

  8. Bill Kaempfer says:

    Scott-You are so right; Esther’s article in The Atlantic is really, really good. She absolutely gets it and communicates it. (Even if I only get two lousy quotes!) Everyone should read this.

  9. Jason Berry says:

    Great Birds! When I began birding I always flipped to the McKay’s Bunting page and dreamed of seeing them one day. I still hope to do so, but if I don’t at least I finally know of one birder who has!

  10. Tom Eshelman says:

    Just finished reading your blogs from the beginning. What a marathon – it’s exhausting just to read. Best wishes for the final two months! After reading the book and seeing the movie, I wanted to know more about the birds and the strategies. Thanks for the education and the great pictures.

  11. John Vanderpoel says:

    You’re welcome, Tom. I’m glad that you’ve enjoyed the adventure!

  12. John Vanderpoel says:


    Nome is not as intimidating as you might think. Give it a try some day.


  13. Linda Vanderpoel says:

    I’m sure John would toss clothes before he would toss bird seed. . . . to meet the weight limit!!!

  14. Linda Vanderpoel says:

    Hey Bill Kaempfer. . . .what are you talking about, you only get two lousy quotes??? I’m only mentioned as “the wife”. . . . .

  15. Linda Vanderpoel says:

    also Bill you were even mentioned by name on the KGNU radio bit this morning . . . . . . .

  16. jon says:

    I am hoping to understand the migration of the Mckay Bunting as I am certain that I saw one today. I live in a little hamlet near the most southern tip of Lake Huron. I saw one today near our beach while walking my dog. Unfortunately I was not able to snap a picture. I am certain it was the Mckay but after looking where they live I am wondering if they migrated to this spot. If anyone can help me with this, please do. Regards; Jon Scott

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>