29 May - 3 June 1998
by Jeff Bouton
I've recently returned from my annual Alaskan adventuring, and after a week or more of getting back into the swing of my "real job" am sorting through my field notes and jotting down my impression of the trips. Below I present general overviews, but over the next few weeks I will have more complete annotated reports for anyone interested. Feel free to contact me directly if you are interested.
With the effects of el nino being felt so strongly throughout the country, I was very interested to see how the migration through the Bering Sea region would be affected. I had no reports from Gambell or Nome, but was receiving regular reports from Attu Island and St. Paul in the Pribilof Islands. In a phone conversation from the Pribs a week before my departure, Sean Smith, Director of St. Paul tours had this sage advice, "Study the Japan guide extra hard!" A wave of Asian vagrants had swept through both sites in the third week of May, and the sheer numbers and variety of birds was unprecedented! Needless to say, I was more than a bit excited to get out there, and the last week seemed to crawl by.
Even from the air, the most notable difference in Gambell was the huge amounts of snow still present when we arrived. (I would later theorize that it was the excess snow and ice that caused the invasion rather than some odd winds. It seems likely that if the Siberian birds arrived to find their breeding grounds buried, they would have to disperse in search of good areas to forage. The theory seemed to fit because despite similar winds and frontal conditions the numbers of vagrants began to moderate as the snow continued disappearing.) I remember thinking that the offshore ice would be good for Ivory Gulls and Spectacled Eiders, but was concerned by the relative lack of open water as we circled over on our final approach. The only vegetation and open water I could see was at the far SE corner of Troutman Lake and my calves instinctively throbbed at the possible ramifications of this observation. The bone yard holes were mostly full of drifting snow when we arrived, negating their effectiveness as good refuges from the elements. Troutman Lake had not begun to open along the edges, and there was no clear snow free paths between points. Many of native guests were still driving snow machines as opposed to the ever present ATV that I had been accustomed to seeing on our visits.
While still unloading our gear from the small twin engine plane, I ran into two friends who had been on the island for some time. They told me that they had seen Wood Sandpiper, Eye-browed Thrush, and Skylarks among others in the preceding days, but only the former was still present. As I suspected, the hot spot was the south end of the lake an arduouos 6-7 mile round trip hike. They also spoke of more common species like Ivory Gulls and the ever present wagtails. After hearing the updates, I set to the business at hand and pulled my scope out of my bag, slung it over my shoulder and directed our group toward the family home that was to be our shelter for the next 5 nights. Our guest, Roger and his son, helped by loading our bags on their ATV's and transporting them. As we searched for an easy route through the high drifts, a male Bluethroat flew up and landed in the short grasses at the north end of the runway. It was foraging in the open ground like a robin on a freshly-mowed lawn! Knowing full well the skulking nature of this species, we took full advantage of this unique opportunity and had wonderful scope views of the stunning bird. A good start to a memorable trip!
We arrived to discover that our wonderful host and hostess would not be staying with us this year as we had a larger group. I was saddened by this news, as their insight into the cultural aspects of the Yupik community is as much a part of the Gambell trip as the birding, but was pleased with the use of another bedroom and bed. I told them to please drop by often, so they could share their wonderful stories with us, and they promised they would. I then thanked them again for their continued hospitality and they drove off on their ATV's.
We quickly set up our base, got settled in and had a quick lunch, before we went on our quick tour of Gambell and its attractions. We headed first for the point, as there had been a steady stream of loons flying by over the ocean as we were getting organized. We were treated to our first (of many) views of Red-throated and Yellow-billed Loons, Fulmars, Common, King, & Steller's Eiders, Pomarine & Parasitic Jaegers, Murres, Guillemots, Auklets, and Puffins passing by the point. We would also see a few small groups of Emperor Geese passing. After an hour or more of sea watching, we strolled south through the boat yards. We found numerous Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings seeking cover near the Bowhead whale skulls that are present from years of successful hunts. Among these we were also able to find some White Wagtails and McKay's Buntings. The wagtails are reliably seen each year (usually daily), but the Mckay's are a rare treat. Despite what the guides say, McKay's are not annual in Gambell in spring. They are a regular winter visitor through the region, but they are generally gone by late May. We would see many individuals on this trip, with great opportunities to study plumages!
We would continue through the boneyards adding a few more of the common species, before returning to the house for a break from the bitter North wind and rain. We prepared dinner and talked about a late trip to the south end of the lake. After hearing about the length of the hike and what time we would return, half of our group decided to wait and seewhat the "scout team" turned up and maybe try the following day. They wisely opted for a late evening sea watch and getting to bed early. We would pick up a few new birds on our hike but only one that we wouldn't see again (Peregrine Falcon) and we would miss both of our target birds, Red-throated Pipit and Wood Sandpiper. Unfortunately, Red-throated Pipits are often heard before they are seen in the vast wet meadows East and South of the Lake, and the wind steadily increased to the point where we could barely stand let alone hear the high-pitched song and calls. Upon reaching the open marsh at the south end we would find the aforementioned Peregrine, chasing a swirling mass of shorebirds scattering them in all directions. The only highlights would be a pair of Red Phalaropes in breeding plumage within 20 feet, and a pair of Common Snipes (one was of the North American form with dusky underwings and the other was of the nominate race gallinago with white underwings and more distinct white trailing edge). Otherwise we would return after 10:30 PM, tired, wet, and somewhat dejected.
We began at the Sea watch where we would get better views of the many species and add a few others. Among these were Black Guillemot, Parakeet Auklet, Pacific Loon, Long-tailed Jaeger, among others. On most mornings a couple of hours at the seawatch is all one can handle before needing to warm up a bit. So we headed in for hot drinks and a warm breakfast, and a well needed break from the wind. We would repeat our daily routine of scouring the boatyards, and the boneyards, and breaking up the walking by sea watching. We added few new species this day, but that happens in Gambell. As with other migration spots, the only way to see the birds is to be out looking. Some days are great while others are mediocre. Todays winds were not good for Asian strays. NE winds typically brought birds from the main landhad, and the new trip birds we added reflected that: Mallard, Rough-legged Hawk, Baird's Sandpiper, Varied Thrush, and Savannah Sparrow. We did get better views of many of the same birds, and those who hadn't made the trek the day before added new species to their personal trip lists. We would have excellent views once again of McKay's Buntings alongside Snows for direct comparison, plus would see more: Bluethroats, N. Wheatears, and Yellow Wagtails.
The strong north winds the night before had brought much pack ice on shore, so I wasn't surprised to hear the radio crackle with the report of an Ivory Gull floating by on the ice. Half of our crew was in eating lunch, while I and 3 others were out battling the spitting mist. We were very close to the beach and easily made it out to see the bird on the distant ice floe. As it would turn out, this individual would remain throughout our stay and all would receive excellent views. It was a first summer bird showing a small blotchy dark patch just behind the bill, and a faint dark outline of spots around the alula. However, there was no trace of black through the primaries and tail. Both appeared unworn, so we assumed it had completed its flight feather molt already. (Does this sound right gull experts?!?.....).
This day started in much the same way as all of the others, at the sea watch (which produced our first Spectacled Eider sightings), followed by a warm up and then out to search for shorebirds and passerine species. The winds were strong out of the NE once again, so we had little luck in our endeavors. Our only new finds were: N. Shoveler, and Gray-cheeked Thrush.We were planning to pack a lunch and head for the south end when the radio crackled once again. My friends on the ATV's had already arrived and were reporting an alternate plumaged Sharp-tailed Sandpiper.We were off again, but this time the wind was not as strong, we were well rested, and despite the drizzle, we had a better time. We saw many Western Sandpipers displaying along the way singing their little song that reminds me of a miniature motorcycle winding up and shifting gears. There were Dunlin and Rock Sandpipers in breeding plumage, Semipalmated Plovers were doing their courtship flights with slow moth-like wing flaps, and groups of Sandhill Cranes were seen flying over and foraging on the hill side. We arrived and had excellent views of the Sharp-tailed alongside pectorals for direct comparison. What a treat! (thanks Tim!) I had never seen Sharp-taileds in their alternate plumage before and was surprised at how striking it was, as compared to the much plainer Pecs. The rufous cap, white eye-ring, and bold breast streaks were clearly evident. Especially since the bird continued to walk toward us as we watched it and was within 25' by the time we left.
On the hike back, our luck held. We spread out and were sweeping a wet marshy slope in hopes of finding Red-throated Pipit. We stopped to scope a Wandering Tattler when I first heard a series of high-pitched repeated notes very faintly. I craned my neck from side to side and up and down, and finally decided it was coming from up hill, but could only hear part of the song. We climbed the hill to the road some hundred yards or so and I stopped and listened again. Clearer now, I could make out the full song of the Red-throated Pipit, but it was still distant from the mountainside. We climbed up 200' more and waited. Again it sang, somewhere in front of us on the slope of Mt. Sivuquk. It was a full 5 minutes before someone spotted him, a male walking slowly through a rock pile 150 feet away, singing every few minutes. How fortunate we were that the wind had stopped blowing for a short period.
Earlier in the day one of the whaling captains had told us the wind would change near 7:00. It was 6:58 PM and the wind started in short puffs out of the SE! We were all amazed, by this, but not surprised. When out in their small boats whaling, these men rely heavily on their senses and intuition to survive. Many times they are boxed in by ice or get lost in the shifting floes and have to spend extra days in the unforgiving Bering Sea. This was the other half of the Gambell experience, the cultural gap between our lifestyles and the fading traditional lifestyles of the Yupik. With their new modern conveniences, these differences are surely dwindling so it is a treat to talk to the elders and hear their stories. Our host Roger has written a book about the traditional ways to insure they are remembered, because he sees on a daily basis, what we can easily see on our quick visits. The new generation riding around with Chicago Bulls jerseys, and each home with a sattelite TV feed. Roger told us that the village did not get a whale this year, and he seemed sad about this. Yes, we were lucky this day.
The beginning of a new month and some new birds as well. The winds were still switching back and forth from North to South, but the promise of a weather change was always a good thing in Gambell. It inevitably brings new birds with it, this morning it brought a Sabine's Gull. While the variety was much the same, the numbers of birds passing the seawatch were dramtically increased and was much warmer. Half of our group did our daily sweep through the boneyard, while the other half returned home for a mid afternoon rest. The sun was shining and we kicked a Short-eared Owl out of the far boneyards and had another singing male Red-throated Pipit. This bird was much more cooperative though and was in the boat yards within 30'.
We were standing at the beginning of the road to the south end of the lake contemplating what to do next. From our elevated vantage point, we could see a large group heading south just in front of us, another was at the point, while another yet was in the near boneyards. We were discussing our best course of action to insure maximum coverage (and wondering if our aching calves and backs were really ready for another long trudge). Normally climbing up to check the mountain top would be fun, but with all the snow this year it would be a challenge even with ice climbing equipment.
Our momentary indecision wouldn't last long, a Common Sandpiper was called in by our good friend Tim (and his ATV) from (you guessed it) the far marsh. We were half way to our destination from our current vantage point, but unfortunately half of our group was back at the house. Bob offered to go give them the word, but I had fallen through a snow bridge and had a boot full of water and was anxious to get a change of socks. I told Bob and the others I'd meet them down there, and we went our seperate ways. As I headed down the airstrip with the rest of the group, we received word that the Common had not been relocated (last seen by a photographer on a snow machine not with an organized group), but the subsequent search had produced a male Common Ringed Plover. Another 1/4 mile along and a report a Wood Sandpiper being observed by a different group on the same hillside. At this point a close Arctic Loon flew by! New birds were on the move and the feeling that anything could happen was welling inside of me. We arrived 20 minutes thereafter as the other groups were disbanding, and had great views of Common Ringed Plover to ourselves. The Wood Sandpiper had eluded most though as it was quite flighty and only seen by a few groups before disappearing again.
It was near 8:00 PM when we reached the village of Gambell again. Bob went ahead to get dinner going while I continued a sweep through the boneyards with the 3 others that still had energy. Adrenaline is a powerful motivator, and it is hard to fight the, "What if???" mentality that follows a productive afternoon. As we approached the near boneyards, we heard that the Wood Sandpiper had been flushed out and flew up to the boatyards. We swept through the boneyards and saw more of the same stuff we'd been seeing daily. We were finally able to kick up a cooperative Hoary Redpoll, which had been a long time nemisis bird for one in our group, missing them only narrowly many times. The individual, who we'll call "Fred" to protect the innocent (are you reading this "Fred"?!? ;-)), and I broke off and got the bird in the scope at close range perched on a piece of steel. While there the Wood Sand flew in and landed right below the Redpoll. It was so close that I didn't dare move, for fear that the bird would flush. "Fred", I said, "That Woody is right below the redpoll!" But Fred wasn't interested, he had seen Woodies before in Attu and this was his first bona fide Hoary Redpoll and he was determined to study every feather before it flew. (Another neat thing about birding, a "good bird" is always relative to your point of view!)
Both birds flew then and I hollered at the now distant group, to no avail. They missed the Woody again. I was now filled with guilt, too, as "Fred" and I were perhaps the only two in our group who had seen the bird before. I high-tailed it to our base to report this news, pointing out a female McKay's Bunting along the way and seeing a probable female Black-backed Wagtail fly by. Bob had dinner well underway when we arrived and despite me offering to finish up, didn't race out to look for the bird. He said it would wait until after dinner. He was almost right too, we were just starting desert and coffee/tea when the bird was relocated in the exact puddle I had seen it before. I burst into the room with the news that the bird was back within 5 minutes of the house. All but a few scrambled toward the door to get at least some warm clothes on and grab optics. Bob hesitated and looked back to say something, but I quickly assured him I had desert taken care of, handed him the radio, and he was gone. While enjoying desert, I missed the report that a Bean Goose was flying over the Lake toward the south end, and didn't hear about it until joining the others some ten minutes later to further study the Woody. Unfortunately, it kept flying, but it's probably just as well as I was exhausted already.
At the sea watch, Tim was regretting that he had to leave in a few hours. He had already raced to the south end and found nothing new which I had mixed feelings about. I am always up for another good bird, but my legs were happy to be perched at the sea watch. We added Red-necked Grebe, Short-tailed Shearwater, more Spectacled and Steller's Eiders, Whimbrel, Glaucous-winged Gull, and Ancient Murrelet that morning. Plus had good views of the Ivory Gull once more. There were also more McKay's Buntings around. There was a good flight of loons but most were Pacific or Yellow-billed. We were unable to find another Arctic for the rest of the group (although all in the group would have excellent views in Nome!). It was a pleasant warm afternoon, and we were all resting from the excitement of the prior day.
It would have been completely without excitement, if we hadn't all jumped out the front door during lunch to watch the Bean Goose fly over. I got one of my last pairs of clean, dry socks soaked when I dashed out into the snow to get a scope on the bird, but I figure it's a small price to pay for a life bird. Another bit of excitement came when a male Brambling was reported from the south end, but they also reported it hadn't been relocated. I watched as one of the other leaders down the beach clasped his hands and looked skyward in a humorous gesture. I knew how he felt and I too hoped that it was heading our way and that it would turn up in the near boneyards. It was extremely enjoyable sitting in a warm sun with little wind watching as thousands of Least and Crested Auklets, Murres, Puffins, and Guillemots streamed by with ocassional Jaegers, Loons, and Eiders mixed. There were regular numbers of Emperor Geese moving by this day too.
Our final day, we would have until 5:00 PM to see a few more good birds. We began by seeing the Black-backed Wagtail with White Wagtails at the dump. Our final attempt at Arctic Loon would fail, but we were treated to more Spectacled Eiders and Emperor Geese. Also we would see 3 more McKay's Buntings, 2 males and a female at the point. Our morning routine was broken though, by the first call. A male Brambling in the near boneyards. We would make the dash in time to see the bird before it flew off! As we were packing more reports continued to come in from the various groups in the field. A Red-necked Stint landing and taking off again at the south end, then a male Tufted Duck landed in the large pool below the productive marsh. Most needed the bird but there were only 2 hours left, the decision was decided that some of the participants would hail 4 wheelers if they could find them. A cruise ship had anchored off the coast and hundreds of people were coming ashore, so rides were scarce. I stayed on and continued packing while the others tore after the bird.
I finished up with an hour to spare so as there was no one around I went out for a stroll along the familiar route I'd walked so many times before over the past year. There were hundreds of people racing by on 4 wheelers, walking here and there, taking photographs, it was a zoo! None the less, the birds didn't seem to mind. I stopped by the dump to study the Black-backed and White Wagtails. A strange sounding pipit turned out to be a pair of 'Asian' American Pipits A. r. japponicus, and there was a young male Red-throated Pipit traveling with them. A female McKay's was in the boatyard too. When I reached the near end of the boneyards the male Brambling was there singing (or trying to over the din of the traffic), the Bean Goose flew over accompanied by another, Bluethroats, and a pair of Wood Sandpipers were in the boneyards. With ten minutes left, I turned back toward the point to get the gear headed for the airport. As I arrived a Tundra Swan flew over adding one last species to the trip list. Your typical afternoon walk in Gambell!
The others arrived shortly thereafter elated with another new life bird. "Yeah, I had a nice time too!"
All in all we saw 91 bird species, and 7 mammal species.
Red-throated Loon 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
Arctic Loon 6/1
Pacific Loon 5/30,31 6/1,2,3
Yellow-billed Loon 5/29,31 6/1,2,3
Red-necked Grebe 6/2
Northern Fulmar 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
Short-tailed Shearwater 6/2,3
Pelagic Cormorant 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
Tundra Swan 6/3
Bean Goose 6/2,3
Greater White-fronted Goose 6/1
Emperor Goose 5/29 6/2,3
Brant 5/29,31 6/2,3
"Cackling" Canada Goose 5/29
"American" Green-winged Teal 5/29,31 6/2,3
"Eurasian" Green-winged Teal 6/2
Northern Pintail 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
Northern Shoveler 5/31 6/1
American Wigeon 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
Tufted Duck 6/3
Greater Scaup 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
Common Eider 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
King Eider 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
Spectacled Eider 5/31 6/2,3
Steller's Eider 5/29,30 6/2,3
Harlequin Duck 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
Oldsquaw 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
Black Scoter 5/29 6/3
White-winged Scoter 6/1,2
Red-breasted Merganser 5/29,30,31 6/3
Rough-legged Hawk 5/30,31 6/2
Peregrine Falcon 5/29
Sandhill Crane 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
American Golden Plover 6/1
Pacific Golden Plover 5/29,30 6/1,3
Common Ringed Plover 6/1
Semipalmated Plover 5/29,31 6/1
Wood Sandpiper 6/1,2,3
Wandering Tattler 5/31
Whimbrel (variegatus) 6/2,3
Ruddy Turnstone 5/29,30,31 6/2,3
Western Sandpiper 5/29,31 6/1,3
Baird's Sandpiper 5/29,30,31 6/1
Pectoral Sandpiper 5/29,31 6/1,2,3
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper 5/31
Rock Sandpiper 5/29,31 6/1,3
Dunlin 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
Long-billed Dowitcher 5/29,31 6/1
Common Snipe 5/29 6/1,2
Red-necked Phalarope 5/29 6/1,3
Red Phalarope 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
Pomarine Jaeger 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
Parasitic Jaeger 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
Long-tailed Jaeger 5/30
Herring Gull (vagae) 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
Slaty-backed Gull (1st summer) 5/30
Glaucous-winged Gull 6/2,3
Glaucous Gull 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
Black-legged Kittiwake 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
Sabine's Gull 6/1
Ivory Gull 5/30 6/1,2
Thick-billed Murre 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
Common Murre 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
Black Guillemot 5/30,31 6/1,2,3
Pigeon Guillemot 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
Ancient Murrelet 6/2
Parakeet Auklet 5/30,31 6/1,2,3
Least Auklet 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
Crested Auklet 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
Tufted Puffin 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
Horned Puffin 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
Short-eared Owl 6/1
Common Raven 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
Bluethroat 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
Northern Wheatear 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
Gray-cheeked Thrush 5/31 6/1,2,3
Hermit Thrush 5/29 6/1,2,3
Varied Thrush 5/30
Yellow Wagtail 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
White Wagtail 5/29,31 6/1,2,3
Black-backed Wagtail 6/1,3
Red-throated Pipit 5/31 6/1,2,3
American Pipit (japponicus) 6/3
Savannah Sparrow 5/30 6/1,2,3
Golden-crowned Sparrow 6/1
Lapland Longspur 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
Snow Bunting 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
McKay's Bunting 5/29,30,31 6/1,2,3
Brambling (SY male) 6/3
Common Redpoll 6/2
Hoary Redpoll 5/29 6/1,2,3
Arctic Ground Squirrel
Northern Red-backed Vole