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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Alaska: Fall Migration at Gambell

2019 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Fall migration on the Bering Sea islands is unpredictable and exciting, as this tour proved again! We started with some great birding near Nome, with Bristle-thighed Curlew, Arctic Loon, and Aleutian Tern topping the highlight reel. Upon arrival in Gambell, we worked hard between scrumptious meals to find a variety of exciting birds. Olive-backed Pipit and Brambling kept things interesting in the boneyards, Common Ringed-Plovers provided some education on the intricacies of small plover identification, and the seawatch was exciting as always with Yellow-billed Loons, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, Kittlitz’s Murrelets, among others. Weather ranged from beautiful and sunny with temperatures in the high 50’s to colder with driving wind and rain – such is birding at this remote outpost! The week flew by, and soon it was time to return to Anchorage and on to St. Paul Island for some of the group. Due to weather delays and the logistical difficulties that ensued, the WINGS leaders didn’t make it out there, but Jack Snipe sounds like a good reward for the delay. Who knows what next year’s tour will produce!

GAMBELL AND NOME: Upon arrival in Nome, our tour really started with some afternoon birding on the Council Road towards Safety Sound. Raymond and I had found a juvenile Bristle-thighed Curlew among a small Whimbrel flock in the morning (before most of the group arrived), so that was our first priority. It took a while, but we eventually found this stunner again and enjoyed prolonged scope views – the whole bird was suffused with a golden wash, and the upperparts were brightly spangled. Beautiful!

That wasn’t the only highlight – a pair of Steller’s Eiders and a single Spectacled Eider were loafing off Cape Nome, Aleutian Terns were still around, and a roadside Willow Ptarmigan was much appreciated.

The next morning, we decided to again head down the Council Road, where Arctic Loon was our top target: success! Great scope views were had by all, and we discussed the subtle differences between Arctic and Pacific Loons. We picked out an Emperor Goose among a large flock of “Black” Brant, and we marveled at large numbers of ducks and shorebirds: tons of Tundra Swans, Cackling Geese, American Wigeon (plus a bonus Eurasian), Pacific Golden-Plovers, Whimbrel, and Long-billed Dowitchers. Soon, it was time to head back to the airport for our flight to Gambell, which was only delayed by a couple hours…

Our time at Gambell this year was, as usual, mainly split between the seawatch and the boneyards, with additional exploration around the shores of Troutman Lake and various other pockets of habitat. Birding here is unpredictable, and each day brings a new set of surprises. The seawatch this year was quite diverse, with rarities and goodies including Surf Scoter (just the second fall record for Gambell), several Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, a single Marbled Murrelet (very rare here), several Kittlitz’s Murrelets, and migrating Emperor Geese and Yellow-billed Loons. For any first-timer to Gambell, the spectacle of hundreds (or thousands) of alcids, kittiwakes, and shearwaters is a sight to behold regardless of rarity!

Notable this year was the number of landbirds from North America, including dozens of Golden-crowned Sparrows (plus Chipping, Savannah, Fox, White-crowned, and Lincoln’s), and a single Townsend’s Warbler along with Orange-crowned.  Rarest of all was the first Gambell record of a Wood-pewee, although with marginal photos and no vocalizations, we’ll never know which species…

Trans-Beringian migrants were very few during our time at Gambell, but eventually we got dizzying views of Red-throated Pipit on the ground and in flight, not-quite-so-stunning views of an Arctic Warbler flitting out of the far boneyard, and at least one Gray-cheeked Thrush.

Any visiting birder to Gambell hopes for strays from Asia…this year, our landbirds in this category included repeated views of a flighty Olive-backed Pipit and a gorgeous Brambling glowing orange in the late afternoon light. We also enjoyed multiple stunning views of Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, Gray-tailed Tattlers, and two juvenile Common Ringed-Plovers that gave us a bit of a run-around with identification issues…oops, all resolved in the end, and a great learning experience for everyone!

A delay leaving Gambell lead to some logistical difficulties with those participants heading on to St Paul, but eventually everyone got there minus the two WINGS leaders…I hear everyone saw Jack Snipe and Common Snipe, which sounds like a success to me!

Who knows what next year will hold…

-          Luke Seitz

Created: 17 October 2019