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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Alaska: Gambell

2017 Narrative

IN BRIEF: This year’s Gambell tour produced more than the average of Asian species, largely a result of a late May storm that dispersed many Asian birds to the Aleutians and the Bering Sea region, including to St. Lawrence Island. Highlights included Lesser Sand-Plover, Wood Sandpiper, Gray-tailed Tattler (2), Eyebrowed Thrush, Brambling (3), and Hawfinch. The most unusual Asian species noted were a Common Chiffchaff (dull and brownish tristis subspecies) and an elusive breeding plumaged male Pallas’s Bunting. An American Robin and a Double-crested Cormorant were unusual too, but from the North American side. Other more regular species seen included Ringed Plover, Emperor Goose, all four eiders, Dovekies, multiple Slaty-backed Gulls and Arctic and Yellow-billed Loons, Bluethroat, Northern Wheatear, and Red-throated Pipit. The Nome extension produced most of the expected species including Willow and Rock Ptarmigan, Pacific and American Golden-Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit, Bristle-thighed Curlew, Northern Wheater, Bluethroat and Arctic Warbler. A pair of Arctic Loons was well seen on our last evening. More unexpected were a Red-necked Stint, a female Ruff and an immature Ross’s Gull.

IN DETAIL: Our trip began with dinner at Piper’s at the Coast International Hotel in Anchorage. After breakfast the next morning we departed for the airport. Our mid-morning flight to Nome was on-time and from there we headed over to the Bering Air terminal. Around 1:00 p.m. our flight left for Gambell. The flight over was crystal clear and we had beautiful views of the Seward and the Chukotskiy Peninsulas, Russian Far East, as well as St. Lawrence Island. There was also no trace of the ice pack, it had moved north nearly two months earlier. Any climate change deniers should just spend a bit of time in the arctic and explain why the ice has all disappeared. We arrived smoothly at Gambell at 1:45 p.m.

A week prior to our arrival a storm from the southwest had pushed many Asian birds to the western and central Aleutians and to the Pribilofs in the Bering Sea. Several days later a number of Asian birds reached Gambell on St. Lawrence Island. Although some (Common Greenshank and Common Sandpiper) had left before we arrived, a number remained. That first afternoon we saw a male Lesser Sand-Plover, two Gray-tailed Tattlers, a male Eyebrowed Thrush, three Bramblings and a male Hawfinch. Oh, a male American Robin, rarer than all of the above species, was present too!

For the next week we birded all of the usual areas on a nearly daily basis. The weather remained good, although the winds changed to the northeast for much of the time, and sometimes blew with force. We had a scattering of additional Asian species, a Wood Sandpiper on 1 June, three Red-necked Stints, another Lesser Sand-Plover (a female), several Red-throated Pipits and a scattering of Trans-Beringian migrants like Northern Wheatears and Bluethroats. The rarest birds during our stay were one or more Common Chiffchaffs (dull Siberian subspecies, tristis) and a breeding plumaged male Pallas’s Bunting. The Common Chiffchaff (one or more) was unrecorded in North America prior to 2012 and now there are nearly ten records, all but one from Gambell! Surely the species wasn’t overlooked before then, so something may have changed over in Asia that has resulted in strays occurring more regularly on our side. The Pallas’s Bunting, found in the Circular Boneyard by Stephan Lorenz, was just very uncooperative during its two day stay. Most of us saw it only in flight, but a small group of us finally got views of it feeding late on June 1st at the end of its stay. This was the first reliable spring record of this species at Gambell, although Paul Lehman has recorded some five birds in the fall. It is surprising that more don’t occur as it does breed as far east as to the west side of the Chukotskiy Peninsula. Alaska and North America’s first record was of a male in June (specimen) at Barrow. Of course, apart from the rarities, there is so much else to see. We sea-watched much of the time, especially in the morning and much of the time there was a continual passage of birds. Hundreds of thousands of alcids passed the point daily. We saw a few Dovekies pass by, but had decent views of up to three up on the cliffs. The small Bering Sea population is separated from the main bulk of the population by thousands of miles. We ended up seeing all four eiders, including multiple Spectacled, Arctic and Yellow-billed Loons, and multiple Emperor Geese. Other uncommon or rare species noted included an adult male Common Merganser (americanus subspecies), two Horned Grebes, multiple Slaty-backed and Sabine’s Gulls, and an adult Double-crested Cormorant (2nd Gambell record). We saw 4-6 Common Ringed Plovers (nests) as well as many more Semipalmated Plovers, and a few Rock Sandpipers (tschuktschorum subspecies). White Wagtails were fairly numerous; one showed most of the characters of the lugens (“Black-backed”) subspecies, but may have been an intergrade. Two Red Phalaropes were not unusual, but landed on shallow water in front of us for close, but brief, views. A worn first cycle Thayer’s Gull was our first for Gambell, the species is strictly casual here in spring but is more regular in fall. It gets lumped with Iceland tomorrow (July 6th) when the 58th Supplement to the AOS (formerly AOU) Check-list gets published on-line. An adult Red-legged Kittiwake, found by Aaron Lang, remained long enough for a lucky few to get it. The species is strictly casual this far north.

The weather remained excellent at the end of our time at Gambell with no fog. We chose to take an earlier flight to Nome. Paul Lehman remained on the island for another ten days and had no other significant rarities.

NOME EXTENSION: After arrival and transfer from the Bering Air terminal to the Aurora Inn, cleaning up, and dinner, we visited the mouth of the Nome River where we had a variety of species, including Aleutian Terns, Pacific Golden-Plovers, and a fly-over male Bar-tailed Godwit (baueri). It is my belief that this species has declined sharply over the last decade and perhaps this is not surprising as its spring migration staging area, the mudflats along the edge of Yellow Sea in eastern China, have been significantly destroyed by developers. Thus, many undoubtedly can’t refuel to continue their spring migration back to Alaska. Bar-tailed Godwit is primarily an Old World species, but the subspecies breeding in western Alaska (baueri) is an endemic breeder. We used to see dozens every year. This year we saw only two.

The next day we headed east to Safety Sound. At Cape Nome we were startled by the appearance of a Gray Jay that was perched conspicuously on a snag and flew out on many sorties to catch insects! This species does breed on the Seward Peninsula but is normally much farther east where there is forest. We looked carefully for loons as a pair of Arctic Loons had been seen (a pair often summers here). While we had four species of loons, including Common and Yellow-billed we missed Arctic today. Species of note included a Red-necked Stint, Snow Geese, Sabine’s Gulls, and finally good views of Eastern Yellow Wagtail. We also found Arctic Warbler, a species that sometimes doesn’t arrive until after we leave. At Solomon we also found lots of mosquitoes, unusual for so early in June at Nome. Breeding Semipalmated Sandpipers were numerous and we watched them in display flights. Two Black Turnstones were notable as were six Sanderlings (spring migrants), a Surfbird, and a female Ruff. Amongst the wigeon were two male Eurasian and two hybrids.

The next day we left at 0400 for mile post 72 on the Kougarok Road. Along the way we counted sixteen Willow Ptarmigan. We picnicked (breakfast) at the east side of Solomon Lake and watched a Wandering Tattler fly over. We hiked up the ridge opposite Coffee Dome and saw some six Bristle-thighed Curlews. We had views on the ground but also got to listen to them sing in display flight overhead. Whimbrels and American Golden-Plovers were present too, and Victor and Ruben found our only Rock Ptarmigan of the trip, a male. On the return we took the time to look at the many land birds including displaying male Bluethroats, a male Northern Wheater, Fox (zaboria of the “Red” group of subspecies), Golden-crowned, White-crowned, and American Tree Sparrows, excellent comparisons of both Common and Hoary Redpolls, and Orange-crowned (nominate celata subspecies), Yellow, and Wilson’s Warblers along with Northern Waterthrushes. A male Blackpoll Warbler and a male Rusty Blackbird were seen by most. Several Northern Harriers were seen along with an unusual (for the Seward Peninsula) dark morph Rough-legged Hawk. When we arrived back at the Aurora Inn we read of an Ivory Gull at the bridge at Safety Sound as well as the pair of Arctic Loons. So, after dinner, some of us ventured back for an evening attempt at both birds. Gavin promptly found, not an Ivory (sadly flushed by an ATV 40 minutes before we got there), but an immature Ross’s Gull. Views were extremely distant, but for the few that remained until close to midnight, it did return for better studies. The late staying folks also had views of multiple, but distant, Grizzly Bears. We did see the pair of Arctic Loons.

On our final morning after breakfast and heading to the airport we departed in the late morning for Anchorage. A pair of Northern Shrikes was along the airport perimeter to see us off. Upon arriving in Anchorage, some of us went to Connor Lake near the Coast International Inn where a few birds were seen, notably Pacific Loon (nesting on a platform), Alder Flycatcher, Black-capped and Boreal Chickadees and a Lincoln’s Sparrow.

-Jon Dunn

PRIBILOFS EXTENSION: 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 pre-trip extension to the Pribilofs involved simply stunningly good weather, with mid-forties temperatures, perfectly calm or light winds and bright sunshine for nearly the entirety of our visit. 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 cliffs and grassy bluffs around the west and south shores of the island played host to an array of confiding and wonderful breeding seabirds. The recent and unprecedented warming trends across the southern Bering Sea are unfortunately beginning to have a noticeable impact on the islands fauna, with large die-offs and nesting failures of many of the seabirds over the past couple of seasons. Compared to the numbers of birds that typically are found on the cliffs by June this year’s 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 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. Due to the general lack of storms in the central Bering we did not expect to locate many (any) vagrants this trip out, but to our happy surprise many of the birds that came in on the large system about a week and a half before our visit were still lingering. After landing and checking in to our basic but comfortable lodging we set out on a quest to locate a few species that were known to still be around the island. Just a mile away from the hotel our first stop produced the hoped for Marsh Sandpiper, still present after more than a week from its discovery. 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 fourth record for the Pribilofs (and one of about 15 records for the hemisphere) this was quite a welcoming committee for us! While we worked on views of this delicately plumaged Tringa we noticed a Snipe lurking in the denser grasses on the backside of the pond. By sending one person around to flush the bird we were able to enjoy excellent views of the bird in flight as it made two passes past the group of assembled birders. We were able to see the white patterned underwings and broad white trailing edge in the secondaries that cemented the identification as a Common Snipe rather than its more usual Wilson’s counterpart. With two excellent shorebird species under our belts we headed to the Trident Seafood Processing Plant for dinner. No sooner had we exited the vans though we noticed some perched passerines up on the rocky cliff above the plant. With large bills and a unstreaked pattern on their backs we knew that they were not any of the expected breeding passerines, and quickly training scopes on them we were delighted to discover that they were, in fact, Hawfinches! An exceedingly rare species in the Pribilofs these delicately coloured relatives of Evening Grosbeaks made a major invasion into the Bering Sea this year, showing up in unprecedented numbers in the Aleutians, Pribilofs and even as far north as Saint Lawrence Island. At one point in the spring Saint Paul was hosting an incredible 29 individuals! We were quite happy with the four birds that we saw perched up on the hillside, and even happier to see the birds multiple times over our three day stay. After dinner we had one more treat in store, with a male Tufted Duck loafing around Weather Bureau Lake in the company of several Greater Scaup and pairs of Long-tailed Ducks. Although regular in the Pribilofs, Tufted Ducks are not annual in spring, and generally depart the island before our visit in mid-June. Four excellent birds in our first evening on the island made for quite an auspicious start!

Our full day on the island was, if possible, even sunnier and calmer, though the late afternoon involved some building winds and light fog. On the short cliff just outside of the Trident building we spent a bit of time watching Parakeet Auklets, with their odd red shovel-like bill, white belly and bold white eyestripes as they chattered from the cliff face and made forays out into the flat calm seas. Here too were nesting Red-faced Cormorants, a truly dazzlingly coloured and large Cormorant that under sunlight glows in hues of blue, green and purple. They were conveniently nesting near a roosting rock that seemed to be a favored perch for a couple of immature Pelagic Cormorants, which provided an excellent comparison. A few Horned and Tufted Puffins were about as well, and out in the bay we noted little flocks of barking Crested Auklets that seemed more intent on gossiping about the day than setting up potential nest sites. At the larger cliffs along Reef Point we spent a bit more time, and some considerable memory on the camera cards as we photographed Crested Auklets up on the cliffs, very close Parakeet Auklets and a few cooperative alcids and kittiwakes that were flying by repeatedly at eye-level. We then headed out towards Southwest Point, stopping to admire a pair of drake Mallards floating in Antone Lake (this is a scarce species out in the Pribilofs). The cliffs at Ridge Wall 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, noting the browner cast and dusky flanks of the Commons among the much more numerous Thick-billed. Here too were several pairs of much closer Horned and Tufted Puffins and our first nesting pairs of Northern Fulmar. The Fulmars 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 Kittiwakes were excellent as always, offering the visiting birder ample opportunity to study the many differences between the two species. We wrapped up the morning outing with a brief walk around the very scenic Southwest Point, where we admired the blooming Chuckchi Primroses that dot the rocky lava flow that forms the headland, and picked out two floating Pigeon Guillemots just a little offshore. After lunch we walked out onto the sands of the Salt Lagoon for more close views of perched Red-legged and Black-legged Kittiwakes and lots of views of the many hundred Rock Sandpipers that were busily foraging on the exposed sand flats. 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 islands 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. Among the throngs of tame Rock Sandpipers we also enjoyed very good views of at least three Red Phalaropes, watching them for some time as they ran about picking hapless invertebrates out of the rapidly drying mud. Gaudy and bold, these dynamic black, red, white and yellow birds bear little resemblance to the staid gray birds that fly south far offshore, tantalizing pelagic going birders as they flit out between distant cresting waves. Later in the afternoon we went out to Northeast Point, where we found lots of Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, Long-tailed Ducks and Red-necked Phalaropes paddling around the grassy margins of Webster Lake. Here too were four small Cackling Geese that lacked the bold white collars of the Aleutian Cackling Geese that we saw the previous day. Possibly these birds were minima Cacklers, but our views were distant and inconclusive. Out at Hutchinson Hill we found the tundra to be greening up nicely. We spent a bit of time at 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 the competition with the very active Pollock fishery in the Bering. With no 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 migrant passerines, but a quick check of the flat-calm seas at the Webster Seawatch was much more productive. By scanning from a grassy dune overlooking the beautiful black sand beach we picked out three second year Yellow-billed Loons, a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers, a first cycle Glaucous Gull and a nice surprise in the form of two Rhinoceros Auklets that flew past the point heading out towards nearby Walrus Island. Rhino’s, as they are often called by birders, are scarce in the Pribilofs, and extremely rare anywhere further north in the Bering, although their numbers seem to possibly be increasing a bit as the local waters warm.

Our evening trip out to the north coast turned up a calling Wandering Tattler that sadly flushed from us a bit too quickly for some before rapidly disappearing down the rocky beach and rounding a distant headland. The many gaudy Harlequin Ducks behaved much better for us as they bobbed around in the nearshore waters, and we enjoyed an after dinner walk along the scenic coastline accompanied by the ever present Arctic Foxes, displaying Rock Sandpipers and Lapland Longspurs and inquisitive Harbour Seals. Just as we returned to the hotel though a call came in from Cameron Cox who had just located an adult Sharp-tailed Sandpiper in nearby Pumphouse Lake. Many of the group elected to give chase, and we quickly headed over to the lake. Although Sharp-tailed adults are intermittently found in July as they head south from their breeding grounds, and juveniles occur in large numbers on the island from late August on this species is extremely rare in the spring, and this record was just the third for the Pribilofs, and first in the month of June. We walked around the marshy margins of Pumphouse, stopping to admire Semipalmated Plovers and Least Sandpipers lurking in the corners of the lake until we reached the backside where we were hoping to find the Sharp-tailed. An odd Rock Sandpiper that seemed small, short-legged and very dark sidetracked us for a bit, and was probably a bird from either the mainland or the Aleutians rather than the local breeding subspecies. As we were watching this Rock Sandpiper two other shorebirds took flight and flew over to the other side of the lake. One bird was calling, revealing itself to be the Pectoral Sandpiper that had been lingering around the lake for several days, but the second bird was silent. We were able to detect black chevrons down the flanks and a warm-toned cap that marked the second bird as a likely adult Sharp-tailed but were determined to find the birds again for a better view. Our local leader and Gavin elected to walk the long way around the marsh in an attempt to flush the two birds back to the waiting group. This was a largely successful strategy, as they kicked up an Eastern Yellow Wagtail (that only they saw, although with a trip to Nome where the species is a common breeder in our future I doubt too many minded) and also flushed the continuing Marsh Sandpiper for repeat views. The Sharp-tailed and Pectoral eventually popped out of the marsh and flew right past the waiting group as hoped, allowing everyone (I hope) to note the warm-toned cap, and dark chevron marks on the flanks. We trooped back to the bus and turned back to the hotel, a bit tired, but quite happy with the day.

For our final day we again communed 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 of Reef Point and Ridge Wall. A portion of the group elected to walk along the high bluffs road, which follows the western coastline up to a band of cliffs that reach 550 feet above sea level. The higher cliffs on this western shore support the largest concentrations of birds, and we were happy to see that here at least, were rafts of alcids in the ocean and a busy cloud of Northern Fulmar and Red and Black-legged Kittiwakes coming and going from the ledges. The floral show here was particularly good, with excellent specimens of Oysterleaf, Cinquefoil, Primrose, Louseworts and Violets. The other portion of the group elected for a return visit to Pumphouse Lake, which revealed the continuing Marsh Sandpiper and a new arrival in the form of a Wilson’s Snipe, but sadly no Sharp-tailed. As always, the Northern Fur Seals were massing along their breeding colony sites, and we enjoyed watching the huge males competing for the best stretches of coast, giving credence to the islands oft quoted moniker “the Galapagos of the North”. The afternoon brought sunny blue skies and over 50 degree temperatures, a very pleasant time for a brief trip out around the island after we checked in for the flight. All too soon we had to load up for the return flight, taking off again in dazzling full sun, 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: 06 July 2017