Grand Alaska Part I: Nome and Gambell May 29—Jun 08, 2011
Posted by Kevin Zimmer
Our trip kicked off with a post-dinner owling excursion out of Anchorage that produced a most cooperative female Northern Saw-whet Owl peering down at us from the safety of her nest box. The next morning we flew to Nome, where, in a departure from all previous years, we birded Nome before heading to Gambell. Our earlier than normal dates, combined with what appeared to be a late spring, meant that some area roads were still partially closed by snow. We felt this impact most keenly with regard to alpine tundra breeders, whose higher country breeding areas could not be reached. Ice break-up in Safety Lagoon was running behind schedule as well, and the resultant quickening melt inundated shorelines and mudflats, leaving little suitable habitat for migrant shorebirds. As is always the case, no two visits to these Alaskan outposts are ever the same.
In spite of atypical road and macroclimate conditions, we enjoyed excellent birding and had particular success with the many special breeding birds of the Nome region. Topping everything was our experience with the iconic Bristle-thighed Curlew. A displaying male came flying overhead just 30 minutes into our hike, and circled us a few times (singing all the while) before putting down a hundred meters upslope. With a little bit of maneuvering, we managed to flank him, and the bird froze in plain sight for exceptional views. After lengthy studies, a second curlew (seemingly a rival male) sang from some distance upslope, immediately eliciting counter songs from our bird, following which he launched himself in the direction of his rival like a heat-seeking missile. Our entire hike took 90 minutes (there and back), of which a solid 30–45 minutes was spent watching the bird!
Bristle-thighed Curlew— Photo: Kevin Zimmer
In a virtual tie with the curlew for "best bird" experience was the dazzling male Bluethroat that performed so well right next to our van near Salmon Lake. We had thrilled to repeated views of another male along the Teller Road the previous day, but the second bird could not have behaved better. Over the course of our three-and-a-half days in Nome, we were also treated to nice scope views of Gyrfalcon, dozens of Willow Ptarmigan, several Rock Ptarmigan, multiple Northern Wheatears, dapper Yellow Wagtails, nesting Peregrine Falcons, a Slaty-backed Gull, and the usual assortment of breeding-plumaged loons, waterfowl, and shorebirds. As always, mammal viewing was excellent, with moose, muskox, reindeer, and red fox all showing nicely.
All too soon, it was time to leave Nome and head for Gambell. Other birders on the island greeted us with the news that migration was slow, and that there were essentially no Siberian vagrants to chase (I'm pretty sure I heard the word "dismal" used to describe the spring season to that point). But, as I've said many times, 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 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. Migrant waterfowl, loons, and shorebirds were uncharacteristically absent this year, although we did see large numbers of King Eiders, a couple of groups of Steller's Eiders, more Black Guillemots than usual, and a sprinkling of all three jaegers along with some Pacific, Red-throated, and Yellow-billed loons, and a single Arctic Loon. We also witnessed plenty of whale activity this year, with gray whales frequently within a stone's throw of the beach!
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 four Dovekies from the hordes of Crested, Least, and Parakeet auklets, all of which treated us to excellent views.
One thing that had changed for the better since last year was the installation of a network of hard-packed, gravel roads through the village, which made walking so much easier, and which meant that the far boneyards, the northeast marsh, the boatyards, and even Northwest Point could all be reached on foot within about 20 minutes. We put this to test on our very first excursion, when we headed up to the northeast corner of Troutman Lake in pursuit of a Common Ringed-Plover. In no time we were looking at our first rarity on the island, and before leaving, we had the first of our many encounters with one of the resident pairs of White Wagtails. There really wasn't much for vagrants this year, although we did find what was undoubtedly the Bird-of-the-Season at Gambell, when we jumped a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher in the far boneyard. Although not the Siberian stray that everyone was hoping for, this was a "mega rarity," and represented not only a first record for the island, but also for the entire Bering Sea region! It only made sense that any vagrant we would see would be from the North American mainland rather than from Asia, since throughout our stay the winds blew 20–40 knots from the east-northeast.
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 (visible this year only from the flight off the island) are part of the Russian Far East and mainland Asia lends an exotic quality to being here. It will also be hard to forget the strips of blackened seal and walrus drying on traditional drying racks, ATVs humming across the landscape, stubbing our toes on walrus skulls while birding the boneyards, and, of course, "Ya wanna buy some carvings?"
A trip to this region also 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.