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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Alaska: Fall Migration at Gambell and the Pribilofs

2018 Narrative

IN BRIEF: INFall migration in Alaska is a protracted affair. Unlike the busy rush of the spring migration, with most birds following the ice break up and arriving within a few weeks of each other the fall departures are set well apart. With some shorebirds beginning their long trips back south as early as July, and late movers such as finches and some waterfowl lingering in the boreal zone until November. As a result a visiting birder heading to a migration outpost like Gambell or the Pribilofs in fall should expect a slightly less diverse array of migrants during their visit, but in general more surprises as there are many more juvenile birds around prone to navigational mistakes. Fall Alaska tours represent a unique “birding is like a box of chocolates” kind of feel, as with each outing new discoveries are possible, and every week (and year) will host different and hopefully unexpected species.

The weather in fall is in general more agreeable than that of early June, with calmer days feeling almost warm (in the low 50’s), and no need for hand or foot warmers. The hardiest of birders might even entertain the possibility of donning shorts for walks in the boneyard on the more sunny days! And a further contrast between spring and fall is supplied by the color pallet and vegetation of the landscape. In spring the Pribs are clad in lingering greens, yellows and browns, with snow patches on the hillsides, whereas in Gambell the spring consists of white ice and snow, dark gray gravel and compressed vegetation in the open areas of the boneyards. In fall the Pribs are lush, with up to three foot high growth in some sheltered areas, and at Gambell the boneyards are covered in a thick foot-high carpet of wormwood and the slopes are a dazzling array of greens, reds, and yellows as the lichens and dwarf willows begin to change color.

Although the WINGS fall tours run as separate but connected weeks at Gambell (with a one-day extension to Nome) and Saint Paul Island, many participants elect to take both sections, and so below I shall include both 2018 tours into one narrative.

GAMBELL AND NOME: The Nome extension provided some breathtaking scenery, as well as some wonderful birds that were not seen on any other portion of the tour. Our chief avian highlight was likely the nearly white morph Gyrfalcon that we found along the Kougarock Road. We see this hulking arctic apex predator rarely on the tour, and this individual showed quite well as it perched atop tundra tussocks in a section of open rocky ground a little south of the idyllic Salmon Lake and against a sweeping backdrop of cragged mountains and withering summer colours. Although passerines were virtually absent around the Nome road system we did spot over a half a dozen Northern Shrikes. Most birds were in juvenile plumage, indicating an excellent breeding year for the species. Little flocks of Golden-crowned, White-crowned and American Tree Sparrows lurked in some of the lusher patches of willows, and of particular note we encountered an impressive flock of Bohemian Waxwings which included a number of birds in fresh juvenile plumage. This species is generally absent from the Seward Peninsula, and was a write-in for the tour’s cumulative list.  Along the coast we were thrilled to discover that the Aleutian Tern colony near the Nome River Mouth was still active, and we happily watched as adult birds soared overhead carrying fish to their rapidly growing chicks and uttering their odd sparrow like flight calls. In general, we found bird numbers to be lower than expected at this time of year, with only a few shorebird species lingering along the coast. Though numbers were low the diversity was good, with a small group of Bar-tailed Godwits, several young Red Knots and Pectoral Sandpipers and a group of Pacific Golden-Plovers. The Pink (or Humpback) Salmon had just finished a major run up many of the Nome rivers, with a few live fish still slowly swimming in the fast-moving water, but most dead on the riverbanks, adding a certain heaviness to the air in the deeper valleys. Waterfowl were in quite high numbers around the roads, with several huge flocks of American Wigeon (along with a few Eurasian), flocks of Tundra Swan, Brant, Cackling Goose and a few Greater White-fronted Geese, and good numbers of a wide array of other ducks. Somewhat surprisingly we found many family groups of Common Eider with still quite-small chicks along the lagoon edges and one sharp-eyed participant picked out a female Black Scoter with fuzzy chicks in tow. As is usual for this time of year the mammals were out in full display, with herds of Muskox in the tundra and close to town, looking like oversized shaggy muppets that had just stepped out of the pages of a Jean Auel novel. Sleek and plump Arctic Ground Squirrels were commonplace along the grassy tundra, busily stuffing vegetation into their faces at a somewhat alarming pace; readying for the approaching big sleep of winter. All in all, it was an excellent day and a half in the field, though some additional sunshine would have been welcome.

We arrived in the small town of Gambell to some light rain and much windier conditions that at Nome. Hurrying over to the lodge we then spent a few hours organizing the kitchen, checking in, going over the details about the hotel and tour schedule and training on ATV usage. Once geared up for the weather we set out to explore parts around the village, noting that the vegetation in the boneyards was remarkably lush and tall this year. For the roughly five thousand years that the town has sat on the point locals have been casting aside the remains of their harvests. Over time this organic material degraded into a fertile soil for dense stands of Arctic Wormwood. These patches stand in obvious contrast to the dominant “soil” type around the town which is a seemingly inexhaustible depth of pea-gravel. It is in these verdant patches that wayward passerines tend to put down, and for much of our time we slowly walked through these “boneyards” looking for passerines.

Although just a few days before our arrival large numbers of Arctic Warbler, Bluethroat, Red-throated Pipit and Northern Wheatear were pushing through we found all but the Wheatears to be in short supply. With some effort over the week we were able to pin down views of Red-throated Pipit, Eastern Yellow Wagtail and Arctic Warbler and for most participants a perched Bluethroat. The breeding White Wagtails put on daily shows for us, with perhaps as many as 12 individuals around town and along the shores of Troutman Lake including many juvenile birds. Though the winds were mild or generally from the west for much of our stay most of the passerines we located were North American in origin. The rarest sighting was likely the single Chipping Sparrow that was darting about in the Near Boneyard one afternoon, Savannah, Fox and Golden-crowned Sparrows were about as well, and we saw a smattering of American Pipits and Hoary Redpoll. The mountainside was, as always, beautiful in the fall as thick patches of prostrate willows and crowberries began to turn bright orange or red in the shortening daylight. Craggy spires along the ridge were playing host to an impressive number of raptors (much to the chagrin of the locally breeding alcids I would imagine). Conservative counts of six Rough-legged Hawks, four Peregrine Falcons and at least a dozen huge Kamchatka Common Ravens were constantly hunting along the ridge. One afternoon we were treated to extremely close views of a juvenile Peregrine hunting auklets as they left their burrows. The auklet frantically dropped to near ground level and headed straight to sea, with the Peregrine making repeated dives at it, and eventually knocking it to ground just a hundred meters from us! The most exciting on-island find was furnished on the morning of our departure day when we awoke to light rain and a stronger SW wind with fog (not ideal for flights, but excellent conditions for Russian passerines). The part of the group that elected to bird out in the boneyards again as we awaited news on out flight were treated to short views of a Willow Warbler that was well photographed later that afternoon. We felt fortunate to encounter this bird, as within just an hour or so of its discovery we were flying back to Nome!

Shorebirds were in remarkably short supply this year (mirroring the conditions in Nome and in much of Alaska’s north slope). Just a few Dunlin, Ruddy Turnstone, Long-billed Dowitcher and Pectoral Sandpiper were about for most of the time. Within the flocks of Pectoral Sandpipers were a few Sharp-tailed Sandpipers (replete in their very colourful fresh juvenile plumage), but most of these were seen merely in flight. On one afternoon, we negotiated an excursion outside of the normal boundaries of the village that our general permit allows us to explore. By upgrading the permits and securing the services of the local birder Clarence Irrigoo we were able to drive to the end of the newly constructed tsunami evacuation road and then out on the sandy beaches that stretch out to the East of the point as far as roughly 25 miles from the village. Here we found open lagoons with sandy or rocky edges, shallow ocean bays, river channels and bluffs and some excellent looking habitat for shorebirds. It was on this trip (the first such trip undertaken by a birding group in the island’s history) that we finally tracked down a sitting Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. Here too we located a huge flock of several hundred Emperor Geese loafing in the largest coastal lagoon, and were thrilled to spot dozens of Arctic Terns and a flock of stunning Sabine’s Gulls that seemed to be migrating through the center of the island rather than around the point. Other noteworthy sightings on the expedition included a Harbour Porpoise (generally absent this far north in the Bering Sea, but perhaps emboldened to travel northwards with the lack of cold water during the summer of 2018), lots of walrus carcasses, and good numbers of Rock Sandpipers that were feeding in the kelp rack lines on the beach. We felt fortunate to see a part of the island that has been seen by so few non-natives, and although the ride out and back took most of the day it was well worth the ATV saddle pains and sore throttle thumbs.

Trips to Gambell at any time of year often highlight passing seabirds, the breeding alcids and movements of migrants such as Jaegars, Geese and Loons passing the point. We began each day with a 1-2 hour seawatch from the point, where we found that the warmer ocean temperatures this year had had a deleterious effect upon the local breeding populations of many of the cliff nesting seabirds. Despite the lower than normal numbers we still witnessed the daily commute of Common and Thick-billed Murres, 1000’s of Crested Auklets, 100’s of Parakeet Auklets, a few Least Auklets and impressive numbers of Horned Puffins as they busily headed out to their foraging grounds in the morning and returned with full crops to feed their young on the nearby mountainside. The birds were often very close to shore, and we were also able to watch Crested and Parakeet Auklets and both Puffins sitting on land amongst the cliffs or boulder fields on the mountain.

Each day at the seawatch brought a few interesting species, perhaps a distant flock of Emperor Geese, small pulses of migrating King or Common Eiders, Parasitic or Pomarine Jaegars, passing Ancient or Kittlitz’s Murrelets, or a locally rare Surf Scoter. Gathering flocks of Lapland Longspur and Snow Buntings were often amassing near the point and attempting to gain the courage to make the 40-mile crossing to Russia. Short-tailed Shearwater numbers were lower than normal, but we still witnessed a few flights of many thousands, and being able to watch some birds diving and swimming at point-blank range among the equally close groups of Black-legged Kittiwakes was truly special.

We were treated as well to a surprise return to Nome after our week at Gambell due to a slight delay in our flights. We made the best of our extra afternoon with a return trip to the road along Safety Sound. This time we found a nice selection of birds, though it seemed that during our stay at Gambell a large exodus of birds had occurred from the coasts. An adult Slaty-backed Gull, two loafing and still crisply plumaged Common Loons and a large number of curious Spotted Seals greeted us at the Safety Sound Bridge, and along the lagoons we tallied large rafts of Greater Scaup, American Wigeon, Tundra Swans and Common Eider. Once back at the Nome River mouth we found an eclipse male Spectacled Eider that was busily foraging in the fast-moving current near the sea. Sporadic in the Nome area, and regular out at Gambell only late into the fall this sighting was an unexpected and very welcome addition to our trip. The bird performed very well, even waddling onto the nearby sandspit for a preen and a close study in the scope. It was to be our last bird sighted on the first tour, as shortly afterwards we enjoyed dinner in Nome and an evening flight back to the comparative urban jungle of Anchorage.

Timing is everything while birding in the Bering Sea outposts, as to a large degree the prevailing wind directions and weather dictate the direction that migrant birds will come from. As we left the island the weather continued with the prolonged push of westerly winds for almost another week, producing two more Willow Warblers and single Pechora Pipit and Gray-tailed Tattler.

SAINT PAUL ISLAND, THE PRIBILOFS: As the majority of this year’s participants arrived late from our connecting flight from Nome the previous evening we elected to take a more relaxed morning. Eschewing the customary stroll around the nearby lake and small park we instead set about repacking and readying for our late morning flight to the Pribilof Islands. The roughly three-hour flight departs out of the main Anchorage air terminal, but happily leaves from a different part of the building, without the need to clear the normal TSA security checks. As we generally do, the plane stopped briefly in Dillingham to refuel before it began its nearly 2-hour crossing of the Bering Sea. We stepped off the plane to bright sunshine, warm weather and fairly light winds, a weather condition that generally continued for the entire week of our stay. The giant local race of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch met our airplane as is their custom, furnishing a life bird for a few people before we even reached the airport terminal. After we unpacked and prepared for our first outing on the island we headed out to look for a couple of staked-out rarities in case they were planning on departing that evening. Out on the shores of the Salt Lagoon, a large tidal lagoon near the town of Saint Paul that has extensive sandy mudflats exposed at low tide we spent some time looking at Wandering and Gray-tailed Tattlers as they teetered along the shore. These near lookalikes can be tricky to conclusively identify visually, but we were able to locate a worn adult Gray-tailed with its characteristic brownish wash to the wings and pale belly among the more numerous Wanderings. Happily, both species vocalized for us as well, surely the most foolproof method of telling the two apart. Also along the shores of the lagoon we tracked down a lingering juvenile Red-necked Stint (with a Western nearby for comparison). The large and pale local breeding subspecies of Rock Sandpiper was abundant on the flats as well. This form breeds only in the central Bering Sea Islands of the Pribilof archipelago and on Saint Matthew and Hall islands well to the north. Spending their winters on the giant tidal flats along the Cook Inlet these birds seem quite different to the more widespread mainland subspecies that winter down the Pacific Coast.

After dinner at the Trident Seafood processing plant, where we took all of our meals during the course of the stay and where the food is plentiful and tasty we checked out the harbor where we soon found a mixed flock of Black and Red-legged Kittiwakes loafing on a pier along the road. The two species are actually quite different in structure and plumage, although seeing the cherry-red legs and feet at close range is certainly a useful sight. Although neither species was able to successfully breed this year on the island due to the rapidly changing ocean temperatures and corresponding shifts in marine life we found both to be pleasantly numerous throughout the week. The Pribilofs host a remarkable 80 percent of the global population of Red-legged Kittiwakes, making it perhaps the signature species for the archipelago – and an undeniably cute mascot for the island. While watching the Kittiwakes we noticed an unusually large bird sitting on the cliffs of the Tolstoi peninsula across the harbor mouth. A quick turn of the scopes revealed the long-staying (now 2nd year) White-tailed Eagle sitting atop a rocky spire about half-way up the black volcanic cliffs. This was an especially welcome find, as although the bird has been frequenting the island for over a year sightings can be remarkably infrequent as the bird moves around a lot and seems to perhaps visit other islands for spells of a week or more at a time.  The next day we were treated to even closer views of this majestic bird as it circled above the Salt Lagoon in the mid-afternoon sun, showing off its diagnostic wing shape and tail pattern as it lazily wheeled around overhead and terrified the local kittiwakes and shorebirds who still seem shocked to see such an imposing predator in their midst. In short it was a magnificent find, and an amazing cap to our introductory day on the island.

For the rest of the week we explored the verdant maritime tundra, steep volcanic cliffs, sandy beaches, and grass-lined freshwater lakes that combine to make for a surprisingly dynamic mix of habitats for such a small, isolated island. Even late into the week we were able to work in new sites to explore which kept each days birding interesting and varied. The summer of 2018 was again (as has been the case each year since 2013) unusually warm and wet, with widespread breeding failures in many of the seabirds, but bumper crops for many of the islands passerines and ducks. A visiting birder can divide their time on Saint Paul with four main avian pursuits. Time spent on the seabird breeding cliffs is always rewarding, and even this late into the season we were able to watch Common and Thick-billed Murres (some with still fuzzy chicks), Horned and Tufted Puffins, Northern Fulmar and both Kittiwakes at close range as they went about the tail end of their breeding season. On one of the afternoons and in full and glorious sunshine we lingered for over an hour watching the show on the cliffs, in what was surely a highlight for many participants.

The many freshwater lakes that dot the island host an impressive array of shorebirds during fall migration, and part of our daily routine involved slowly walking around the margins of the marshes looking for birds tucked into the dense sedges and grasses around the lakes. Water levels were unusually high so many lakes had less edge habitat than usual but with some patience we were able to enjoy an array of species at close range. One of the more common migrants was Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. These delicate looking birds with their apricot breasts, flared eyeline and purplish cap are truly stunning, and I can think of no better place in North America to learn their ways than Saint Paul Island in the fall. There appears to be a regular push of young Sharp-tailed Sandpipers out into the central Bering Sea in fall, and we had the pleasure of multiple individuals daily (with up to 20 in a day). On a couple of occasions we flushed out a Common Snipe from the short grassy section at the front of Pumphouse Lake. We noted the bird’s broad white trailing edge on its secondaries and patterned underwing as it circled around the group before vanishing into the ether. Generally, snipe on the island return to the area in which they are first found but this bird proved more elusive, showing only on one other occasion during the week. Also in Pumphouse Lake over two days was a juvenile Ruff that allowed fairly close approach. These five Asian species (Ruff, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, Gray-tailed Tattler and Common Snipe) are generally annual in fall, but to see all 5 on any given week is remarkable. Apart from the more expected Asian species we also located three Bar-tailed Godwits (a very scarce fall migrant here) loafing on the Salt Lagoon during a two-day period of light rain and fog.  Not all of the waders here are Asian in origin of course, and we also were happy to see the large numbers of Ruddy Turnstone, Long-billed Dowitchers and Pacific Golden-Plovers (all species that migrate through in fall), scattered Red and Red-necked Phalaropes and a quite scarce Lesser Yellowlegs to round out our impressive cast of 16 species. As of 2018 The Pribilofs have now played host to an incredible 64 species of shorebirds, perhaps thus representing the highest diversity location in the world!

Another fun birding option while on Saint Paul is seawatching.  For the best conditions one hopes for a strong South or Southeast wind with light rain and high seas. This makes most of the other birding options to be less than ideal though, and I think most participants were quite happy to have the mild conditions that we experienced in 2018. Despite the lack of wind, seawatching from various headlands around the island produced a number of interesting birds off the coast. A few pairs of Ancient Murrelets buzzed past us at Reef Point, Yellow-billed Loons loafed in the bays around Northeast Point and around the rocky coast near Marunich, small groups of Short-tailed Shearwaters glided by most days and some diligent searching revealed small flocks of King Eider, a pair of White-winged Scoters and dozens of dapper Harlequin Ducks. These seawatches also allowed us to observe Fur Seals lolling on the beaches, and to compare the local Red-faced Cormorants with their smaller Pelagic cousins and involved a quite different mix of species to the seawatches at Gambell which consisted largely of Shearwater and Auklets.

Perhaps the most exciting birding in fall here though is furnished through the somewhat exhausting search for passerines. Tired waifs come from both sides of the Bering to the islands verdant shores, hiding in sheltered nooks around the many small hills and ridges, in the artificial forests provided by stacks of crab pots or in the dense patches of tundra dominated by wild celery (a two-foot tall plant that provides perches, food and some vertical structure in an otherwise largely grassy island). Seeking these birds out requires patience and a lot of leg work, but the rewards can be well worth the trouble, and one does have to work off the calorific and delicious chocolate chip cookies provided by Trident somehow!

With only very light winds through much of the week we were not quite inundated with passerines, but with diligent searching a nice array of mostly North American species graced our expectant optics. Chief among them was an unusually strong showing of Golden-crowned Sparrows, which although annual in fall here do not normally pop up virtually island wide in small flocks. On one day, we tallied 29 individuals without making a concentrated effort, so surely hundreds of them were stopping by the island before (hopefully) making a correction to their route and turning back to the Southeast. A small number of Savannah and “Sooty” Fox Sparrows were about as well as were a few each of Orange-crowned, Yellow and Wilson’s Warblers and several American Pipits. With the abundant Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches and Lapland Longspurs sprinkled liberally around the island this influx of birds kept us interested in checking the customary passerine spots. This proved an excellent course of action as in the relatively sheltered section of abandoned crab pots in the local quarry we were elated to find a quite cooperative Taiga Flycatcher that remained for nearly the entire week; perching up on prominent pots or nearby rocks and showing off for our cameras. This tiny old-world flycatcher is very rare in the Pribilofs, with this bird representing only the 8th sighting for the island.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the mammals of Saint Paul as well, which put on quite a show for us. As usual in the fall we found masses of (very cute) Northern Fur Seal pups beginning to explore the shorelines and shallow waters of the bays. The normal seal viewing blinds were unfortunately both closed this year but we were able to see the animals at close range on many occasions, laughing as the pups played in the surf or the teenage males practiced holding territories among the seemingly bemused females. The huge beachmasters that line the rocky shoreline in spring aren’t around in the fall, but the cacophony and near constant activity of the rookeries in fall more than make up for their absence. Steller’s Sea Lion and Harbour Seal occur here as well, and we found both species hauled out along the coast this year. The huge male Sea Lion that was napping out on the lava flow at Southwest Point was particularly memorable as its huge body simply dwarfed the Fur Seals (which themselves weigh hundreds of pounds). With all of the marine mammal life around the shoreline it isn’t terribly surprising that a few pelagic Orca often frequent these waters in fall as well and on one afternoon we were able to watch a large female cruising close to Southwest Point seemingly just far enough out that the hundreds of massed seals around the shore were oblivious to the danger. Of course, the ever-present and very inquisitive Arctic Foxes were seen daily as well, sunning along the roads and patrolling the seabird cliffs and seal rookeries. One poor demoralized individual was lying down in the open salt lagoon flats at low tide, just feet away from flocks of foraging Rock Sandpipers that paid it absolutely no attention – it’s hard out there for a fox! One lucky participant even spotted an endemic Saint Paul Shrew near the church shrine at Northeast Point. We rushed over to see if it was still around but sadly it had scurried off into the dense vegetation. These active little shrews are found only on Saint Paul (absent from the other 4 islands in the archipelago) and can be frustratingly difficult to find as they spend much of their time chasing insects in the dense grassy understory.

On our last morning, we revisited a selection of the spots closer to town before taking our final meal at Trident and a short tour to the small but very interesting Aleut museum that hosts an array of old photographs, artifacts and world war two finds. Of particular interest here was the display of Aleut handicrafts and fur seal pelts. The pelts (which contain 250,000 hairs per square inch) are incredibly soft, and it is immediately apparent why they were in such high demand for over a hundred years. It was here at the Museum that I think the resilient and friendly nature of the locals really hit home for the group. The Pribilof Islands were central to the purchase and settling of the far North, and the rich cultural of the Aleuts and their long struggle for full recognition under the law should be required reading for any budding student of US history.

We wrapped up a varied two weeks of fall migration birding back at the cosmopolitan Anchorage airport, with highlights birds such as White-tailed Eagle, Taiga Flycatcher, Willow Warbler, Gray-tailed Tattler, Common Snipe, Ruff, Red-necked Stint, Spectacled Eider, Emperor Goose, Yellow-billed Loon and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper still dancing through our thoughts, and a pledge to not follow the AK listservs for the next few days on our lips. I can think of no birding destinations as potentially exciting and as dynamic as these Bering Sea outposts in fall, and can’t wait to see what goodies the chocolatier gifts the Wings tours with next year!

-          Gavin Bieber

Created: 14 September 2018