Grand Alaska: Gambell/Nome Jun 02—10, 2016

Posted by Kevin Zimmer

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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. This year, the winds at Gambell were mostly light to moderate and almost continuously out of the north-northeast to east, conditions which tend not to produce Asiatic vagrants. However, our timing proved most fortuitous, in that we were able to leave Nome nearly two hours ahead of schedule, putting us on the island in time to pick off both a lingering Eyebrowed Thrush, and a just-found Common Greenshank on our first excursion into the field. Neither bird was seen again! We also managed to see two gorgeous Red-necked Stints and a pair of Common Ringed Plovers south of Troutman Lake. These two species are rare but regular migrants (borderline vagrants) to Gambell and the nearby Seward Peninsula, where they at least occasionally have been confirmed to breed (plovers only at Gambell; stints primarily on the Seward Peninsula). The plovers, which are also known to nest regularly in remote areas of the Canadian high Arctic, would have to rank among the least accessible of North America’s breeding birds.

Red-necked Stint

Red-necked Stint— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

After a most auspicious first day, it was time to get down to the routine of daily sea watches, and checks of the near and far boneyards, the boat yard, the marsh at the northeast corner of Troutman Lake, and the marshes and gravel ponds that lie beyond. But not before a radio call with news of a Common (“Siberian”) Chiffchaff along the east shore of the lake sent us scrambling once again into “chase” mode. The bird was unusually lethargic (for this species), as it foraged on freshly emerging midges right along the lakeshore, only sporadically popping up onto nearby rocks for several seconds to look around before dropping back to the ground, where it remained largely out of sight from the road. Once everyone had secured scope views, all birders (comprising two tour groups and several independents) desiring closer views made a coordinated group advance on the bird, which allowed us much better views and reasonable documentary photos. When the last of our group left, the Chiffchaff was still feasting contentedly on midges, seemingly with no incentive to leave the lakeshore. Our 2012 group had found the first documented Common Chiffchaff to be found in North America. We saw and photographed another at Gambell in 2015. Remarkably, just four years after the first documented record, our bird from this year’s trip represents the 8th or 9th confirmed North American record!

Common Chiffchaff

Common Chiffchaff— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

After leaving the Chiffchaff along the lakeshore, we walked a quarter-mile or so to the north along the road, hoping to relocate the Eyebrowed Thrush on the slopes of the mountain. The thrush was a no-show, but while Brian scoured the slopes above the road, the rest of us got on a small bird that flushed about halfway between our position and Brian’s and flew a few hundred meters farther north before putting down. We rushed to the spot, only to see the bird start leapfrogging its way upslope. My initial impression was that this bird was also a Chiffchaff, but our views were both fleeting and distant. After losing the bird completely for awhile, we relocated it not far from where it had last flown, and with scope views, we could confirm that it was, indeed, a Common Chiffchaff, either the same individual from the lakeshore, or, based on its very different, skittish behavior and different location coming just a short time after we had left the lakeshore bird, possibly a second individual!

Least Auklets

Least Auklets— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

Our third day on the island began with a Dovekie-search along the slopes of Sivuqaq Mountain. The Dovekie is a predominantly North Atlantic breeding bird, with only a relatively tiny, relict population inhabiting the Bering Sea. Each year, a handful of presumed breeding pairs are 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 27 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 Dovekies, seldom represented in any given year by more than 6–8 individuals, and 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 reached the bottom of the mountain. Getting everyone on them proved to be a bit more difficult, because that pair, and a third (and possibly fourth) bird 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 studies, allowing us to shift our attention to the masses of other alcids adorning the rocks much lower down the slopes, where all three resident auklets and Pigeon Guillemots provided scope-filling views.

White Wagtail

White Wagtail— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

After overloading on alcids, we worked back to the south along the base of the mountain, and swept the “far” and “circular” boneyards (netting little beyond improved views of White Wagtails) and the marsh at the northeast corner of Troutman Lake before heading back to the lodge for a break. Our best bird was a Bank Swallow that Brian picked out and rather nicely photographed as it made a few passes over the marsh. Bank Swallow is a rare migrant at Gambell (although a fairly common breeder at Nome), and Brian’s photos may represent the first physical documentation of the species on the island (although there are several previous sight records).

Following our short break, we made an excursion to check the gravel ponds beyond the south end of the lake. This produced a remarkable 3 Red-necked Stints in sight at once, a feat that we would top on a return trip in the afternoon, when the original trio was joined by a 4th bird. Our afternoon sea watch from Northwest Point was particularly productive, highlighted by 2 Arctic Loons (one of which was scoped on the water and seen in flight), 4 Steller’s Eiders, and a group of 5 Emperor Geese. The geese made a couple of nice passes before disappearing to our south, but we subsequently got news that they had sat down near the culvert at the south end of the lake. We organized an ATV chase in hopes of seeing the geese on the ground, but they had vanished without a trace by the time we arrived. But, we did get a nice Slaty-backed Gull and a 4th Red-necked Stint, as well as multiple Common Ringed Plovers and a couple of White Wagtails as consolation prizes.

Common Ringed Plover

Common Ringed Plover— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

Our last 24 hours on the island produced little in the way of new birds, although our sea watches did include 3 Yellow-billed Loons and a lone male “Hook-nosed” Scoter (the Siberian-breeding subspecies of White-winged Scoter, which may end up being split and elevated to distinct species status) that was traveling with a pair of male Surf Scoters. We also finally tracked down a pair of Rock Sandpipers, another Beringian specialty that was annoyingly conspicuous during late-night leader scouting forays, but which seemed to disappear during normal group birding hours. We also delighted in encore performances from the several (at least 5) Red-necked Stints that were hanging around, as well as the 2–3 territorial pairs of Common Ringed Plovers.

We left Gambell with 4 Palearctic/Siberian vagrants under our belts (5 if you count Common Ringed Plover). We had averaged a vagrant per day for the duration of our stay, making for an above-average visit from a vagrant perspective. 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. There is something too, to be said for any place where the three most commonly seen passerines are White Wagtail, Snow Bunting, and Lapland Longspur!

“Hook-nosed” Scoter with Surf Scoter— Photo: Brian Gibbons

 

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, 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. 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.

Bristle-thighed Curlew

Bristle-thighed Curlew— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

As is usually the case, top honors on the lengthy list of Nome highlights were shared between our experience with a pair of iconic Bristle-thighed Curlews and our repeated views of dazzling male Bluethroats both in full skylarking display mode, and dashing about over open tundra. Since discovering the first known nesting pair of Bluethroats in the Nome area (and, by extension, the first Bluethroats in Alaska that tour groups could access by car) on June 11, 1987, we have never failed to produce these beautiful, “chat-like” Old World Flycatchers during our annual Nome visits.

Bluethroat

Bluethroat— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A drake (but not yet fully adult) Spectacled Eider that had been hanging out in the tidal basin at the mouth of Hastings Creek stayed in place just long enough for us to see it on our first afternoon in Nome. In fact, after we had watched it through the scopes for perhaps 15 minutes, the eider swam out of sight up the outlet channel that led into the open waters of Norton Sound, never to be seen again! As with the Eyebrowed Thrush and the Common Greenshank at Gambell, our timing had proved impeccable! The “Spec” Eider was a great cleanup of a bird that we had missed (but usually see) at Gambell, and one that we only occasionally see at Nome. Oddly, no one was seeing Spectacled Eiders at Gambell this spring and yet, even more oddly, we ended up seeing two more fully adult male Spectacled Eiders at Nome several days later during our Grand Alaska Part I tour. The other big Beringian highlight of our Nome visit was seeing an Arctic Loon on the inland side of the Council Road beyond Safety Sound. In most years, there is a single pair of Arctic Loons that breed in this area, but at great distances they are not easy to distinguish from the much more common Pacific Loons. These local breeders are also typically very wary, and tend to dive and then resurface much farther out the moment you stop the vans, so getting good views of the diagnostic marks for everyone can be problematic. But this year, a single loon allowed us to approach on foot to the near edge of the big lake (still some distance away), which was close enough to yield the best and most prolonged studies that I can remember having of this species.

Arctic Loon

Arctic Loon— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

Also noteworthy were the magnificent Gyrfalcons that were nesting on one of the traditional nesting cliffs along the Council Road. The scope views were distant, but still allowed nice detail, and we could even make out at least three, and possibly four downy chicks in the nest. 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 23 Surfbirds, 3–7 Black Turnstones, and 2 Sanderlings loitering in the wrack-line along the beach at Safety Sound for the duration of our stay should only be viewed as a less-than-expected bonus. It was also a great year for Short-eared Owls, which were seen daily, with a single-day peak of 13! In and amongst the many avian highlights, we were also treated to sightings of a Grizzly sow with 2 nearly grown cubs, a lone Grizzly (probably a boar), 17 Musk Ox, a Moose, and a Short-tailed Weasel among many other mammals.

Surfbirds

Surfbirds— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

Finally, I would be remiss not to mention 3 rarities that undoubtedly generated more excitement on my part than from anyone else in the group. While we were at Gambell, the Alaskan birding hotline was blowing up with the news that an Eastern Phoebe had been found at the mouth of Hastings Creek in Nome. Before we had even made it off the island, I ran into a birding friend from Anchorage who told me that he had chased the phoebe, only to find that there were two phoebes, and that they were building a nest in a culvert under the road! Since Hastings Creek was also the location for the stakeout Spectacled Eider, it was pretty much a no-brainer to be our first birding stop upon arrival in Nome. Both phoebes were there, as advertised, perching on the bleached driftwood and making repeated trips to construct the nest, which looked to be about 50% completed. After 30 years of birding Alaska and Nome, this was a state and locality first for me! I’m not certain of how many Alaska records there are of Eastern Phoebe, but this was definitely the first ever for the Nome region. I have since heard, through the grapevine, that the phoebes successfully fledged at least a couple of youngsters! The other two rarities came on our final morning excursion to the Nome River mouth. Brian spotted a pair of Caspian Terns standing on a mudbar, another Nome first for me, and only the 2nd Nome record ever that I’m aware of. While we were scoping the Caspian Terns (which we would end up seeing much closer at Safety Lagoon that afternoon with the Grand Alaska Part I group), we spotted a female Bufflehead on the inland side of the bridge. While not nearly in the same class of local or regional rarity as the phoebe and the tern, the Bufflehead is, nonetheless, of less-than-annual occurrence in the Nome area, and a bird that I have seen there on only a handful of occasions over 30 years of observation.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

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.

I would like to extend special thanks to Jennifer for taking such good care of us at Gambell, and for making sure that even if we were tired, or cold (or both), we would not go hungry! On behalf of Brian and myself, it was great fun birding with you all, and we hope to see you again on some future VENT trip!