Greetings from Nome. My wife and I decided to head north on vacation this year. Nome is a great place. It's sunny most of the time (at least while we were there). In fact, the sun barely ever dipped below the horizon. And the beaches? Amazing. They were never crowded unless you counted the sea ice that washed ashore. OK, it was a little expensive. Gas was over $6 a gallon. And vegetables and fruit? Well, they're a little over-rated anyway, but aren't vacation destinations always a bit expensive?
Nome may not be on everybody's top 10 places to vacation, but if you are a biologist, it's fantastic. Musk oxen roam around the edge of town, sometimes becoming a nuisance, and grizzlies add a certain spice to birding. You want to make sure to look behind you occasionally.
Nome attracts birds from all over the world, and it doesn't take long exploring the tundra and alder thickets to realize how unique this place is. First, you hear and see familiar birds. Golden-crowned sparrows and several warblers sing from the thickets. I wonder how many of the Wilson's, orange-crowned, and yellow warblers in Nome pass through the Rogue Valley in migration.
And, this fall, I will wonder whether any of the golden-crowns I heard singing on the tundra are now at my feeder.
Other birds commute from South America. Blackpoll warblers, for example, travel from Venezuela through the eastern U.S. to breed among the scrubby willows along the Nome River.
The real treat for a birder are those that cross over from Siberia, and there are several. The Seward Peninsula is in North America, but only just. It's separated from Asia by only 52 miles. The most spectacular visitor, perhaps, is the bluethroat. This small thrush has a bright turquoise throat richly accented with chestnut and black. At the close of the breeding season, it's off to southern China for the winter.
The wheatear travels even farther. It is a small thrush that breeds on the rocky tundra. This black and white bird heads off to equatorial Africa, including the Sudan and Kenya, for the winter, a short 7,000-mile flight.
The bar-tailed godwit, a brightly colored shorebird, breeds in the moister parts of the tundra and is the champion traveler at about 9,000 miles. It winters in Australia and New Zealand.
Then there are those that barely migrate at all. Gyrfalcons, hoary redpolls and Lapland longspurs are hardy and head south just far enough to escape the worst of winter. The longspurs are striking, with a black face and throat bordered in white and a chestnut-colored nape.
As I scanned the rolling tundra, I wondered what brings all these birds together from Africa, Asia, Australia, North and South America to breed. I detected no more food than elsewhere (we carefully timed our visit to avoid the mosquitoes). In fact, I think Oregon offers more. A partial answer lies in the near endless hours of daylight. Although it might tax the parents, the long days allow them to gather food for their young around the clock. To rear young quickly is to reduce the potential for predation. I'm certain there is still more to the story, but that's enough contemplation for now. It's vacation after all.
Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.