Skip to navigation, or go to main content.

WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Alaska: Gambell

2018 Narrative

IN BRIEF: This year’s Gambell tour encountered a number of Asian species including a cooperative Common House-Martin, an Eyebrowed Thrush, a Common Sandpiper and a male Brambling.  Other notable species included several “Eurasian” Whimbrels (subspecies variegatus) a “Kamchatka” Mew Gull, along with single Black-headed and Slaty-backed Gulls, Red-throated Pipits, Northern Wheaters, and Bluethroats. Several male McKay’s Buntings were also seen.  Rarities from the North American side included a Lesser Yellowlegs and an American Tree Sparrow.  Seawatching produced a record day count of Yellow-billed Loons (70) and produced most of the usually occurring species including Emperor Goose, Steller’s Eider, and Arctic Loon along with the usual alcids.  Excellent studies were obtained of a single Dovekie on the side of the mountain.  Our departure from Gambell was delayed by fog, but our early arrival in Nome the following morning allowed a bit of time for birding there, long enough to see a Great Knot and two adult Spectacled Eiders.

IN DETAIL: Our Wings tour this year to Gambell on St. Lawrence Island worked smoothly at the front end.  Our flights to Nome and then with Bering Air were on time thanks to the good weather.  Conditions at Gambell still had quite a bit of snow present due to the late winter blizzard that dumped feet of snow.  The marshes were still largely frozen, which reduced the numbers of migrant shorebirds present.  We missed Red-necked Stint, a species we normally see, and Common Ringed Plover arrived after our departure.  Offshore the sea ice had long departed; the norm these days with climate change.  In fact, at least from my experience, the absence of sea ice is the surest sign of climate change.  It was routinely present during our tours in the late 1970’s and throughout the 1980’s. 

Once we got ourselves sorted out, we visited the near boneyards where a Common Sandpiper had been present.  We found that Eurasian species, a relative of the Spotted Sandpiper (same genus) and also saw a beautiful alternate plumaged male Red-throated Pipit.  Multiple Northern Wheatears, a trans-Beringian migrant, were present.  Sometimes the best birds of a visit to Gambell happen at the beginning of a tour, sometimes in the middle, sometimes at the end, and sometimes not at all.  This year most of the action was in the first six hours we were there.  News came from Wilderness group that a male Stonechat had been found.  We promptly chased that species, but sadly it had departed and headed south as have many of the previous Stonechats that have appeared previously at Gambell.  But, while looking for the Stonechat, a Common House-Martin appeared flying back and forth along the sides of the mountain, and it remained for the better part of an hour, long enough for nearly all birders present at Gambell to see.  There are now nearly ten records of this species for Gambell, but most involve birds present only momentarily (as I can attest!).  The large white rump is characteristic of the northeastern subspecies lagopodum.  It breeds primarily in eastern Siberia (east of the Yenisei River) and the Russian Far East.  Its winter range is poorly known but is believed to be mainly in eastern Himalaya (e.g. northern Myanmar).  In addition to the large white rump patch it also has white feathered feet.  Its tail fork is intermediate between the more deeply forked nominate subspecies, and the Asian House Martin which has a shallow tail fork.  Some have suggested separate species status for this distinct taxon. 

Over the course of the next week there were a few other significant Asian species found:  A male Eyebrowed Thrush, an Olive-backed Pipit and a male Brambling.  In addition a small group of the Asian subspecies (variegatus) Whimbrels were present for a few days and an adult “Kamchatka Mew Gull”  (kamtschatschensis) was present for a few hours at the south end of Troutman Lake.  Single Black-headed (adult) and Slaty-backed Gulls were seen and a few Bluethroats were poorly seen.  Rarities from the American side included a Lesser Yellowlegs, Savannah and American Tree Sparrows.  A Gadwall (male) established one of the very few Gambell records.  Two Bank Swallows (rare at Gambell) could have come from either the Asian or the Alaskan side.  Several beautiful male McKay’s Buntings were also seen.  This species is not rare at Gambell, but it is more regular earlier in the spring, or later in the fall and it has wintered.  Rock Sandpipers (tschuktschorum subspecies) were well seen.

A trip to Gambell always involves lots of sea watching, especially on slower days for migrants.  Highlights included four species of loons (missing Common) including seventy Yellow-billed Loons on one day, Emperor Geese and a few Steller’s Eiders, and of course all of the auklets and Horned and Tufted Puffin.  We had our best views on the cliff of Parakeet, Least and Crested Auklet on the cliff.  Here we also found a single Dovekie.  This species is primarily found in the high arctic of the North Atlantic, but a remnant population is found in the northern Bering Sea, including on St. Lawrence Island.  One day at the seawatch we got to see a dozen or more Short-tailed Shearwaters and several Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels.  Short-tailed Shearwaters are abundant in late summer and fall at Gambell, but are rare in spring, and the Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel has only been once recorded previously in spring.  Decent numbers of Red Phalaropes were noted, included one male right along the north beach that we closely approached.

On our departure day on the 4th of June, the overcast was low.  Although visibility was adequate to the south, the fixed camera on the runway focuses to the east towards the mountains, and there the visibility was poor, poor enough to cancel all flights for the day.  So, one more night at Gambell.  Conditions improved markedly the next day and we took off in the morning for Nome.  Good birds often turn up at Gambell on departure day, or any day for that matter.  Later that day a Common Ringed Plover turned up and two days later a male Bay-breasted Warbler was found in the near boneyard by Paul Lehman, a first for Gambell, and the first confirmed record for Alaska.  Rarities at Gambell can come from far away and from any direction. 

Upon reaching Nome Gavin took control of the main extension, but fortunately for the rest of us there was a brand new vehicle we could rent.  Two adult male Spectacled Eiders had been consistently seen at Safety Sound.  Most of the group had missed this species at Gambell.  While on the way to Safety Sound we found Gavin’s group at the Nome River bridge and learned he had just found a Great Knot.  Fortunately, it was still present and close and outstanding views and photos were gotten by our group.  There are a surprising number of records of this Asian species for this location. While there we noted a few Aleutian Terns, and a Pacific Golden-Plover.  Later we found the two Spectacled Eiders on tundra pools east of the Safety Sound bridge.  A number of Bar-tailed Godwits were present as well.  We had time for a final group (part of the group) dinner at Milanos Pizzeria and caught our evening flight back to Anchorage where the Gambell tour concluded.  Gavin continued on with the Nome extension. 

-Jon Dunn

NOME EXTENSION: With some relief, we boarded the Bering Air flights and departed Gambell in the late morning.  For those continuing on for the Nome extension, we then transferred from the Bering Air terminal to the Aurora Inn where we checked in and ate a quick lunch at a nearby sandwich shop.  After lunch we set out for the Council Road, with our first stop at the mouth of the Nome River. Here, incredibly, the first bird that we looked at turned out to be a fully breeding plumaged Great Knot!  Nome is perhaps the best place in the country to see this colourful, large wader (although even here it is less than an annual occurrence).  We watched it at very close range for some time, reveling in our most fortunate timing.  One other birding group was able to catch up with it, but about twenty minutes after our discovery the bird took off and flew out of the area, much to the chagrin of the other birders in Nome at the time.  The river mouth is often one of the better birding spots near town, and in addition to the Knot we found a variety of other interesting species, including Aleutian Terns, Pacific Golden-Plovers, and a fly-over pair of Red-throated Loons.  We then headed further east to Safety Sound where we stopped frequently to scope out birds such as Common Eider, Arctic Tern, breeding Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers and Common and Pacific Loons. 

A bit past the Safety Sound Bridge we connected with two drake Spectacled Eiders that had been lingering in the area for a few days.  As most of the group had missed the fly-by birds at the point this was an especially welcome find.  We went out as far as a few miles past the tiny town of Solomon where we were thrilled to find an active Gyrfalcon nest close to the road.  Our views of the brutish dark grey female mantling over her young chick(s) at eye level were superlative, and surely among the highlights of the entire tour for some.  A few American Pipits and a surprise Say’s Phoebe (a scarce bird on the Seward Peninsula) were nice finds here too.  On the way back to Nome we stopped along the sandy beach, wherein a thick rack line of drying kelp we located a nice flock of shorebirds including about a dozen Surfbirds, two Black Turnstones and over twenty Sanderlings (many in their reddish summer dress). 

The next day we left at 0700 for milepost 72 on the Kougarok Road. We found that the road, although fully open, passed through a rolling tundra that was still largely locked in winter.  Snow drifts, iced over ponds and lakes and craggy white peaks were our companions as we wound slowly north into the heart of the peninsula.  With the warm temperatures though snowmelt was evident, and the rivers were running high.  Along one of the creeks we stopped to admire two Wandering Tattlers teetering along the rushing banks.  We crested one major divide a few miles shy of our destination and were surprised to find a complete shift in the weather awaiting us as we descended.  Although the temperatures were pushing 60 with sunny skies along the coast we found the area near Coffee Dome to be covered in low swirling fog, light drizzle and steady winds.  Undaunted we hiked up the ridge opposite Coffee Dome and soon found several cooperative pairs of Whimbrel and American Golden-Plovers that greeted us as we neared the crest of the hill.  The fog made finding non-vocalizing birds almost impossible, but we settled in for a bit of a wait to see if the weather would clear.  Eventually the clouds lifted and under the sunshine it did not take too long for one of the four birding groups atop the peak to find a Bristle-thighed Curlew. We had excellent views on the ground of this scarce and subtly beautiful bird; a bolder and blonder version of the subdued and greyer Whimbrels.  The bird then took off, flying right past the group and giving us excellent views of its apricot-salmon rump and uppertail before giving a short display flight and vanishing over the edge of the hill. Also on the hill we admired a pair of Rock Ptarmigan that allowed very close approach, the female already in its full dark summer plumage but the male still largely off-white. 

After our time on the hill we decided to drive the last few miles to the end of the road, where we ate a picnic lunch and looked for a wide array of landbirds that call the Seward Peninsula home (at least during the comparatively balmy summer months).  Displaying male Bluethroats likely stole the show, but we also enjoyed 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, Yellow, Blackpoll and Wilson’s Warblers along with Northern Waterthrushes. A trio of Rusty Blackbirds were seen along the road, representing our only sighting of this generally local species. Several Northern Harriers and a single Northern Shrike were seen along the road as well as an impressive number (9) of Willow Ptarmigan, another pair of Rock Ptarmigan and a nice selection of waterfowl including some handsome Black Scoters.

After dinner back in Nome several participants opted to go out again to the Nome River mouth, where we spent an enjoyable hour or so in the evening light photographing foraging Red-necked Phalaropes, pairs of Long-tailed Ducks in shallow tundra ponds, and several cooperative pairs of Aleutian Terns on a beachside colony.  The locals of Nome were all out too and were enjoying the summery weather, with kids actually in the ocean (likely still 41 degrees or so), families picnicking on the beach and many out jogging or walking their various canine companions.

We ate breakfast at the hotel for our final morning in Nome and then elected to revisit the Safety Sound road, hoping to connect with a pair of breeding plumaged Ruff that had been reported the previous day.   Although unsuccessful in that quest we certainly enjoyed our last morning of birding.  Among the more common waterfowl species (such as Black Brant, Tundra Swan, Greater Scaup and Pintail) we teased out some half-dozen Gadwall, two Harlequin Ducks, a flock of Common Mergansers, both Black and White-winged Scoters and three species of Eiders including dazzling male Spectacled, Common and King Eiders.  Eastern Yellow Wagtails proved stubborn this year, with our views largely restricted to birds winging overhead and giving their unique call note that sounds remarkably like a sneaker squeaking on a well-waxed basketball court.  Two birds were seen on the road for a brief time though, unfortunately taking off as a car approached.  More than just the birds though this morning served as an excellent farewell to the mountainous tundra of the Peninsula, where Musk Ox were frequent sights, and where Jaegars hunt over land and shorebirds perform their intricate courtship flights; truly a northern paradise.

We boarded our midday flight and were soon surrounded by the urban metropolis of Anchorage, where the temperatures were approaching seventy degrees and the landscape lush with summer life. 

-Gavin Bieber

PRIBILOFS EXTENSION: Our group arrived a bit late on the afternoon of the 8th, but early enough to get dinner and get out and see the Oriental Cuckoo which had been present for a few days in the Quarry.  Good views and photos were obtained.  This was our most unusual species encountered during our stay.  Cuculus cuckoos are always exciting.  Most encountered are Common Cuckoos, and in fact, we found a freshly dead Common Cuckoo during our visit to North Point on 9 June.  This Oriental Cuckoo was a hepatic morph (all hepatic morphs are females) and we got prolonged studies of the darker rufous and barred rump, a diagnostic character from Common Cuckoo.  Also noted in flight was the much more contrasting broad pale bar on the middle of the underwing.  This establishes one of the few records for the Pribilofs.  Formerly Oriental Cuckoo was considered a polytypic species with a migratory subspecies (saturatus) breeding in Himalaya and a small resident subspecies in Malaysia and the Greater Sundas (lepidus).  All are now separate species.  The Oriental Cuckoo (Cuculus optatus) breeds in northern Asia and most appear to winter in Australia.  We saw it again during our stay, but sadly, it appeared weak on our last sighting.  It didn’t appear to be getting any food.  Other Asian species seen during our stay included a pair of Tufted Ducks, a first cycle Slaty-backed Gull, the black-billed Asian subspecies of Common Tern (subspecies longipennis), and an eventually cooperative Terek Sandpiper.  Other uncommon to rare species seen included two immature Common Loons, two spectacular Sabine’s Gulls (feeding just offshore), and a first cycle Iceland (“Thayer’s”) Gull. 

Of course the main reason birders visit the Pribilofs in spring is to see the seabirds and we saw all of the expected species, all of the auklets, murres, and puffins, Red-faced Cormorants, and Northern Fulmars, albeit in greatly reduced numbers.  This appears to be the second straight year where massive breeding failure appears to be occurring, a probable result of warmer water temperatures and the lack of prey items to feed the young in the waters around the Pribilofs.  Last year the only seabird that had any breeding success was Red-faced Cormorant.  The best views we obtained of Red-legged Kittiwake was at Weather Bureau Lake.  Here the birds bathed on this freshwater lake with larger numbers of Black-legged Kittiwakes.  We saw no immature Red-legged Kittiwakes that had been hatched last year. 

In addition to the rarities and seabirds we had numerous opportunities to view the near-endemic subspecies of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (umbrina) and Rock Sandpiper (ptilocnemis).  This subspecies of Rock Sandpiper is large and pale with a bolder wing bar.  It breeds here on the Pribilof Islands, but also on Hall and St. Matthew Islands.  It winters mainly on ice flows in Cook Inlet south of Anchorage.  Finally, the Winter Wrens resident on the Pribilof Islands were present in decent numbers.  This large subspecies, alascensis, is restricted to the Pribilofs. 

Fog is usually an issue with flights arriving on St. Paul Island, and this year was no exception.  It was further complicated by the runway beacon being out, so 1000’ of vertical clearance was necessary for PenAir flights to land.  Fortunately, we had a separate charter with the requirement for clearance being only 500’. That evening the flight landed on time for all to depart on connecting flights or to continue on with Gavin and Jake’s tour.  Jon was able to leave on PenAir during one of the clear breaks on the morning of the 13th.

-Jon Dunn

Updated: July 2019