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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Alaska: Fall Migration at Gambell

2023 Narrative

September 1st: We couldn’t have picked a more beautiful day to arrive at Gambell. The two flights landed without issue and folks were greeted by a cloudless, sunny day. After an informational meeting, some tasty sandwiches, and the How Not to Crash Course (Raymond’s ATV operation meeting) we were on our way to the far boneyard for our first introduction to the boneyard stomp. Our first flush line was productive, flushing a Gray-cheeked Thrush and an Arctic Warbler. Near the pond there was a continuing immature White-crowned Sparrow. A young Bluethroat was in the Circular Boneyard. We went back to the Far Boneyard for another pass, this time scaring up the continuing Pechora Pipit (found by Raymond and Aaron two days earlier). After dinner and checklists we went down the eastern shore of Troutman to look for birds when we bumped into others who’d just refound the Common Sandpiper, found originally four days earlier and not seen again until now. After satisfying views we continued wandering southward, eventually spotting a tattler on a distant shoreline. The easiest way to get there, in order to determine the species, was by hiking down to the shoreline and walking south. When we finally reached the tattler if flushed, giving two sets of calls, one single-noted, and the other the classic two-parted call of Gray-tailed Tattler. We continued walking the shoreline and eventually got point blank views. Celebratory high fives all around and then back for bedtime and snacks.

September 2: We woke this morning to driving rain. Thankfully, by the time we left for seawatch things had dried out a bit. The winds were out of the southwest and water bird movement was slow but we still managed to find some nice birds. Alcids were in good numbers, including numerous small groups of murres which included both flavors. We had two loon species, one each of Red-throated and Pacific. Northern Fulmars were in short supply along with Short-tailed Shearwater. An exhausted Bluethroat crashed on the shore line, after making an over-water flight. After a short rest the Bluethroat crawled up the shoreline and proceeded to feed in seaweed, a Tim’s Popcorn bag, and an Oreo container. At the far boneyard we had Pechora Pipit through the scope. In the circular boneyard we found a  “Yukatensis” Willow Warbler, which we initially identified from one of Mark’s really great photos. In the near boneyard we had American Pipits, Bluethroats, an Arctic Warbler, and a Snipe conundrum which we never sorted out — sometimes the views just aren’t good enough — though it was likely a Wilson’s.  Near the dump were two Northern Wheatears and multiple White Wagtails. We went back to Circular Boneyard after lunch and had stunning views of Willow Warbler. In the evening we traveled out to the alcid colony at the north cliffs where we had perched auklets of three flavors: Least, Crested, and Parakeet auklets. Nearby floated a raft of Common and King Eiders.

September 3: Today’s highlight came later in the day while exploring the marshes to the south of Troutman Lake. While searching for shorebirds from the ATV Raymond flushed a teal-sized duck out of the grassy edge of a pond and got it in binoculars just before it dropped into thick marsh grass on the far side of the pond. Suspecting it was a Garganey from the brief view of the upper wing we organized to walk up for better views. Sure enough, as we approached it poked its head up out of the grass for long enough to see its distinctive facial pattern, soon after taking flight, giving nice flight views before diving into South Marsh. We were never able to relocate it again, even with the help of the rest of the birders on the island. During the Garganey commotion we had beautiful views of a juvenile Dunlin as well as a flyby Gray-tailed Tattler. Our Garganey marked the first confirmed record for Gambell, a species that’s been expected there for years.

September 4: We scratched seawatch this morning due to the predicted weather forecast: winds out of the south(ish) at 15-20 mph, gradually building to 45 mph by 10:30am and bringing driving rain. The forecast was spot on and by 10:30 the rain was dumping from the skies, with the combination of a head wind and an average ATV speed of 15 mph it felt like glass shards on the face. We started at the Far boneyard while the other group started at the Near. Not a lot of turnover in the Far but a flyby Eastern Yellow Wagtail was new for the few that were able to see it. We flushed the Pechora Pipit and watched it gain great altitude and head north. It was never seen again. As we left the boneyard and worked the mountainside to the north Nick flushed a shorebird out of the tall grass at the base of a small creek. With some patience it crawled out, revealing its identity: our first Sharp-tailed Sandpiper of the trip. We viewed this fresh juvenile feeding as it moused through the grasses at our feet. We then certified the circular boneyard bird-free. Hoping for some shorebird fallouts we checked a few of the well known shorebird spots around the village but found nothing before the rain pummeled us. We enjoyed a long break, complete with a tasty lunch and a nap. Around 3:45 pm, as the rain was slowing and the winds were coming down, we headed back out for a little birding along the eastern shoreline of Troutman Lake, hoping the weather may have dropped some migrants out. Shortly after beginning our survey of the lakeshore we received a text from Aaron: “Rosefinch! Circular.” I called Tiffany, who was searching the ponds to the south of the lake with a few others and she raced back to pick-up the walkers before heading for the Rosefinch. Upon arrival we found lots of folks standing around with great big smiles on their faces. We pushed the bird around the boneyard for a long time trying to get views, though this was mostly futile, as it always dove out of sight after making a short flight across the boneyard. It called frequently; giving a short slurred note, rising and thinning slightly, but clear, not buzzy as the recordings of Sibley App suggest. After Common Rosefinch fun we headed for the near boneyard where we kicked up a Savannah Sparrow (a recent arrival), a very obliging Red-throated Pipit, and another fly-by Eastern Yellow Wagtail. We returned for dinner around 7:15pm and stayed in for the rest of the evening. NOAA called for the south winds to shift westward overnight, at around 4am, accompanied by a light rain. By 10am the next day the winds were to be strong out of the west at 25mph, blowing consistently until about 3pm, when they were to shift back from the south and southeast as precipitation drops. Time would tell, but things were looking yummy.

September 5: After a night of west winds and light rain we woke with great anticipation for the day to come. Seawatch was slow again, adding only Red-necked Grebe and two flyover Pacific Golden-Plovers to the trip tally. A close flyby Parastic Jaeger was a nice sighting. The rest of the seabird flight was underwhelming. The boneyard stomp this morning produced larger numbers of Red-throated Pipits and White Wagtails but not much else. The Common Rosefinch continued in the circular but was still elusive and flighty. As we arrived back for lunch a staticky call came across the radio, “Probable Dark-sided Flycatcher”. The rest of the message, including the location, was lost. After a bit of panicked back-and-forth phone calls between me and Aaron we sorted out that Greg Scypher was who called it in and that it was along the mountainside south of the Far Boneyard. We stopped people from removing their warm clothes and we put lunch on hold - we raced out within 5 minutes. Upon arrival the bird was not being seen but had been there as recently as 10 mins before. We scanned the rocky slopes with great attention to detail until it was spotted lower down on the slope, near the original location. Scope views revealed a small, dark Muscicapid flycatcher with prominent wing bars and tertial edges, and a contrasting pale eye ring (most prominent in the rear). The bird was dark and heavily vested, like a Western Wood-Pewee, but more compact and rounder headed overall. There was much retained juvenile spotted plumage in the breast and head, giving it a young bluebird-like look. My first impressions were that the bird was much darker and more smokey-brown than last year’s Gray-streaked Flycatcher, which I recall as being quite pale gray. The breast and sides were largely unstreaked, with diffuse brownish-gray across flanks and sides. This was another first for Gambell — two firsts in one trip is awfully rare these days. After lunch we hit the boneyard again, and walked the hillside north to the sea but didn’t add much. We did have a fleeting glimpse of Eastern Yellow Wagtail but it remains a better view desired for almost everyone. 

September 6: Seawatch was poppin’ this morning. The shearwater spectacle was incredible with an estimated 267,000 Short-tailed Shearwaters streaming past the point and circling out to sea. In addition to the incredible numbers of shearwaters and alcids we watched two North American Common Mergansers fly-by, 19 Emperor Geese, two Steller’s Eiders, and three Sabine’s Gulls. The boneyards were productive again, this time with the Far Boneyard being the most productive, producing another Willow Warbler (or maybe the same bird from Sept 2nd), a Siberian Accentor in the large rockslide just north of the boneyard, and the continuing Common Rosefinch.

September 7: It was another productive day, with good numbers of all the expected birds and a few of the continuing vagrants, including the Dark-sided Flycatcher, and a Little Bunting. By the end of the day we hadn’t found anything new, and we were beginning to think the “stray a day” streak was over, until we received word from the other group that an Olive-backed Pipit was being seen in the Far Boneyard. We rushed there and managed to get good views (including through the scope) after some hard work. The pipit was a new bird for many.

September 8: This morning we said goodbye, and thank you, to Gambell and its people, as we headed for the mainland. We were sad to be leaving but grateful for the new friends and epic birds. After some logistics in Nome we headed out for a long day of birding, tallying lots of new trip birds including a wonderful Spectacled Eider - making for the eider sweep! A big plus was a total of three Arctic Loons at Safety Lagoon. We had a lovely dinner where we celebrated a successful trip and many new friendships! Until next time my friends.

September 9: Departures for Anchorage.

- Raymond Vanbuskirk

Created: 28 March 2024