Grand Alaska: Gambell/Nome Pre-trip Jun 02—10, 2014

Posted by David Wolf

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David Wolf

David Wolf is a senior member of the VENT staff and one of our most experienced tour leaders. After birding the U.S. and Mexico for over a decade, an interest in the wildli...

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A trip to Gambell village on remote St. Lawrence Island is always an adventure—and thus quite unpredictable. We began our 2014 trip with an early morning arrival in Nome, only to learn that there was widespread fog and low visibility over the entire region, putting our flight to Gambell on hold. We waited and waited, taking short strolls in the vicinity of the Bering Air terminal and finding our first 25 species of birds, but as the hours ticked away we were definitely restless and a bit discouraged. Finally, just as it looked as if we wouldn’t be going anywhere that day, at 5:15 p.m. we were called to board the plane. An hour later we descended through the fog and were on the ground at Gambell at last.

Red-necked Stint

Red-necked Stint— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

After settling into our rooms at the lodge and devouring our first great meal, we hit the ground running. Birders already present on the island reported that several rare “goodies” had finally shown up in previous days, after a long dry spell, and we took off on an excursion to the south end of mostly-frozen Troutman Lake to “chase” them. It was still foggy, with a chilly wind from the southwest, but it didn’t take long to find a very close and beautiful Red-necked Stint amidst the numerous Western Sandpipers and Red-necked Phalaropes in the shallow puddles. Fortunately the fog then lifted enough to increase our visibility and, when it did, we spotted a lone Emperor Goose in the nearby marshes; we all got nice scope looks at this iconic—and declining—Beringian endemic. Though small numbers of these distinctive geese are regular offshore migrants here at Gambell, it is not often that one lingers on the ground for longer looks. Soon thereafter, as we searched for a Terek Sandpiper reported in the vicinity, we found a second, duller Red-necked Stint, confirming that at least two were present. Unfortunately, the Terek was not as cooperative and was seen by only a few of us, but since it had disappeared for the time being, and we were suddenly chilly and tired, we decided to call it a day. All in all, it was a great ending to our day—and a great beginning to our stay at Gambell.

Terek Sandpiper

Terek Sandpiper— Photo: David Wolf

Our first full day here proved to be foggy again, with a steady southwest wind. A check of the near “boneyards” and the “boatyard” did not reveal any rare migrants, but we had our first looks at the local White Wagtails, a specialty that we would see around the village daily. The fog lifted enough at times for us to gain an introduction to the “sea-watching” here, and we spotted 8 members of the auk family in the offshore waters. That afternoon the radios crackled and we got a report that the Terek Sandpiper had been relocated, this time along the shore of the lake halfway along the mountainside. We quickly arranged transportation to the area, and soon we were enjoying fabulous views of this very distinctive, rare, and off-course migrant from Asia. This time we all got to enjoy it for a prolonged period and as close as 15 feet away while it actively probed the sandy shore. It was along this area, as we strolled back to the village, that we also had our first looks at Rock Sandpipers in full breeding plumage.

Early morning the next day revealed that the veil of fog had magically lifted with a wind shift to the northwest, and under beautiful skies we took off for our morning excursion to the mountainside. Here we joined a throng of birders watching the immense swarms of small alcids sitting on the rocks and snowfields and swirling in the air above. Amidst the thousands upon thousands of Least, Crested, and Parakeet auklets, we were able to pick out at least 8 Dovekies that popped in and out of various crevices to sit out on the rocks with their much more abundant neighbors. Though this is a common Arctic species, it is not an easy one to get to and was a much-desired lifer for many in the group. The din of noise from all of these birds was constant and added to our enchantment with this very special scene. The pair of courting Rough-legged Hawks that flew right over us wasn’t bad either, nor were the Red-throated Pipits that we finally connected with that afternoon as we prowled the near boneyard.

 
Common Ringed-Plover

Common Ringed-Plover— Photo: David Wolf

Our final full day at Gambell brought cloudy skies with a cold wind from the northeast and even a few snow flurries, so that we got the full spring weather cycle in just a few days here. This day produced our best sea-watching, with numerous Pacific Loons on the move and at least 2 Yellow-billed Loons spotted, along with several sizable flocks of King Eiders, including one with 2 adult males. A quartet of Spectacled Eiders proved to be frustrating, as they were distant and not seen by all. The highlight of the day was a very cooperative pair of Common Ringed Plovers at the south end of the lake. They not only allowed us to study all of their key field marks at close range (separating them from the very similar and much more common Semipalmated Plovers is not easy), but the male also called repeatedly and even did a few flight displays to confirm the identification. A final sea-watch on our last morning added a fly-by Arctic Loon to our list and then it was back to Nome, a very successful visit to Gambell under our belts. Special thanks go to our friends in the other birding groups on the island for sharing their finds and even rides at times, as well as to Jen for keeping us so well-fed.

After Gambell, the frontier town of Nome almost seemed modern and civilized, while the nearby habitats seemed bird-rich in both species diversity and numbers. Shortly after arriving we met up with Aaron Bowman, my co-leader for our days here, and he informed me that a male Spectacled Eider had shown up in the small boat harbor. Without wasting time, we dashed off to look for it. This incredibly beautiful and cooperative bird was spotted before we even got out of the vehicles, floating just a few feet offshore and more than making up for our poor looks at Gambell! Not long afterwards we had our first encounter with a herd of 40 Musk Ox hanging around right on the edge of town, acting as if they owned the place, and nearby we found our first Bar-tailed Godwits and singing Eastern Yellow Wagtails amidst the commoner birds. Welcome to Nome!

Spectacled Eider

Spectacled Eider— Photo: David Wolf

The next day, on the Kougarok Road, was a big success. This road transects almost all of the habitats of the Seward Peninsula and we spent the day moving from one great bird to the next, including a Wandering Tattler in full breeding plumage; a singing Arctic Warbler (this specialty is one of the last breeding birds to arrive and they are not always here this early); a male Rock Ptarmigan standing motionless and well-camouflaged amidst the white rocks; and a dazzling male Bluethroat repeatedly giving its swirling flight songs. Best of all was a successful hike for the often-difficult Bristle-thighed Curlew. We weren’t even to the top of the mountain before we heard its melodic call and watched in excitement as a displaying bird got closer and closer and then landed not far from us! Our final surprise of the day was a pair of Bohemian Waxwings as we started back towards Nome, a bird that is rare and unexpected here beyond the tree-line.

Musk Ox in Nome

Musk Ox in Nome— Photo: David Wolf

The final day of the pre-trip was spent working through the vast wetlands complex in the Safety Sound area and then inland along the brush-lined Solomon River up into the barren coastal mountaintops. Highlights included an Emperor Goose leaving the Safety Sound area and heading out to sea; a close male Willow Ptarmigan in the road first thing in the morning; a perched male Peregrine guarding the female on the nest; displaying Aleutian Terns; and a nice variety of waterbirds. All too soon our birding adventure to one of America’s few remaining frontiers was over.