Gambell/Nome Alaska Pre-trip Jun 05—13, 2008

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 Gambell-Nome adventure started with an evening excursion around Anchorage. Sadly, there were no staked out Boreal Owl nests available, so Dave and Louise improvised by taking the group to Lake Spenard and Westchester Lagoon for a nice array of waterfowl (including superb Barrow's Goldeneyes), and what Dave labeled as the "best looks at Hudsonian Godwits that we've ever had." Meanwhile, I was staking out Bluethroat territories and Gyrfalcon nests in Nome, and awaiting the group's arrival the next day.

I met everyone at the Nome airport late in the morning, and with virtually no delay, we were soon winging our way toward Gambell. By mid-afternoon we were looking down on St. Lawrence Island, with the snow-covered mountains of Siberia gleaming in the distance, some 40+ miles away. The short hike from the airstrip to the lodge produced the usual Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings in the boneyard, and then it was time to get down to the business of baggage distribution and getting settled into our rooms. Once these mundane orders of business were taken care of, we set out on our first hike to the northeast marsh and the far boneyard. Other than acquainting everyone with the infamous Gambell gravel, this hike also resulted in nice comparative studies of Hoary and Common redpolls, and a brief encounter with a White Wagtail. Our first sea watch was more productive, producing nice looks at a subadult male Spectacled Eider, a flock of 30 or more King Eiders, and an impressive nine species of alcids.

We awoke the next morning to find that our good weather of the previous day had changed dramatically. Winds were now blowing hard from the S-SE, visibility had diminished considerably, and it was snowing! Before long, the entire Gambell landscape was blanketed in snow, much of which was blowing horizontally, in big, wet, flakes. A morning stomp through the near boneyards resulted in nice studies of the rare-but-regular (here) Common Ringed-Plover, and we soon caught up with a nice pair of White Wagtails in the boatyard. Snow was still falling in the afternoon, and we switched our plans for a sea watch to a return to northeast marsh and the far boneyard instead. Little did we dream how fortuitous this change in strategy would prove.

A cursory inspection of the marsh revealed virtually no birds––indeed, the marsh was mostly frozen over or covered in snow. We reorganized for a sweep through the boneyard, when Dave Wolf volunteered to take the right wing and make a pass through that corner of the marsh. We had just commenced our sweep when we heard Dave exclaim loudly, "Oh my gosh…JACK SNIPE!" We all wheeled around to see Dave pointing at a plump bird dropping back into the center of the marsh. Jack Snipe is an exceedingly rare vagrant to North America from the Palearctic, with only a handful of North American records, most of which are from the early 1900s. One had been found and photographed by another birding group at this very spot (and also during a snowstorm) a few days earlier, but subsequent searches by that group and others had failed to relocate the bird in the next few days. Indeed, we had stomped all over the marsh just the previous day, but with no success. Now, we hurriedly assembled the troops, and began slowly advancing on the spot where we saw the bird disappear. Before long, we were nearly on top of the spot, and despite meticulous scanning, we could not locate the bird. Suddenly, it jumped again, and put down some 50+ meters away, near the terminus of one of the few drainages still flowing in the marsh. Again, we crept cautiously forward, and again, the bird seemed to have vanished. I noted one tiny corner of the drainage that we could not see from our vantage, and suggested that the bird had to be there. We swung to the right, and sure enough, there it was, huddled against the shoreline, with snowflakes melting on contact against its back and beading up like so many jewels atop the ornate plumage. The Jack Snipe soon adjusted to our presence and began foraging, all the while doing a slow, deep bob. Our scopes revealed every facet of its plumage, from the streaked flanks to the complex face pattern, to the intricate patterns within every feather of the back and wing coverts. We also noted the surprisingly bright yellow base to the culmen, a feature so different from the more familiar snipes in the genus Gallinago. Some 45 minutes and hundreds of photos and digiscoped images later, we all walked away, ecstatic with a bird that was a lifer for everyone (all leaders included), and hands-down, THE bird of the trip.

Other vagrants were to come. Several of us (still on Cloud Nine from the Jack Snipe) opted to bird the base of the mountain south from the marsh. Tantalizing glimpses of a large thrush that we kept flushing (later proving to be a Varied Thrush) drew us farther and farther south, until the only logical course was to check the south end of Troutman Lake. This resulted in prolonged, intimate studies of a Gray-tailed Tattler, catching and devouring one stickleback after another. Frustratingly, a return to this area the next day failed to relocate the tattler, but our efforts were rewarded when we turned up a lovely Lesser Sand-Plover instead, and had spectacular studies of another Common Ringed-Plover. A male Siberian Rubythroat in Old Town led us on a merry chase through the near boneyard before ultimately vanishing (as Rubythroats are prone to do), but not without yielding identifiable views to about half of the group.

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. We were treated to fly-by looks at all four species of eiders, exceptional numbers of Black Guillemots, and a few each of Arctic and Yellow-billed loons, as well as numbers of the more common species.

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?"

Nome was a different world, with its bustling, frontier atmosphere, and a network of fabulous roads penetrating a variety of tundra habitats. Bird diversity was much higher here, and mammals were much more in evidence. Moose, reindeer, and musk ox were all tallied (the latter in increasingly impressive numbers), and birding highlights included displaying male Bluethroats, both Rock and Willow ptarmigan, a Gyrfalcon on the nest, a rare Red-necked Stint and an even rarer Common Ringed-Plover in the same day, distant Emperor Geese, a lovely pair of Bohemian Waxwings at Council, and nesting pairs of Rough-legged Hawks and Northern Wheatears. Best of all, our trek for the Bristle-thighed Curlew paid off with prolonged close range observations of a fabulous individual of what is one of the rarest breeding shorebirds on the continent.
 
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.