Grand Alaska: Gambell/Nome Pre-trip Jun 02—10, 2012
Posted by Kevin Zimmer
Our 2012 Gambell-Nome tour commenced with a welcome dinner in Anchorage, followed by an enjoyable post-dinner excursion to nearby Westchester Lagoon. The adventure swung into full gear the following morning, as we flew to Nome and on to Gambell. The weather gods were with us this year, and we experienced no delays in getting to the island. Once again, we were able to reap the benefits of the previous year's 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 no time we were looking at our first rarity on the island, in the form of a lovely male Common Ringed Plover, and before leaving we had the first of our many encounters with one of the resident pairs of White Wagtails. Much of our stay was otherwise pretty quiet on the vagrant front (with two notable exceptions to be detailed later), although we did enjoy an out-of-place Varied Thrush in the near boneyards on the first night, and a more expected but nevertheless exciting pair of Red-necked Stints at the far end of Troutman Lake on our last night.
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 thin on the ground for the second straight year, a point driven home by our finding only a single pair of Steller's Eiders, two Arctic Loons, and no Rock Sandpipers. However, we did see large numbers of King Eiders, a few stunning male Spectacled Eiders, eight Emperor Geese (particularly welcome after "dipping" on the species in 2011), and a sprinkling of all three jaegers along with four Yellow-billed Loons. We also witnessed plenty of whale activity this year, with gray whales showing nicely in good numbers.
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. We gave the mountain a thorough scanning, but warnings from birders who preceded us that the Dovekies were not hanging out on their usual favorite rock proved to be prescient. We searched diligently, but the effort was akin to searching for the proverbial "needle in a haystack," a task made more difficult because a pair of Common Ravens kept "reshuffling the deck" by putting up hundreds of panicked alcids with each pass along the ridge. We did enjoy nice scope views of all of the other resident alcids, including impressive numbers (400+) of Pigeon Guillemots.
Day 3 dawned with the top of the mountain once again visible, prompting Paul Lehman and me to roar up there for some re-con work while the group was eating breakfast. After a bit of scope work, we picked out at least four Dovekies, and I began the process of shuttling the group up to the spot on a rented ATV. Despite disappearing from view in the rocks on multiple occasions, and taking flight on at least a couple more occasions, the Dovekies cooperated by sticking around long enough for everyone to get good scope studies.
For all of this, our trip was highlighted by two mega-rarities. The first came on our second afternoon, in the form of an ultra-rare White-tailed Eagle. We were at the south end of Troutman Lake, inspecting a pair of Wandering Tattlers, when my radio crackled with a call from another group somewhere to the south of us, and out of sight. I missed some of the details, but I was pretty certain I heard something about a "White-tailed Eagle." "Bob or James, this is Kevin, did you say White-tailed Eagle? Please repeat!" "Yes, White-tailed Eagle, flying up the marsh and headed your way!" Now Dave Wolf was in on the action, saying, "I've got it, here it comes!" And there it was, an impressively broad-winged beast with a short, mostly white, wedge-shaped tail. It was high, but giving good views nonetheless, as it flew past, banking a few times before steadily flying the length of the lake all of the way to the village, and then doubling back part way, only to slip over the ridgeline of the mountain and disappear from sight for good. Our celebration was prolonged and raucous, and made the return hike much more palatable for those of us who elected not to hitch a ride with one of the ATV-taxis.
Going into our last night on the island, the White-tailed Eagle looked to be a lock for best bird of the trip. Following an afternoon sea watch, I was on my way back to the lodge with most of the group in tow. David and a few others were lingering at the Point, enjoying the seabird passage for just a while longer. On our way through the boneyard, I jumped a small, very drab passerine that offered nothing more than a naked-eye glimpse as it shot out from in front of me and quickly put down again some 50 m distant. I immediately called everyone together and told the assembled group that I had just kicked up something very interesting, and that if I had to put a name to it, I would say that it was a Phylloscopus, like an Arctic Warbler, but duller. We headed to the spot where I saw it put down, and once again, it jumped. And once again, none of us got more than a fleeting, naked-eye glimpse as it disappeared into a grassy area littered with old snowmobiles in front of one of the houses. We attempted to surround the area, but when we drew the noose tight, the bird was nowhere to be found. We spread out and searched some more without success, but then came a radio call about the pair of Red-necked Stints at the far end of the lake. Going with the idea that 2 birds in the marsh were better than 1 possibly still in the boneyard, we organized a (successful) chase for the stints, but not before I logged a radio call describing our intriguing encounter with the possible Phylloscopus. While we were finishing dinner and preparing to do our nightly checklist session, Paul Lehman, who was staying in the lodge on his own, headed out to the boneyard to search for our mystery bird. We were in the middle of the list when my radio crackled with words that none of us will soon forget: "Ohhh Kevin…I've re-found your bird…Siberian Chiffchaff!" This broadcast from Paul set off what can only be described as a stampede, with pens and checklists hurled, chairs overturned, and people thundering down both hallways of the lodge in a mad rush for their birding gear. Soon, we were all assembled in the boneyard, and our pursuit had officially commenced. It took nearly an hour and a half, and lots of patient stalking and herding before all parties had succeeded in seeing the bird well, and before those of us with cameras had obtained documentary photos.
Back in the lodge, we quickly got the photos onto laptops for more detailed study, and it soon became apparent that this wasn't going to be an easy call. Pretty much the entire genus Phylloscopus is an ID-challenge (sort of an Old World equivalent of our Empidonax flycatchers for degree of difficulty). The standard identification cues are typically voice, habitat, and geography, none of which was going to be of help in identifying a silent vagrant. The ID came down to the bird either being the first North American record of Siberian Chiffchaff (the initial ID), or, the first ever spring record for North America of Willow Warbler (and only about the 10th record overall). Either way, it was a mega-rarity. The photos have been submitted to an impressive array of (mostly) European authorities, and, to date, the identification is still unresolved, with several authorities coming down firmly on either side, with still more straddling the fence. We’ll let you know the consensus as soon as one is reached! No matter, this was quintessential Gambell: expect the unexpected!
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 (seen nicely this year) 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?"
After the vagrant drama of Gambell, Nome was almost destined to seem anti-climactic, but then again, the combination of scenery, big mammals, much greater avian diversity, and some really special breeding birds beckoned. All three of the roads were open, and Nome seemed to be enjoying an earlier than normal spring after what was an especially cold, snowy winter. In some respects, the weather was almost too good, although I didn't hear anyone complaining. Topping everything was our experience with the iconic Bristle-thighed Curlew. We spent about one hour searching for it, another 30 minutes enjoying nice scope views of a single bird (and brief in-flight views of that bird and its presumed mate as they both flew off together, calling all the way), and another 30 minutes hiking back to the vans! There were two groups of us on the mountain at the same time, and we were all in constant radio contact, which no doubt made the task of finding the curlew that much easier. In a virtual tie with the curlew for "best bird" experience was the trio of dazzling male Bluethroats that performed so well near Salmon Lake. Over the course of our three-and-a-half days in Nome, we were also treated to nice scope views of Gyrfalcon, numerous Willow Ptarmigan, multiple Rock Ptarmigan, a cooperative pair of Northern Wheatears, dapper Yellow Wagtails, a most obliging Rock Sandpiper, an adult Slaty-backed Gull, nice studies of Yellow-billed and Arctic loons on the water, a vagrant Barn Swallow, a stunning Red-necked Stint, and the usual assortment of breeding-plumaged loons, waterfowl, and shorebirds. As always, mammal viewing was excellent, with grizzly, moose, muskox, reindeer, and red fox all showing nicely.
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.
STOP THE PRESSES: Just as I was sending this to the VENT office, and on my way out the door for a short vacation, I received a detailed analysis from Peter Kennerley regarding the Phylloscopus. His initial reaction to the first few photos that Paul sent out was "yakutensis Willow Warbler," but upon receiving a CD with all of the images, and after detailed examination of primary emargination, wing formula, and various other features, he has now shifted his opinion to Siberian Chiffchaff! A few other authorities are still being consulted, but it is looking more and more as if we did score a first record for North America!