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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Alaska: Gambell in Spring

2024 Narrative

Once we got to Gambell (one day delay due to fog) we encountered reasonably good weather apart from a few days of strong north to northeast winds. This facilitated excellent sea watching with four species of eiders and four species of loons, including Arctic and Yellow-billed, including 28 of the latter on one day. We also noted a handful of Emperor Geese, a Tufted Duck, and an immature Ross’s Gull. A brief fly-over Great Knot and a fly-by Bristle-thighed Curlew on our last day. Asian species included several Stejneger’s Scoters, Siberian Sand-Plover (one or two), Common Snipe, Sky Lark, and a male Rustic Bunting. Several Common Ringed Plovers were seen and several Red-necked Stints were noted, our first ones in several years. A handful of North American strays were also seen. There was more snow at Gambell than I’d ever seen in nearly a half century of spring tours there.

Our Alaska tour began with an evening meeting and dinner at Pipers within the hotel complex. We retired early as would be getting up at 0400 and leaving soon after 0500. Check-in at Alaska Airlines, though complex, proceeded in an orderly manner as did getting through security, fortunately before the morning rush, and we settled in to the Silver Gulch Saloon where we had had breakfast and took a wrapped take-out pocket pita with us for lunch. Our flight departed and landed on time in Nome and we got over to the Bering Air terminal where our luggage was weighed. We waited for the return of our plane from Gambell. This was accomplished within two hours after our arrival. After a short break we were on our way to Gambell. The morning had gone perfectly and according to plan, which is itself is a rarity from this region of Alaska where weather plays such a dominant role. With only about 20 minutes until landing at Gambell, the pilot slowly turned around and looked at his passengers, then got on the PA and said we were turning around due to fog at Gambell. The plane just ahead of us was also unable to land. We returned to Nome, ate our lunch and spent the remainder of the day hoping for the fog to clear. It did not and our flight to Gambell was officially canceled about 5:00 p.m. We were fortunate to get lodging at Dredge 7 Inn and they were able to rent us a van for our use. The check-in was lengthy but the place was funky, even charming, and the staff was friendly and helpful. That evening we went to Airport Pizza for food and beer. Later we did a bit of birding and noted some birds on ponds near the Nome cemetery. These included two Bar-tailed Godwits and a few ducks.  In the cemetery there were many Pectoral Sandpipers, several Pacific Golden-Plovers, and a single well-seen Black Turnstone, a new bird for Susan Steedman and one not found in New Zealand. A few of the group noted Willow Ptarmigan near our lodging.

The next morning brought a weather change at Gambell with north winds which usually means a clearing of the fog. We got ourselves over to the Bering Air terminal and soon were off to Gambell where,, despite some cloud cover, we landed. For the next six days we got to bird Gambell! Gambell weather was, well, Gambell weather… ever changing. The winds were mostly out of the north, or northeast, sometimes at gale force, but we also had wonderfully calm days too. What was immediately apparent was just how much snow was present, the most I believe I have ever noted there in nearly a half century of trips. The holes in the boneyards were covered and walking there was indeed treacherous! There was no major storm while we were there, and this too seems to be the norm by late May. Storms tend to be the best predictor of migration fallout. Still, we did have a nice scattering of Asian species and these included two female Eurasian Wigeon, a female Tufted Duck, 1-2 Siberian Sand-Plovers, several Red-necked Stints and Wood Sandpipers, a Common Snipe, a Sky Lark, and a male Rustic Bunting on our last evening. A fly-by Great Knot was seen by a lucky few on 29 May. The Siberian Sand-Plover is the new English name for a species which was recently split by the AOS Check-List Committee. It includes the subspecies mongolus, to the south and west of Alaska, and proximal stegmani which all North American records are believed to pertain to. The other species, with three subspecies, is Tibetan Sand-Plover (Anarhyrnchus atrifrons).

Other Trans-Bering migrants like Bluethroat and Northern Wheatear were also seen in small numbers as were a few Eastern Yellow-Wagtails which were seen briefly. The usual number of breeding White Wagtails were present (subspecies ocularis), but this year included an immature male “Black-backed” lugens subspecies. These two intergrade in northern Kamchatka. Subspecies ocularis breeds to the north and west of lugens. These two were once treated as separate species for a few decades, but not by most Old World authorities. Both redpoll types were present. Hoary was lumped into Common Redpoll this year, with the new English name, Redpoll. Several Common Ringed Plovers were well-seen. This species is an uncommon breeder here, always outnumbered by the closely related Semipalmated Plover.  A few Rock Sandpipers (subspecies tschuktschorum, the breeding subspecies on St. Lawrence Island) were present and a single Baird’s Sandpiper (although a New World species, a few breed arctic Russian Far East) was seen along with a single fly-by Sanderling, casual (= not annual) on St. Lawrence Island. Gavin found a male MacKay’s Bunting but unfortunately it didn’t stay for the group and it was not re-found. This very close relative to the Snow Bunting breeds on Hall and St. Matthew islands in the Bering Sea to the southeast of St. Lawrence Island. We also saw several male Stejneger’s Scoters, a recent split from our White-winged Scoter and the European species, Velvet Scoter (Greenland records). Some of our sightings were from the point and were identified from photos after they flew by, but some were on calm water on the sea several miles to the south.

Strays from the American side included an American Wigeon, a Lesser Yellowlegs (fewer than 10 records for St. Lawrence Island), two hudsonicus Whimbrels, a Semipalmated Sandpiper, a female Varied Thrush (a male was also found) and a White-crowned Sparrow.

One of the main highlights of any trip to Gambell is the seawatching and this year with little fog (after we landed!) and north to northeast winds led to ideal viewing conditions. We had an outstanding variety of birds and these included all four specie of eiders, the Spectacled being a close fly-by of a single immature male that was missed by a few. Emperor Geese were seen both flying by and sitting down at the marsh at the south end of Troutman Lake. Four species of loons were noted including Arctic and Yellow-billed. Arctics were seen passing by the point and one was noted sitting on the water several miles south of the point. On one day (May 25th) we counted 28 passing by, or over, Gambell, a very good single day count. Alcids were flying by continually, especially early in the morning. The Horned Puffins were not present early but arrived towards the end of our stay. A single Dovekie was seen flying by the point on 25 May. We did not find one on the side of the mountain this year. The abundance of snow was no doubt a factor, but none were found there last year either. A scattering of Red Phalaropes in full alternate plumage were noted along with Red-necked Phalaropes which nest on St. Lawrence Island. Black-legged Kittiwakes passed by in flocks nearly continuously. A scattering of Arctic Terns were also noted along with a single Sabine’s Gull. On our first afternoon at the seawatch a tidal rip developed with feeding Artic Terns and kittiwakes. Chris Vennum spotted a single immature (but in alternate plumage with a full black neck ring) Ross’s Gull and it remained for excellent views. It was a nice pink one. Additional Ross’s Gulls appeared right after our departure for Nome on 30 May. Apart from seabirds we also noted several Bearded Seals and a pod of distant Killer Whales, the male with the tall dorsal fin was obvious even at a distance of well over a mile.

On our last morning we returned to the seawatch as one never knows what will appear. It wasn’t long before we heard a loud whistled chu-a-wheet call and seconds later a Bristle-thighed Curlew flew by and continued north and continued to call. We were able to see the unmarked buffy rump. This rare species breeds in two areas in southwestern and western Alaska. It was only my 2nd individual that I’ve seen at Gambell; there are about five spring records overall. That morning two Whimbrels (North American hudsonicus) flew by and landed for a short time. The High Lonesome group briefly had an immature Ivory Gull land in front of them. Their group were just to the south of us, and the bird did not continue north by us but flew off to the south. We chose to chase it on our ATV’s and checked every cove and tidal rip for several miles south. No luck. Sadly, here’s a case where the ATVs were a disadvantage as the Ivory Gull returned to the site where it was seen and was watched for 15 minutes. We were out of radio contact. Such is birding at Gambell! A little after noon the plane for our charter flight arrived. We exchanged regards with Aaron Lang and Steve Heinl, leaders for Wilderness Birding, and headed to Nome landing at 1249. We sorted our luggage and Gavin and Jake headed off to town to get the vehicles for the Nome extension. The rest of us (eight) were taken over to the Alaska terminal where we ate our packed lunch, then checked-in our luggage. Most of us took a walk to the cemetery where we noted a pair of displaying Least Sandpipers, a rare breeder on the Seward Peninsula. A single Spotted Sandpiper was also seen and a Wandering Tattler was heard. A White Wagtail (scarce breeder on the Seward Peninsula), two Gray-cheeked Thrushes and a pair of Orange-crowned Warblers were also seen. Our flight for Anchorage departed at 6:15 p.m. After arriving in Anchorage and checking in to the Coast Hotel, we enjoyed a final group dinner at Pipers.

A Gambell tour is logistically extremely difficult with seemingly always changing dynamics. I want to thank the tour manager, Matt Brooks, who spent seemingly hundreds of hours setting the tour up and monitoring the ever-changing dynamics on our day when we did not arrive at Gambell. Matt tells me that the issues with getting to the Pribilof Islands are even more complex! Gavin as always was extremely helpful as a co-leader. We have worked together for many years on this tour. Jake was not a leader but was almost always there as an unofficial leader and also acted as a helpful scout. Deb and Melody were always back at the lodge and had a smile and an abundance of food at all times. Thanks to all. I would also like to thank Paul E. Lehman for his superb Gambell and St. Lawrence Island book, published by Western Field Ornithologists. I would urge any with a keen interest in the avifauna of this unique place to consider obtaining a hard copy of the book, available through WFO at a modest price. All of the statements I have made about Gambell records were written with Paul’s book in hand.

-Jon Dunn



Leaving Gambell behind we took a midday flight back to Nome, where we found conditions to be markedly more comfortable than the near-freezing conditions on Saint Lawrence Island. Although we had clear skies and nearly 60-degree weather throughout our two days in Nome there was still significant signs of the icy grip of winter. 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 (and Safety Sound) still iced up.

We made the most of our first afternoon, with some birding around Nome and out to the nearby Nome River Mouth. A stop at one of the old gold dredges along the coast produced our first cackling Willow Ptarmigans, which were pleasingly common this year, as well as excellent studies of loafing Red-throated Loons, some foraging Red-necked Phalarope and a locally uncommon Least Sandpiper. The river mouth lacked any real open mudflats due to the rapid snowmelt raising the water levels, but we were happy to find the Arctic Terns to be setting up for the season. A few Aleutian Terns were about too, occasionally flying over the road as they headed out to the shoreline to feed. Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers were displaying over the tundra, and we picked out some distant Bar-tailed Godwits and Pacific Golden-Plovers on the flats. A few participants opted for a quick trip out to the Nome dump after dinner, where we found a nearly adult plumaged Slaty-backed Gull that was pouring over the piles of local refuse. All in all, it was an easy and great introduction to the birds around Nome.

During our Nome extension this year the snowplows had not yet dug out the back reaches of the Kougarok Road, making the trip out to Coffee Dome for breeding Bristle-thighed Curlews impossible. Luckily most of the group had seen a passing (and calling) bird at the point at Gambell though, so the loss of the location didn’t hit as a major disappointment. We started our first full day out on the first third of the Kougarok, slowly heading inland and stopping wherever caught our interest. 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. Just a bit out of town we stopped at a stake-out Northern Shrike nest and were thrilled to see one bird on the nest and another perched nearby. These striking passerines are present every year around Nome, but the population fluctuates and in some years they can be quite hard to track down. Heading north from the nest the road follows the Nome River Valley inland and passes through a mixture of alpine passes, open tundra with large lakes, and huge craggy mountains. As we climbed the landscape became increasingly white, with snowbanks reaching over the height of the van in places. With the rather limited open ground concentrating bird activity we found the road to be remarkably birdy, with lots of smaller bush birds (Gray-cheeked Thrush, Wilson’s, Orange-crowned Warblers, and Fox, American Tree and Golden-crowned Sparrows) sitting up in the emerging willows and Ptarmigans perching up on piles of snow. We stopped at a small band of cliffs where a pair of Gyrfalcons has been nesting for many years and with some careful scanning picked out the pale silvery-grey male atop a large rock on the cliff face for at least a quarter-hour. The bird was gazing out over the valley ringed with rolling hills and covered in rocky scree and snow-covered alpine meadows. In short, it was exactly the scene in which one expects to see a Gyrfalcon. Here too we spotted a Say’s Pheobe up on the cliff as it fluttered around possibly checking out potential nest sites, and we spent a bit of time scoping singing Northern Waterthrushes and a couple of distant Rough-legged Hawks. Only a mile or two further north we scoped a Golden Eagle that was peering over the lip of its impressive stick nest high atop the ridgeline, and were happy to spot a foraging pair of Wandering Tattler that tottered along the edge of a roadside pool for a couple of minutes before zipping away upstream. 2023 was an epic year for Ptarmigan numbers, and although this year the birds were not as numerous, we still tallied over 30 birds 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. Also in this higher-elevation area we spent some time admiring a pair of quite active American Golden-Plovers, some foraging Long-tailed Jaegers and winnowing Wilson’s Snipe and a herd of Reindeer (which amazingly was a write-in species for the Gambell-Nome tour)! We continued inland until we neared the brushier hillsides near Salmon Lake, where we quickly located a displaying Bluethroat just off 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 that this bird showed extremely well as it sat in various low willows flashing its colours at us and then popping up for languid bouts of display flights.

After lunch and a bit of a break back in town we met up and spent the afternoon exploring the first 25 miles or so of Teller Road. This road snakes out to the west of town, eventually terminating in the small native village of Teller, some 75 miles out of Nome. Just a bit out of town we our first shaggy Muskox for the trip. There is certainly something prehistoric about these shaggy behemoths, and against a sweeping tundra backdrop with scattered clumps of wildflowers and snow-capped peaks one could be forgiven for thinking that we were on a set for a Jane Auel inspired movie. Thankfully no Dire Wolves or Cave Bears were about, and after stopping to collect some clumps of cast-off wool (among the most desired and expensive wools in the world) we continued for a few miles before we ground to a halt when Jake noted a singing Blackpoll Warbler in a taller clump of alders along the road. This proved a really productive spot, as along with excellent views of the Blackpoll we found Wilson’s, Orange-crowned and Yellow Warblers and a perched Northern Waterthrush (thus sweeping the expected 5 species of local warblers all in one spot). Here too was a Rusty Blackbird, pleasingly common around Nome this year. Out along the Penny River we found a seemingly active American Dipper nest but no sign of any actual birds. Some hunting Parasitic Jaegers and a smattering of bush birds singing away in the afternoon sun proved ample compensation. Given the time we decided to push further out on the road, passing through miles of 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 and Common 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. Our destination was the large bridge over the Sinuk River, a site which proved to be one of the highlights of the day for many. There were still large sheets of ice along the river edge, and on these platforms we enjoyed excellent views (and photos) of foraging Wandering Tattler, a well-marked pair of Spotted Sandpipers, two Rusty Blackbirds and a few Western Sandpipers. Arctic Terns were very approachable and offered excellent photo opportunities as they hovered at eye-level over the open water. Little rafts of Red-necked Phalaropes were bobbing downstream, and the local Cliff Swallows were busy bringing in mud for their nests under the bridge. We spent almost an hour year, just soaking in the sights and sounds of an Alaskan spring and then headed back in to Nome for a well-deserved dinner.

We spent the second full day of the extension exploring the coastal Council Road, which heads east from Nome along the shore of Norton and Safety Sounds before turning inland towards the small community of Council. It was a day for waterfowl and a few shorebirds, and before even loading into the vans we picked out our first new bird for the trip with a male Surf Scoter that was paddling along the shoreline amongst a flock of Black Scoters. This is a locally uncommon to rare species which seems to be on the increase in the region, perhaps attracted to the recently warming waters. Just out of town we stopped to comb through another large flock of scoters, and were soon treated to comparison views of male Stejneger’s and White-winged Scoters. The former is a newly-minted split from the North American White-winged Scoter that breeds in the Russian arctic. Recent more thorough studies 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 out. This bird wasn’t particularly close, but the excellent lighting and calm water allowed us to admire its black flanks, large forward-facing bill casque and yellow cutting edge to the upper mandible. There can’t be many locations in the world where it is feasible to tally 4 scoter species in a half-hour!

Once we reached Safety Lagoon, we stopped frequently to check out flocks of birds on the still largely ice-covered lagoon shores or just offshore in Norton Sound. Flocks of American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Red-breasted Mergansers, Common Eider and Greater Scaup dotted the shoreline. The icy conditions meant that little to no exposed mud was fringing the islands in the lagoon, making shorebirds harder to connect with, as most birds were up in the grass or foraging where they could along the more inland parts of the lagoon. Breeding Semipalmated Sandpipers were all over the place though, giving their churring calls as they displayed overhead. We enjoyed some comparisons with these dull-coloured birds alongside their brighter Western counterparts, and also located a couple of foraging Black Turnstones along the narrow strips of exposed mud. Although wader conditions were less than ideal, we found the lagoon to be absolutely stuffed with waterfowl and waterbirds. Among the more expected species of dabbling ducks, we found a single drake Lesser Scaup, locally scarce Mallards, one Gadwall and a drake Eurasian Wigeon, as well as impressive numbers of Common Eider and Common and Red-breasted Merganser. Geese too were surprisingly common with a smattering of what appeared (and sounded) to be proper Cackling Geese, two Snow Geese, a few Greater White-fronted Geese, huge numbers of Brant and three Emperor Geese. The last cooperated extremely well, allowing a relatively close approach and lingering for an extended study (thus providing a much better view than the distant birds at Gambell). Gull numbers seemed to be generally low, but we did turn up an extremely rare (for the Seward Peninsula) Bonaparte’s Gull, some small groups of Black-legged Kittiwakes, and three strikingly handsome breeding plumaged Sabine’s Gulls that were loafing on some small ice chunks just off the road edge. Eventually we reached the tiny community of Solomon (full time resident population of 1) where in suddenly gusty conditions we tracked down a displaying Eastern Yellow Wagtail that was repeatedly doing its parachuting flight display and then landing on the open tundra or piles of driftwood. After seeing several zipping by in flight out on the island it was nice to be able to actually study this bright yellow, green and grey bird in detail. Nearby we picked up a couple of Savannah Sparrows and our first Bank Swallows too, before heading back in to town for a latish lunch. Later in the day we again set out down the council road, this time spending time exploring a few of the small wetlands between town and Cape Nome, where we were happy to spot a handsome rust and silver Red Knot in its summer finery, as well as a trio of alternate-plumaged Horned Grebes paddling around the edge of a large floating mass of sea-ice. The Grebes proved to be our final addition to the Nome extension triplist, which this year was an impressive 95 species (plus 40 more out on Saint Lawrence).

We returned to Anchorage the next morning, arriving to a lush, green landscape and seemingly balmy 16 degrees C. Initially we were scheduled to head out to the Pribilofs for our 5-day extension the following morning, but the airline rather unhelpfully changed their flight days meaning that we would have a day to bird around Anchorage before heading out to the Pribs. Since our Pribilof extension also involves participants doing a pre-tour to the Majesty Tour (which takes in Anchorage, Seward, Denali, Nome and Utquiavik) I decided to try not to visit locations that we normally visit on the tour, instead spending much of the day north of the Anchorage basin up the scenic Matsanuka Valley. Our first stop though was to a relatively recent patch of burned spruce forest near Campbell Creek, where in 2023 our groups routinely spotted both Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpeckers as well as good numbers of White-winged Crossbills. This year we failed to find any of the hoped-for woodpeckers, although some recent scaling on some of the trees indicated that a few were likely still in the area. Not all was lost though, as we did encounter a pair of Boreal Chickadees, a few flyover calling White-winged Crossbills, a displaying Wilson’s Snipe and some quite pugnacious Ruby-crowned Kinglets. We also did our duty feeding the local mosquitoes (thankfully the only location on the entire tour where we encountered these pests).

Moving north we headed to a large lake tucked in a valley Southeast of Palmer. Part of the sprawling multiuse public forest along the Knick River this lake is surrounded by stunningly steep snowy mountains, open marshes and seemingly endless mixed broadleaf and coniferous forest. For whatever reason the area hosts a number of species not usually found around Anchorage, and has a proven track record of attracting random species from further afield. Undoubtedly the biggest prize was the female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker near the boat ramp. Although this is a common species over much of the eastern half of the continent it is a range restricted bird in Alaska, and not expected anywhere except a narrow slice of the state between Tok and the Yukon border. The lake held an impressive diversity of waterbirds, including our first Ring-necked Ducks, Trumpeter Swan, and a distant calling pair of Common Loon. Several Bald Eagles were fishing around the margins and we picked out a particularly handsome alternate plumaged Horned Grebe that showed much better than the distant birds at Cape Nome a few days prior. The woods around the lake were full of birdsong, with a family of nesting Hairy Woodpeckers bringing food into their quite loud nestlings, lots of singing Yellow and Yellow-rumped Warblers, Dark-eyed Juncos and Swainson’s and Hermit Thrushes. We were happy to also locate a pair of Song Sparrows (here existing as a small isolated inland population) and many participants instantly noted how large and dark the birds were compared to the Song Sparrows of the lower 48 states. Just before we left, we spotted a Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk as it soared along a close ridgeline, a female Dall Sheep navigating the impressively steep slopes and then wrapped up the birdlist with a perched Pine Siskin near the carpark. Some flowers along the road edge were attracting a diversity of insects including one large and fuzzy bumblebee that proved to be an Ashton’s Cuckoo Bumble-bee; a species of bumblebee that is a brood parasite, using other bumblebees as hosts!

After lunch at a delicious little café in nearby Palmer we decided to head up into the higher elevations of Hatcher Pass where we were able to drive up above the snowline at the now derelict Independence Mine. We spent an hour or so birding around the current end of the road (the main Hatcher Pass Road continues well uphill but is closed due to snow cover until early July most years), finding numerous cooperative Golden-crowned and Savannah Sparrows, a male Willow Ptarmigan that was sitting atop a rather sparse shrub, nearly tame Arctic Ground-Squirrels checking us out for snacks and a few chubby and undeniably cute Hoary Marmots squealing away from mounds near their den sites. We scanned the open patches on the nearby slopes hoping for views of Rock or even White-tailed Ptarmigan, but had to make do with some distant American Pipits, a single Collared Pika and a passing Golden Eagle (as well as some truly impressive montane scenery).

Our final stop for the day was at Westchester Lagoon; where among the throngs of families and bikers enjoying the nearly perfect spring weather, we enjoyed close views of Common Loons and nesting Red-necked Grebes, an active colony of Arctic Terns and Short-billed Gulls, excellent and instructive comparison views of Greater and Lesser Scaup and a very close Muskrat that was paddling along the edge of the lake at an impressive clip. Out on the muddy shoreline of Cook Inlet we were thrilled to find the tide to be at an excellent height, providing good views of dozens of Canada Geese, various puddle ducks and, best of all, a single Hudsonian Godwit probing for lunch in the rich glacial mud. This handsome wader breeds locally in marshes along Turnagain Arm, although the population seems to be in steep decline. The bird was close enough that we could see its brick coloured and lightly banded underparts, bicolored and slightly upturned bill and black underwings (when it briefly flew down the beach to realign with the rapidly falling tidal line). It was a fitting bird to cap off our impromptu day on the mainland, so we headed back to the hotel for dinner and some time to prep for our next day flight out to the Pribilof Islands.

-          Gavin Bieber



Birding in the Pribilof Islands combines a fantastic array of breeding birds in a remote setting with the chance to encounter stray birds from Asia. The windswept tundra, steep volcanic cliffs, sandy beaches, and grass-lined freshwater lakes make for a surprisingly dynamic mix of habitats for such a small and isolated island. This year’s extension to the Pribilofs coincided with an unusual cold spell, with gusty winds largely from the Northwest and even appreciable snowfall on one morning. It would seem that in the Pribilofs, much like the rest of western Alaska the icy grip of winter was still holding on well into June. The cliffs and grassy bluffs around the west and south shores of the island played host to an array of confiding and wonderful breeding seabirds. Recent and unprecedented warming trends across the southern Bering Sea are unfortunately having a noticeable impact on the islands breeding seabirds, with large die-offs and nesting failures of many species over the past couple of seasons. Compared to the numbers of birds that typically are found on the cliffs by June this years’ crop of breeding birds seemed markedly sparse, with the fish-eating Murres and Puffins especially lower than average. Nevertheless, all of the expected species were present and it is certainly hard to become tired of sitting and watching Thick-billed and Common Murres, Horned and Tufted Puffins, Crested, Least and Parakeet Auklets and Northern Fulmars all courting or preening on cliff ledges that are a scant 2-5 meters away at eye level. As if the alcids were not enough, the cliffs of the Pribilofs serve as the primary breeding area for the diminutive and beautiful Red-legged Kittiwake. Our daily and close-range studies of this species generally with Black-legged Kittiwakes in close proximity for comparison purposes was a highlight for many. Over the course of our several days on the island Rock Sandpipers, with their churring flight songs were near constant companions, outcompeted only by the ubiquitous Lapland Longspurs that seemed to be nearly everywhere in the island interior. The Pacific Wren population was in good shape, with territorial birds in most of our most visited spots along the coasts and rockier slopes. Also in good numbers this year were Least Sandpipers, which seem to be spreading to several new breeding locations around the island this year.

Our flight out this year was scheduled for the early morning, allowing us to arrive on the island in time for lunch. After our meal and some reorganization time we headed out for the afternoon, joining the other newly arrived groups for what the local guides on Saint Paul term the “rarity roundup”, where we seek out the potentially lingering known rare birds around the island. We met with mixed success, as unfortunately for us both the lingering pair of Garganey and a Long-toed Stint seemed to have taken off just before our arrival. Happily though we encountered at least two Common Snipe (one of which displayed repeatedly overhead flashing its white banded underwings to good effect), several cooperative Wood Sandpipers, a pair of Tufted Duck and several Eurasian Wigeon! We also spent a bit of time studying the local Rock Sandpipers out on the tidal flats of the Salt Lagoon. These Rock Sandpipers are paler and larger than the other three subspecies, and breed only on the central Bering Sea Islands of the Pribilofs and Saint Matthew and Hall 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 far to the south and were in fact originally described as a separate species.

After dinner we then turned our attentions to the nearby Tonki Wetlands, a small marsh attractively sandwiched between tall rows of grassy sand dunes just inland from a rocky point. The larger lake just inland from the wetlands held a flock of bathing Kittiwakes, and we spent some time looking at Black and Red-legged Kittiwakes as they flew in overhead, sat on the water and bathed (often kicking their feet up in the air with a flash of cherry-red). Seeing the Red-legs this way forces visiting birders to concentrate on the more subtle field marks that set this Bering Sea specialty apart from its widespread Black-legged cousin. And with a bit of practice most participants were happily calling out their ID’s based on the smoky grey underwings, darker and more uniform mantles or calls rather than relying on those oh-so-obvious feet. The lake also hosted a few pairs of handsome Long-tailed Ducks in their summer finery, and several Greater Scaup. A short drive later back through the dunes brought us to the beginning of the Tonki Wetlands, a series of small ponds fringed with marestail and spongy tundra. Here we quickly located a male Canvasback and three wary Tundra Swans paddling around in the first pond, with some Eurasian Wigeon and all 4 of the local breeding duck species for company (Long-tailed, Green-winged Teal, Pintail and Greater Scaup). Here too we obtained excellent views of Red-necked and Red (a male) Phalaropes as they worked the edge of the marsh nearly at our feet. The black sand beaches and dunes and small rocky headland proved productive too, with some curious Harbour Seals, loafing White-winged Scoters and some passing Red-faced Cormorants. WE moved over to the eastern side of the same wetland complex, where we were happy to get good views of a variegatus Whimbrel (a potential split from our North American birds), as well as two more Wood Sandpipers, which seem to be having a banner year all across the western outposts of Alaska. Our final stop for the day was around the islands main rock quarry, where along with excellent studies of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch and Snow Bunting we found our first cooperative Pacific Wren and a scarce in spring Gray-cheeked Thrush. The Wren is of particular interest as they are resident in the Pribilofs, spending the cold and dark winters foraging in the intertidal zone, and breeding mostly in crevices in the cliff faces. Larger and paler than mainland Pacific Wrens and possessing a forceps-like long bill and broad eyeline they look quite different than “normal” Pacific Wrens and seem to be slowly evolving into a unique sort of coastal Canyon Wren. Our day was a wrap with some sweeping views of the rocky island interior from the top of the quarry lip, which served to whet our appetite for some exploring over the next two days.

Our second day on the island dawned cold and snowy, with an amazing amount of large and fluffy flakes carpeting the island in a white blanket. Although snow in June is not unheard of this marked a personal first for me (with 16 different springs under my belt). Thankfully the snow melted off by lunch, but in the meantime, it sure seemed like we were back in February or March! We elected to spend the morning outing heading up to the Northeast Peninsula rather than our customary first morning trip out to the seabird cliffs. This allowed us to stay in the vans through the snowier part of the morning and by the time we reached the Northeast Peninsula the snow had largely ceased and the viewing conditions were much clearer. We started by scanning Webster Lake, where we located another pair of Tufted Ducks as well as a snoozing Black Scoter. The latter is a highly unusual species to see inland on the island, occurring more often in small flocks passing out to sea. At the nearby Seawatch we spotted a nice flock of King Eider with several fully coloured males, our first Horned Puffins bobbing out on the calmer waters of the bay and a somewhat out-of-season Red-necked Grebe. A smaller marshy pond nearby held a pair of locally rare Northern Shoveler, adding to our already impressive duck list. We then headed out to the tip of the island, where the Saint Paul Island guides have special dispensation to pass through the gates that block public access to the point during the seal season. This allows visiting birders to access Hutchinson Hill, an isolated small volcanic mound right at the tip of the island that has attracted an impressive list of birds over the years. We walked up the short trail to the hilltop where we talked about the island’s World War two history and the plight of the Northern Fur Seals, whose numbers have also plummeted due to changing environmental conditions and competition with the very active Pollock fishery in the Bering. With no currently active storms to bring in weak flying birds from the far away mainland we were not surprised that our check of the protected slopes of the hill failed to turn up any interesting passerines, but the view of the surrounding ocean was lovely and some we were happy to spot several large rafts of Crested Auklets out just past the breakers. As we drove back past Webster Lake we were surprised to spot an immature Bald Eagle slowly flapping over the water (scattering Long-tailed Ducks and Scaup in dramatic fashion). The bird angled towards us and eventually perched on the small cabin along the lake shore. It was a wonderful sight, with the eagle roughly the same size as the small cabin’s chimney and looking positively gigantic next to a couple of mildly annoyed Rosy-Finches. Eagles are rare out in the Pribs, but often when one shows up they stay for a year or more, feasting on the abundant summer prey and wintering waterfowl.

In the afternoon we turned our sights to some spots around town, with the undoubted highlight being a single White Wagtail that was plying the grassy edges of the Salt Lagoon and the open sandflats near the harbour. This attractive old-world species is less than annual in the Pribilofs, and a first on the island for our early June trips. In the recently redeveloped town marsh (which now sports a raised access road that serves to dam the water up into a larger pond than before) a wet walk around the margins produced no less than three more Wood Sandpipers, a couple of rather sad looking Bank Swallows that were trying their best to find insects over the water, a Common Snipe and several Eastern Yellow Wagtails. This species is annual in spring, but we found them to be more common than usual this year, perhaps driven south as they crossed the Bering Sea by the persistent north winds.

Once at the end of the road at Reef we visited a small cliff laden with murres, kittiwakes and a few puffins and auklets, obtaining some excellent photos as the birds sat among the golden lichen-covered rocks. The seabirds are typically more active on the cliff in the mornings, but this was a wonderful introduction to the local breeders, with most species sitting at very close range. We walked along the cliff edge for a bit, scanning the flocks of alcids out on the water and were very pleased to spot two Ancient Murrelets that were slowly swimming along right beneath us. This is the rarest breeding alcid in the islands, with breeding confirmation only occurring a few years prior. The birds were close enough that we could really take in their white hairline, black throat, pink bill and pale blue-gray backs and we followed them for several minutes as they slowly headed north along the shore. Scanning out to the south we were happy to find a dozen or so hulking Steller’s Sea Lions hauled out on the appropriately named Sea Lion Rock (the smallest of the five Pribilof Islands). Although the male Fur Seals seem large close up (and indeed can weigh upwards of 600lbs) Steller’s males can top 2000 pounds and are truly impressive animals.

For our evening outing that night most opted for a solid night sleep but a few stalwart participants joined me for another walk around the marshes at Pumphouse, where it seemed that the long-staying pair of Garganey had indeed vacated the premises. We then toured the edge of the Salt Lagoon, watching a few Arctic Foxes hunting for treats in the mud, and took a spin around the harbour, where we were amazed by a huge flock of Harlequin Ducks (over 300 strong) that were sitting on the harbour breakwalls along with a dozen or so King Eider. The presence of so many Harlequins around the island through the summer months (thousands of birds in total) is a mystery, as many individuals are fully adult but the species doesn’t breed locally.

Our second full day on the island was sunny and comparatively calm. After breakfast, we drove out to the Southwest of the island, bound for the higher cliffs of the Ridge Wall (dubbed Tourist Point in island parlance). As we neared Zapadnie Beach we started to see huge beachmaster male Northern Fur Seals dotting the rocky coastline, and we stopped along the sandy stretch of Zapadnie Beach to admire the several animals that were lolling about near the road, casting the occasional stare over at our parked van. Typically, female seals do not arrive on the island until much later in June, and by the time of our visit the territorial males had already largely settled their boundaries, leaving them not much to do until the females arrive besides the occasional squabble with their neighbors. The short cliffs out at Ridge Wall here were noticeably emptier than they should be in June, but we were able to observe mixed groups of Common and Thick-billed Murres at close range and nearly eye-level, noting the browner cast and dusky flanks of the Commons among the much more numerous Thick-billed. Here too were pairs of Horned and Tufted Puffins, Parakeet and Least Auklets. The cast of breeding alcids was completed when we spotted several pairs of Crested Auklet below us on the ocean. Once common in the Pribs this species has become scarce in the last decade, likely due to changes in the local water temperatures and corresponding shifts of food availability. The cliff ledges also supported several pairs of Northern Fulmar, which occur in a bewildering array of colour patterns here, with some birds being almost pure white and others being completely dark brown. The flyby (and perched) views of both species of Kittiwakes were excellent as always, offering the visiting birder ample opportunity to study the many differences between the two species. After filling up a few camera cards we struck out for the end of the road at Southwest Point. Here the cliffs rise as you head northward along the islands west coast, eventually topping out at roughly 500 feet. The island’s most recent lava flows occurred here, with a black rocky shelf around the point that bears a striking similarity to the shores of the Hawaiian Islands (from a geologic, not faunal persepective). We walked around the shoreline here, taking in busy pairs of Pacific Wren and Gray-crowned Rosyfinches and even teasing up a single Hoary Redpoll from some thicker grasses. This will prove to be only a temporary life bird for the group though, as a recent AOU decision to lump the three Redpoll species has already passed. As we retraced our steps back towards town we stopped in at Antone Slough, where we enjoyed close-up views of nesting Least Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers, as well as another passing Eastern Yellow Wagtail, two chattering Common Redpoll, a male Common Goldeneye and a pair of distant Eurasian Wigeon.

Just before lunch, we elected to make a short at the local store which allowed folks to pick up some souvenirs or snacks, or perhaps just peruse the shelves, where familiar items take on new dimensions when visitors notice the sometimes eye-watering pricetags. A pair of Greater White-fronted Geese were out on the Salt Lagoon, soon flying overhead and giving us a good showing of their black speckled bellies and bright orange bills. Here too we were treated to the heart-warming sight of a sprightly and obviously ecstatic Artic Fox that had caught a huge Dungeness-like crab (much larger than the foxes head) and was trotting back towards its den in triumph.

That afternoon, we did our dutiful check of the hotspots around the Northeastern Peninsula, this time finding a pair of stunning Horned Grebes at the Webster Seawatch, our only Vega (Herring) Gull and Glaucous Gull for the island and two female (or first year male) Buffleheads. The winds shifted to the east and built up some steam, making the exposed hill at the tip of the Peninsula fairly uncomfortable, so we decided to check out a small roadside marsh near the base of the peninsula, finding the oddly spongy moss-covered ground to be fascinating to walk on. Here we again located several pairs of Least Sandpipers and Red-necked Phalarope, as well as our friendly neighborhood Bald Eagle and another variegatus Whimbrel.

After dinner and some consolation with the other birding group on the island we decided to spend the evening exploring the third main road on Saint Paul. This largely sandy but well-packed track takes off behind the airport and snakes straight north through the interior before ending on the north shore near the islands midpoint. It’s a lightly trafficked route, and provides access to a wide grassy plain, and a shore with short cliffs and volcanic ledges interspersed with small beaches that often hold significant amounts of drying kelp. On the way north we stopped at the top of Lake Hill, where in some impressively sturdy wind we took in the three extant calderas (two with well-defined slopes and round lakes). The landscape and 360-degree views were excellent, and we even managed to spot the island’s herd of introduced Reindeer well out in the tundra. This herd numbers nearly 300 individuals and spends much of the summer in the higher and rocky country away from the roads (and local hunters on ATVs). Once out at the end of the road on the north shore we scanned the small pond, finding a couple of sleeping Wandering Tattlers and a pair of Green-winged Teals that were acting like they had an active nest before spending a relaxing hour or so slowly walking west along the shore. With the smell of the sea and kelp in our noses and the sounds of crashing surf it was a meditative walk. As hoped though the tranquility was pierced several times with passing birds, including a few passing Black Scoters, another pair of Horned Grebes (which is truly a rare bird here in June), a constant stream of passing Kittiwakes and Murres and even a rarity! As we neared our chosen turn-around spot a medium sized shorebird flew in and briefly perched beside us, quickly taking off but passing slowly at eye-level in the winds and giving a piercing sharp flight call. The call (and white wingbar) cemented the identification as a Common Sandpiper, and one participant even managed excellent shots of the bird in flight! This is a nearly annual bird in the Pribilofs in spring, but none had been seen for several days prior to our visit so we can likely assume it to be a new arrival.

The fun wasn’t done for the night though, as about twenty minutes after returning to the lodge we got word from the USFWS biologists that a male Common Pochard had been in Polivina Lake a bit earlier in the evening. I headed out and quickly found the bird as it swam around a marshier section of the lake (at the farthest point from the road). Soon after the other birding group arrived and once they were on the bird I headed back to the hotel to gather up all the participants that were on their way to bed. Everyone who roused themselves got to see the bird in the scope, although by the time we returned it had rather unhelpfully tucked its head in making it impossible to see its characteristic silver-blue subterminal bill band. We vowed to return the following morning to see if the bird was awake and foraging and then called it a night.

For our final day on Saint Paul, we began with the somewhat laborious check-in process for our scheduled early afternoon flight. Then, with boarding passes in hand we left the airport, arriving in a parking lot that was covered in a remarkably dense swirling fog. Not exactly the weather that one hopes for on a flight day, but happily for us the ceiling soon lifted and the flight came in just an hour or so later than scheduled. Since the dense fog negated any chance of scanning the back shoreline of Polovina Lake for the Pochard we decided to return to the Town and Reef Peninsula for the rest of the morning. A wet stomp around town marsh produced excellent views of two Wood Sandpipers, poor views of a Common Snipe and a sighting of all three Bank Swallows which seemed to have weathered the snowstorms of the prior two days with no discernible issue. Our main goal for the morning though was a return session with the cliff-nesting seabirds, taking in very close views, and lots of photographs of Crested and Parakeet Auklets and Horned and Tufted Puffins on the cliffs. One pair of Crested Auklets were very close indeed, and we spent some time watching them as they chattered back and forth, standing with their ridiculously long floppy crests dangling over their faces like a pair of disaffected fashion models. We then walked down to the seal blind, watching the beachmaster Fur Seals squabble a bit over some particularly valuable ocean side property, and talking a bit about the history and biology of the species and its central importance to the resident families of the islands. As the morning waned, we headed up to Polovina Lake, where we were unfortunate to not be able to relocate the previous night’s Pochard. A potential reason existed though, as the island held one more avian surprise for us in the form of a starch-white adult male Snowy Owl that was sitting out in the tundra near the lake shore (and perhaps keeping the Pochard and resident Scaup carefully tucked down into the grassy verges. There are not too many June records of this most arctic of Owls, and the bird was the first (and likely only) one reported during the islands tour season. This ethereally white predator provided our last addition to the triplist (which this year tallied an excellent 66 species on Saint Paul, and 150 species overall since we departed Saint Lawrence Island just over a week before. All too soon we had to load up for the return flight, taking off and leaving behind a beautiful and remote speck of land that so few people in the world have been able to enjoy.

-          Gavin Bieber

Created: 02 July 2024