Grand Alaska: Gambell/Nome Pre-trip Jun 02—10, 2013

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 2012 Gambell-Nome tour scored a major coup with the discovery of North America’s first confirmed record of Siberian Chiffchaff. Against that backdrop, I couldn’t help but wonder what we could possibly do in 2013 for an encore. Groups that preceded us to Gambell this spring reported persistent north winds and few birds, with almost nothing in the way of Palearctic vagrants. It didn’t sound promising, but all we could do was cross our fingers and wait. The weather gods were with us, meaning that there was no fog to delay our arrival at Gambell. In fact, after our arrival in Nome and upon transferring our gear to the Bering Air terminal, the good folks at Bering Air asked us if we would be amenable to moving up our departure in order to take advantage of favorable conditions that couldn’t be counted on to last. I jumped on that offer in a heartbeat, and before long we were winging our way toward St. Lawrence Island. When the plane set down, we could see the mountains of the Russian Far East shimmering in the distance. We could also see ice, lots of it, just offshore from Gambell. In fact, there was more ice out there than I had seen in several years.

Little Stint, Gambell, Alaska, June 4, 2013

Little Stint, Gambell, Alaska, June 4, 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

The winds were still out of the north, and other birding groups who had been present for days offered up discouraging reports. There were no real rarities to chase, and sea watching was slower than usual—uh oh! Given that, we put our first few excursions to good use, getting up close and personal with the alcids that nest by the thousands on the mountainside east of the village (including picking out at least 5 Dovekies out of the masses of Least, Crested, and Parakeet auklets), and doing due diligence to sea watching off Northwest Point, which allowed us to pick off an Emperor Goose and 4 Yellow-billed Loons among the more common seabirds.

Things started to pick up on our second day. For starters, the winds had shifted at last, and were now blowing out of the southeast. That didn’t necessarily bode well for Siberian vagrants, but at least it meant that any northbound birds wouldn’t be battling headwinds to get here. As we were heading out to the Point for another sea watch, I looked up just in time to see an adult Black-headed Gull flying right past us. We all got a nice look as it flew past and headed for Troutman Lake. I alerted the other groups on the island by radio, and they all caught up with the bird in the corner marsh at the northeast end of the lake. Later that day, the favor was returned in spades when we received a radio call about a Little Stint in the gravel ponds south of Troutman Lake. We quickly organized ATV rides to the spot, and in no time we were looking at a gorgeous Little Stint. But barely had we set the scopes on the stint than a much larger shorebird flew in and landed even closer to us––a female Ruff (= Reeve)! We whipsawed from one Siberian vagrant to the other for the next half-hour, at which point the Ruff took off, never to be seen again. The stint stayed on for the rest of the day, allowing close approach and lengthy studies. Before leaving the spot, we made a short foray to a nearby small sewage pond of sorts, where a pair of Common Ringed Plovers were clearly nesting. We secured great studies of the plovers in short order, thereby chalking up one of the most difficult and localized of all North American breeding birds to see.

Common Ringed Plover, Gambell, Alaska, June 4, 2013

Common Ringed Plover, Gambell, Alaska, June 4, 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Things got even crazier the next day. We were hiking out to check the marsh at the northeast corner of Troutman Lake when my radio crackled with a report of a Red-necked Stint way down at the same gravel ponds where all of the action had been the day before. It was tempting to drop everything and chase the stint, but we were getting close to the marsh, and it hadn’t been checked since early the day before. I promised the group that we would chase the stint as soon as we checked the marsh. Within minutes of arriving at the marsh, I picked up a Wood Sandpiper in my glasses! It took a little maneuvering, but soon we were all enjoying scope views of another vagrant shorebird. My radio call set off a mass exodus of birders from the south end of the lake, and before long we could see a virtual convoy of ATVs streaming in our direction, as two different tour groups abandoned the Red-necked Stint in pursuit of the Wood Sandpiper. Barely had everyone arrived and gotten on the bird when it picked up out of the marsh, flew to the north, and disappeared, not to be seen again. At this point, our ATV drivers met us at the marsh and took us down to the gravel ponds to look for the stint. In no time at all we had found the stint, and we were just starting to get everyone on it when a departing plane spooked all of the shorebirds off the pond. After a bit of swirling around, the birds resettled and we began the process of pinning down the stint anew. Once again, we found the stint, but something wasn’t right. The bird looked different, with less reddish coloration than we had been seeing before. It soon became apparent that there was not one, but two different Red-necked Stints, one now on the far side of the pond, and the other right in front of us. We were busy admiring the near bird when Jon Dunn, the leader of the WINGS group, radioed to ask if we had the stint. I replied that we had two of them, one on the side of the pond closest to where their group was now stationed, and the other directly in front of us. Seconds later, Jon called back, “Kevin, you’re closer to this bird than I am; check out that lone bird on the small gravel bar in the center of the pond. From here it looks like a Temminck’s Stint.” I pivoted to my left, located the bird in question, and sure enough, it was a Temminck’s Stint, only the second that I had ever seen in North America! We had scored a stint hat trick on this gravel pond, with Little, Red-necked, and now Temminck’s all showing up in the same spot within 24 hours!

Red-necked Stint, Gambell, Alaska, June 5, 2013

Red-necked Stint, Gambell, Alaska, June 5, 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

The winds continued to blow from the southeast, and by late that evening all of our rarities, save a single Red-necked Stint, had moved on, not to be seen again. All other groups had vacated the island by noon of the next day, and we were down to our final 24 hours at Gambell. I had my eyes on the winds, which were slowly but surely shifting. By noontime they were blowing out of the southwest, the most favorable wind direction for turning up Siberian strays. But had the shift occurred in time to do us any good? We were not long in finding in out. In mid-afternoon we headed south once more to “stint pond.” Our faithful “taxi” drivers dropped us off, with the promise to be back for us in two hours. It took about 15 minutes to ascertain that there were no vagrants and very few shorebirds of any kind in the vicinity. To make matters worse, the fog, which had been developing through the day, was really starting to settle in. What would we do for the next couple of hours? Hiking south, we checked out a muddy seep at the edge of a large area of snowmelt. That produced our first Rock Sandpiper of the trip, and we spent some time admiring it. I suggested that we then head to the sewage pond to take a last look at the Common Ringed Plover pair. One of the plovers popped up immediately when we arrived at the pond, and I was simultaneously putting the bird in the scope and reiterating the field marks that distinguish Common Ringed from Semipalmated Plover when Sandy interrupted and said, “Kevin, what’s this bird hopping on the ground? Is that a Hawfinch?” YES! Right in front of us, on the sloped bank of the settling basin, but decidedly inconspicuous amid the dried grasses and other small plants, sat a handsome male Hawfinch. He appeared nearly oblivious to our presence, and was munching away on small seedpods of some plant that appeared to have been a leftover from the previous year. We watched the bird for more than 30 minutes before our rides appeared. When we left, it was still happily munching away on seeds. A late evening check revealed that the Hawfinch had barely moved in several hours, and with the fog settling in, it seemed unlikely that the bird would be leaving any time soon.

The next morning, our plan was for an early breakfast and a hike out to the northeast corner of the lake and a check of the far boneyards, normally a vagrant hotspot, but one that had failed to produce a bird of any kind (other than resident Snow Buntings) during this visit. We didn’t have a lot of time to work with because our flight was scheduled for 1045h. Given that the winds had blown from the southwest all throughout the night, and given that the northeast marsh and far boneyard hadn’t been checked in 24 hours, I had high hopes for finding something special. But my hopes were dashed almost immediately. There were essentially no birds present in either spot, and our time was ebbing away. We still needed Steller’s and Spectacled eiders, so one last sea watch seemed like the best use of our remaining time. Some folks opted for more time at the lodge for packing, while the rest of us trudged on out to Northwest Point. When the allotted time failed to produce anything new, I signaled the retreat and we headed back to the lodge.

Hawfinch, Gambell, Alaska, June 6, 2013

Hawfinch, Gambell, Alaska, June 6, 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

As we were passing through the boatyard, we paused to scope some Hoary Redpolls that landed on a wire. While putting the redpolls in the scope, I became aware of a sweet sounding, two-noted “pwee-wheet” call that was more than a little plover-like, emanating from overhead. I looked up, but with the low ceiling, saw nothing. “Listen! There’s a shorebird calling overhead that I can’t place.” But no one could see it, and I could hear the musical two-noted call receding to the south. Intrigued, I suggested we detour through the boatyard to the south, rather than taking the most direct path to the lodge. As we made our way south, I was tormented by the thought that the mystery call was reminiscent of the call of Little Curlew, a bird that I hadn’t seen or heard since Dave Sonneborne, Kenn Kaufman, and I had found Alaska’s first record at Gambell way back in 1989. The sweep of the boatyards produced nothing, and a glance at my watch convinced me that we needed to bag it and head for the lodge. There just wasn’t time to walk the entire grassy strip that paralleled the runway, the same grassy strip where the 1989 Little Curlew had eventually put down. Reluctantly, I signaled that we should change direction and head for the lodge. And just then, I heard the call again, and then, again. And, it was coming closer. “It’s in the air, here it comes, that shorebird is coming right for us!” Slightly bigger than a golden-plover, about the size of an Upland Sandpiper, but with a shorter tail, the bird hurtled toward us, calling as it came. And then it banked abruptly, heading toward the beach. And in that moment, I could clearly see all of the details—the relatively short, decurved bill, the finely streaked breast and lightly barred flanks, the evenly brown-marbled underwings, and the unmarked lores—“That’s a Little Curlew,” I screamed, “Get on that bird, look at the bill!” The curlew gave us one great pass, and then vanished behind the gravel berm that blocked our view of the beach. We scrambled to the spot, but it was gone, and I could hear one last sweet call fading to the north. And now, there really was no option, we had to get back to the lodge before our plane arrived.
We left Gambell with 9 Palearctic/Siberian vagrants under our belts (if you count Common Ringed Plover, which is a borderline regular but rare breeder), 10 if you include the somewhat regular Slaty-backed Gull. We had averaged better than two vagrants per day for the duration of our stay, definitely an epic visit. The Little Curlew was possibly only the second Alaska record ever, and one of fewer than 10 for all of North America. 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 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.

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 particularly well 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?”

Bristle-thighed Curlew, Nome, Alaska, June 8, 2013

Bristle-thighed Curlew, Nome, Alaska, June 8, 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

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. Not only that, but we were all looking forward to ample hot water after a system malfunction at Gambell had necessitated a village-wide shutdown of water for the last 36 hours of our stay! All three of the roads were now open, providing access to some of the most exciting birding in North America. Fog and mist was a fairly constant theme for much of our stay in Nome, but it didn’t interfere too much with birding, and it lifted just in time for our departing folks to fly back to Anchorage, and for our inbound Grand Alaska participants to arrive. Topping everything was our experience with the iconic Bristle-thighed Curlew, which managed to elude us for an uncomfortably long period of time before we finally pinned it down and secured exceptional close studies. In a virtual tie with the curlew for “best bird” was the dazzling male Bluethroat 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 a dark-morph Gyrfalcon attending three downy chicks at its nest, numerous Willow Ptarmigan, multiple Rock Ptarmigan, a cooperative male Northern Wheatear, dapper Yellow Wagtails, two encounters with Arctic Loons on the water, a binocular-filling fly-by view of an Aleutian Tern, the first-arriving Arctic Warblers and the usual assortment of breeding-plumaged loons, waterfowl, and shorebirds, and more Musk Ox than you could shake a stick at.

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.