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U.S.A. - ALASKA: Nome and Gambell

2 - 11 June 1995

by David Powell

Fellow birdchatter Rod Norden and I ventured north to the land of the midnight sun last week.  Actually, we were just south of the Arctic Circle, but it remained light for the entire duration of our visit to Alaska.  We arrived in Nome on June 2, and continued on to Gambell on June 3.  We returned to Nome on June 8, continuing back to the Bay Area on June 11.  In Nome, we stayed at Nanuq Manor, which is an apartment complex that rents apartments by the night.  It is a little pricey, at $118 per night, but it made a very comfortable base to bird the Nome area.  We rented a van at $75 per day from Budget.  We used the ABA Travel Desk to make our Nome arrangements, and to book our flight to Gambell.  We were both fortunate enough to have frequent flyer tickets from San Jose to Nome.  We ate at Fat Freddies, which is where all the birders eat.

We stayed with an Eskimo family on Gambell.  Bob Didrick (not sure how it is spelled) of Wilderness Birding Adventures made the arrangements for us.  He can be reached at (907)694-7442 or (907)762-2639.  Dinner was incuded for $60 per night.  We found the native people of Gambell to be very friendly, often stopping to chat.  From what I have heard, relations between the birders and the Gambell residents are at their best currently.  It is also necessary to pay $50 for a walking permit to explore areas outside the village.  We brought food for breakfast and lunch.  It is possible to buy a few things at the native store, but they are expensive ($5 for a 6-pack of diet Coke, to which Rod is addicted).

One thing to remember when visiting Gambell, is that this is a Native American village, where we are there by their sufference, and that their way of life has evolved over many years.  They are subsistance hunters, and hunting whales, walrus, and seals is their way of life.  While I was saddened by the whale carcases that I saw (this year they got 4), it is not my place, nor any birders place to criticize their way of life.  They are now regulated, at least to some extent, in all of their hunting.

The primary mode of transportation on Gambell is your feet, and the legendary Gambell gravel is indeed all it is cracked up to be.  Rod got so tired of it, that he rented an ATV for 2 of our 5 days on the island.  I mostly walked, but did accept a few rides, particularly to the south end of the lake.  Many of the eskimos will give you a ride, with the going terrif $10.  A couple of chidren gave Rod several rides for $1 for each child.

There were about 30 - 40 other birders on the island while we were there, a Wings group, followed by a VENT group, along with a large group from Minnesota (9+ people).  Another group was the St. Laurence Observers of Birds, who call themselves the "SLOBS." They are a group of friends including fellow birdchatters Andy Kraynik and Phil Olsen, who have been to Gambell several times, and have their own base radio.  I got lots of excellent information on Gambell from Andy and Phil, and we had a number of occaisions to bird with them, both in Gambell and in Nome.  It's really great to be able to share information with fellow birders.

Another item that is really usefull (I would say essential) at Gambell is a Walkie-Talkie.  Most of the birders use a 40 channel CB Radio, with reports on the hour and half-hour, with "bullitins" when a rarity is sighted.  I just left my radio on, so that we could get the reports when they came in.

The areas that get covered at Gambell, are the point, for sea watching, the near and far boneyards, for passerines, the marshes at the NE and NW corners of the lake, and the extensive marsh at the south end of the lake.  Other areas often checked are the boatyard, the trash dumps, and the edge of the mountain, from the far boneyard to the south end of the lake.  In some years, people climb the mountain to search for Dotteral, but this year there was a lot of snow up there, and a Dotteral was good enough to appear in the grass at the end of the runway :-).

In the Nome area, we made the pilgrimage to the Coffee Dome area one day for the Bristle-thighed Curlew, and covered Safety Lagoon, along with other roads in the area on other days.

Species List

Red-throated Loon - scarce at Gambell, but seen most days.  Most common loon at Nome

Arctic Loon - scarce at Gambell, but seen on all days of serious seawatching.  Max 10.

Pacific Loon - most common loon at Gambell.

Yellow-billed Loon - scarce at Gambell, but seen on all days of serious seawatching.  Max 6.

Red-necked Grebe - seen once at Gambell.  seawatch.

Northern Fulmar - common at Gambell.  seawatch

Pelagic Cormorant - common at Gambell.  seawatch

Tundra Swan - many on Safety Lagoon at Nome.

Greater White-fronted Goose - once at Gambell.

Emperor Goose - several at Gambell.  Seen at the seawatch and the south end of the lake.  Max 20.

Brant - a few at Gambell.  Seawatch and south end of the lake.

Canada Goose - scatered pairs at Nome.

Green -winged Teal - a few at both Nome and Gambell.

Northern Pintail - common at Gambell and Nome.

Northern Shoveler - one at Nome.

American Wigeon - a couple at Nome.

Greater Scaup - a couple at Gambell, and at Nome.

Common Eider - seen daily at Gambell, low numbers at the seawatch; also seen at Safety Lagoon.

King Eider - most common eider at Gambell, seen daily, flocks as large as 12.

Spectacled Eider - a difficult species at Gambell, with long hours of seawatching necessary to give you a good chance.  One day we had ice just off shore, the best conditions for them, and it still took 5+ hours of seawatching to see one.  In the end, three groups were seen that day, 6, 5, and 3 birds respectively, with the group of 6 (3 adult males, 2 young males and a female) flying by quite closely.  One of my goal birds!

Steller's Eider - seen every seawatch of more than an hour at Gambell, but not common.  max 6.

Harlequin Duck - common at Gambell.  seawatch.

Oldsqauw - most common duck at Gambell.  seawatch and south end of the lake

Black Scooter - one pair at a marsh along the Kougarok Road at Nome.

White-winged Scoter - a few at Gambell

Bufflehead - one pair flew by the seawatch at Gambell.

Common Merganser - 3 flew by the seawatch at Gambell on one day.

Red-breasted Merganser - a few at the seawatch on Gambell.

Rough-legged Hawk - one exceptionally white individual at Gambell, and a more normally colored one at Gambell.  I misidentified the white one at Gambell as a white phase Gyrfalcon.  Until it got up and flew around, I was convinced that it was a Gyr.  I have seen hundreds of Rough-legs in the midwest, but never one even approaching this one in color.  The lesson that I hope I learned from this bird, is that once you have identified it, continue to look at it to make sure that your id is correct.  Perched, this bird was essentially identical to the white Gyr pictured in the NGS guide.  There was a very light dusky wash on the belly, but otherwise the head and underparts were imaculate white, with the upper parts flcked with black, the tail had a light subterminal band, with a couple more very light bands.  The first couple times it flew, it didn't really provide a good profile for seeing the flight pattern.  After that, I just tried to keep it in view, waiting for others to come and see it.  Most people just accepted the id with out too much question, but a couple of the others, who had seen it fly from a different angle offered the opinion that it could be a rough-leg.  I was a little too defensive about my original call at first, but when the bird finally flew away from the cliff and circled, finally hovering, it was obviously a rough-leg.  In flight from underneath, the smudge of a belly band could be seen, along with a very small wrist mark, and a slight amount of flecking in the wing linings.  I'm a little embarrased at having misidentified it initially, but it was certainly one of the most beautiful hawks that I have every seen.

Northern Harrier - a few in the Nome area.

Merlin - one along the Kougarok Road in the Nome area.

Gyrfalcon - one seen one afternoon by Rod at the Gyr eyrie at mile 25 along the Kougarok Road, after several hours of waiting.

Rock Ptarmigan - one perched up in a willow on top of the Bristle-thighed hill near Coffee Dome.

Willow Ptarmigan - two near the willows along the council road before the bluff on the way to Safety Lagoon.

Both ptarmigans were very difficult, as much of the snow was gone, and they had left the roadsides to breed.

Sandhill Crane - several seen at Gambell, max 11.  A couple in the Nome area as well.

Black-bellied Plover - one at Whooley Lagoon out the Teller Road.

Pacific Golden Plover - one at Whooley Lagoon, another along the Council Road before getting to Safety Lagoon.

American Golden Plover - several on the Bristle-thighed Curlew hill.

Common Ringed Plover - one for one day at the marsh in the NW corner of the lake at Gambell.  Another was there prior to our arrival for a couple of days.

Semipalmated Plover - one at the marsh in the NW corner of the lake at Gambell throughout.  It was seen in the company of the Ringed Plover.

Eurasian Dotteral - one at the end of the runway on Gambell for all of one day, and the very early morning of the next.

Common Greenshank - one for one day in the marsh at the NE corner of the lake at Gambell.

Terek Sandpiper - one for 2 days in the near boneyard at Gambell.  Another of my goal birds :-).

Whimbrel - 10-15 on the Bristle-thighed Curlew hill.

Bristle-thighed Curlew - the bird of the trip!  It was the desire to see this bird that prompted my going to northern Alaska.  It is certainly one of the most arduous hikes for a bird that I have ever made.  We drove out the Kougarok Road to mile 72.7, across from Coffee Dome.  The morning that we tried for it, their were 19 of us.  We hiked up the tundra to the top of the hill and then spent the rest of the day searching for it.  After 9 hours, Rod found the bird, which fed quietly while some of us got to see it.  It then flew off, showing its cinnamon rump well, before the rest could get to see it.  However, perseverence paid off, as the rest got to see it after another hour or so of searching.  Going to see this bird is a birder's pilgrimage, hiking up the "bowling balls on bedsprings" tundra, with the wide spaces of the arctic around you, tall mountains in the distance.  It requires considerable effort, but that is what makes this bird so memorable.

Marbled Godwit - one on Gambell, an amazing occurance for this species

Bar-tailed Godwit - several on the Bristle-thighed Curlew hill, a couple along the Teller Road, a flock of 60 at Safety Lagoon.  More common in the Nome area than I expected.

Ruddy Turnstone - a couple of Gambell.

Great Knot - a flyby was seen by one person (not me :-( ) at Gambell, and one left the day before we arrived at Nome.  :-(

Semipamated Sandpiper - common around Safety Lagoon.

Western Sandpiper - common in the uplands around Nome, good numbers still on Safety Lagoon, a few at Gambell, where they breed at the south end of the lake.

Rufous-necked Stint - a pair on territory near the NE corner of the lake at Gambell, a couple of singles in the marsh at the NW corner of the lake.

Rock Sandpiper - common at Gambell.

Dunlin - common at Nome and Gambell.

Long-billed Dowitcher - a few at Gambell.

Common Snipe - a few in the Nome area.

Red-necked Phalarope - a few at Gambell, and at Nome.

Red Phalarope - very common at Gambell.

Pomarine Jaeger - common at the seawatch on Gambell, migrating flocks when we first arrived at Nome.

Parasitic Jaeger - one dark phase at Gambell, a couple at Nome.

Long-tailed Jaeger - a few at Gambell, common in the tundra around Nome, particularly on the Bristle-thighed Curlew hill.  They remind me of a Tropicbird as the sail around with their long tail streaming.

Common Black-headed Gull - one on the last day at the Nome River mouth

Mew Gull - Common at Nome.

Herring Gull - the dark backed Vega race is fairly common at both Nome and Gambell.

Slaty-backed Gull - an adult flying along the ocean shore along Front Street in Nome on one day.

Glaucous Gull - abundant at Gambell, common at Nome.

Black-legged Kittiwake - abundant at Gambell, a few at Nome

Ross' Gull - a second year bird at Gambell the day the ice was present

Sabine's Gull - a couple at Gambell, 10+ at Safety Lagoon

Ivory Gull - one present for 3 days, left just prior to our arrival at Gambell :-(.

Arctic Tern - very common along rivers and at Safety Lagoon in the Nome area.  Watching Arctic Terns chase a Raven definitely made me feel I was in the far north.

Aleutian Tern - 10 - 20 at the bridge at Safety Lagoon.

Dovekie - a couple seen one day amongst the Least Auklets while seawatching at Gambell.  They were seen on other days, when I was concentrating on looking at eiders.

Common Murre - scarce at Gambell, seen most days.

Thick-billed Murre - abundant at Gambell

Black Guillemot - uncommon at Gambell, but with a little effort they are easily seen.

Pigeon Guillemot - common at Gambell

Kittlitz's Murrelet - one on one day at Gambell

Parakeet Auklet - common at Gambell, but much less common than the next two.

Least Auklet - abundant at Gambell

Crested Auklet - abundant at Gambell

Tufted Puffin - common at Gambell

Horned Puffin - common at Gambell

Short-eared Owl - a couple at Nome

Tree Swallow - common at Nome

Bank Swallow - a few at Nome

Cliff Swallow - common at Nome

Common Raven - Nome and Gambell, never many, never none.

Arctic Warbler - in good numbers in willow thickets in the Nome area

Bluethroat - a couple at Gambell in the far boneyard, a few in willow thickets along the Kougarok Rd and elsewhere in Nome

Northern Wheatear - a few at Gambell, boneyards

Gray-cheeked Thrush - a few at Gambell, boneyards, common in willow thickets in the Nome area.

American Robin - common at Nome

Yellow Wagtail - fairly common at both Nome and Gambell

White Wagtail - a few at Gambell, particularly at the marsh in the NW corner of the lake, one pair at Nome at the base of the pier.

Black-backed Wagtail - 1 or 2 at Gambell, seen in the boatyard, at the marsh in the NW corner of the lake, and on the mountainside above the far boneyard.  A male of this species was apparently paired with a White Wagtail.

Red-throated Pipit - several seen at Gambell in both the near and far boneyards, at least one in display flight.

American Pipit - one of the race japonicas seen one day in the near boneyard at Gambell.

Brown Tree Pipit - one individual thought to be this species was observed and photographed for about a 5 hour period on one day at the far boneyard at Gambell.  Other observers more knowledgable in the identification of pipits were convinced that this bird was a Tree Pipit.  I have seen Olive-backed Pipit, Pechora Pipit, Red-throated Pipit, and Water Pipits, and it certainly seemed different from any of those to me.  The photographs will be forwarded on to various experts for their opinions.  If confirmed, this would be the second occurrance of this species in North America.

Orange-crowned Warbler - fairly common at Nome

Yellow Warbler - common at Nome

Blackpoll Warbler - one in a willow thicket along the Council Road.

Northern Waterthrush - fairly common at Nome

Wilson's Warbler - fairly common at Nome

American Tree Sparrow - fairly common at Nome

Fox Sparrow - a few in the Nome area

Golden-crowned Sparrow - fairly common at Nome

White-crowned Sparrow - a few at Nome

Lapland Longspur - abundant at Gambell, common at Nome

Snow Bunting - common at Gambell

McKay's Bunting - one seen by others while I was at Gambell.  I watched birders watching the bird, but it flew off before I could see it.

Brambling - a male for one day at the far boneyard on Gambell

Common Redpoll - only two definitely seen, in the near Boneyard at Gambell

Hoary Redpoll - most of the redpolls seemed to be of this species, with white rumps, limited streaking, and small, pushed-in bill, and in the males, a rose colored blush on the breast.

David Powell,
Half Moon Bay, CA

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