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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Alaska: Gambell

2019 Narrative

GAMBELL & NOME: Our arrivals and departures were a bit delayed at Gambell, but we had a good chunk of time at this fabled location. The migration was overall a bit slow, perhaps due to north winds for much of the time. The standout rarity was a Red-flanked Bluetail. Other notable Asian species recorded included two Tundra Bean-Geese, Common Sandpiper, and Common Greenshank. Several Common Ringed Plovers were accommodating. All of the normally occurring species, save Spectacled Eider and Black Guillemot were seen. Two Double-crested Cormorants and a Cliff Swallow were the most unusual strays from the North American side. Certainly one of the highlights was scope views of two Nelson’s Collared Lemmings. The extension to Nome, even with abbreviated time, managed to find the hoped for species here including Bristle-thighed Curlew (four) and Gyrfalcon. A Common Sandpiper was a surprise.

Our tour began with a group dinner at Pipers, followed by a meeting. We left the next morning after breakfast and continued on to Nome. After some sorting out the multiple tour groups present, all, except J. L. Dunn were able to get out to Gambell on St. Lawrence Island that day (Jon flew out the next day). Our time at Gambell started with nice weather and then deteriorated, at least in terms of having rather strong north winds, but overall there didn’t seem to be much bird movement this spring, and as with all recent years, there was no offshore ice, so eiders were in much reduced numbers and our group missed Spectacled Eider and Black Guillemot entirely. Still our week at Gambell produced a fine variety of species with most of the hoped for specialties and a few Asian rarities too. The rarest find, present before our tour arrived, was a Red-flanked Bluetail. We had excellent views the day after the group arrived on the side of the mountain. It established the sixth record and the second spring record on St. Lawrence Island. Most authorities now split the less migratory rufilatus subspecies from Himalaya, the “Himalayan Bluetail.” The nominate subspecies breeds from Finland east to the Russian Far East and winters in East Asia. This was a female or immature male and based on present knowledge, it is not separable in this plumage from “Himalayan Bluetail,” other than distribution. Other Asian rarities included two Tundra Bean-Geese, a female Lesser Sand-Plover, Common Sandpiper, and Common Greenshank. Some seven of the now split (as a species) Stejneger’s Scoter, an Asian species, were recorded flying by the Point one day. Many White-winged Scoters were recorded too, along with a number of others that were seen too distantly to separate. Other more regular species noted included Common Ringed Plover, Sabine’s Gull, Slaty-backed Gull, Ancient Murrelet (three), Northern Wheatear, White Wagtail and Red-throated Pipit. A rather rare (for the late date) male McKay’s Bunting was seen very well south of Troutman Lake. This strikingly nearly all-white species, a close relative of the Snow Bunting, breeds regularly only on St. Matthew Island and adjacent all Island. We had decent numbers of Common (v-nigrum subspecies) and King Eiders as well as a good scattering of Steller’s Eiders. The lack of ice didn’t help. Three Surf Scoters, four Common Mergansers (North American americanus), two Double-crested Cormorants, a Cliff Swallow (perched on a telephone line) and a Hermit Thrush were strays from the North American side. Four species of loons were seen, including Yellow-billed and Arctic, along with nearly all of the regularly occurring alcids, including a single Dovekie (seems to be declining here) sitting on the mountain. Rock Sandpipers (northwestern tschukttschorum subspecies) were extremely accommodating at the south end of Troutman Lake and a pair of Baird’s Sandpipers was seen one day (uncommon at Gambell). Red Phalaropes in full alternate plumage were recorded in decent numbers. Also notable were excellent scope views of two Nelson’s Collared Lemmings (Dicrostonys nelsoni), the first time we have seen this striking species which is endemic to western Alaska. And Arctic Fox and a number of Gray Whales were seen, some just off the beach. On June 3rd, plane day, fog prevented normal departures. Eventually five of us departed for Nome in the early evening; the remainder of the group (save Rich who stayed on to bird) left the next day.

Our Nome extension was a bit abbreviated due to the delays in departing Gambell, but we managed to find the hoped for species, including Bar-tailed Godwit, Sabine’s Gull, Aleutian Tern (many), Golden Eagle, Gyrfalcon (nest with a chick), Bluethroat, and Eastern Yellow Wagtail (just one, a female, the species is clearly declining in Alaska and likely elsewhere). Certainly the highlight was our trip out the Kougarok Road where we managed to see four Bristle-thighed Curlews, along with American Golden-Plovers, and lots of Willow Ptarmigan and a single Rock Ptarmigan. Also, Arctic Warblers, a breeding species here, but a late arrival, had arrived and we had excellent views of several. Gray-cheeked Thrush, American Tree Sparrow, “Red” Fox Sparrow, and Northern Waterthrushes were numerous. A pair of Rusty Blackbirds (uncommon on Seward Peninsula) was also seen. Other species of note included 15 Snow Geese, Black Scoter, three Pacific Golden-Plovers, and two “Vega” Herring Gulls. The one rarity at the Safety Sound Bridge was a stakeout (found by others) Common Sandpiper, a Eurasian species which has been recorded a few previous times on the Seward Peninsula. Notable mammals included Red Fox, Spotted Seal, American Beaver and 25 Muskox. We left midday for our trip back to Anchorage. That evening we tried to find the male Falcated Duck which had spent weeks at Potter Marsh, but it eluded our group. Excellent views of Arctic Terns and a pair of Trumpeter Swans were noted.

-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, light winds and, for our full day, bright sunshine. 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.

Our flight out this year was on a charter plane due to some last-minute flight alterations from Ravn Air; the new airline servicing the Pribilofs. The smaller plane that we were shifted to had a lower weight limit than the normal passenger aircraft, which resulted in us having to pack remarkably lightly for the flight. The service was excellent though, and during our refueling stop in Bethel we were allowed to wander a bit around the airport, finding dozens of Cliff Swallows frantically gathering mud at a small puddle in the parking lot, and our first Yellow Warblers, Tree Swallows and White-crowned Sparrows of the trip. We landed in Saint Paul in the late afternoon, with time enough to check into the rooms at the hotel and then head in to town for dinner. As we neared town we paused at the Salt Lagoon, where the low tide had revealed expansive mudflats that were being heavily used by lots of local Rock Sandpipers, loafing Kittiwakes and foraging Arctic Foxes. 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. We made a quick stop to look at these common species and were happy to pick out an adult Black-headed Gull sitting and flying around with the flock of kittiwakes. Despite checking the lagoon many times over the next two days this was to be our only sighting of this attractive old-world gull; and a nice pre-dinner treat to be sure.

After dinner, we coordinated with the other birding group that had arrived that day in a joint search for the lingering Eyebrowed Thrush that was frequenting the lower quarry cut in Polovina Hill. By parking well short of the base of the hill and slowly working our way up towards the sheltered bowl where the bird had been seen repeatedly over the last few days we were able to get nearly 30 birders on the bird without really disturbing it at all. The thrush, a female, sat out in the open on the lower slopes of the quarry for quite some time, showing well and seemingly unconcerned by the throngs of happy humans that were staring at it through dozens of telescopes. Leaving the thrush behind we then turned our attentions to the marshes of Tonki Wetlands, a small marsh attractively sandwiched between two 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 Kittwakes 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 fieldmarks 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 species that seems to be establishing a presence on the island). A short drive later back through the dunes brought us to the beginning of the Tonki Wetlands, a series of small ponds fringed with mares tail and spongy tundra covered with pockets of bright pink louseworts, yellow cinquefoil and purple lupines. Here we quickly located a largely uncooperative Wood Sandpiper, seeing it only in flight as it rocketed out of the foot-high mares tail in the marsh and flew over the dune. Although brief, the bird was close, and we could clearly see the white rump and upper tail, and brownish back as it flew away. Also in the marsh, were a continuing pair of Blue-winged Teal (the first confirmed Bering Sea record of this generally uncommon in Alaska duck), a male Eurasian Wigeon, several migrant Bank Swallows, and several Red-necked Phalarope. Four excellent birds in our first evening on the island made for quite an auspicious start!

Our full day on the island was sunny and virtually calm. After breakfast, we watched a few Parakeet Auklets, with their odd red shovel-like bills, white bellies and bold white face plumes as they chattered from the cliff face outside of the Trident building and made forays out into the flat calm seas. Here too we located a singing Song Sparrow (a vagrant to the island that likely arrived aboard a fishing vessel). We then spent the morning exploring the southwest side of the island, stopping first at the northern end of the salt lagoon where we picked out a small group of Bufflehead, several Long-tailed Duck and Northern Pintail and a single female King Eider. 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 vans. 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.

Our first birding stop was along the short languid creek that drains the brackish Antone Lake. Dubbed Antone Slough by the local birding guides the saltmarsh and muddy margins of the creek are unique on the island, and often support a nice array of migrant and breeding shorebirds and waterfowl. This year the lake water levels were low, with lots of floating aquatic vegetation that was proving quite popular with the local waterfowl. A pair of Aleutian Cackling Geese were grazing on the short grasses along the slough, and out on the lake we picked out a single Snow Goose and a mixed flock of American and Eurasian Wigeon. We walked down the trail along the slough, finding a cooperative Wandering Tattler, a nesting pair of Semipalmated Plovers (with four eggs already in their nest) and a smattering of Green-winged Teal and Pintail. Near the end of the slough we were thrilled to spot two Red-necked Stints foraging on the mudflats. One bird allowed close approach, which allowed us to fully appreciate its bright orange face and throat. This is an annual species in the Pribilofs, although most spring records are of birds seen in May. After missing this species in Gambell and in Nome on the previous trip this sighting was especially sweet for those participants who were taking the Pribilofs section as a post-tour option. Out at the end of the road we stopped at Southwest Point, a scenic volcanic shelf that sits at the base of the high bluffs (which reach over 500 feet above sea level and support the majority of the islands breeding seabirds). Here we spent a bit of time scanning the sea, where we picked out an array of flying alcids, flocks of Harlequin Ducks, passing Black and Red-legged Kittiwakes carrying muddy balls of grass to their nesting sites, and a few (very) distant Short-tailed Shearwaters. A walk here along the cliffs allowed us to study an array of wildflowers, some perky Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches, hauled out Harbour Seals and some perched Red-faced and Pelagic Cormorants. In contrast to most species of cormorants the Red-faced are undeniably beautiful in their breeding plumage, with crimson faces, yellow bills and a body plumage that glows in hues of blue, green and purple under sunlight.

We finished the morning’s outing with a wonderful visit to the cliffs at Ridge Wall (known as tourist point to the locals). The short cliffs 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 a single Crested Auklet standing on a shallow ledge with its ridiculously long floppy crest dangling over its face like some disaffected fashion model. 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 Kittiwakes were excellent as always, offering the visiting birder ample opportunity to study the many differences between the two species.

After lunch, we elected to make a short trip to Reef Point, a narrow peninsula that juts out to the south of town. A quick stop at the local store allowed folks to pick up some souvenirs or snacks, or perhaps just a perusal of the shelves, where familiar items take on new dimensions when visitors start noting the pricetags. Once at the end of the road at Reef we visited another small cliff laden with murres, auklets and puffins, obtaining some excellent photos as the birds sat among the golden lichen-covered rocks. 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. 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. While standing around the small cabin on the lakeshore we were surprised to spot a wayward Golden-crowned Sparrow perched on a tall wild celery stalk. Like most north American passerines this species is much less common in the spring than in the fall, when strong eastern winds often blow in small flocks of birds from the Alaskan coast. 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 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 the view of the surrounding ocean was lovely and some foraging groups of kittiwakes in the distance were attracting a few (again distant) Short-tailed Shearwaters.

Our evening outing started with checking a couple of small marshes for shorebirds. By positioning the group near the midpoint of the ponds and sending a few people on a trek around the water’s edge we were able to obtain good views of a few Pectoral Sandpipers, lots of Red-necked Phalarope and Green-winged Teal (of both the North American and Eurasian subspecies) and a few startled Pintail and Long-tailed Ducks. We didn’t locate any Common Snipe, which had until a few days before our arrival been lurking in the dense vegetation fringing the open water. Around the second marsh we also took the time to look at the remains of one of the old Barrabaras; half-sunken Aleut houses constructed with whale ribs, driftwood and animal skins that served the Unagan people well for hundreds of years before the Russians and Americans introduced them to western style wooden houses. With bright sunny skies still prevailing in the evening we decided to spend some time looking for the long-staying White-tailed Eagle that sometimes takes to the air and soars on fair weather days. It can be a very frustrating bird, stymying many a visiting birder and going days or even weeks between sightings. The local guides are convinced that the bird periodically heads out to Otter Island to feed, and when on Saint Paul it tends to frequent the rockier high country of the western half of the island, which has very limited road access. Working in conjunction with the other group of birders we headed down a rough road that snakes out towards the islands remote northwest side passing many of the low volcanic peaks that dot the western side of the island before reaching the coast near the point at Tsammana. It was a bumpy but very pretty drive, with lush maritime tundra greening up as far as we could see, the herd of reindeer spotted up on one of the lower mountain slopes, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Lapland Longspurs and Rock Sandpipers (one pair with already hatched ping-pong ball sized chicks). The other group spotted an unknown Eagle (this year there was also an immature Bald Eagle on the island, complicating the identification of the White-tailed at distance) soaring way off above Crater Hill, but it vanished over a ridge a bit before we arrived on scene and was not relocated. Still, the drive out was a definite adventure, and we saw parts of the island that many locals have never visited.

For our final day on Saint Paul, we began with a 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 of Reef Point and Ridge Wall. The seas were virtually flat, providing perfect conditions for scanning for some of the rarer alcids that occur sporadically around the island. At Ridge Wall, we picked out a pair of Rhinoceros Auklets in with the loafing puffins and murres on the water. 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, and the USFWS biologists suspect that a few pairs may be nesting somewhere amongst the thousands of other birds on the cliffs. Reef Point also proved productive, with a very cooperative and close Crested Auklet posing nicely and two pairs of Ancient Murrelets (a rare breeder as well in the Pribilofs) out on the ocean. We walked down to the seal blind, watching the beachmaster Fur Seals squabble a bit over some particularly valuable ocean side property, and finding a female Red-breasted Merganser and a winter-plumaged Tufted Puffin (lacking the bright orange bill, white face and tufts of the summer) out on Gorbatch Bay. The local Pacific Wrens were plentiful around Reef Point, and with the calm conditions we could hear the males singing out their mellifluous songs from the cliff edge below. It took a bit of tracking down but we eventually found one cooperative bird sitting on a large tussock grass clump, head thrown back in song. These tiny birds 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 forcep-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.

After lunch and checking in for our flight we had a good portion of the afternoon available, so we elected to revisit the Tonki Wetlands for a repeat sighting of the Wood Sandpiper and some general birding. We were quite successful on all fronts, with longer flight views (and some vocalizations) of the Wood Sandpiper as it came up from the marsh and slowly flew down the water’s edge. Along with the customary flock of bathing gulls in Weather Bureau Lake we found a couple of female Bufflehead, some close Long-tailed Ducks and a single Tundra Swan. The day turned warm and sunny, and with the calm winds and the sounds of incoming waves on the beach and distant bellows from Fur Seals it was an idyllic scene. Out on the rocky point we enjoyed point blank views of dozens of Red-legged Kittiwakes sitting around in the rocky surf, with their bright legs and feet looking to intensely red to be wholly natural. Rock Sandpipers and a couple of Ruddy Turnstones worked the drying rack of kelp on the beach, and out on the water we spotted a distant Pacific Loon and a half-dozen Harbour Seals. As the afternoon began to wane we walked back to the vans accompanied by skylarking Lapland Longspurs and then drove back to the airport. 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: 13 January 2020