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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Alaska: Fall Migration at Gambell and the Pribilofs

2016 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Fall 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 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 WINGS runs our fall tours 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 2016 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 highlights were the pair of uncharacteristically cooperative Arctic Loons that we spotted along the east end of Safety Lagoon.  We were able to watch as the two birds, still in full breeding plumage, with their slate-gray heads and napes swam around just a few hundred feet offshore.  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.  Several Short-eared Owls, Parasitic Jaegers and Northern Harriers were also seen as well, likely also eating the numerous shrews that seem to be at a population peak in 2016 after a mild winter. On the scenic drive out the Teller Road we were happy to find a flock of 13 Willow Ptarmigan along the roadside, and a family group of Grizzly Bears running into a willow thicket upslope from the road.  We were thrilled by our discovery that the Aleutian Tern colony was still active, and we happily watched as adult birds soared overhead carrying fish to their rapidly growing chicks.  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 repeated views of juvenile Sanderling and Dunlin, a group of Red Knot, some late Greater Yellowlegs and Semipalmated Plovers and a few Whimbrel and many young 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 Greater White-fronted Goose, and good numbers of a wide array of other ducks.  Among the loafing flocks of Common Eider we managed to pick out a single Steller’s and a few King Eider.  As is usual for this time of year the mammals were out in full display, with the aforementioned Grizzly sow and cubs likely being the highlight.  Several herds of Muskox dotted the tundra near town, Arctic Ground Squirrels were busily stuffing their faces with grass, and we spotted several Red Fox and Short-tailed Weasels as well.  All in all it was an excellent day and a half in the field, though some sunshine would have been welcome.

We arrived in the small town of Gambell to bright sunshine, and unseasonably warm temperatures, a surprising change from the grayish skies of Nome.  Unfortunately for us though the weather was about to shift into an unseasonably long push of North and Northeast winds, with colder temperatures and little variation.  For the entire week that we were on the island the winds really never altered their steady northern flow (in fact these winds continued almost another full week after our departure).  The cold northerly winds made for little turnover in the boneyards and for seawatching conditions that seemed more similar to those expected in the normally colder spring season.  We spent the first two days tracking down a few lingering Trans-Beringian migrants that were lurking around town.  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 though we were able to pin down excellent views of Red-throated Pipit, Northern Wheatear 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.  A smattering of “japonicus” type American Pipits, Hoary Redpoll, and Golden-crowned Sparrows rounded out the diversity in the boneyards, a far cry from what we would typically see here in early September under more varied wind conditions.  Even under the general lack of turnover we always had something to look at, such as the large (family?) group of Short-eared Owls that lingered at the south end of Troutman Lake, or passing Parasitic Jaegers or Rough-legged Hawks. 

Shorebirds were in remarkably short supply this year (mirroring the conditions in Nome and in much of Alaska’s North Slope).  Whether this was due to poor nesting success or an early departure or both is unknown, but during our week on Saint Lawrence Island we found low numbers and lower diversity than expected.  A very cooperative juvenile Gray-tailed Tattler that was found along the pebble shores of Troutman Lake provided the undoubted highlight.  Although expected in spring the single Common Ringed Plover (with a Semipalmated Plover nearby for excellent comparison) was the first that we had recorded on the fall trips.  One other old-world Shorebird species also put in an appearance, with a juvenile Sharp-tailed Sandpiper that remained in the marshier areas around Troutman Lake for several days.  The Buff-breasted Sandpiper that was seen by only a few in the group who managed to walk out to the site quickly upon our arrival was likely the most rare shorebird that we found while at Gambell. Larger than normal numbers of Sanderling and Rock Sandpipers, a few Dunlin, Long-billed Dowitchers and Ruddy Turnstones were detected during the week as well. 

Trips to Gambell at any time of year often highlight passing seabirds, the breeding alcids and movements of migrants such as Jaegers, Geese and Loons passing the point.  We began each day with a 1-2 hour seawatch from the point, where we found that the early spring (almost a complete lack of snow and ice around town in late May) had likely pushed the alcids into an earlier nesting season.  Although we still witnessed the daily commute of 1000’s of Crested Auklets, 100’s of Least Auklets and dozens of Parakeet Auklets the numbers were not as staggering as they often are in early September.  The birds were often very close to shore though, and we were also able to watch Crested and Least Auklets up on their breeding cliffs.  Horned and Tufted Puffins, Pigeon Guillemots and Thick-billed Murres were around in good numbers, and among the flocks we picked out a few Common Murre and (on one evening seawatch) a group of passing Ancient Murrelets.  Each day brought a few interesting species, perhaps a distant flock of Emperor Geese, small pulses of migrating King, Common or Steller’s Eiders, gathering flocks of Lapland Longspur and Snow Buntings that were attempting to gain the courage to leave the point and make the 40 mile crossing to Russia, or perhaps just very close views of foraging Red Phalaropes, Black-legged Kittiwakes and juvenile alcids feeding right along the shoreline.  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 was truly special.  I hope our repeated lessons in Shearwater ID will allow the participants to pick out Short-taileds from their more common Sooty congeners on their next Pacific pelagic!

We left Gambell in the morning, with one seawatch and had a quick turnaround in Nome to catch our continuing flight on to 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 north winds for almost another week, when the winds finally did switch some good finds included two Siberian Accentors.

We arrived in Anchorage in the late afternoon, with time for laundry, perhaps a nap and some repacking before dinner at our hotel and an introductory meeting for the Saint Paul Island participants.

SAINT PAUL ISLAND, THE PRIBILOFS: The next morning we took a short walk out from the hotel to scan the adjacent lakes, which held Lesser and Greater Scaup and a pair of breeding plumaged Pacific Loons.  At a nearby park filled with spruce trees we drummed up a very responsive mixed flock of birds that included both Boreal and Black-capped Chickadees, several Red-breasted Nuthatches and many perky Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets.  The small lake in the park was low, with a wide marshy fringe, and we spent some time looking through the flocks of Pintail, Shoveler and Mallard to pick out birds like Ring-necked Duck and Red-necked Grebe.

Our flight out to the Pribilofs arrived in the midafternoon. We stepped off the plane to bright sunshine, warm weather and very little wind, 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.  From the comfort and ease of the main island road we stopped and admired a Marsh Sandpiper that had been frequenting the small roadside Saucer Pond for several weeks.  This individual was extremely cooperative, showing off its needle-like bill, white rump, lower back and tail, and very long legs to great effect.  Only the second record for the Pribilofs (and one of about 14 records for the hemisphere) this was quite a welcoming committee for us!  Though the bird had been in the area for about a fortnight it departed the day after our arrival, once again proving that timing is everything!  Also in the little pond were Red and Red-necked Phalaropes, providing an instructive side-by-side comparison.  Also in the marsh was a handsome juvenile Sharp-tailed Sandpiper; the first of many that we would see during the course of our week on the island.  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 50 in a day).  Over the week we found shorebirds to be a dominant part of the avifauna on Saint Paul.  Hundreds of Rock Sandpipers (of the larger and paler Pribilof subspecies) massed in the Salt Lagoon at low tide, and Ruddy Turnstones seemed to be everywhere, with dozens flushing up from just the roadsides alone.   Among the throngs of these more common birds we enjoyed locally scarce Red Knot, Dunlin and Sanderling, daily Wandering Tattlers, numbers of Long-billed Dowitchers. We also picked out a few of the markedly smaller and darker plumaged mainland Rock Sandpipers, which are (in side-by-side comparison) remarkably different from the locally breeding birds.

We checked a variety of wetlands during the course of the week and were rewarded with (eventually) excellent views of two Common Snipe.  The broad white trailing edge to their secondaries and patterned underwing were clearly noted as we flushed the birds out of the Dump Pond in successive days.  In nearby Rocky Lake we turned up a very approachable juvenile Wood Sandpiper (later finding a second bird in Barabaras Pond).  Wood Sandpipers are one of the more regular Asian strays in spring, but are generally scarce in the fall.  Also in the Barabaras pond one afternoon was a juvenile Ruff, which are annual in very low numbers here in fall.  Repeated checking of the throngs of shorebirds that massed in the Salt Lagoon at low tide revealed two juvenile Red-necked Stints among the small numbers of Western Sandpipers.  Although the birds were present throughout the week they seemed to prefer that far side of the lagoon, so one day we walked out onto the sandflats and were able to compare the Stints to the Westerns at close range.  Several participants successfully took turns at the scopes, trying to independently pick out the shorter legged and billed, and chestier stints.  The Pribilofs have now played host to an incredible 64 species of shorebirds, perhaps thus representing the highest diversity location in the world! 

We spent some time seawatching from various headlands around the island, and in the generally calm conditions were able to spot a number of interesting birds off the coast.  Likely the most exciting find was a young male Spectacled Eider that we spotted off Northeast Point on several days among a large flock of Harlequin Ducks and a few King Eiders.  Spectacled Eiders are apparently annual in the Pribilofs in the depths of winter, but this over-summering individual was virtually unprecedented. Almost every trip to a seawatch rewarded us through species such as Red-necked and Horned Grebes, Brant, Short-tailed Shearwater, Pacific Loons and one or two Ancient Murrelets.   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.

A welcome change from Gambell was also found in the weather, which for much of the week was almost balmy, with light and variable winds, bright blue skies and no precipitation.  Near the end of our stay the incessantly north winds that were pounding Gambell turned to West.  These west winds then spun straight south, giving the Pribilofs an arcing NW wind.  Although not ideal for creating fallout conditions for us we nevertheless did have a small drop of Asian passerines on our penultimate day.  Up along the road edge below Hutchinson Hill we chased a very small bird that was highly likely to be a Dusky Warbler around for much of the day.  Unfortunately for us the bird never sat up high enough in the wild celery patches that it was frequenting, but rather dove into dense cover only to emerge like a little feathered dart at our approach.  Finding passerines in these celery (locally known as Putchkie) patches is not for the faint of heart (or leg).  We spent much of the last two days checking and rechecking these patches, forming lines and walking to flush out anything that might be hiding and checking secluded spots tucked out the wind.  These tactics revealed a few more species for us including some birds from our side of the Bering as well, with Golden-crowned, Savannah, Fox and American Tree Sparrows, Yellow and Wilson’s Warblers and a few American Pipits.  At another Putchkie patch we flushed a small gray bird with a black and white tail pattern that most unfortunately flew off in the direction of a seal colony never to be seen again.  Given the very brief view of the bird in flight it would be folly to conclusively identify it, but the tail pattern seemed an excellent fit for a Taiga Flycatcher.  We did have much more luck when we walked down to the edge of the Barabaras pond to look for shorebirds only to find a massed group of Lapland Longspurs bathing along the muddy edge.  IN scanning through the flock I noted a pipt, and with a better view in the scope was thrilled to find that it was a Pechora!  Very strong white back braces, thick and black flank streaking, a brownish cast to the face and most importantly protruding primary feathers were all noted and the bird remained in the open long enough for all of us present to see.  This marked only the third Pechora Pipit for the island, which given the dense vegetation in fall is actually a pretty good record!  A few Red-throated Pipits gave us flyby and calling views, with a bird in Pumphouse Lake actually flying around the group a couple of times. 

About ten days before our visit the local guides had located a Boreal Owl tucked into a patch of abandoned crab pots in the local rock quarry.  A week later the bird was refound in the same area, but it had not been seen subsequent to that second sighting before our arrival. We checked the small pile of crab pots over the first several days and noted some whitewash, a Snow Bunting carcass and the odd stray owl feather it appeared the bird might have moved on.  About mid-week I went out after dropping the group off for the evening and upon checking the same small section of pots came face to face with the owl!  Racing back to the lodge I dragged virtually the entire group out and we were thrilled to find the owl perched out in the open, and actively making short flights around the pots.  WE returned a few more times in the daylight and were able to find the owl tucked well into the pots on several occasions.  This was a totally unexpected species for our trip, and was a life bird for a lot of the group.  Just goes to show how unpredictable and at times exciting birding in the Bering Sea islands can be.

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.  We visited a few of the rookery blinds and spent a bit of time watching the antics of the pups and busy movements of the females as they returned from foraging trips.  The seals attracted the attention of a few Orca as well, and we were able to watch at remarkably close range a female (a known individual with a notched dorsal fin that has been observed around Saint Paul in fall the last 6 years) driving in to the shoreline and plucking pups out of the milling throng.  She would then take the kill out into the deeper water where a larger male Orca and a flock of opportunistic Glaucous-winged Gulls was waiting.  A few lucky participants spotted one of the endemic Saint Paul Shrews during the week, with one shrew darting across the road in front of our van, and another running around in the rock pile atop Hutchinson Hill.  These active little shrews are found only on Saint Paul (absent from the other 4 islands in the archipelago) and perhaps with the abundant sunshine and good growing conditions were having a bit of a population boom this year.  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.

We wrapped up a varied two weeks of fall migration birding back at our hotel in Anchorage, with highlights birds such as Pechora Pipit, Gray-tailed Tattler, Sharp-tailed, Wood and Marsh Sandpipers, Common Ringed Plover, Common Snipe, Red-necked Stint and Ruff, Emperor Goose, Arctic and Yellow-billed Loons, Spectacled Eider and Boreal Owl  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 us with next year!


-          Gavin Bieber

Created: 23 September 2016