Grand Alaska: Gambell/Nome Pre-trip Jun 02—10, 2010

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 trip commenced with a late morning flight to Nome, and with relatively little delay (during which, Jonathan found a Northern Shrike hanging around the Bering Air terminal, that we were all able to see!), 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. We were just getting geared up to head out on our first excursion when the crackle of the radio brought news of a Stonechat that had just been found by other birders working the base of the mountain! In no time we had organized ATV "taxis" to get us quickly to the spot, and soon we were part of a large assemblage of birders patiently stalking the Siberian rarity as it disappeared amongst the hundreds of lichen-covered rocks in the boulder field, only to reappear, perched jauntily atop a rock, for scope views. At some point, and thankfully, only after everyone had enjoyed good scope views, the Stonechat decided it had performed long enough, and winged its way well up the side of the mountain, never to be seen again. Such is the immediacy of birding Gambell—a rare bird is found, a chase ensues, and within an hour or two, win or lose, it is but a memory.

In high spirits, we began the hike back to the lodge with the intent of quickly checking the northeast marsh and the far boneyard before heading in for dinner. This plan soon went out the window with the news that a Lesser Sandplover had just been found on the lower slopes of the mountain north of the boneyard. So began another chase (with radioed apologies to Jen for putting her dinner on hold), this time on foot. Once again, our efforts met with success, as we caught up with the pretty little plover in almost the same location as we have found individuals of this species on at least two or three previous trips. Now we really did have to get back for dinner, allowing only a brief pause to focus our binoculars on one of the resident pairs of White Wagtails. Back at the lodge, it was a tired, but happy group of birders—barely on the island a few hours, and already with two Asiatic vagrants under our belts! Jen's fine cooking revived our energy sufficiently for a post-dinner hike to the near boneyard, which paid off in the form of a dapper male Rustic Bunting that had been seen off-and-on prior to our arrival, but which was not to be seen again after our encounter.

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 journeyed to the far end of Troutman Lake where a pair of rare Common Ringed Plovers showed off every subtle field mark that distinguished them from the more common and expected Semipalmateds. White Wagtails proved unusually cooperative this trip, with nearly every walk through the boatyards producing good views. The boatyards also produced our second biggest rarity of the trip, in the form of a female Common Rosefinch. This vagrant actually stuck around for several days (and was still present when we left the island), having discovered that the multiple bowhead whale skulls (from this spring's whale harvest) scattered around the boatyard actually made for giant suet feeders!

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 commutes 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. The sheer numbers of Crested Auklets, Least Auklets, and murres of both species were, 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. Migrant waterfowl, loons, and shorebirds were uncharacteristically absent this year, although we did see large numbers of King and Common eiders, more Black Guillemots than usual, and a sprinkling of all three jaegers along with some Pacific, Red-throated, and Yellow-billed loons. We got lucky when an Arctic Loon gave us a close pass on our last morning's sea watch, and when four subadult male Spectacled Eiders flew past us on another sea watch.

We were especially fortunate on our last evening at Gambell, when Paul Lehman radioed in that an Ivory Gull had just flown past him (headed north) at the Point. I roared out to the north beach on an ATV to see if the bird had put down anywhere, but it hadn't. Nonetheless, there were big flocks of Brant on the move, not to mention impressive numbers of passing Steller's Eiders. We decided to shuttle everyone out to the Point for a late evening sea watch, with the hope that the Ivory Gull might return. This strategy paid off soon after we were all assembled at the Point, when what was presumably the same Ivory Gull came winging its way back past us. This charismatic species has suffered global population declines in the past decade, and with projected climate change, it could be in serious trouble. In recent years it has been missed on more trips than it is seen, which was not the case just 10–20 years ago. We also witnessed plenty of whale activity this year—mostly a succession of gray whales. Our second morning provided the clear conditions needed to scope the upper slopes of the mountain for the relatively few breeding Dovekies that sit out on the rocks amidst thousands of more common auklets. After a bit of scope work, we picked out at least five Dovekies from the hordes of Crested, Least, and Parakeet auklets, all of which treated us to excellent views.

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. Just knowing that the snow-capped peaks glimmering some 40-odd miles in the distance were part of the Russian Far East and 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 impressive numbers of muskox, some of them quite close to the road. One large herd that we saw on our way out the Kougarok Road was still in the same place when we came back by hours later, but this time they were bunched together in what appeared to be a defensive position. I stopped to see what was going on, and immediately spotted a grizzly on a slight ridge not far from the muskox herd. Seemingly alarmed by our presence, the bear abandoned whatever thoughts he had of taking on a whole herd of muskox, and decided to get out of Dodge!  Our birding at Nome was equally noteworthy, ranging from displaying male Bluethroats to an aerial song display from a Bristle-thighed Curlew, not to mention both Rock and Willow ptarmigan, eye-level views of a Gyrfalcon and its downy chicks in the nest, gorgeous American Golden and Pacific Golden plovers in high breeding plumage, Aleutian Terns, a Northern Shrike harassing a Rough-legged Hawk, a point-blank Rusty Blackbird, abundant Arctic Warblers, and a most cooperative male Northern Wheatear.

An early spring, following a winter that was light on snow, meant that all of the roads in the Nome area were completely open and in better than normal condition. This allowed us to get to the end of the Council Road (something we accomplish on only about one out of every three or four trips), where we birded the only spruce forest accessible from Nome. Our efforts were rewarded with nice views of Gray Jay, Varied Thrush, and a responsive pair of Boreal Chickadees. Nome always produces something unexpected, and this year's surprises came in the form of an adult Bald Eagle over the Pilgrim River, and a breeding-plumaged Common Loon in the coastal lowlands of the Council Road.

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.