This June, I took a 2-week trip to Alaska with three birding buddies: Andy Hays, Shoaib Tareen, and Mike Parr (American Bird Conservancy) along with our superb birding guide Sulli Gibson, of St. Paul Island Tours, that led us through our two-week sojourn. Within our trip through Alaska, we stopped in Nome, Seward Peninsula in search for the Bristle-thighed Curlew. The following is Mike Parr’s account and is just one of our many adventures on this trip.
Bristle-thighed Curlews live extremely inconvenient lives. They traverse thousands of miles of the open Pacific to move from their breeding grounds on the Alaskan tundra to winter on remote Pacific islands and atolls. They also become flightless during their non-breeding molts and are sadly unable to escape predation by introduced mammals. They are also extremely inconvenient to see!
The two best-known sites in the U.S. are very, very different from each other. A scruffy public golf course next to an old Japanese Cemetery on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, and on the mountainous inland tundra close to Nome, Alaska. It was at the latter location that a small group of us gathered this June to seek and photograph the curlews. The walk to the curlew spot is notorious among bird groups as a gnarly one and it didn’t disappoint. The rumors of curious grizzly bears harassing birders aside, the tussock tundra itself is tough sledding. Punctuated every couple of feet by dense clumps of grass with hidden holes that seem to suck your rubber boots into the earth, and patches of dense scrubby dwarf alders that claw at your shins as you struggle uphill. Nevertheless, we set forth with optimism seeking a close encounter of the curlew kind. Some hours later we still trudged aimlessly across the vast expanse of tundra having seen a curlew among a distant group of flying Whimbrel but nothing close or photographable. After deciding to return to our vehicle to scheme up a “plan B” we noticed another small group of photographers on a distant ridge close to some large shorebirds – a glimpse through the binoculars revealed that they were yards from two Bristle-thighed Curlews!
The wise among us decided to return to the car to get closer but the more foolhardy decided to make a bee-line for the ridge through a slough filled with scrub (plenty dense enough to hide a large bear). Fortunately, no bear appeared and the slog to the ridge was rewarded with amazing close looks at two Bristle-thighed Curlews. Later the wiser group arrived having discovered that the ridge was served by a simple but clear trail affording a gentle uphill stroll as opposed to a full cardio session. The following images were obtained by carefully crawling up to the birds over a period of a few hours close to the end of the trail.