Sunday, September 30, 2012

Nome, Alaska Birdwatching: There's No Place Like Nome!

Nome lies on the Seward Peninsula, jutting into the Bering Sea. It's a frontier town in a world where few such curiosities remain. Accessible only by boat and airplane, bordered on the West and South by the Bering Sea, and the North and East by miles of trackless wilderness just below the Arctic Circle, Nome is a fascinating and challenging destination. During June, the midnight sun is at its brightest, the tundra is in full bloom, and the birds and mammals are breeding by the thousands. Nome has a road system of about 300 miles, primarily dirt or gravel roads, that allows exploration of the remote and beautiful high tundra of the Seward Peninsula where only birds and mammals roam.
Nome was a gold mining boom town at the turn of the century, and it still continues to produce significant quantities of gold. Our major interest, however, is in the huge number and diversity of birds that fly to Nome during the Spring to breed. Many of them, such as the Arctic and Aleutian Terns, fly thousands of miles round trip in order to nest in the high tundra surrounding Nome. Bar-tailed Godwits, a large shorebird, are believed to migrate non-stop longer than any other bird (about 7200 miles), and farther than any animal without feeding. It's migration takes it from New Zealand to Alaska and back each year before it settles into the mountains above Nome to breed. The Bristle-thighed Curlew breeds only in the high tundra around Nome and the Yukon Delta. It migrates from Hawaii and other Pacific Islands. The tiny songbird, the Bluethroat, makes its annual pilgrimage from Southeast Asia where its only breeding population in North America is found around Nome.
It's difficult to exaggerate the beauty and solitude of the tundra and mountains surrounding Nome. Unlike many national parks and refuges, where encounters with wildlife seem almost zoo-like, animals seen around Nome are very definitely unaccustomed to humans and very wild. Grizzly Bears, wolves, wolverines, fox, moose, muskox and other mammals are seen, but usually only from a distance. They are often encountered, though usually at a distance.
Of course, most people have read about the diphtheria epidemic of 1925 in Nome. Twenty mushers and 150 sled dogs braved the winter blizzards and cold of the Alaska Range and the Yukon to relay antitoxin 674 miles to Nome, saving many lives. The Iditarod Race is a re-enactment of the serum run, but it takes the longer route of over 1000 miles from Anchorage. Fortunately, a trip to Nome isn't so difficult as it once was, and it's no longer necessary to take a dog-sled, Alaska Airlines now provides three daily flights to Nome by jet. And, there are comfortable hotels and restaurants available as well.
The town is much smaller than it was during the gold rush when there were about 20,000 residents. It only has a few streets now, some of them, dirt. During the summer when it stays light for most of the 24 hours, residents including children are very active throughout the night. They say it's necessary to make up for lost time during the nearly continuous darkness of the winter. It certainly appears that everyone is enjoying themselves!
A trip is Nome seems a step back in time. The town still retains its frontier persona. The surrounding wilderness is stark, but beautiful. Nome may not be everyone's cup of tea, but for birders and adventuresome spirits, it's a wonderful destination.

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