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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Alaska: The Pribilofs in Fall

2018 Narrative

 IN BRIEF: Fall migration in Alaska is a protracted affair. Unlike the busy rush of the spring migration, with most birds following the ice break up and arriving within a few weeks of each other the fall departures are set well apart. With some shorebirds beginning their long trips back south as early as July, and late movers such as finches and some waterfowl lingering in the boreal zone until November. As a result a visiting birder heading to a migration outpost like Gambell or the Pribilofs in fall should expect a slightly less diverse array of migrants during their visit, but in general more surprises as there are many more juvenile birds around prone to navigational mistakes. Fall Alaska tours represent a unique “birding is like a box of chocolates” kind of feel, as with each outing new discoveries are possible, and every week (and year) will host different and hopefully unexpected species.

The weather in fall is in general more agreeable than that of early June, with calmer days feeling almost warm (in the low 50’s), and no need for hand or foot warmers. The hardiest of birders might even entertain the possibility of donning shorts for walks in the boneyard on the more sunny days! And a further contrast between spring and fall is supplied by the color pallet and vegetation of the landscape. In spring the Pribs are clad in lingering greens, yellows and browns, with snow patches on the hillsides, whereas in Gambell the spring consists of white ice and snow, dark gray gravel and compressed vegetation in the open areas of the boneyards. In fall the Pribs are lush, with up to three foot high growth in some sheltered areas, and at Gambell the boneyards are covered in a thick foot-high carpet of wormwood and the slopes are a dazzling array of greens, reds, and yellows as the lichens and dwarf willows begin to change color.

Although the WINGS fall tours run as separate but connected weeks at Gambell (with a one-day extension to Nome) and Saint Paul Island, many participants elect to take both sections, and so below I shall include both 2018 tours into one narrative. See Gambell’s tour narrative here (https://wingsbirds.com/tours/alaska-fall-migration-gambell-pribilofs/narrative/).

SAINT PAUL ISLAND, THE PRIBILOFS: As the majority of this year’s participants arrived late from our connecting flight from Nome the previous evening we elected to take a more relaxed morning. Eschewing the customary stroll around the nearby lake and small park we instead set about repacking and readying for our late morning flight to the Pribilof Islands. The roughly three-hour flight departs out of the main Anchorage air terminal, but happily leaves from a different part of the building, without the need to clear the normal TSA security checks. As we generally do, the plane stopped briefly in Dillingham to refuel before it began its nearly 2-hour crossing of the Bering Sea. We stepped off the plane to bright sunshine, warm weather and fairly light winds, a weather condition that generally continued for the entire week of our stay. The giant local race of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch met our airplane as is their custom, furnishing a life bird for a few people before we even reached the airport terminal. After we unpacked and prepared for our first outing on the island we headed out to look for a couple of staked-out rarities in case they were planning on departing that evening. Out on the shores of the Salt Lagoon, a large tidal lagoon near the town of Saint Paul that has extensive sandy mudflats exposed at low tide we spent some time looking at Wandering and Gray-tailed Tattlers as they teetered along the shore. These near lookalikes can be tricky to conclusively identify visually, but we were able to locate a worn adult Gray-tailed with its characteristic brownish wash to the wings and pale belly among the more numerous Wanderings. Happily, both species vocalized for us as well, surely the most foolproof method of telling the two apart. Also along the shores of the lagoon we tracked down a lingering juvenile Red-necked Stint (with a Western nearby for comparison). The large and pale local breeding subspecies of Rock Sandpiper was abundant on the flats as well. This form breeds only in the central Bering Sea Islands of the Pribilof archipelago and on Saint Matthew and Hall islands well 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 down the Pacific Coast.

After dinner at the Trident Seafood processing plant, where we took all of our meals during the course of the stay and where the food is plentiful and tasty we checked out the harbor where we soon found a mixed flock of Black and Red-legged Kittiwakes loafing on a pier along the road. The two species are actually quite different in structure and plumage, although seeing the cherry-red legs and feet at close range is certainly a useful sight. Although neither species was able to successfully breed this year on the island due to the rapidly changing ocean temperatures and corresponding shifts in marine life we found both to be pleasantly numerous throughout the week. The Pribilofs host a remarkable 80 percent of the global population of Red-legged Kittiwakes, making it perhaps the signature species for the archipelago – and an undeniably cute mascot for the island. While watching the Kittiwakes we noticed an unusually large bird sitting on the cliffs of the Tolstoi peninsula across the harbor mouth. A quick turn of the scopes revealed the long-staying (now 2nd year) White-tailed Eagle sitting atop a rocky spire about half-way up the black volcanic cliffs. This was an especially welcome find, as although the bird has been frequenting the island for over a year sightings can be remarkably infrequent as the bird moves around a lot and seems to perhaps visit other islands for spells of a week or more at a time.  The next day we were treated to even closer views of this majestic bird as it circled above the Salt Lagoon in the mid-afternoon sun, showing off its diagnostic wing shape and tail pattern as it lazily wheeled around overhead and terrified the local kittiwakes and shorebirds who still seem shocked to see such an imposing predator in their midst. In short it was a magnificent find, and an amazing cap to our introductory day on the island.

For the rest of the week we explored the verdant maritime tundra, steep volcanic cliffs, sandy beaches, and grass-lined freshwater lakes that combine to make for a surprisingly dynamic mix of habitats for such a small, isolated island. Even late into the week we were able to work in new sites to explore which kept each days birding interesting and varied. The summer of 2018 was again (as has been the case each year since 2013) unusually warm and wet, with widespread breeding failures in many of the seabirds, but bumper crops for many of the islands passerines and ducks. A visiting birder can divide their time on Saint Paul with four main avian pursuits. Time spent on the seabird breeding cliffs is always rewarding, and even this late into the season we were able to watch Common and Thick-billed Murres (some with still fuzzy chicks), Horned and Tufted Puffins, Northern Fulmar and both Kittiwakes at close range as they went about the tail end of their breeding season. On one of the afternoons and in full and glorious sunshine we lingered for over an hour watching the show on the cliffs, in what was surely a highlight for many participants.

The many freshwater lakes that dot the island host an impressive array of shorebirds during fall migration, and part of our daily routine involved slowly walking around the margins of the marshes looking for birds tucked into the dense sedges and grasses around the lakes. Water levels were unusually high so many lakes had less edge habitat than usual but with some patience we were able to enjoy an array of species at close range. One of the more common migrants was Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. These delicate looking birds with their apricot breasts, flared eyeline and purplish cap are truly stunning, and I can think of no better place in North America to learn their ways than Saint Paul Island in the fall. There appears to be a regular push of young Sharp-tailed Sandpipers out into the central Bering Sea in fall, and we had the pleasure of multiple individuals daily (with up to 20 in a day). On a couple of occasions we flushed out a Common Snipe from the short grassy section at the front of Pumphouse Lake. We noted the bird’s broad white trailing edge on its secondaries and patterned underwing as it circled around the group before vanishing into the ether. Generally, snipe on the island return to the area in which they are first found but this bird proved more elusive, showing only on one other occasion during the week. Also in Pumphouse Lake over two days was a juvenile Ruff that allowed fairly close approach. These five Asian species (Ruff, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, Gray-tailed Tattler and Common Snipe) are generally annual in fall, but to see all 5 on any given week is remarkable. Apart from the more expected Asian species we also located three Bar-tailed Godwits (a very scarce fall migrant here) loafing on the Salt Lagoon during a two-day period of light rain and fog.  Not all of the waders here are Asian in origin of course, and we also were happy to see the large numbers of Ruddy Turnstone, Long-billed Dowitchers and Pacific Golden-Plovers (all species that migrate through in fall), scattered Red and Red-necked Phalaropes and a quite scarce Lesser Yellowlegs to round out our impressive cast of 16 species. As of 2018 The Pribilofs have now played host to an incredible 64 species of shorebirds, perhaps thus representing the highest diversity location in the world!

Another fun birding option while on Saint Paul is seawatching.  For the best conditions one hopes for a strong South or Southeast wind with light rain and high seas. This makes most of the other birding options to be less than ideal though, and I think most participants were quite happy to have the mild conditions that we experienced in 2018. Despite the lack of wind, seawatching from various headlands around the island produced a number of interesting birds off the coast. A few pairs of Ancient Murrelets buzzed past us at Reef Point, Yellow-billed Loons loafed in the bays around Northeast Point and around the rocky coast near Marunich, small groups of Short-tailed Shearwaters glided by most days and some diligent searching revealed small flocks of King Eider, a pair of White-winged Scoters and dozens of dapper Harlequin Ducks. These seawatches also allowed us to observe Fur Seals lolling on the beaches, and to compare the local Red-faced Cormorants with their smaller Pelagic cousins and involved a quite different mix of species to the seawatches at Gambell which consisted largely of Shearwater and Auklets.

Perhaps the most exciting birding in fall here though is furnished through the somewhat exhausting search for passerines. Tired waifs come from both sides of the Bering to the islands verdant shores, hiding in sheltered nooks around the many small hills and ridges, in the artificial forests provided by stacks of crab pots or in the dense patches of tundra dominated by wild celery (a two-foot tall plant that provides perches, food and some vertical structure in an otherwise largely grassy island). Seeking these birds out requires patience and a lot of leg work, but the rewards can be well worth the trouble, and one does have to work off the calorific and delicious chocolate chip cookies provided by Trident somehow!

With only very light winds through much of the week we were not quite inundated with passerines, but with diligent searching a nice array of mostly North American species graced our expectant optics. Chief among them was an unusually strong showing of Golden-crowned Sparrows, which although annual in fall here do not normally pop up virtually island wide in small flocks. On one day, we tallied 29 individuals without making a concentrated effort, so surely hundreds of them were stopping by the island before (hopefully) making a correction to their route and turning back to the Southeast. A small number of Savannah and “Sooty” Fox Sparrows were about as well as were a few each of Orange-crowned, Yellow and Wilson’s Warblers and several American Pipits. With the abundant Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches and Lapland Longspurs sprinkled liberally around the island this influx of birds kept us interested in checking the customary passerine spots. This proved an excellent course of action as in the relatively sheltered section of abandoned crab pots in the local quarry we were elated to find a quite cooperative Taiga Flycatcher that remained for nearly the entire week; perching up on prominent pots or nearby rocks and showing off for our cameras. This tiny old-world flycatcher is very rare in the Pribilofs, with this bird representing only the 8th sighting for the island.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the mammals of Saint Paul as well, which put on quite a show for us. As usual in the fall we found masses of (very cute) Northern Fur Seal pups beginning to explore the shorelines and shallow waters of the bays. The normal seal viewing blinds were unfortunately both closed this year but we were able to see the animals at close range on many occasions, laughing as the pups played in the surf or the teenage males practiced holding territories among the seemingly bemused females. The huge beachmasters that line the rocky shoreline in spring aren’t around in the fall, but the cacophony and near constant activity of the rookeries in fall more than make up for their absence. Steller’s Sea Lion and Harbour Seal occur here as well, and we found both species hauled out along the coast this year. The huge male Sea Lion that was napping out on the lava flow at Southwest Point was particularly memorable as its huge body simply dwarfed the Fur Seals (which themselves weigh hundreds of pounds). With all of the marine mammal life around the shoreline it isn’t terribly surprising that a few pelagic Orca often frequent these waters in fall as well and on one afternoon we were able to watch a large female cruising close to Southwest Point seemingly just far enough out that the hundreds of massed seals around the shore were oblivious to the danger. Of course, the ever-present and very inquisitive Arctic Foxes were seen daily as well, sunning along the roads and patrolling the seabird cliffs and seal rookeries. One poor demoralized individual was lying down in the open salt lagoon flats at low tide, just feet away from flocks of foraging Rock Sandpipers that paid it absolutely no attention – it’s hard out there for a fox! One lucky participant even spotted an endemic Saint Paul Shrew near the church shrine at Northeast Point. We rushed over to see if it was still around but sadly it had scurried off into the dense vegetation. These active little shrews are found only on Saint Paul (absent from the other 4 islands in the archipelago) and can be frustratingly difficult to find as they spend much of their time chasing insects in the dense grassy understory.

On our last morning, we revisited a selection of the spots closer to town before taking our final meal at Trident and a short tour to the small but very interesting Aleut museum that hosts an array of old photographs, artifacts and world war two finds. Of particular interest here was the display of Aleut handicrafts and fur seal pelts. The pelts (which contain 250,000 hairs per square inch) are incredibly soft, and it is immediately apparent why they were in such high demand for over a hundred years. It was here at the Museum that I think the resilient and friendly nature of the locals really hit home for the group. The Pribilof Islands were central to the purchase and settling of the far North, and the rich cultural of the Aleuts and their long struggle for full recognition under the law should be required reading for any budding student of US history.

We wrapped up a varied two weeks of fall migration birding back at the cosmopolitan Anchorage airport, with highlights birds such as White-tailed Eagle, Taiga Flycatcher, Willow Warbler, Gray-tailed Tattler, Common Snipe, Ruff, Red-necked Stint, Spectacled Eider, Emperor Goose, Yellow-billed Loon and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper still dancing through our thoughts, and a pledge to not follow the AK listservs for the next few days on our lips. I can think of no birding destinations as potentially exciting and as dynamic as these Bering Sea outposts in fall, and can’t wait to see what goodies the chocolatier gifts the Wings tours with next year!

-          Gavin Bieber

Created: 14 September 2018