Birds and Musk Oxen of Nome Alaska 2019 Trip Report

By Eric Rock on Jul 03, 2019

The overnight rain showers had just subsided as our group’s flight touched down on the tarmac at Nome. The rain brought a glimmer to the unkempt charm of this coastal arctic community. We made the short drive to our hotel to check in for our week-long stay. With the sky clear and the temperature steady, the group was eager not to waste photography time. By mid-afternoon we had loaded up our van and were on our way. It wasn’t long before we managed to locate our first group of musk oxen just on the edge of town.
Musk oxen were reintroduced to the Nome area in the 1930s.  With careful management the population has done quite well, making this the perfect place to pursue photographs of these wooly beasts in the wild.
Musk oxen near Nome AlaskaWe found at least one herd of musk oxen on nearly every day of our photo trip. Despite  the heavy snowfall around Nome this year, it was a very productive spring for musk oxen. Each time we encountered a female herd, we had the opportunity to photograph this season’s spring calves. This was one of the best calving years I have seen. Each of the female herds we observed had between six and twelve newborn calves in tow.
Photographing the playfulness of furry musk ox calves leaves you grinning from ear to ear. On several occasions I caught myself laughing out loud at the comical nature of their cavorting antics. It is common for these play sessions to wear out the calves so much that the eventually settle down or disappear under their mother’s wooly coat for a chance to nurse and refuel. During our shoots, the musk oxen were good to us during a number of sightings, and we had opportunities to photograph them in multiple settings, at varying distances, and in different light.
Nome is remote and it’s not connected to the rest of Alaska’s road system. It’s too far north to receive much of the seasonal cruise ship traffic, so there are no crowds. Our arrival in Nome coincided with the arctic landscape’s rapid transition from spring to summer. The roads around Nome were just being released from winter’s icy mantel, providing us with access to 250 miles of arctic terrain from which to photograph. The next six days were spent exploring the area’s road system. Migrant birds had returned from the south, and the air was alive with the songs of shorebirds, warblers and thrushes. We found red foxes actively hunting ground squirrels and voles, while cow moose sought out willow thickets to give birth to this year’s calves. 
BluethroatThe Teller and Kougarok roads led us inland where we easily photographed musk oxen on the undulating mountain tundra. The season was well advanced on south-facing slopes and the colorful tundra wildflowers here were an additional treat. Mountain avens danced in arctic breezes while alpine azaleas splashed hues of pink and purple over the rocky domes of this mountain terrain. Male willow ptarmigan were easy photo subjects while they called out from tussocks and willow bushes for any female that might wander through their territory. Finding and photographing singing bluethroats was one of our biggest photography successes. It seemed that gray-cheeked thrushes, golden-crowned and white-crowned sparrows were everywhere along the roads.
One of the groups favorite photo excursions took place on Council Road which roughly parallels the shore of Norton Sound. Nearly every pond and wetland along the drive provided us new opportunities to photograph ducks and shorebirds. Highlights were the ever present long-tailed ducks, as well as pairs of red-throated loons that had set up territories in roadside ponds. Along the larger lagoon of Safety Sound, tundra swans gathered and fed. It seemed like any place we stopped we would quickly have a couple of different species of birds to photograph. Semipalmated sandpipers would drop in from a display flight and Lapland longspurs could be found singing from a piece of weathered drift wood. Wilson’s snipe were particularly easy to coax in for a quick shot at many of our stops. We even had a brief encounter with a male eastern yellow wagtail which lasted just long enough for us to capture a couple of quick images before it darted back into the cover of some thick willows bushes.
With the lack of tourist crowds it seemed like we had the whole area to ourselves. This allowed us to adjust our schedule as we saw fit. Early morning shoots were good for many species of birds while the evenings provided some excellent light for photographing the weathered landscapes. If it was foggy along the coast, we would head inland. If it was windy, we would head for the calm of one of the area’s valleys. 
Nome wildlflowersOn the last morning of our trip there was a thick fog over Nome and the surrounding area. We drove our van up a local mountain trail in hopes of getting above the morning’s curtain of mist. Within a few hundred feet of the summit, we emerged from the clouds to an early morning view of the surrounding mountains jutting above the wispy sea of fog. We photographed a spectacle of mountain flowers, morning sun and the timeworn Alaska landscape—all alone on our private mountain peak above the clouds. However, I shouldn’t say we were completely alone as, while we were photographing, a pair of northern wheatears—songbirds typically from Eurasia—dropped in, followed shortly thereafter by a pair of horned-larks.
Our photo trip came to an end all too quickly. During my flight back to Anchorage later that day I already found myself contemplating next year’s Nome photo trip.