Seawatching at Gambell is breathtaking, with thousands of birds flying by constantly. Photo: Greg Greene
Birding on the Bering Sea outposts during the early autumn offers a variety of western Alaska specialties, an incredible seabird spectacle, southbound shorebirds that include small numbers of Old World species, and a good chance of finding Asian landbird strays. In contrast to the spring migration period, fall migration is protracted and full of glorious uncertainty, but some of the plumages, to say nothing of the species, are rarely seen on North American birding tours. Although rare passerines can be expected to occur between late August and early October, the number, composition, and timing of their occurrence vary from year to year, depending on such factors as the weather, that year’s nesting success, and of course good luck!
A day in the Nome area at the beginning of the tour will give us a chance for mainland specialties such as Arctic Loon, Willow Ptarmigan, Gyrfalcon, and Bar-tailed Godwit.
We’ve timed the Gambell portion of the tour to coincide with the movement of trans-Beringian migrants heading back to their Old World wintering grounds. Usually we detect numbers of Arctic Warblers, Eastern Yellow Wagtails, Northern Wheatears, Bluethroats, and Red-throated Pipits heading west. Here too a multitude of alcids will be present in sometimes mind-numbing numbers, and the seawatching from the point is perhaps unsurpassed in North America.
On the companion tour to Saint Paul Island we’ll find more comfortable surroundings, with many ponds and wetlands that attract shorebirds such as Ruff, Little and Red-necked Stints, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Common Snipe, and Gray-tailed Tattler. The cliff birds will likely be mostly finished nesting, although numbers of Tufted and Horned Puffins and Common and Thick-billed Murres should still be feeding young, and Red-faced Cormorants and Red-legged Kittiwakes will be on display. Over the past decade increased interest in birding the Bering Islands in fall has resulted in the recording of an impressive array of strays. For a summary of Gambell records you can read Paul Lehman’s detailed analysis, originally published as in 2005 in Western Birds and informally updated annually since then (2005 original - with maps - available as a PDF here, and with the 2016 update here).
Day 1: The tour begins this evening in the lobby of our Nome hotel with a group meeting and dinner. Early arrivals may have time for some local birding beforehand. Night in Nome.
Day 2: On our day in the Nome area we’ll visit coastal lagoons as well as interior rivers and ridges, and we’ll concentrate on finding western Alaska specialties and several species unlikely to be found at Gambell or on Saint Paul. These include Arctic Loon, “Black” Brant, Gyrfalcon, Willow and possibly Rock Ptarmigans, Bar-tailed Godwit, Slaty-backed Gull, Northern Shrike, American Tree Sparrow and Hoary Redpoll. No matter what birds we see, the landscape around Nome at this time of year will provide a spectacular colorful backdrop as the tundra vegetation prepares for winter. Mammal possibilities include Grizzly Bear, Muskox, Moose, and Porcupine. Note that those who do not wish to participate in the Nome day can arrive in Nome this evening. Night in Nome.
Day 3: We’ll fly to the Yupik village of Gambell at the northwest tip of Saint Lawrence Island. Our quarters will be in the simple but comfortable Sivuqaq Inn, which offers private rooms, shared toilets and showers, and a large kitchen. We’ll use ATVs for transport. Weather is always a factor in this part of the world. Early fall temperatures at Gambell are normally milder than in the spring with highs in the high 30s to low 50s F. It is common, though, for wind, fog, and drizzle to occur in rapidly changing combinations, so a certain amount of flexibility has been programmed into our schedule to compensate for any delays. Night at Gambell.
Days 4–8: At the end of August and in early September there are still hundreds of thousands of alcids of eight species flying by the point: Thick-billed and Common Murres, Pigeon Guillemot, Parakeet, Least, and Crested Auklets, and Horned and Tufted Puffins. These birds are joined by equally large numbers of Short-tailed Shearwaters and many loons, eiders, phalaropes, jaegers (including Long-tailed), and other migrants. We should see Yellow-billed Loon, Emperor Goose, and Steller’s Eider, and we have a good chance of seeing Spectacled Eider and Ancient Murrelet. Migrant shorebirds include good numbers of Pacific Golden-Plovers, Red Phalarope, a few Rock Sandpipers, and usually one or more Gray-tailed Tattlers and small numbers of Sharp-tailed Sandpipers. Lesser Sand-Plover and other Old World species are also possible. A variety of “trans-Beringian” passerine migrants, including Arctic Warbler, Bluethroat, Northern Wheatear, Eastern Yellow and White Wagtails, and Red-throated Pipit, are moving back in numbers west into Asia through the first week of September. Other landbirds include many Snow Buntings and at least a few Hoary Redpolls.
The list of landbird strays recorded at Gambell in late August and the first half of September is a heady one, although any one visit may produce only one or two … or many more, depending on the year. The list compiled between 1996 and 2010 includes two Oriental Cuckoos, Fork-tailed Swift, Eurasian Wryneck, Brown Shrikes, Middendorff’s Grasshopper-Warblers, Dusky Warblers, Willow and Yellow-browed Warblers, Lesser Whitethroat, Spotted Flycatcher, “Siberian” Stonechat, Siberian Accentor, Pechora and Olive-backed Pipit, Little, Yellow-breasted, Reed, and Pallas’s Buntings, Bramblings, and Common Rosefinch. Other possibilities include Gyrfalcon and McKay’s Bunting (more likely in late September). Asian strays recorded during visits in 1999 and 2001–2010 include three Sky Larks, Sedge Warbler, three additional Dusky Warblers, another Yellow-browed Warbler, Taiga Flycatcher, Siberian Rubythroat, Red-flanked Bluetail, another seven Siberian Accentors, two Eye-browed Thrushes, another four Pechora Pipits, Yellow-browed Bunting, another eleven Little Buntings, another two Pallas’s Buntings, and another eighteen Bramblings. We’ll hope for winds from the west or southwest, and at least some rain, to increase our chances for Asian vagrants. A variety of far-flung North American strays have turned up during this entire period as well. Nights at Gambell.
Day 9: We’ll depart Gambell today for Nome where the tour concludes.**
COMPANION TOUR TO THE PRIBILOFS
Day 9: The Pribilofs tour begins this evening with an introductory meeting and dinner at our hotel in Anchorage. Night in Anchorage.
Day 10: For those continuing on for our week on the Pribilofs we’ll bird a bit around our hotel in Anchorage where we will pick up a few species that are unlikely to reach the islands (such as Black-capped and Boreal Chickadees, Black-billed Magpies and Golden-crowned Kinglets). We’ll then take a late morning flight to Saint Paul Island in the Pribilofs. Night on Saint Paul.
Days 11–14: We’ll spend our days on the “Pribs” alternately scanning and walking around the islands many small lakes and wetlands, scouring the secluded and sheltered sides of hills and patches of taller vegetation for passerines, and, if conditions are advantageous looking out to see for passing seabirds. The seabird cliffs will be less crowded than in the summer, but we’ll be treated to very close eye-level views of Horned and Tufted Puffins and Common and Thick-billed Murres, and we’ll certainly see Red-legged Kittiwake and Red-faced Cormorant, the former at its only accessible site in North America. The cacophonous Northern Fur Seal rookeries will be bustling with masses of pups, and spending time with these remarkable pinnipeds gives credence to Saint Paul’s title of the “Galapagos of the North.”
In mid-September the Pribilofs are still mostly green, and often a good diversity of shorebirds can be found on their southbound passage. We’ll sift through the throngs of Rock Sandpipers and Ruddy Turnstones for rarer shorebirds; Gray-tailed Tattler, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, and Common Snipe are all regular migrants in early September, and species such as Lesser Sand-Plover, Wood Sandpiper, Little Stint, and Ruff are possible. Waterbird mega-rarities at this season have included Black-tailed Gull, Marsh Sandpiper, Jack Snipe, and North America’s first Solitary Snipe.
Asian landbird vagrants are unpredictable, but early to mid-September has produced Sky Lark, Willow, Dusky and Yellow-browed Warblers, Gray-streaked and Taiga Flycatchers, Red-flanked Bluetail, Olive-backed and Pechora Pipit, Siberian Accentor, and Brambling. Nights in St. Paul.
Day 15: We’ll take an early afternoon flight back to Anchorage where the Pribilofs extension concludes.
Updated: 19 December 2016
- 2017 Gambell Tour Price : $4,750
- Gambell Tour Single Supplement : $480
- 2017 Pribilofs Tour Price : $4,100
- Pribilofs Single Occupancy Supp : $440
* Tour invoices paid by check carry a 4% discount. Details here.
** The Nome to Anchorage flight between the Gambell tour and the Pribilofs extension is not included in the tour cost and is most economically purchased as part of your flights to Alaska.
This tour is limited to 10 participants with one leader; 18 participants with two or more leaders.