Grand Alaska: Gambell/Nome Pre-trip Jun 02—10, 2009

Posted by Kevin Zimmer


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, but we were treated to a most cooperative Northern Saw-whet Owl, as well as stellar views of a roadside porcupine and moose. Late the next morning we were off to Nome, and with virtually no delay, we were soon winging our way toward St. Lawrence Island. By mid-afternoon our Bering Air flight was touching down on the airstrip at Gambell. The short hike from the airstrip to the lodge produced the usual Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings in the near 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 studies of Pectoral Sandpiper and White Wagtail, scope views of a Rough-legged Hawk that was nesting on the side of the mountain, and good fly-by views of Pomarine Jaeger and a 2nd-cycle Slaty-backed Gull. A hike along the base of the mountain eventually produced an elusive, but brightly-colored Eyebrowed Thrush which had been found by other birders prior to our arrival. Unfortunately, the thrush gave us the slip before everyone could secure good views.

This was just the first of our many excursions, and over the next four days we settled into a routine of daily checks of the near and far boneyards, the base of the mountain, the northeast marsh, the airport pond, and the boatyards, punctuated by numerous sea watches of varying duration. On Day 2 we discovered a vagrant Black-headed Gull and our only Common Ringed-Plover of the trip in the northeast marsh. Day 3 started with a thrush that we jumped in the near boneyard. After flushing it a few times, we finally got it to sit still long enough to confirm that it was another Eyebrowed Thrush (distinctly duller in plumage than the one we had seen the first day). This time, after some work, we all secured great views. Not long after, we turned up a male Bar-tailed Godwit in the boatyard (joined later in the day by two more males), and this beautiful bird was more than cooperative. We had shared our gull, godwit, and thrush discoveries with the other birders on the island, and so it was fitting when, late in the afternoon on Day 3, we were on the receiving end of a radio call from the WINGS group alerting us that a female Rustic Bunting (found days before our arrival, but missing in action ever since) had been refound in the far boneyard. Jon and his group helped keep an eye on the bird until everyone from our group had arrived, which was a great help. The sharply-patterned little stray from Asia cooperated by methodically working the same small patch of real estate as a more conspicuous pair of Snow Buntings, and soon the assembled masses of birders were all treated to scope-filling views. The bunting was even a lifer for Louise and a North American lifer for Dave!

After soaking in the bunting, we walked over to the northeast marsh and started our search for a Red-throated Pipit that had been reported. An initial scan failed to reveal the bird, so I tried walking the grassy slopes above the marsh. Almost immediately, a pipit flushed from the grass and lit on a rock some 50 meters away. It was the Red-throated, a somewhat dull-plumaged female, but a good bird nonetheless. Just as I signaled the group to join me, the bird flew again, but this time back into the main marsh. After this scenario was repeated a few more times, we were finally rewarded with good looks for all. Our final Asiatic vagrant came in the form of at least 2 male White-winged Scoters of the northeast-Asian subspecies stejnegeri. They were part of a group of 15–20 White-winged Scoters that were hanging together off the south beach all week. We made the long ATV-excursion down there on our last full day, and were lucky to have a couple of the scoters come close enough for certain identification.
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. Migrant waterfowl, loons, and shorebirds were uncharacteristically absent this year, although we did see multiple groups of King Eiders, more Black Guillemots than usual, and a sprinkling of all three jaegers along with some Pacific, Red-throated, and Yellow-billed loons. The sheer numbers of Crested Auklets, Least Auklets, and murres of both species was, as always, staggering, and we never ceased to be amused by the fact that nearly every flock of murres seemed to be led by a single Horned or Tufted puffin. We also witnessed plenty of whale activity this year—mostly a succession of gray whales, but with a few humpbacks thrown in for good measure. As always, Dovekie proved to be our toughest alcid to get, in large part because persistent fog obscured the mountain slopes during the early morning periods when the relatively few breeding Dovekies sit out on the rocks amidst thousands of more common auklets. Thanks to some excellent spotting from participant Al Mercer, who picked two of these needles out of the haystack of Crested, Least, and Parakeet auklets (not to mention the fog and light drizzle of rain), we were treated to prolonged scope studies of a pair of Dovekies.
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. Although overcast skies and fog combined to prevent the usual views of the snow-capped peaks of the Russian Far East glimmering in the distance, just knowing that we were some 40-odd miles from mainland Asia lent an exotic quality to our experience. It will also be hard to forget the 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. This latter fact was highlighted by our first birding drive out the Council Road, which treated us to a fantastic grizzly bear experience. The bear, which appeared to be a three-year-old (adult sized, but seemingly out on his own for the first time), was less concerned with our presence than it was interested in an unoccupied home near Cape Nome. We watched as the bear alternately foraged, groomed, scratched, performed a pole dance on a telephone pole next to the house, played with a board while rolling on its back, and attempted to tear a utility box off the side of the house!  Moose, reindeer and musk ox were also tallied (the latter in increasingly impressive numbers) during our days here, as was a particularly fearless red-backed vole that repeatedly foraged in front of us before ultimately darting right between Dave's feet on its way to cover. Our birding at Nome was equally noteworthy, and included 4 lovely Emperor Geese at Safety Lagoon (a relief after missing the species at Gambell); a displaying male Bluethroat; both Rock and Willow ptarmigan; a Gyrfalcon watching us as we scoped the downy chicks in its nest; gorgeous Black-bellied, American Golden, and Pacific Golden plovers in high breeding plumage; Aleutian Terns; Northern Shrike; Rusty Blackbird; abundant Arctic Warblers; and a couple of lively Northern Wheatears. Best of all, our trek for the Bristle-thighed Curlew paid off with scope views of a pair 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.