Alaska; A Typical Day’s Problems

As you probably can tell when we are on vacation birding and photographing great places there really are no pressing problems. Except that we bounce from one place to another and I’m always leaving something next to the car or on the roof or hanging from a post. It happens all to often; I’d worry about my aging brain if it hadn’t always been this way. I’ve left stuff all over the world, kind of a foreign aid ambassador. Or perhaps I started this phase of aging in my thirties.

So there we are about 75 miles of dirt road from Nome out near a landmark called Coffee Dome. Coffee Dome is a dark-topped hill in a rolling land of lesser dark-topped hills. Not that much of a landmark really. The roads have green mileage markers out here and those are the real locator devices; no cell phones, no wifi, but there are mileage signposts. Anyway, we arrived in the target area and were about to climb up onto a tundra plain well above the road level to look for the very uncommon Bristle-thighed Curlew. This is the only place where they nest within a mile or so of any road in the US or Canada. It was here or no where. We slipped into our Muck Boots and left our sneakers with the car. Mine were a bit wet so I stuck them on the roof near the driver’s door so they would be easy to spot upon our return.

Off we trudged. It was about two hours later when we met again to descend to the car. We had seen two curlew flying and calling just after reaching the upper tundra plain and had then walked all over the place looking at Lapland Longspurs, American Golden-Plovers, Savannah Sparrows, and whatever else we happened on. Much of the tundra vegetation was in bloom and the hot weather and long days of sunshine had things popping.

We split up for about 45 minutes and planned to reconvene at a shrub (yes, really just a shrub) that was near the path we had followed to get up to where the birds were and the path we needed to follow down again. The terrain looked rather smooth but was pretty rugged. The path was one footprint wide and wandered through the driest, less damp would be better, part of the landscape. We slogged up and would slog down over muskeg, sedges, mosses, puddles, and drainages; it was very very nice.

I happend on a pair of Caribou antlers while up on the tundra and returned to the shrub with one of them. The antler was left leaning against the shrub to help provide a better landmark for the next birder to make this pilgrimage. We found each other, found the shrub, found the path, and started down. Here is the odd part I guess. I kept my boots on when we reached the car and drove off as we were going to stop again and again on the way back to town. We were in no hurry and planned to take 5-6-7 hours to return. It seemed wise to keep the boots on. We started back slowly, looking for Alaskan birds in the wet draws and roadside shrubs and moose and musk ox on the hillsides.

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People in Alaska harvest the natural resources of the area. They shoot moose, caribou, and geese and they catch lots of fish. Every river crossing has a boat launching ramp and each of these access points had personal flotation devices free for boaters to use. They were marked “kids don’t float”. It seemed a pretty good idea.
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The view from the car’s windscreen was always enjoyable. The roads were all dirt and in good shape. The state benefitted greatly from the political weight that Senator Ted Stevens exerted during his forty years as one of the state’s senators. He died in a plane crash at age 87 on his way to a fishing lodge.
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After a couple hours of wandering we met back at “the bush”, me with the caribou antler that was about to become part of the vertical landscape in Bristle-thighed Curlew country.
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We watched moose in a shallow lake (separate blog post) and looked for birds along our return route. This is an Arctic Warbler one of the state’s rather special avian creatures. There are several birds that are native to Russian Asia that reach into Alaska during their breeding season. They then migrate back in Asia to spend the winter. The Arctic Warbler is not an uncommon bird but one that is not likely to be seen elsewhere in the US.
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A softer picture of the Arctic Warbler. We were now about forty miles back toward Nome from the Bristle-thighed Curlew spot (Coffee Dome) and the landscape was drier than where we started. It was time to take off the boots. Ooops, my sneakers were missing. We replayed the morning and figured that they must have fallen from the roof somewhere along the road. We had seen almost no traffic so we turned around and headed back out into the hinterlands with me a bit shame-faced but somewhat optimistic.
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Forty miles later – there they were. A year or two ago I left my prescription sun glasses on the roof of our rental and we drove off down another remote dirt road, this one was in New Mexico. We were out about 17 miles that time when we turned around to look for the glasses – and to find them smack dab in the middle of the road in perfect condition. Again we were in an area where we didn’t see another vehicle all day.

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