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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Alaska: Gambell in Spring

2023 Narrative

2023’s Gambell trip was delayed due to weather (fog), but we still had five days there and we saw a number of Asian species, highlighted by a Siberian House-Martin and a male Asian Stonechat. Other rarities included Stejneger’s Scoter, Lesser Sand-Plover, Black-headed Gull, Rustic Bunting and more than a handful of Bramblings. Common Ringed Plovers were again present this year as were Bluethroats and a few Red-throated Pipits. A single American Pipit was of the Asian subspecies, japonicus.

Our trip to Gambell was delayed by weather (fog) this year. Indeed on the 26th, we weren’t even able to land in Nome, so a return to Anchorage and a late afternoon flight to Nome. We rushed over to the Bering Air terminal to learn that Gambell flights had been canceled for the day. Nicholas Hajdukovich, a Bering Air pilot and expert birder (member of the Alaska Checklist Committee) gave us transport to the Aurora Inn where we spent the night. The next day was another day of fog at Gambell. We did some birding around the terminal and noted a pair of Wandering Tattlers. That evening most of settled into George’s house overlooking Nome. We noted a pair of Northern Shrikes nesting and Willow Ptarmigan were in the back yard.

Early the next morning Nicholas alerted us that the weather was better in Gambell and we headed over rapidly to the Bering Air terminal. Soon we were aloft and an hour later we landed in Gambell. While we had missed almost two days of birding there, fortunately we did not miss any standout rarities. The migration during our five days there could be termed about normal with perhaps a few more Asian species than normal. Bramblings were particularly numerous with up to twelve on one day. Up to six Bluethroats in day were tallied and Northern Wheatear, Red-throated Pipit, Arctic and Yellow-billed loons, Wood Sandpiper and Common Ringed Plover were all seen. More unusual species noted included Lesser Sand-Plover, “Eurasian” Whimbrel (a subspecies, although split by most in the Old World from New World birds), Black-headed Gull, Rustic Bunting and Stejneger’s Scoter. The two most unusual Asian species were Siberian House-Martin and a male Asian Stonechat, both found late in tour on the side of the mountain. The Asian Stonechat was followed as it worked south down the side of the mountain and the Siberian House-Martin was noted during the chase, but was quickly lost! It was flying with a Barn Swallow, a white bellied “Eurasian” subspecies. Most of the group assembled, but we realized that Barrett hadn’t gotten the word. I headed back to retrieve him and found him near the gym jogging down the road! He climbed up on my ATV and we headed south. He really wanted to see the House Martin but it hadn’t reappeared and he joined us for the pursuit of the stonechat which was successful. Near midnight, and as we finally returned, Barrett pounded on my back on the ATV just past the high school and yelled swallow! It was the Siberian House-Martin and it was flying around the houses. The huge white rump was visible easily with the naked eye. I eventually located it roosting on a light on a two story house and it remained that evening for others to see and was still roosting the next morning. It remained at Gambell for a few days after we left, roosting each night on the light.The Siberian House-Martin was recently split from the Western House-Martin of Europe based on distinct morphological differences but also on vocal and genetic differences. These two aren’t even sister species. There are at least 15 records of this species now for Alaska, the majority being recent, likely reflecting the northern and eastern expansion of this species to Chukotka in the Russian Far East. Their winter grounds are poorly known but are likely mostly in northern Southeast Asia. The Asian Stonechat is also a recent split from the European and African species. It likely represented the proximal (to Alaska) subspecies stejnegeri which breeds west to about Lake Baikal. The birds west of there (nominate maurus) likely represent a different species based on vocal and genetic differences but are virtually identical in appearance. When an Asian Stonechat turns up in Europe, birders try to obtain fecal samples for genetic analysis to try to determine which Asian subspecies group it might represent. It should not go without mention that the single American Pipit we recorded was Asian japonicus with a broad dark malar bar. Recent studies on call notes along with genetic analysis indicate that these should be split from the North American subspecies group.

Apart from the Asian flavor, a variety of North American strays occurred as well. These included a Canada or Cackling Goose, Varied and Hermit thrushes, Dark-eyed Junco and a briefly seen (but photographed) Rusty Blackbird. Horned Grebe, Ancient Murrelet and Northern Shrike were rare, but could have come from either side of the Bering Sea. We had good lucks at three species of eiders, but sadly missed Spectacled. Greater White-fronted Geese were more numerous than I’ve ever noted at Gambell (up to 18 in a day). Pomarine Jaegers were numerous, most were flying north. We saw 33 on one day most of which were in one flock. We did see a number of Pectoral Sandpipers (up to 19 in a day). These birds were migrants headed to Russia, some of which breed on the Taimyr Peninsula, some 2500 miles to the west. Consider that this species winters in southern South America, primarily Argentina. Perhaps one of the most enjoyable sightings was a pair of Rock Sandpipers (northern breeding subspecies tschuktshorum south of town that repeatedly allowed outstanding views. And who could forget all of the Gray Whales, some just off the beach?! One species, Dovekie, has been declining, at Gambell and this year for the first time in decades we failed to find one on the side of the mountain. One was seen flying past the point. We did have, of course, tens of thousands of auklets, including close views on the side of the mountain. Black Guillemots were fairly numerous in the waters off the point along with more Pigeon Guillemots which breed.

I want to give a special call-out of thanks to Nick for everything he did to help us during our few days in Nome. I asked him what we could do for him in return and he asked if I could find a copy of the Warbler book (1997) which was out of print. I located a copy.

Debbie Brooks and Stephanie Schaefer were kind and always smiling and made sure that delicious hot foot was always available. Thank you to you both.

-Jon Dunn


NOME EXTENSION: Leaving Gambell behind we took a mid-afternoon flight back to Nome, where we found conditions to be quite atypical for the season. Shore-fast ice was still prevalent off the Nome foreshore, with significant snow out in the tundra (enough to turn the more highland parts of the road system into a pearl-white winter wonderland) and most freshwater bodies still iced up. Along with the very late spring came all the changes due to the 2022 fall typhoon that struck town full force in September. Many businesses and houses were flooded out or destroyed, and the storm wrecked havoc on the coastal roads. In short, we had a very different experience around Nome than typical, although the birds were, as always, fantastic.

We didn’t have a lot of time on the first day of the extension, due to our late arrival from Gambell, but we made the most of it, with an after-dinner trip to the nearby Nome River mouth. We timed our arrival for low tide, and were happy to find extensive mudflats out in the river delta. We found the flats to be liberally sprinkled with shorebirds, doubtless backed up along the coast due to the persistent snow and ice cover inland. Among the throngs of Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Dunlin and Long-billed Dowitchers we picked out a surprising number of snazzy breeding plumaged Red Knots, several Bar-tailed Godwit and two beautiful Red-necked Stints. We birded a bit along the shore of Norton Sound as well, finding a couple of elegant Arctic Terns, several Surfbirds (in their bold summer colours), small flocks of loafing Black and White-winged Scoters and a pair of courting and very vocal Red-throated Loons. All in all, it was an easy and great introduction to the birds around Nome.

The next day we set off down the Teller Rd, where if anything winter was still maintaining an even tighter grip on the landscape. Here we quickly tallied our first Willow Ptarmigans, with an astonishing number (termed a ptarmocalypse by a participant) of 92 more Willows over the course of the morning. Rock Ptarmigan proved a bit more reluctant, but with a bit of perseverance we eventually found a few along a higher part of the road. Most of the drive was through a stunning winterscape, with several feet of snow coating the valleys and ridges, and tall hummocks of plowed snow along the road edges. As there was not much open ground we found passerines to be clustering in the willows along the road edge, with good numbers of the five local sparrows (American Tree, Fox, White and Golden-crowned and Savannah), as well as Lapland Longspurs, Hoary Redpolls, American Robins and Gray-cheeked Thrushes. A few hardy Wilson’s and Orange-crowned Warblers were around as well, and in the denser stands of willows by creeks we enjoyed multiple singing Northern Waterthrushes who seemed quite nonplussed by the snow and keen to get on with the breeding season. A few of the creeks were open, and along the stony shores we picked out loafing Harlequin Ducks and Red-breasted Mergansers, a few Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers and one pair of Wandering Tattler. In one particularly productive valley we were amazed to see dozens of hunting Jaegers (both Long-tailed and Pomarine) as well as a few American and Pacific Golden-Plover, Whimbrel, Bar-tailed Godwit, Dunlin and Pectoral Sandpipers out int the small patches of more open ground.

After lunch back in town, and a quick stop to look at a staked-out active Northern Shrike nest we spent the afternoon birding along the beginning of the Council Road, which snakes east from Nome along the shore of Norton and Safety Sound before turning inland towards the small community of Council. On this first afternoon we concentrated on the birding spots between town and Cape Nome, as extensive roadworks and lingering ice were complicating the birding along the usually very productive Safety Lagoon. It was here that the storm damage was most evident, with dozens of old fishing camps completely destroyed, and a large stretch of the road having to be completely rebuilt where the ocean surge had wiped out the roadbed and dune systems. A revisit to the mouth of the Nome River revealed a half-dozen or so Aleutian Terns prospecting nest sites on a driftwood clad island. These small and unique terns breed at only a handful of known locations around the margins of the eastern Bering Sea and then spend their winters somewhere in the South Pacific, thus making Nome perhaps the most accessible site in the world for the species. Here too we found a couple of handsome Red Phalaropes twirling around with their smaller Red-necked cousins, and a couple of particularly frosty looking Hoary Redpolls. Moving further out from town we stopped around the much-changed Derby Creek, where we were treated to a passing Merlin, and several Whimbrel aggressively chasing around a somewhat harried looking Common Raven. The traditional pond near the end of the road seemingly no longer exists, so after a bit of scanning we moved on for a bit of a seawatch at Cape Nome. Here we found substantial sea ice near the point, with flocks of loafing Common Eider and Black Scoter along the edge of the ice. We combed through the flocks, picking out a small group of King Eider, including a brilliantly hued male, as well as a single snoozing Tufted Puffin, quite a few Long-tailed Duck and White-winged Scoters (annoyingly too far out to search for our hoped-for Stejenger’s), flyby Black-legged Kittiwake and Pelagic Cormorants and some very cooperative Harlequin Ducks. In the cliffs of the adjacent rock quarry, we also witnessed some nesting ravens that were teaming up on a hunting Peregrine Falcon that seemed quite interested in the ravens chosen nest site. As we had a full day planned for the next morning we decided to head back to Nome after a quick stop at the construction site on Safety Sound so that we knew the procedures for visiting the area on our final morning.

For our other full day around Nome, we headed out the (very) recently reopened Kougarok Road which heads inland from Nome, following the Nome River Valley inland and passing through a mixture of alpine passes, open tundra with large lakes, and huge craggy mountains. This road has always felt the wildest of the three roads to me and is always the area that I reflect on when I consider trips in the region. Our primary goal for the day was to reach the magical hill near mile marker 72 where Bristle-thighed Curlew has proved reliable for several decades. Just a few days before our visit the road was closed due to a destroyed culvert at mile marker 67, so we felt fortunate that we were able to make the trip. On the long and sometimes bumpy road out to the hill we made only a few stops, finding a perched Golden Eagle, foraging Northern Wheatear and nesting pair of Say’s Phoebes a little shy of Salmon Lake, yet more Willow and Rock Ptarmigan, and Cackling (probably) and Greater White-fronted Geese around some of the more open marshy lakes. Of course, we also made stops to admire herds of Muskox, the odd foraging Moose, and another fluffy Red Fox along the way. Near the end of our trip out we were happy to spot a male Rusty Blackbird that was feeding in some roadside ponds; this is a somewhat local and scarce species in the Seward Peninsula, and one that can be tricky to track down when wanted.

We reached the hill in good time, and then, after putting on our muckboots made the pilgrimage up to the crest where we quickly found several displaying Whimbrel. It took a bit of searching but eventually a Bristle-thighed flew past us giving its very distinctive flight display calls. The bird landed, and continued to be vocal for several minutes. We were able to follow it on the ground for a little while, with scope views revealing the more spangled back and wings, salmony wash to the flanks and cinnamon coloured tail that help to separate this species from the similar Whimbrel. Bristle-thighed Curlew is a globally rare bird, which breeds in only a few isolated parts of the Seward Peninsula and Yukon-Kuskoquim Deltas. They spend the winter scattered over hundreds of far-flung South Pacific Islands and are very rarely seen at any point in their long migration. The current best estimate for their total population is in the neighborhood of only 6-9,000 pairs, making it one of the scarcest breeding birds of the United States. We felt fortunate to be able to spend a bit of time with these birds, with the stunning coast range mountains and displaying Lapland Longspurs providing an excellent backdrop to the scenery. Before leaving the hill we spent a bit of time admiring a displaying Bluethroat that was conveniently perching in perfect light just a bit below the road. This exquisite old-world passerine, with a gleaming throat that would make most hummingbirds jealous is always a highlight for the tour, and we were lucky enough to encounter several males over the course of the day.

We took a picnic lunch along the banks of the Pilgrim River, with foraging Cliff and Tree Swallows, loafing Arctic Terns and our first Spotted Sandpipers (complete with spots) for company. A few miles further back towards Nome we had to stop to change a rapidly disintegrating tire, which was accomplished with minimal fuss and remarkably short order. Our final stop for the day was near a known active Gyrfalcon nest site that was tucked into a short band of cliffs above main road. It took quite a while for us to realize that one of the adults was actually sitting inside the nest, as initially only a wingtip was protruding above the rim of the cave. The bird eventually shuffled around several times, revealing various body parts to folks watching in the scopes and then sinking out of view again. We waited for enough time to make sure that everyone was ok with their views, but thankfully just before we packed up a second adult swept in over the ridge, making a quick pass in front of the nesting cave before perching on a nearby spire. This second bird was markedly pale silvery-gray; quite distinct from the two-toned slate-gray and white adult in the nest. This second bird, which we took to be the male stayed perched atop a large rock on the cliff for at least a quarter-hour, gazing out at the small valley ringed with rolling hills covered in rocky scree and snow-covered alpine meadows. In short, it was exactly the scene in which one expects to see a Gyrfalcon. The Nome dump near the base of the highway provided us with a final pair of surprises, with a young Bald Eagle slumming it up as it sat on a towering pile of freshly piled rubbish and an adult Slaty-backed Gull squabbling with the hordes of Glaucous and Herring Gulls over particularly tasty treats.

As we were scheduled to fly back to Anchorage on the midday flight we were able to do some more birding on the final morning, and we made excellent use of our time. A group of Swedish birders had relocated the previously reported Gray-tailed Tattler along Hastings Creek while we were out on the Kougarok, and happily the bird was still present when we checked just after breakfast. We were able to watch it for several minutes as it tottered around the mud flats in the center of the river delta, showing off its paler upperparts, white eyeline and lightly barred underparts to good effect. We then continued further east passing through Safety Sound. Here the construction trucks and extensive lingering ice were impacting the amount of birdlife along the roadside, but we still enjoyed good numbers of Brant, Tundra Swans and Common Eider as well as a good assortment of other waterfowl (including our only Canvasback). Shorebirds included our first Black Turnstones, as well as displaying Semipalmated Sandpipers and several more handsome Red Phalarope. Our main goal was to obtain better views of Eastern Yellow Wagtails, and out near the town of Solomon we were thrilled to encounter at least four birds which (finally) landed and showed well as they perched on some low willow bushes. Here too was our only Bank Swallow of the trip, and a nice array of more common bush birds including a particularly bold American Tree Sparrow. As we made our way back towards Nome, we paused at the gravel quarry at Cape Nome. Here we quickly spotted a White-winged type scoter that was tucked in along the rocky shoreline. We moved the van a bit closer and were soon treated to excellent close views of a male Stejneger’s Scoter, a newly-minted split from the North American White-winged Scoter that breeds in the Russian arctic. Recent more thorough study of the scoter flocks around Nome and St. Lawrence Island have revealed that this species occurs regularly in the region, but as scoter flocks are often distant or in flight it can be hard to pick them out. After admiring the birds’ black flanks, large forward-facing bill casque and yellow cutting edge to the upper mandible we headed into town to get packed lunches and check in for our flight, which happily went just as planned. We returned to Anchorage to find a lush, green landscape and seemingly balmy 16 degrees C. In just our brief three days around an unseasonably cold Nome we managed to tally an impressive 103 species of birds, as well as some truly iconic mammals such as Reindeer, Red Fox, Muskox, and Moose; a great way to cap off our weeklong stint at Gambell.

-          Gavin Bieber

Created: 31 January 2024