Gambell/Nome Pre-trip to Grand Alaska May 27—Jun 03, 2006

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 2006 Gambell/Nome tour got off to a roaring start when we scored nice looks at nesting Boreal and Northern Saw-whet owls on the first night in Anchorage. A few short hours later, we were winging our way toward Nome, dreaming of Gambell and wondering about what Siberian vagrants might await us. Unfortunately, dreaming is all we could do for the remainder of the day, because fog at Gambell prevented any inbound flights. So, the day turned in to one of "hurry up and wait," as we remained on weather delay until the flight was formally canceled that evening. Despite the frustration and inevitable anxiety that this provoked, I told the group to enjoy the chance to rest in Nome, because Gambell was a great place to play catch-up.

My cheerleading proved prophetic the next day. We awoke to good weather and word that the flight to Gambell was a go. Soon we were touching down on the Gambell airstrip, and marveling at the amounts of ice in the nearshore waters. The walk through the boneyards to our lodge produced Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings, but little else. After the usual chaos of sorting out baggage and rooms, we bundled up and began our first birding trek, a march to the marsh at the northeast corner of Troutman Lake. Upon arrival, the first bird we laid glasses on was a Wood Sandpiper, our first Eurasian vagrant. The bird approached us until it was nearly too close to focus on. Next up was a Long-toed Stint in sharp breeding plumage, followed within minutes by a female Ruff. The vagrants were coming in dizzying succession, and we were faced with the enviable dilemma of which rare shorebird to put in the scope! While basking in our good fortune, I heard a series of odd, grating calls and looked up in time to see an incoming shorebird. "Mongolian Plover!" (a.k.a. Lesser Sandplover) I shouted, as the rufous-breasted rocket went hurtling past. My radio call to other nearby birders was in time to get one group on the bird before it disappeared from sight, but no one could get a fix on where it put down. We continued to work along the base of the mountain, and, before long, Wayne Kidder spotted a bird that turned out to be our plover. We stayed on the bird for some time, soaking up its beautiful markings while waiting for other birders to arrive. After making sure that everyone had seen the plover, we headed back to the lodge, with four vagrant shorebirds from Siberia under our belts. So much for our first bird walk on the island!

Prevailing light winds from the west continued to bring us great birds over the next couple of days, and with the numbers of birders present on the island, the radios were constantly crackling with news of new discoveries, followed by the inevitable forced march or ATV-stampede. We were just finishing breakfast the next day when word came from one early riser that a flock of 31 Ruffs had just put down at the airport pond. Within minutes we had scrambled to the spot, and gawked in disbelief at the sight, as multiple breeding-plumaged males, each of a different color morph, paraded before numerous females who seemed mainly intent on feeding. One male was all black, another was black with a white head, and others were buffy brown with black caps, or streaked brown and black. The variety was stunning, and the birds, with their odd posturing and flared ruffs, were downright bizarre. It was fortunate that we hurried to the scene, for not long afterwards, a persistently curious dog managed to flush the birds, which were not seen again. Later, we caught up with another male and two females at the marshy corner of the lake, and had an opportunity to study them at leisure. Few among us will forget the spectacle of seeing displaying Ruffs on North American soil. Nor will we forget the marches for the Common Greenshank, the Red-throated Pipit, or the five Dovekies on the hillside, each of which ended successfully, with great views of the quest birds. After a number of long hikes, news of a pair of Red-necked Stints at the far end of Troutman Lake merited an ATV ride, and we all took advantage of motorized transport to snag these attractive little shorebirds.

Of course, 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. An Arctic Loon, several small groups of Emperor Geese, all four species of eiders, a remarkable single-day count of 2,000+ Long-tailed Ducks, Harlequin Ducks, and most of the Bering Sea alcids?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, and a flock of Hoary Redpolls cavorting in the boatyards, were just a few of the more mundane aspects of birding Gambell. This year we were blessed with unusually warm weather, which made for pleasant birding. On several hikes we felt distinctly overdressed, which is seldom a problem when birding the Bering Sea region.

We achieved symmetry when fog on our scheduled departure day resulted in the cancellation of our flight back to Nome, resulting in an extra night's stay on the island. This not only made up for the missed first day, but it resulted in some additional good birds. A Gray-tailed Tattler at the south end of the lake was the first bonus bird. Then, at 11:00 p.m., after everyone but me had retired to bed, the leaders from another birding group burst into the lodge with news of an odd sandpiper at the south end of the lake that they thought might be a Little Stint. They wanted confirmation, so I alerted leaders of a couple of other groups, and off we went. Soon we were looking at an elegant, breeding-plumaged Little Stint, and the radio call went back to the lodge to wake up everyone. An anxious half-hour passed before the hum of four-wheelers signaled the arriving masses of birders. Before long, a few dozen birders were lined up, ogling the rarest vagrant of the trip. The midnight chase for a Siberian vagrant on the final night of our stay perfectly encapsulated the intrigue of birding this Alaskan outpost.

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 snow-capped 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?"

Our delayed departure from Gambell had a downside, in that we were left with very little time at Nome. With only a single afternoon/evening and a short time the following morning, a trip to the far reaches of the Kougarok Road was out of the question. This meant that we would not get a shot at the Bristle-thighed Curlew, and resulted in missing several other Nome birds that we normally see. However, we did manage stunning views of a male Bluethroat, Willow Ptarmigan, Bar-tailed Godwit, and Aleutian Tern, not to mention a sow grizzly with four (!) grown cubs, all lazing out after feeding on a moose kill.

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.