Grand Alaska: Gambell/Nome Jun 02—10, 2017

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. This year, a series of storms and prevailing winds out of the west deposited numbers of rarities to outposts across western Alaska, from the Pribilofs and the Aleutian chain to Gambell and Nome.  But, as always, timing is everything, and the vagrant-friendly weather preceded our tour by one-to-two weeks, in what was also an unusually early spring on the Alaskan mainland.  The favorable winds at Gambell shifted in the 48 hours prior to our arrival, taking with them several rarities that had been present for days prior, including, most painfully, a male Pallas’s Bunting and multiple Hawfinches.  For the duration of our stay, the winds at Gambell would be mostly light to moderate and almost continuously out of the northeast to east, conditions which tend not to produce Asiatic vagrants.  Nonetheless, our arrival at Gambell this year was one of our more auspicious ones, in that we picked up a lovely female Lesser Sand-Plover and a breeding-plumaged Red-necked Stint at the airstrip pond in our first 15 minutes on the island, and before we had even completed our short walk to the lodge!  After getting settled into our rooms and assembling our gear, we returned to the airstrip pond and were rewarded with longer and closer views of both the sand-plover and the stint, as well as nice looks at a Red-throated Pipit in the adjacent boneyards.  We hadn’t been on the island more than an hour or so, and we had already recorded three Asiatic vagrants/migrants!  All three of these birds vanished sometime that day, and were not seen again, so our timing was actually pretty fortuitous.


Bluethroat— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer


After a most auspicious start, it was time to get down to the routine of daily sea watches, 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.  Among our targets was White Wagtail, a lovely trans-Beringian migrant that has managed to colonize the shores of northwestern Alaska in small numbers.  The species is easier and more reliably found at Gambell than on the mainland, and this proved to be the case again this year, when we located a pair on our first hike through the boatyard.  Later, we would find that same pair nesting in a temporarily out-of-service piece of bulldozer/grader that was parked nearby.  Finding Common Ringed Plover took a bit more searching.  After much sorting through the many Semipalmated Plovers that were hanging out in the various boneyards, we finally caught up with a pair of Common Ringed Plovers in the gravel ponds south of Troutman Lake on the afternoon of our second day.  The plover is a rare but regular migrant to Gambell and the nearby Seward Peninsula, and it has occasionally nested at Gambell.  This primarily Palearctic breeder also nests regularly in remote areas of the Canadian high Arctic, but it would have to rank among the least accessible of North America’s breeding birds.

Read Kevin’s full report in his Field List.