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Arctic Birds and Musk Oxen of Nome, Alaska
2023 Trip Report

Winter was reluctant to give up its hold and allow spring the right to take command of the tundra this year. When winter finally gave in, spring happened in just a manner of two days. Our group was fortunate to be there as it happened. Let me take a step back for a moment. As time for a trip draws near, I watch the weather sites and webcams to observe the season’s progress. This year during my back and forth across the web I could see temperatures and snow melt were progressing slowly across the north. Along with the slow advance of warmer weather, sea ice gripped the coastline around Alaska’s Seward Peninsula much later than normal. I wondered how this would influence the arrival of migrating birds and the calving of muskoxen our trip was designed to take advantage of. One other aspect to note was the long winter months had left the roads in and around Nome a little rougher than previous years. That had us driving a bit slower, giving us more time to notice birds and wildlife during our photography outings. The rough roads are tough on vehicles and at one point that was evident when our van refused to start after a quick survey stop at a known bird location. After a three-hour delay in good weather at a scenic location and the arrival of a replacement van, we were on our way again.

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Snow fell over the tundra surrounding Nome up until the first day of our photo adventure. However, early signs gleaned from two recon runs around the area showed things were looking very promising. Many of the birds we would spend the week photographing were in place and enthusiastically advertising their breeding territories. I was happy to see the muskoxen were plentiful and in incredible shape with their long flowing winter coats still looking great. So far it seemed like calving had just happened.


Once our seven photo travelers were safely in Nome and checked into our accommodations, it was time to get out and start photographing. Right off the bat it was easy to see this was a bumper spring for willow ptarmigan, with dapper males claiming high spots among the willows and snow drifts advertising their seasonal availability to any female that might be interested. With so many ptarmigans around It wasn’t long before we were being selective in our subjects, choosing males and females in the most interesting locations and backgrounds. With snow locking up much of the higher elevations, even some of the closely related rock ptarmigans were found displaying lower down and close to the road.


I am never sure what to expect regarding the arrival of spring songbirds this time of year. So, we pulled our van up to one of my favorite groves of willows, lowered the windows and heard many of the familiar bird songs I am so used to hearing. Yellow warblers, redpolls, savanna sparrows, fox sparrows, orange-crowned as well as Wilson’s warblers, and yes the elusive bluethroat. With most of the seasonal songsters back in place, it seemed every place we stopped we were greeted with a slightly different chorus. We found we could count on the soulful sound of a winnowing Wilson’s snipe at nearly every photography stop along our routes. To the group’s satisfaction, we were never short of birds to keep us out shooting each day.

While the tundra was alive with the songs of summer migrants, we could count on shorebirds and waterfowl for additional photo subjects. Favorites of the waterfowl included long-tailed ducks and red-throated loons. For shorebirds the presence of several red phalaropes provided some excellent additions to the group’s portfolio.


A big part of the Nome photography experience is built around how easy it is to get great access to muskoxen. Our goal was to try and spend time with these photogenic subjects every day. This year it was easy to achieve this goal as we found different groups of woolly muskoxen with each excursion. Our first evening out had us in close but safe proximity to a great looking bachelor group of males. It wasn’t long before we discovered that the spring calving season was good to these animals this year with every female group having at least a couple of tiny wooly calves in tow. It seemed like one benefit to the cold reluctant spring was that none of the adult muskoxen showed any sign of shedding out their winter coats. We took great pleasure in photographing our subjects with their finest long flowing coats and no sign of shedding to their summer qiviut.


This was a particularly good photo tour for other Alaska mammals. The group had an exceptional photo encounter with a red fox as well as two opportunities to photograph least weasels. Moose were particularly abundant and on three occasions we saw female moose with their newly born twins. One of our morning photo sessions came with a big surprise when a very blonde grizzly bear approached at a safe distance for some quick photos before catching our scent and rushing off in the direction it had arrived from. Meadow voles that had their subnivean tunnels flooded made for easy photographs at multiple locations. Out on the sea ice we could see seals basking in relative safety from our prying cameras, closer to shore things where a little different. I can honestly say, it is not every trip that a group gets to photograph both beavers and a river otter. These sightings truly helped this photo tour stand out.


The diversity of birds and easy access to muskoxen that can be found across the arctic tundra that surrounds Nome, Alaska often surprises my photo travelers. As each day here on the tundra is a different day, we never know exactly all the wildlife encounters we will share, and I am always reluctant to see the time with our travelers and the wildlife come to an end. See you next year Nome!

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