Grand Alaska: Gambell/Nome Jun 02—10, 2015

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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No two spring visits to Alaska’s Bering Sea outposts are ever the same, mainly because the migratory pulses of breeders and Asiatic vagrants alike are dictated by weather patterns that, in these high latitudes, can be simultaneously extreme and ephemeral.  Groups that preceded us to Gambell this spring reported persistent strong (35–50 mph) north winds and few birds, with almost nothing in the way of Palearctic vagrants or even regular North American migrants in the several days before our scheduled arrival. It sounded less than promising, but all we could do was cross our fingers and wait. The weather gods were with us on at least one count, in that there was no fog to delay our arrival at Gambell. In fact, as we descended toward the island, we could see the mountains of the Russian Far East shimmering in the distance out the right side of our plane. The only question was whether our plane could actually land in such windy conditions! Our experienced Bering Air pilot made the whole thing look easy, and, in no time, we were on the ground. Troutman Lake, normally largely frozen during our annual June visits, was completely open, and there was no sign of offshore ice. Stepping off the plane, we were greeted by near gale force winds out of the north, which made walking even the few hundred meters to the lodge a challenge.
North winds at Gambell are bad news on multiple counts. For starters, winds coming out of the Arctic are cold, by definition. Secondly, strong winds out of the north tend to stop northbound spring migrants dead in their tracks—no bird wants to battle fiercely cold headwinds for hundreds of miles. Such conditions not only translate to “no vagrants” (unlike winds out of the southwest, which tend to deposit vagrants at Gambell), but also mean that even the regular North American migrants tend to stop moving until the winds abate. Indeed, other birding groups already on the island confirmed the advance reports that there were no real rarities to chase, and that sea-watching was slower than usual, and more difficult due to the high winds—uh oh! Our first hike, through the near boneyards and boat yard out to Northwest Point, yielded little besides the novelty of Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs in high breeding plumage. Things picked up when we reached the Point and settled in for a blustery sea-watch. As we were forewarned, numbers of birds were far below normal, and conditions for viewing were suboptimal, but at this point, even the common alcids were new for most folks, and we did score some potentially tough birds, including a pair of Arctic Loons, Red Phalarope, Sabine’s Gull, and a first-cycle Slaty-backed Gull.

Wood Sandpiper

Wood Sandpiper— Photo: Kevin Zimmer


We awoke the next day to find that, contrary to the weather forecast, the winds, which were still blowing from the north, had diminished significantly. Heading out for an extended sea-watch, we were pleased to find that the angry seas of the previous afternoon had also come down, and the offshore movement of birds had picked up considerably, in both sheer numbers and diversity. The undoubted highlights of our vigil were provided by fly-by views of 3 magnificent Yellow-billed Loons and a flock of 12 Steller’s Eiders, but we also enjoyed the passage of numbers of King Eiders, White-winged Scoters, Harlequin Ducks, Pacific Loons, all three species of jaegers, and, of course, the usual thousands upon thousands of alcids, including a lone Black Guillemot. After a couple of hours of stationary sea-watching, it was time, once again, to get the blood flowing to our extremities, so we hiked back to the lodge via a sweep through the boat yard and the near boneyard. An adult Slaty-backed Gull near the dump was a treat, as was the White Wagtail that popped up briefly to perch on the skulls of the Bowhead Whales that littered the area. The boneyard produced a skulking passerine that we eventually pinned down and confirmed to be a female Bluethroat, yet another promising indication of migration in progress.

After lunch, we headed out to check the marsh at the northeast corner of Troutman Lake, as well as the far boneyards. A pair of White Wagtails greeted us at the marsh, but these were quickly relegated to “yesterday’s news” when we discovered a Wood Sandpiper quietly poking around in the back of the marsh. This was our second Asiatic vagrant (after the Slaty-backed Gulls) of the trip, and, after putting out a radio alert to the other birding groups on the island, we spent some time watching it and obtaining nice scope studies. Before long, our plans for a comprehensive sweep of the nearby boneyard were interrupted by the crackle of the radio, announcing that a Lesser Sand-Plover had just been found south of Troutman Lake. I immediately organized ATV rides for the entire group, and soon our first “chase” was on. A cluster of birders with scopes and cameras already aimed made finding the dapper little shorebird with the rusty breast-band easy, and it proved remarkably tolerant of our presence, at one point, dashing right toward us in pursuit of insects emerging from the matted tundra vegetation, on what was turning out to be an unusually warm, sunny day. Leaving the plover behind, we continued south to the fenced wastewater enclosure and beyond, from whence we were getting reports of a pair of Common Ringed-Plovers. The first members of our group on the scene arrived in time to see one of the sought-after birds, but before the rest of us could arrive, the bird picked up and began pursuing a second bird, with both birds rocketing right past those of us bringing up the rear. After a vigorous chase, the two birds were joined by a third, and all three put down inside the fenced enclosure. It quickly became apparent that all three plovers were Common Ringeds, and that we were witnessing two males fighting over access to the third bird, which was a female! The aggressive interactions between the males were fascinating, alternating between complex posturing with tails fanned and angled steeply sideways (and accompanied by much vocalization), to outright combat that resembled nothing so much as a cockfight in miniature! By the time it was over, we had all chalked up great studies of one of the most difficult and localized of all North American breeding birds to see.

Lesser Sand-Plover

Lesser Sand-Plover— Photo: Kevin Zimmer


Our third day on the island began with a Dovekie-search along the slopes of Sivuqaq Mountain. Along the way, we checked the northeast corner marsh and found that our Wood Sandpiper of the previous day was still present. The Dovekie is a predominantly north Atlantic breeding bird, with only a relatively tiny, relict population inhabiting the Bering Sea. Each year, there are a handful of presumed breeding pairs present on the slopes of Sivuqaq Mountain at Gambell, but finding them is no slam-dunk, given that they represent a veritable “needle” amongst the alcid “haystack” of this mountain. Indeed, the daily Gambell alcid spectacle, as witnessed from a position along the base of the mountain, is usually overwhelming for first-timers, and only marginally less thrilling for me, after 26 years of visits. The skies overhead are blackened by thousands of swirling auklets (Crested, Least, and Parakeet), lending the appearance of angry swarms of bees, while the slopes below are literally covered with more of the same (including a sprinkling of Horned Puffins and Pigeon Guillemots). Individual rock slabs are festooned with auklets: comical Cresteds, with their goofy, perpetual grins; diminutive Leasts crowded cheek-to-jowl; and larger Parakeets, looking more formal and stoic, with their black-and-white “tuxedoed” appearance and more erect carriage. Throughout, the voices of the masses of birds above combine to assault the senses with a cacophony of sound—the yelping of the Crested Auklets; the harsh, buzzy chatter of the Leasts; and the musical trilling rattles of the Parakeets—made all the more voluminous each time a passing raven, Rough-legged Hawk, or Peregrine Falcon sends the panicked alcids into frenzied flight. Amid all of this chaos, we must locate the 2–6 pairs of Dovekies, typically at least two-thirds of the way up the mountain, and hope that they remain in view long enough for everyone to obtain satisfactory scope views. On this day, luck was with us, and I located a pair of Dovekies shortly after we arrived at the bottom of the mountain. Getting everyone on them proved to be a bit more difficult, because that pair, and a second pair located soon thereafter, kept scampering in and out of the rock crevices, seldom remaining in view long enough for more than one or two people to view in the scope. Eventually, we all secured multiple good views, allowing us to shift our attention to the masses of other alcids adorning the rocks much lower down the slopes.

Terek Sandpiper

Terek Sandpiper— Photo: Kevin Zimmer


Our post-lunch break was cut short by yet another radio call, this one informing us of the presence of two vagrant shorebirds beyond the south end of Troutman Lake—a Red-necked Stint, and, much rarer, a Terek Sandpiper. Once again, we rounded up ATV transport, provided by Val, Jerrod, and their daughter Marina, and the chase was on. The two target birds were along the same lakeshore, separated by perhaps 400 m. I got my scope set up on the Terek, while Rafael stopped short for the Red-necked Stint, and our group members took turns circulating through one scope before dashing off to repeat the process with the other bird. The Terek, as is typical of the species, seemed to be in constant motion, rear parts bobbing up-and-down like a Spotted Sandpiper, and periodically interrupting its hesitant, stuttering progression with sudden manic dashes. The stint was more sedate and approachable at first, but then flew to the opposite side of the lake where viewing was more difficult, before ultimately disappearing, never to be seen again.
By the time that dinner rolled around, we were a tired, but happy group. We had two more Palearctic vagrants under our belts and had secured repeat views of the Common Ringed-Plovers, to go along with close studies of a Wandering Tattler as it fished for sticklebacks along the shores of Troutman Lake. And all of that was following on the heels of the 4 Dovekies, the Wood Sandpiper, and the alcid spectacle of the morning.  But there was to be no rest for the weary on this day, when the crackling radio brought news of a Sky Lark in the near boneyard near the airstrip. This one took some time, as the bird flushed from concealment repeatedly, defying our best attempts to spot it on the ground first, and each time, flying back behind us a few hundred meters. Back-and-forth we went, each time having to relocate the bird, then creep forward and try to get a scope on it before it flew. We were only moderately successful in getting decent views of the bird on the ground, but we did get plenty of nice looks of it in flight, showing its broad wings with the white trailing edge to the secondaries, as well as the white outer tail feathers. It even vocalized a bit on two occasions. Eventually, the Sky Lark disappeared into the boat yard, and we were unable to relocate it. But before quitting, we did turn up a most confiding Rock Sandpiper, our first of the trip.

Red-necked Stint

Red-necked Stint— Photo: Kevin Zimmer


On our last full day at Gambell, we awoke to the news that late the night before, two participants from one of the other groups had seen a bird in the far boneyard that they could not identify. Their description suggested a Phylloscopus warbler. Immediately afterwards, their group leaders had searched for the bird without success, but now, their entire group was back out early and scouring the boneyard for the mystery bird. They found it. The radio call came back that the bird appeared to be a Chiffchaff! We got word that the bird was circulating between the circular boneyard and the base of Sivuqaq Mountain. I crossed my fingers that it would be in the circular boneyard, the smallest of the boneyards, and one that was isolated from other decent habitat by an expanse of open, gravel plain. Anywhere else, especially on the side of the mountain, where our access was particularly limited, and this bird was going to be a nightmare to find. We headed straight to the circular boneyard and devised our strategy. With 16 of us, we could effectively surround the entire boneyard. Once in place, I gave the signal, and we began to slowly tighten the noose. It didn’t take long. Almost immediately, we jumped a small drab bird that was forced deeper into the center of the boneyard. We continued our advance, drawing the noose still tighter. The bird jumped again, and then, a third time.  This time, it paused in the open. Jackpot! It was, indeed, a Chiffchaff! I couldn’t help but flashback to our 2012 Gambell tour, when I jumped a similarly drab, small Phylloscopus in the near boneyard on our last afternoon. After much work, our entire group had excellent views, and we had a series of photographs that conclusively identified the bird as a Chiffchaff, the first confirmed record of the species for all of North America. Now, just three years later, we were in another boneyard, on our last day on the island, and once again, our entire group had secured good studies of this ultra-rare vagrant. Amazingly, since our initial discovery in 2012, there had been several more records of Chiffchaff from Gambell, and one from St. Paul Island. Still, I believe our 2015 bird represented only the 5th or 6th record of the species for the ABA area. 
We left Gambell with 7 Palearctic/Siberian vagrants under our belts (8 if you count Common Ringed Plover, which is a borderline regular but decidedly rare breeder). We had averaged nearly two vagrants per day for the duration of our stay, definitely an exceptional visit. 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 number 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.

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 Gray Whales surfacing just offshore, Spotted Seals hauled out on the beach, the strips of blackened seal and walrus drying on traditional drying racks, ATVs humming across the landscape at all hours of the night, 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. The combination of sparse winter snow and an exceptionally early thaw meant that all three of the major roads were open and drivable for their entire lengths, providing access to some of the most exciting birding in North America. It also meant that the landscape was much drier than normal, given that most of the tundra ponds and marshes in this permafrost zone result from melt water that collects on the surface and slowly evaporates through the summer. On a typical early June visit to Nome, there are significant lingering snowfields in the alpine areas, and the exposed tundra is brown in color and very wet. On this trip, there was no snow or offshore ice to greet us, and the tundra was dry and quite green, not brown, with cotton grass (Eriophorum, which is actually a sedge) and an array of wildflowers bursting out all over. Warmer-than-usual temperatures also meant that the mosquitos had emerged early, but the generally dry conditions kept their ranks from swelling to truly obnoxious levels. We could see the effects of the early spring on the birds as well. Most migrants had already passed through, and many of the breeding species were further along in their cycles than usual, resulting in fewer singing, territorial birds, and more that were instead, focused upon feeding young. Ptarmigan of both species appeared to be in a “down” year in their population cycles, although their apparent scarcity may have been, at least partly, an artifact of the early spring. As spring advances, these birds “brown-up” and retreat back from the road with the receding snow, making them much harder to detect. Indeed, some of the few male Rock Ptarmigan that we encountered were almost completely brown (except for their white wings), at a date when they are normally mostly white.


Bluethroat— Photo: Kevin Zimmer


As is usually the case, top honors on the lengthy list of Nome highlights were shared between our experience with the iconic Bristle-thighed Curlew and our repeated views of dazzling male Bluethroats in full skylarking display mode. The curlews managed to elude us for an uncomfortably long period of time before we heard a distant one calling. That led us almost to the near rim of a brushy draw on the backside of the mountain, but the bird had ceased calling, and no amount of scanning was turning up any curlews on the ground. Suddenly, we were hearing the calls again, but now, they were coming from behind us! Rafael, who was out on our right flank and trailing us by some distance, was yelling into the radio to look up, and as we did, here came a pair of Bristle-thighed Curlews in full voice, rocketing past and heading across the brushy draw, only to put down just below the ridgeline on the far rim of the draw. The views had been pretty good for most, offering no-doubt looks at the diagnostic contrasting buffy rump and tail, and, of course, the distinctive vocalizations had already cinched the positive ID. At that point, some folks were more than satisfied with their curlew experience and happy to get a head start on the long trek back to the vans. The rest of us pressed on, hoping for studies of birds on the ground. Skirting the rim of the “bowl” that topped the brushy draw, those of us at the front of the procession stopped dead in our tracks when we heard a curlew calling once again. This time, the sound seemed to be coming right at us, but we couldn’t pick up the bird, which was blasting by down slope, just above the ground. Amazingly, the lone bird put down less than 50 m from a couple members of our party, and the rest of us wasted no time in hustling over to join them. We were soon enjoying scope views of the bird on the ground, but our quarry continued to walk slowly away from us the entire time. Suddenly, without warning or obvious provocation, the curlew took flight once again, giving us excellent profile views as it went, and then putting down once more, just below the far ridge. While we were contemplating our options, Rafael noticed a group of at least five “curlews” (in the generic sense) put down in the vicinity of where our lone bird had disappeared. We started scanning the far slope and soon picked up multiple birds, but they were too distant to identify to species. At this point, a few of us opted to hike in that direction. Barely had we started before a flock of 11 large shorebirds burst into flight, rapidly gained altitude, and then peeled off to the north and out of sight, shedding a single member of their flock in the process. Later review of my series of photos showed conclusively that the flock had consisted of 7 Bristle-thighed Curlews and 4 Whimbrels! These birds should not have been flocking on the mountain at this date, a time when adults of both species are typically paired and have nests with eggs. My best guess is that these birds were either failed breeders or birds that had found the exceptionally dry, advanced state of the tundra not to their liking, and that had foregone breeding altogether for this season.

Bristle-thighed Curlew

Bristle-thighed Curlew— Photo: Kevin Zimmer


As satisfying and exciting as our experiences with the curlew and Bluethroat were, I would probably point to the spectacle that greeted us at Cape Nome on our first afternoon in the area as my personal favorite memory of the trip. As we approached the Cape, it was clear that something special was going on. A shelf of tundra above the road was liberally sprinkled with white spots that soon resolved themselves into a scattered group of Long-tailed Jaegers. We counted 16 on the ground at one time (and a late night pass by here in the days to come yielded more than 50!), but this was a mere harbinger of what was awaiting for us around the bend. As the jetty at the Cape came into view, it was immediately apparent that there was a feeding frenzy of gulls and other seabirds in progress over the waters just off the beach. The gulls, 90% of which were Black-legged Kittiwakes, numbered in the many hundreds to low thousands, and they were everywhere on the water and swirling above like snowflakes in a blizzard. Small rafts of Common Murres were scattered amongst the gulls, as were Pacific and Red-throated loons and a few Pelagic Cormorants. But what caught my attention were the jaegers. Never had I seen so many in one spot. All three species were present, with Pomarine and Parasitic being represented by both dark and light color morphs. Most bizarrely, Pomarine Jaegers, which, unlike the other two species, do not nest in the Nome area (and are typically early migrants), were numerically dominant. In fact, there were at least 80 of them within 300 m of shore, and seemingly many more well beyond the main concentration of birds.

Pomarine Jaegers harassing Black-legged Kittiwakes

Pomarine Jaegers harassing Black-legged Kittiwakes— Photo: Kevin Zimmer


The focus of all of this avian abundance was a “bait ball,” probably initially formed by a concentration of planktonic invertebrates (amphipods and copepods or “krill”) that had, in turn, concentrated a spectacular “run” of candlefish (also known as “hooligans,” a type of smelt). The birds were focusing their attention on the candlefish, and the jaegers, true “pirates” of the high seas away from their breeding grounds, were focusing their attention on the other birds, particularly on the kittiwakes. No sooner would a kittiwake or other gull nab a candlefish than one or more jaegers would be on it, attempting to harass its victim into coughing up its prey, which the pirates would then deftly pluck from the surface. The jaegers were relentless in their assaults, coming in low and fast, the powerful Poms closing distance with deep, plowing strokes, the lighter and more buoyant Long-taileds and Parasitics more darting and slicing, but all ending with strafing, savage attacks that were frequently punctuated with aerial maneuvering reminiscent of World War I-era dogfights. Time and again, kittiwakes were driven to the water and either stripped of prey or forced to abandon it. Meanwhile, other jaegers maintained patrols up-and-down along the beach, drifting by our position at eye level, and offering rare, count-the-feather views. We watched, transfixed, for more than 45 minutes as this scene played out before us. The candlefish runs continued up-and-down the Norton Sound shoreline throughout the next week (spanning the duration of our stay and that of our Grand Alaska Part I group), and featured some truly spectacular numbers of kittiwakes and murres, but the jaeger spectacle that we witnessed on that first afternoon was never to be duplicated. Pomarine numbers dropped steeply over the next 48 hours, and by the time our Grand Alaska tour was officially underway, species composition had flipped so completely that Parasitic Jaegers had become the numerically dominant jaeger species along the coastline.

Gyrfalcon on nest

Gyrfalcon on nest— Photo: Kevin Zimmer


Also noteworthy were the magnificent Gyrfalcons that were nesting on one of the area’s many bridges. The unique location allowed us eye level views of the nest and its occupants without ever leaving our vans or flushing the attending adult. Nice studies of a couple of pairs of Northern Wheatears, numerous flirtations with dapper Eastern Yellow Wagtails, close fly-by views of an Aleutian Tern, and the usual assortment of breeding-plumaged loons, waterfowl, and shorebirds were just a few of the other expected offerings that occupied our three days in the Nome region, while a gathering of Surfbirds, Black Turnstones, and Sanderlings feeding in the wrack-line along the beach, a Common Loon just offshore, and a Common Goldeneye and a handsome male Eurasian Wigeon at Safety Lagoon could all properly be considered bonus birds.

A trip to northwestern Alaska’s outposts 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. It was great fun birding with you all, and we hope to see you again on a future VENT trip!