Gambell/Nome Jun 04—11, 2005

Posted by Kevin Zimmer

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Kevin Zimmer

Kevin Zimmer has authored three books and numerous papers dealing with field identification and bird-finding in North America. His book, Birding in the American West: A Han...

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Our 2005 Gambell/Nome tour started on a down note, with the news that there were no Boreal or Northern Saw-whet Owls still on nests in Anchorage. In most years, we get our tour off to a roaring start by seeing both species on our first night in Anchorage. Luck was with us the next day when our flights to Nome and Gambell went off without a hitch (meaning no weather delays). In stark contrast to some trips, the weather that greeted us at Gambell was really pretty mild. However, we also knew from speaking with other groups that had preceded us, that there hadn?t been any sustained westerly winds, which didn?t bode well for our vagrant chances. In fact, very few Siberian vagrants had been recorded by anyone this spring, a reflection of prevailing weather patterns that had produced mostly north and east winds. We were heartened by reports of a shift to westerly winds that coincided with our arrival, and could only hope that the shift would be sustained long enough to produce some vagrants.

On the morning following our arrival, we got off to an auspicious start with a close pair of Common Ringed Plovers at the airport pond. This species is a rare but regular visitor/breeder at Gambell, and one of the most difficult of North American breeding birds to find. We were treated to prolonged close-range studies. While we were watching the plovers, a beautiful Red-throated Pipit in high breeding plumage dropped out of the sky and into the marsh. It proved more elusive, and flew before everyone could get good looks, but we caught up with it again in the marsh at the northeast corner of Troutman Lake. This time everyone saw it well. In this same corner of the lake we enjoyed lengthy point-blank views of a Gray-tailed Tattler that was so intent on snatching minnows from a feeder spring at the lake edge that it appeared oblivious to us. The tattler completed a most successful morning, but, alas, the winds shifted again to the northeast, effectively ending our chances at further vagrants.

Fortunately, Gambell is about much more than just Siberian vagrants. Sea watches from Northwest Point are always a high point of birding here, and this year was no different. The daily commute of hundreds of thousands of alcids past the Point is spectacle enough to justify the trip, but it is accentuated by the excitement that comes with never knowing what will fly by next. Yellow-billed and Arctic loons, Emperor Goose, all four eiders, all three jaegers, Harlequin Ducks, Sabine?s and Slaty-backed gulls—all came past at one time or another during our watches. Displaying Rock Sandpipers in the boneyards, an elusive White Wagtail that had a habit of popping up suddenly and then disappearing just as quickly, breeding-plumaged Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs that serenaded us on every walk, lengthy scope studies of as many as nine Dovekies cavorting on the snow fields of the lower mountain slopes, and a most cooperative Emperor Goose that dropped in on our last evening were all part of the excitement of being here.

A trip to Gambell is always memorable, as much for its glimpse into Bering Sea culture and the adventure of birding one of America?s few remaining frontiers as for any birds seen. It will be hard to forget late-night views of the snowcapped peaks of the Russian Far East glimmering in the distance, strips of blackened seal and walrus drying on traditional drying racks, ATVs humming across the landscape, seemingly endless treks through soft gravel, stubbing our toes on walrus skulls while birding the boneyards, and, of course, ?Ya wanna buy some carvings??

Nome was a different world, but was equally good to us. We thrilled to repeated close views of such specialties as Bluethroat, Arctic Warbler, Northern Wheatear, Bar-tailed Godwit, and Aleutian Tern, sandwiched around spectacular large mammals such as moose, reindeer, and musk ox. A mink being dive-bombed by everything from Arctic Terns to Hoary Redpolls was one of the highlights of our day on the Kougarok Road, as were our close studies of Bristle-thighed Curlew. Ptarmigan populations had clearly crashed, a regular part of their population fluctuations that was inevitable after the past several years of abundance. We still managed to find a couple of nice Willows, but Rock Ptarmigan eluded us during our short time here.

A trip to this region always highlights the ephemeral, transient nature of birding in the arctic and subarctic regions. Rare birds arrive without warning and leave without notice; conditions are optimal one moment and inhospitable the next. One has to admire the feathered wanderers that return again and again from more hospitable climes to fulfill their reproductive destinies in lands that can be so capriciously unpredictable and unforgiving. Seemingly fragile, always restless, they strike out each spring for this land at the edge of the Bering Sea. And each spring we wait, anticipating their arrivals, and reveling in our unexpected discoveries. It is a drama that I look forward to repeating, year after year, with undiminished anticipation.