From May 31 to June 11, 2012, I took a birding trip to Alaska - the first couple of days on my own, and then on the Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (VENT) organized tour to Gambell and Nome. VENT is well enough known that I don’t have to sing their praises, but it was my first tour with them and I thought they did an excellent job; in particular you can’t do much better for guides than David Wolf and Kevin Zimmer. Actually, it wasn’t until after the tour, when I was looking into recent splits and the way they affected my life list, that I discovered exactly how prominent Kevin’s name is in the birding world. It seems like he’s written every paper on bird speciation that’s out there.
Anyway, one of the nice things about a trip to Alaska (and in particular Gambell, on Saint Lawrence Island) is that, due to the possibility of Asian vagrants, it’s reasonably likely your visit won’t be a rehash of every other organized tour that’s ever gone there. There’s a decent chance that you’ll see something significant that hasn’t been seen on another tour. You should leave with at least one sighting that the people who participated in other similar tours will envy, and yet there should be something that came up on one of the previous tours that you’ll still think about with envy.
Given our experiences, however, I don’t envy the other tours at all. This one kicked hell out of all of ’em. But we’ll come back to that eventually.
I brought along my National Geographic guide to North American birds just to have something portable; as a longtime North American birder I didn’t really feel the need for it except possibly to verify small details of the Beringian specialties. I also carried Mark Brazil’s “Birds of East Asia,” from the Princeton Guides series, to have a reference for any vagrants.
In the following account I will list life birds in capital letters. All birds are referred to by their common names (followed by the species names in parentheses, the first time the bird was encountered on the trip). After mentioning a bird once, I generally will not reference later sightings unless the bird or the nature of the sighting is of particular interest.
I flew from my hometown to Cleveland, Cleveland to Denver, Denver to Anchorage. The connection in Cleveland was pretty tight, so of course the flight to Cleveland was delayed. As a result I had to gallop through the Cleveland airport to catch the flight to Denver just as the door was about to close. I was thus able to deliver the news that our flight had arrived, so they held the plane a couple of minutes while my fellow passengers came up in my wake. It was nice to spread a little help around, but man, I am so over United Airlines. This experience wasn’t so awful in and of itself, but I’ve had two recent utter fiascoes with that airline - it’s always something with them. Enough with it.
We touched down in Anchorage at about 11:30 their time, which capped off a good fourteen hours of travel for me. The sky was still light when we arrived. Got my rental car and drove just south of Anchorage to the Moose Den Bed and Breakfast, during the only hour and a half of darkness of the midsummer day. The proprietors were asleep but I had the door code to let myself in, and I promptly hit the bed.. By this time, of course, it was an hour or so into the next day.
I got up early and drove over to Johns Park, where I walked the main trail hoping for three-toed woodpecker - my number one nemesis bird, and the first of two targets in the Anchorage area. No woodpecker was in evidence, but over a couple of hours of hiking I found American robin (Turdus migratorius), ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula), singing Swainson’s thrush (Catharus ustulatus), black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus), Wilson’s warbler (Cardellina pusilla), and red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis). A sparrow-ish song in some scrub behind a neighboring back yard led to a Lincoln’s sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii) on territory; this was possibly the first time I’d heard the song in the wild. Also present in the park were yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata), dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis), common raven (Corvus corax), mew gull (Larus canus), Northern waterthrush (Parkesia noveboracensis), common redpoll (Acanthis flammea), and flying violet-green swallows (Tachycineta thalassina). In the fields dotted with willows rang the songs of alder flycatcher (Empidonax alnorum) and hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus).
On return to the Moose Den, I showered quickly and joined the proprietors for breakfast. A word about the Moose Den. It is not the traditional b&b, but actually a fairly typical modern suburban home. The guest quarters are on the first floor while the owners live on the second, so there is a decent separation between guest and family areas. My room was immaculate and comfortable with a very nice bathroom. The proprietors are nice and friendly without being too inquisitive. The husband gave me pointers on a few areas other than Johns Park that were nearby; he strongly urged me to take the road on south to Girdwood. If your thing is to be shown crown molding made from the musket stocks of revolutionary soldiers, the Moose Den may not be for you; but if you want clean, comfortable, spacious accommodations, a well-prepared and tasty unpretentious breakfast, and convenient access to places like Johns Park, Potter Marsh, Girdwood, and the Chugash Range without having to deal with Anchorage traffic, I unreservedly recommend Moose Den Bed and Breakfast.
Also, their back yard is occasionally visited by moose and bears. If you’re like me, that’s another mark on the plus side.
Acting on the husband’s advice, I drove ten minutes to Potter Marsh, a well-known wetland area with boardwalks. Arctic terns (Sterna paradisaea) were flying about. I saw my first wild moose at a fair distance; later I would see one resting very close to the boardwalk, but so screened by brush that only its bulbous head was visible. Canada geese (Branta canadensis), Northern pintails (Anas acuta), and green-winged teal (Anas crecca) were easily viewed. Several breeding-plumaged pairs of red-necked phalaropes (Phalaropus lobatus) were feeding in shallow pools. Lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) plied the edges, calling or flying occasionally. Other birds seen here were Northern shoveler (Anas clypeata), a flying mature bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), savannah sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis), and at last a lifer, BLACK-BILLED MAGPIE (Pica hudsonia) (which somehow I had missed on all previous trips west). The magpie and a raven were contending for a prize telephone pole perch, which made for an interesting interaction.
A juvenile peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) flew through and I pointed it out to some other nature-watchers. Sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) stood well off from the boardwalk, and tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) were perched in many spots. Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) and white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) were also widely evident.
From there I continued on to a place I’d researched in advance, the Glen Alps Trailhead (or “Flattop,” as the locals call it). Here I was hoping to catch up with a bird that had eluded me by a couple of days in its once-in-a-lifetime Central New York appearance last winter, and by a couple of weeks in its more customary New Mexico habitat just a few months earlier: the gray-crowned rosy-finch. While it was getting toward afternoon, this was not intended to be my real push for the bird. I just wanted to get the lay of the land so that when I hit the area the next morning, I wouldn’t be risking delays in getting to the prime area early.
After some false starts I found the beginning of the trail across a picturesque valley to Little O’Malley Peak. Along the way I saw many varied thrushes (Ixoreus naevius), the first of the species I had seen since my life bird (a vagrant in central Ohio), and heard their quavering single-note song. One of the redpolls here proved to be of the hoary persuasion (Acanthis hornemanni); although we get them regularly in winter around my hometown, it’s always nice to see one. More birds along the trail included gray jay (Perisoreus canadensis) and orange-crowned warbler (Oreothlypis celata). As I crossed the valley and started up the mountain, I was surprised to hear Wilson’s snipe (Gallinago delicata) winnowing; apparently this is normal habitat for them but it was odd to hear snipe outside of wetland areas. A Northern harrier (Circus cyaneus) pounced on something behind some bushes on the upslope and I tracked a singing fox sparrow (Passerella illiaca) to a small fir. Next I found my first breeding-plumaged golden-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla), a very cooperative bird that came in close to show its black-bordered yellow cap, and I heard a singing pine siskin (Spinus pinus).
Satisfied that I’d scouted the trail adequately, I turned back short of the real uphill climb and returned to the car. After a quick stop for lunch I visited Hillside Park, one of two extensive joined parks with good trail systems near the university. It was getting pretty warm and although I had many of the same birds as I had already seen, the only new bird for the trip was an olive-sided flycatcher (Contopus cooperi) singing from a tall bare trunk.
After a long day, I grabbed dinner and headed back to the Moose Den for some well-earned shuteye.
I was up early, and thanks to the previous day’s work, was able to drive directly to the trailhead and be up in excellent rosy-finch territory before 7 a.m. The result was...nothing. Not a single miserable rosy-finch. Skunked for the third time in a year.
On the other hand, I had many studies of birds not very familiar to me, including golden-crowned sparrows virtually at my feet, good views of varied thrushes, and more orange-crowned warblers. Also, the view from near the peak of Little O’Malley was well worth the climb, as I was able to look out over Anchorage’s southern suburbs and across the inlet to the mountains beyond.
When the morning waned I headed down, caught a quick lunch, removed my bags to a closet where I’d been told I could leave them after checkout, and ran to Hillside Park again. Several hours of hiking in unseasonably warm temperatures led me to multiple boreal chickadees (Poecile hudsonicus) - one within sight of the parking lot - and an invisible, but singing, Townsend’s warbler (Setophaga townsendi).
With a few hours left in the afternoon before I was to meet up with the VENT group, I took the proprietor’s advice and ran the road down to Girdwood. I’m not fond of driving tours, but I would recommend this drive to anyone visiting the area as something that absolutely should not be skipped. It’s only about a half hour, and it’s easily one of the most beautiful roads I’ve ever driven. You’re running between the base of tall foothills and the glistening river, and across the river are dramatic mountains with their feet virtually in the water. Every turn is another heart-stopping view. For the birding crew, there is an added bonus that Northwestern crows are regular visitors to the gas station just before Girdwood; unfortunately I didn’t know this at the time, or I would have stopped and added another life bird.
Around dinnertime I met the other participants in the VENT tour, along with guides Kevin Zimmer and David Wolf, at the Coast International Inn. We were an interesting mix; several of the other tour members were ABA listers, as might be expected given the expedition to Gambell, but that isn’t really one of my passions.
After dinner we headed to the nearby Westchester Lagoon, where we spent a pleasant hour or so surveying a smallish pond with a few tiny islets. Here, in addition to more red-necked phalaropes and other birds already seen at Potter Marsh by me, we found a Nelson’s gull (herring X glaucous hybrid), red-necked grebe (Podiceps grisegena), common loon (Gavia immer), canvasback (Aythya valisineria), lesser scaup (Aythya affinis), and - a rarity for Anchorage - Eurasian starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), the only ones we would see on the tour.
My room was clean and comfortable, but other participants complained that their rooms were stultifyingly hot that night. It seemed to depend on whether you had a window and whether the window faced toward the night sun.
We caught an early flight to Nome. In Nome, as we were switching from the “real airport” - a structure that had, I believe, eight rooms, two of which were bathrooms - to the Bering Air “terminal” - a structure that had aspirations to being a garage - some of the participants heard a gray-cheeked thrush (Catharus minimus) singing, and we saw a pectoral sandpiper (Calidris melanotos) fly through.
On to Gambell. A short hour and a half over a blanket of cloud and fog had us all in suspense; it wasn’t unheard-of for this ride to end with the captain announcing the fog had descended at the landing strip, forcing a return to Anchorage without touching down. Luck was with us, however - as it would turn out to be generally with the weather - and we arrived at Gambell ahead of schedule.
Saint Lawrence Island turned out to be significantly more hospitable than it had been advertised. It’s a matter of what you’re used to. The folks from southern spots like New Mexico thought they’d died and gone to hell in winter with the furnace out. If you regularly spend hours manning a scope on the shore of Lake Ontario in February...eh. It was kind of chilly.
Of course, it was June. I suspect it would push my limits to bird there in winter.
The thing about St. Lawrence Island is it’s situated within spitting distance of the International Date Line, and only thirty-seven miles from Russia. From the shore near Gambell, on a clear day, yes, you can see across the Bering Strait to the sea-cliffs of Siberia. During migration season, westerly winds will bring Asian vagrants, as they had in the week and a half before our arrival. Reports of brambling, gray-tailed tattler, and Temminck’s stint had tantalized us before the start of the tour. Now our anticipation was muted; we knew the rarities of the previous weeks had disappeared, and the winds had shifted from the southeast - more likely to bring familiar North American stragglers than foreign birds.
As it turned out, Gambell was tolerant of our lack of faith, and generous beyond reasonable expectations. But, again, we’ll get to that.
The first bird seen on the island was a breeding-plumaged male snow bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis); they’re ubiquitous around the village. After we stowed our stuff at the basic but comfortable Aurora Inn, we headed back down past the airstrip to a small wetland patch near the base of a hill-slash-local mountain called Sivuqaq. Here we had long-billed dowitchers (Limnodromus scolopaceus) streak through without touching down, and soon located a common ringed plover (Charadrius hiaticula) that came up on the road, a bird that had been reported previously. Kevin and Dave reviewed with us the key factors to distinguish between semipalmated and common ringed plovers, including back and wing color, extent of orange on the bill, and prominence of the postorbital eyebrow.
While we were working on these diagnostic issues, we viewed the first of many, many Lapland longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus) in full breeding plumage. Some sempalmated plovers (Charadrius semipalmatus) showed up allowing comparison with their Asiatic cousins.
Next we hiked across the pea gravel to the western beach near the northwestern point of the island. This is a unique shelf composed entirely of sea-rounded pebbles averaging about a half-inch in diamaeter; you could dig down easily with your hands, and it was all pebbles all the way down. That day we couldn’t see the far continent but there were scattered ice floes and a banquet of birds. From this spot we scoped out “Vega” herring gulls (Larus argentatus vega), glaucous gulls (Larus hyperboreus), Northern fulmars (Fulmarus gracialis), and pelagic cormorants (Phalacrocorax pelagicus). One of several white wagtails (Motacilla alba) breeding on the island entertained us in the near boneyard. The seawatch also yielded a flyby ARCTIC LOON (Gavia arctica), showing the white rising high on the sides of the rump; “black” brant (Branta bernicla); and a host of seabirds, including LEAST AUKLETS (Aethia pusilla), HORNED PUFFINS (Fratercula corniculata) with their large orange bills, TUFTED PUFFINS (Fratercula cirrhata) with yellow sprigs curving back from their eyebrows, darker and moodier CRESTED AUKLETS (Aethia cristatella), THICK-BILLED MURRES (Uria lomvia), King eiders (Somateria spectabilis), black-legged kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla), and Pacific loons (Gavia pacifica).
We then turned to the first strip of land beyond the beach, called the “boatyard” because the Yupiq locals store boats upside-down on wooden props there. Whale heads are stripped down and the unused portions left to rot in this area, so there are several enormous jawbones with varying sheaths of decaying meat and sometimes baleen. Sometimes when Asiatic vagrants like hawfinches show up, Kevin and Dave told us, they will use the rotting jawbones like suet feeders. Big and extremely pungent suet feeders. All we ever saw at the boatyard were longspurs and wagtails on our trip.
Just beyond the boatyard was the “near boneyard.” If the boatyard seemed a morbid place to bird, it had nothing on the Gambell boneyards, which were easily the most curious birding locations I’ve ever visited. It took the interactions of three unrelated factors - paleoanthropologic culture, weather patterns, and the tourist trade - to shape the areas into prime birding spots. I’m sure a great deal has been written about them so I’ll be brief.
The island has been inhabited by subsistence hunters for at least ten or twelve thousand years; they catch bears, whales, walrus, and the like. Over than the almost-impossible-to-move giant jawbones of the whales, the detritus of the carcasses have been dumped for millennia in a few distinct fields near the village. With the practice being constant over such an extended period of time, it has created a unique habitat of nearly unvegetated dark ground liberally spotted with bones.
The advent of tourism has caused demand for carved ivory to outstrip the influx of fresh kills. So the Yupiqs have taken to digging in the boneyards for old ivory (which acquires a brownish cast) to carve and sell to visitors and in Nome. This practice has turned the boneyards into a swath of shallow pits. When birds from Asia accidentally end up on the island, they often take shelter from the cold wind in the pits, and forage in the boneyards.
It has thus become a tradition for birders to spread out in a line and cross the boneyards, scaring up vagrants from the pits, much as birders at Anahuac in Texas will spread out and walk across shallow marshes to start up scarce rails. It’s sometimes called “stomping the boneyard” but I’m trying to resist that.
Our first pass through the near boneyard yielded a varied thrush - not the Asiatic vagrant we were hoping for, but a fairly decent find for Gambell. We didn’t spot anything else and headed back to the lodge.
This would be a good point to insert a short description of Gambell and its inhabitants. There are no igloos or other such stereotypical Eskimo dwellings here; the houses do tend to be fairly simple and small, and some verge on ratty shacks. As with all remote-dwelling groups these days, everybody has a cell phone and is thus presumably familiar with friending, Skype, and Rick-rolling. Although the village is only about a half mile across, give or take, you rarely see anyone over the age of ten walking. Instead the mode of transportation of choice is the ATV - frequently driven at high speed.
The locals peddle homemade wares to tourists: ivory, both new and old, carved to look like whales, owls, and the like. Most of it is pretty simple in form but some carvers take the time to add detail such as feathers. Occasionally walrus whiskers or whale baleen are incorporated into the sculptures. Don’t be afraid to haggle. Generally they show up around dinnertime, but Kevin told us a story about a woman who remained behind to sleep rather than take in an optional birding excursion, and who was awakened by a Yupiq guy, leaning over her cot, asking if she wanted to buy any carvings. I’m not sure what her piercing shriek translated to in Yupiq, but I suspect the meaning was clear.
Getting back to the narrative of our trip, most of the tour members decided to take a break from birding after dinner. I was unwilling to pass up the chance for more Bering Sea birdwatching so I headed back to the seawatch. An hour or so turned up a squad of red phalaropes (Phalaropus fulicarius) on the water, a flyby Pomarine jaeger (Stercorarius pomarinus), a pod of gray whales, a pigeon guillemot (Cepphus columba), and a handful of long-tailed ducks (Clangula hyemalis).
The sun was still shining when I finally hit the hay.
Our first full day at Gambell began with another seawatch. A distant loon on the water proved to be an adult yellow-billed loon (Gavia adamsii) - the first time I had seen an adult, let alone a breeding-plumaged individual. I was very pleased with my scope’s performance at the seawatches. It was a Nikon Fieldscope III with a zoom eyepiece, and the zoom turned a vaguely loonlike spot on the water into a pretty decent and detailed view of the bird. We also had our first common murre (Uria aalge) of the trip, and an EMPEROR GOOSE (Chen canagica) flew past toward the point. A few white-winged scoters (Melanitta fusca) also made an appearance, and many PARAKEET AUKLETS (Aethia psittacula) fed in the morning waters. Before we left a trio of harlequin ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus) flew in and floated close to our position on the shore.
On our way back from an enjoyable seawatch we again plied the near boneyard, turning up a gray-cheeked thrush that had been brought in by the southeast winds.
After lunch we took the south road out of town, checking the small wetland on the way (where the common ringed plover and white wagtail made repeat appearances), and continued on along the base of the foothills of Sivuqaq Mountain. As we walked, we heard via radio that a Steller’s eider had been seen flying over the boneyard - from where we stood it was probably visible to us, if only we had been looking in that direction!
The slopes below the road yielded more longspurs and a handful of Western sandpipers (Calidris mauri) and dunlin (Calidris alpina) with well-developed belly patches. After a refreshing walk the road bore away from the hills into some flats with melting shallow pools. A streamlet featured a tattler and we did our level best to convert it into a gray-tailed, but when Kevin approached it close enough to study the fine details he announced it was simply a deceptively marked wandering tattler (Tringa incana).
The disappointment at the continued nonappearance of Asiatic vagrants was extremely short-lived. Kevin was still examining the tattler when a call came through on the radio. The news was electrifying: a megararity had been seen and was flying out “over the marsh.” The immediate question - which marsh? - was quickly answered as one of the participants stabbed a finger up in the sky. With that, we were treated to the fantastic sight of a near-adult WHITE-TAILED EAGLE (Haliaeetus albicilla) soaring and circling virtually directly overhead! We happily discussed the short white diamond-shaped tail, light head and neck, and oddly paddle-shaped wings (two of us independently thought of the tropical hook-billed kite) while the bird lent us long minutes of its time.
This was such an unlikely find that I hadn’t even dared to put it on my “wish list” for the trip. There was a bird in the eighties that flew past a hawkwatch in my area that many thought was a white-tailed eagle; it was before I was really a birder, but I’ve often wished that I’d been there that day. To be present for this incontestable sighting was thus very special to me and I was holding back a whoop of victory until it was gone. When the eagle finally coasted off beyond viewing distance, Kevin started to comment that he wasn’t sure we understood what a stroke of fortune we’d just enjoyed, and I cut him off by venting that pent-up howl.
On the way back to the village we spotted one of the rough-legged hawks (Buteo lagopus) that nest on the cliff. Some folks rode most of the way back on an ATV, but a few of us stuck it out for the long walk. We slept well and soundly that night, contented by the thought that we’d had a bird that by itself was worth the whole trip, the one sighting that would eclipse all the others in significance.
Oh, were we wrong.
The next morning we rose very early, ate a quick breakfast, and quick-marched to the foot of Sivuqaq east of the village. Above us reached a cliff that bore seabirds plentiful as grains of dust - least and parakeet and crested auklets, common and thick-billed murres, tufted and horned puffins in profusion. It’s difficult to convey the experience of standing before a towering rise of rock with the mingled rumor of thousands of birds drifting down, and swarms drifting occasionally like smoke from the crest.
Once we had imbibed the spectacle, we turned scopes on the cliffs and enjoyed fantastic views of individual perched birds. We had an ulterior motive, though, as we were searching the multitudes for the few pairs of dovekies known to roost there. Unfortunately several hours of scrutiny did not turn up the target birds, and it got pretty cold in the shadow of the cliff. Not Lake-Ontario-February cold, but cold enough that my fingers started to hurt pretty good, and an hour or so beyond that point I was ready to quit.
Foiled on the dovekies, we moved north along the cliff foot back into the sunshine, where we could view the north shore of the island. It was a good deal warmer in the sun. Here I spotted three flying red-breasted mergansers (Mergus serrator), but was unable to get anyone other than Dave and Kevin on the birds before they were gone. Another bird flying away from us was a likely greater white-fronted goose, but we couldn’t see the face to confirm the identification. Some folks got on an Arctic fox but it disappeared before I found the spot. Other than those sightings, we didn’t pick up anything we hadn’t seen on the other beach.
After lunch I returned to the seawatch alone. More crested auklets were around, as well as varying numbers of the other common seabirds. The highlight came when a longtime nemesis was laid to rest - a LONG-TAILED JAEGER (Stercorarius longicaudus) sailed past at no very great distance. After that I sat down to relax for a bit and made a welcome discovery: although there was a fair nip in the air, the sun had warmed the pebbles of the beach, making for an exceedingly pleasant seat.
The rest of the group was just approaching the beach when four sandhill cranes flew along the strand overhead, and a couple of people in the lead shared the sighting with me. I told of the jaeger sighting, and after a while another member of the clan appeared: a light-morph parasitic jaeger (Stercorarius parasiticus).
As the afternoon wore on we had various other sightings of ducks, loons, and seabirds seen before. Then Kevin gave a choking roar: “SPECTACLED EIDER!” (Somateria fischeri.) Two birds were slicing past at mad speed, but we all managed to get on them. Luckily, one returned and made a water landing a ways down, so we repositioned and had pretty good scope looks, even allowing examination of the ring marking around the eye. Later we had a good chuckle about Kevin’s announcement - he explained he was caught in a cough and was worried he wouldn’t get the warning out in time.
The last new trip bird of the day was a black guillemot (Cepphus grylle) placidly coasting along the edge of an ice floe.
On our last full day at Gambell we rose happy in the thought that the bird of the trip had been seen, and everything beyond it was just gravy. Heh.
That morning we tried again at the foot of Sivuqaq, and this time found the DOVEKIES (Alle alle) - at least four at a time, in fact. We had all the time we wanted to study the stubby little seabirds, with their monklike black cowls and almost invisibly small bills. Damn cute.
Returning to the seawatch, we had our first common eiders (Somateria mollissima) of the trip. After an hour or so, Kevin called out a pair of STELLER’S EIDERS (Polysticta stelleri); they were already well past us, so our only views were from the back, but getting both rare species of eider is uncommon enough on Gambell trips these days that we didn’t begrudge the sighting. We had swept the four palearctic species of eider, leaving only Magellanic eider, which is never seen because I just made it up.
A flight call caught my attention, and Kevin and Dave identified it as an Eastern yellow wagtail. I didn’t chase it at that point as we were pretty much guaranteed the bird on the mainland, but one of the tour participants headed up with Dave and spotted it.
Eventually the rest of us wandered back from the seawatch. Kevin and I and another participant detoured into the boneyard to see if anything unusual had dropped in. We were pretty spread out when Kevin called that he’d started something up; he said it was small - smaller than a longspur - and drab-colored. We didn’t say it until later, but both he and I immediately went to the Asian Phylloscopus warblers in our minds. Unfortunately we didn’t relocate the bird at that time and after several passes we gave up.
Another seawatch in the afternoon yielded no new birds for the trip, but more decent looks at the Beringian specialties (not including the rare eiders) and a rather unhappy ringside viewing of a low-tech whale hunt. I’m happy to report that the hunt appeared to be unsuccessful. It got warm enough that I ditched my sweater for fifteen minutes or so, just to say I’d sat on the shore of the Bering Sea in short sleeves. It was still a bit too chilly for that to be completely comfortable, but...ahhh, what the hell.
Eventually Kevin received radio news that an Asiatic shorebird had been seen in the wet flatlands we’d visited around the heel of Sivuqaq the day before. It took a while to round up some ATVs to ferry the lot of us over to the site, but eventually we all set up with scopes to scrutinize a pair of RED-NECKED STINTS (Calidris ruficollis) that were both cooperative and brightly-marked.
We gathered in the lodge for a late dinner and then commenced a massive trip-list-updating session. During this time Kevin’s radio crackled to life. It was Paul Lehman, one of the premier experts on Gambell avifauna, who was letting Kevin know he’d tracked down an Eastern yellow wagtail in the near boneyard, just in case any of the tour participants wanted to get a look at it. Kevin thanked him but said he thought we would probably continue with our list updating rather than chase the bird.
Not two minutes later the radio crackled again and I went on full alert. If it was Paul, he knew we were updating our list and unlikely to chase anything less than a real prize. This just might be the start of a classic Gambell bird chase.
It was Paul. “Uh, Kevin?”
“Uh, yes, Paul?”
“I found your bird in the near boneyard, and it’s a Siberian chiffchaff.”
You’d have thought a bomb had gone off in the room, as people scattered like shrapnel. The word “chiffchaff” hadn’t even come out before I had snatched my things from the table and bolted for my room to get my boots, coat, binoculars, and scope. Still going at top speed I was the first one out of the lodge and I literally sprinted down the hard-packed road toward the boneyard.
When I reached the boneyard I quickly located Paul; he had lost sight of the bird near one of the villagers’ houses, but in a few moments we started it up again, and I had a really great binocular view of it on the ground - good enough to see the eyebrow and eyeline, overall Phylloscopus shape, and olive-gray back and wings untroubled by other markings.
Soon Kevin and Dave and the other tour participants caught up to us, and for about forty-five minutes we tracked the flighty bird through and around the boneyard. Kevin, Paul, and one of the tour participants who had proved quite adept with his camera each got numerous pictures. I managed to get the bird in the scope several times but the terrain and the bird’s habits did not admit of very long views. At length, however, I was fully satisfied with the experience - if not with the identification.
Also while we were following our quarry around the boneyard, the Eastern yellow wagtail was occasionally evident. I did not, however, pay it much attention, as I was focused on the main issue.
As you might expect, there followed a couple of hours back at the lodge examining the pictures that had been taken and comparing them to the reference materials we had available. Prolonged discussions of back color, bill shape and size, leg color, eyebrow characteristics, and particularly primary extension ensued. Another contender for the bird’s identity developed. By the end of the night opinion was veering toward the other possibility: willow warbler. Paul sent out the pictures by e-mail to a number of people with more experience with the Phylloscopus genus.
The issue was still in doubt when I finally took to bed, amazed at our good fortune.
Over the next few days a consensus emerged: the bird was not a Siberian chiffchaff, but within the range of variability for one of the east-Siberian races of willow warbler - making our sighting the the tenth record for North America, and the very first spring record.
However, as I was preparing this report, more input came from one of the first people who suggested the willow warbler possibility. With a complete set of our pictures to examine rather than the few he’d initially reviewed, he conducted a thorough analysis and concluded pretty confidently that the bird was in fact a Siberian chiffchaff (Phylloscopus tristis). While a first spring record for North America would have been nice, I’m happy with this result (assuming it stands up), since the chiffchaff would be a...
...FIRST NORTH AMERICAN RECORD.
We were left to our own devices for the morning, which proved a windy and chill one. Following breakfast I went to visit the small wetland area on the near side of Sivuqaq, seeing the common ringed plover and some red-necked phalaropes again, and then returned to the lodge to join folks heading to the landing strip. Our trip back to Nome was without incident, and Dave observed that a visit to Gambell without delays going or coming and without any serious inclement weather or fog to interrupt the birding was nearly unheard-of.
In Nome we had lunch and then took the Council road. Several shacks on posts were south of the city; they were fishing or hunting shacks, mostly pretty simple and poorly-maintained, and their weathered sides bore mute testimony to the ferocious Nome winters. The barren scene, with its sparse collection of ramshackle outposts, moved the spirit of poetry in me, inspiring the following verse: “Man. I bet there’s some weird shit gone down in those shacks.” There were several murmurs of assent, and then Kevin suggested we end our speculation there. Motion carried with no dissenters.
We detoured east on the Kougarek road for a short distance. A passerine perched on a sign to the left of the van and I called it as the EASTERN YELLOW WAGTAIL (Motacilla tschutschensis) I’d neglected to worry about on St. Lawrence Island. I enjoy wagtails; their shape, while not bizarre or ornate, is distinct enough from any of the familiar American bird species that they always carry a slight exotic tang.
A little further on we picked up our first Pacific golden-plover (Pluvialis fulva) of the trip, and then a real surprise for the Nome area: a barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) perched on a telephone wire. Soon we reached the dump, where birders go for gulls. One of our party needed a species that had been reported there recently, and a few minutes’ sifting through the Vega herring and glaucous and mew gulls produced a lifer for him, a slaty-backed gull (Larus schistisagus).
With the dump taken care of, we returned to the Council road and started south again, stopping at the river. From the bridge we scoped a couple of distant BAR-TAILED GODWITS (Limosa lapponica), male and female. Dave called our attention to a house-sparrow-like call uttered by the ALEUTIAN TERN (Onychoprion aleuticus) hunting overhead.
We kept heading south, coming to the near edge of Safety Lagoon, and saw breeding-plumaged red-throated loons (Gavia stellata), Arctic loons, various ducks, and several shorebirds of the common varieties. New birds for the trip were tundra swan (Cygnus columbianus), semipalmated sandpiper (Calidris pusilla), bank swallow (Riparia riparia), and some remarkably red-headed sanderlings (Calidris alba).
The Kougarek road is one of the highlights of Nome-area birding and we were set to spend the entire day in the field enjoying its avian treasures. Turning off the Council road, we had a herd of muskox watch from the fields no very great distance from the street. The first of many willow ptarmigans (Lagopus lagopus) showed on the roadside; this was the first time I’d seen the species in its classic white plumage, as my previous experience had been with the “red grouse” form in Scotland. A special stop in suitable habitat produced a tape-lured ARCTIC WARBLER (Phylloscopus borealis) that sat up and sang nicely for us - our second Phylloscopus species of the trip. Yellow warblers (Setophaga petechia) complicated matters in this area; some of our group were from the west and had little experience with the handsome rufous streaks that characterize the chests of the males of this species.
Driving on, we turned up our first rock ptarmigan (Lagopus muta), which Dave picked up half-hidden in some scrub. Again, the white plumge and black eye-mark were new to me, as I had only seen the “ptarmigan” variety of this bird in Scotland in full (mostly mottled brown) plumage. A golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) soared over a ridge and gave us good looks at the wash of blonde on its nape; below we saw some reindeer that were free-ranged by the locals, including a doe and her young. Another field hosted a short-eared owl (Asio flammeus) that watched us for a while and then delighted us with its floppy flight style.
At a turnoff for a wilderness recreation area, Salmon Lake, Kevin and I and another participant simultaneously recognized a somewhat mockingbird-like song as one he had played for us earlier, and we called it out in unison. Everybody piled out of the vans and we spent the next half-hour or so luring one of several BLUETHROATS (Luscinia svecica) in for good views. At first the birds were distant sightings flitting among bushes by small ponds below us, but presently we had one perch up beautifully and I was able to get long views both from the back and the front. The blue-margined red throat was striking in the sunshine.
After a rest stop at the lake, we continued on, stopping for several repeat performances of ptarmigan and the like. We came to a known nest site and soon had a gray-phase gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) in the scopes. Again, my scope’s zoom feature proved its worth, as I was able to turn a small raptorial shape into a full-bodied view of the bird perched just outside its nest. It flexed and vaned for us, showing the patterning on the underwing and the barring on the thighs. It was only the second time I’d ever seen a gyrfalcon, which is one of my favorite birds.
We stopped for lunch where a small creek passed under a bridge. The swallows here included cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota), and we had closer views of bar-tailed godwits here. Blackpoll warblers (Setophaga striata) and Northern waterthrushes sang persistently here but required a good deal of coaxing to come into view. We also had American tree sparrow (Spizella arborea) singing here - a great find for many of the trip participants from the south, and a reminder of a common winter feeder bird for me.
One of our group started feeling under the weather here, and after lunch it wasn’t long before he had to call a halt so he could regurgitate off the road. The guy was a trooper, insisting that we continue our trip and not return to the hotel despite his having to call occasional halts for further episodes. Unfortunately, he was not up to the climb for our next bird, which was one of the major planned targets of the trip, and I felt pretty bad for him.
However, birds don’t make allowances for illness, and at a hill near (but not identical to) a peak the locals call “Coffee Mountain,” the rest of us started a climb of middling length on a fairly gradual slope. Dave and Kevin had strenuously warned us that the terrain was tricky because it consisted of lumps of vegetation alternating with small holes, and the climb was going to be a challenge. However, it turned out to be a fairly easy trek, reminding me of trying to navigate brush and deadfalls under concealing snow (which is to say, my back property in winter). Several whimbrels (Numenius phaeopus) appeared, and then we heard the flight song of the target bird and angled in that direction. We overshot, and another group that had showed up called us back, where we all triangulated on the first of three or four BRISTLE-THIGHED CURLEWS (Numenius tahitienus). Dave and Kevin explained the differentiating features, particularly the mantle spot color and pectoral-sandpiper-like streaking pattern, and we all enjoyed the sight of this rare breeding shorebird.
It took well over an hour to get everyone collected back at the vans - some people had to really take the descent slowly for safety’s sake - and then we moved on. Our next stop was at a site of dirt mounds with bulldozers and backhoes, where Kevin taped in a male and female Northern wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe). Once we’d all had excellent looks at the birds, we relaxed for a while, and I climbed up into the story-high driver’s compartment of one of the backhoes. It was unlocked, of course, because really - where was someone going to hide a twenty-five-foot-tall stolen backhoe in that open wilderness? I’m not actually a fan of motor vehicles in general, but even I had to admit it would be quite a ride.
Heading back, we picked up a great taverni cackling goose (Branta hutchinsii taverni), and also spotted our first definite greater white-fronted goose (Anser albirfrons) on a pond.
By this time whatever afflicted our tour compatriot had also seized hold of Kevin, who was starting a long ride downhill of his own. Nevertheless, he turned the van and retraced our route about a mile back when the report came from the second van that a bear had been sighted. We had all been somewhat surprised at the lack of bears on the trip - or “b’ars,” as I’d humorously referred to them, leading to everyone talking about wanting to see a “b’ar” - so we were pleased to have at least one. When we got back to the spot, the bear, a honey-colored grizzly, had dropped down into the brush and was invisible, but presently it sat up again and we could see its massive face and muzzle. It was well off up the hill from the road but it soon started chugging in our general direction, and those things can really move in their natural habitat. When it was out of sight in denser vegetation we stuck close to the vans, as you might understand. Then, just down the road, a small raptor landed - a merlin (Falco columbarius), actually standing on the road itself. We had great looks at the bird in this unusual circumstance.
We returned our attention to the area where the bear had disappeared, and suddenly an unmarked military Blackhawk helicopter came from our right, rushed along the ridge, and disappeared to our left, leaving us with nothing but questions. It was surreal. Things like this keep happening to me when I’m birding, like the time I was charged by an emu in the middle of Ohio. I’ve consulted with experts who tell me I should expect more of this sort of thing. It’s just life, they say.
With the “grizzle b’ar” gone and probably driven to ground by the passage of the helicopter, we resumed our way back along the Kougarek road. As we were nearing the intersection with the Council road some houses with telephone wires showed up, and I scanned the wires carefully because I knew they would likely host a bird that would be a lifer (and a nemesis bird) for several people on the trip. Sure enough, I was able to call out a Northern shrike (Lanius excubitor) pretty much where I expected one to be, and several folks were gratified to get on the bird. I felt good about that until I glanced at Kevin - he’d gotten worse as the trip went on and it was clear he was close to collapsing. He later confessed that for the last several miles of our day’s trip he was trying to keep it together until the hotel, and the stop for the shrike just about did him in. Sorry, Kevin!
We did make it to the hotel before Kevin’s fun resumed. He had, as I understand, a fairly rotten night of it. On the up side, the worst symptoms didn’t last more than a day for either him or the original victim of the mystery illness, and no-one else seemed to catch it, so things were mostly back to rights by the middle of the next day.
Our final full day in Alaska was primarily spent on the Teller road north of Nome. The predominant species along this vegetation-poor tundra were shorebirds. We climbed a road with a rock-strewn slope stretching away on each side.
Somehow Kevin spotted a ROCK SANDPIPER (Calidris ptilocnemis) well off the road despite its cryptic coloration, and we stopped for long looks. It soon crossed the road and got very friendly with us - to the point that Kevin and other photographers in our group had to keep backing away from it in order to be able to focus their cameras.
We had already seen more Pacific golden-plovers along the route, and here we also picked up American golden-plover (Pluvialis dominica), noting the different length of the white fringe in the breeding plumage. An American pipit (Anthus rubescens) showed up too.
Continuing on up to the top of the plateau we ran into a couple of graduate students who were doing shorebird studies. Nearby I scared up a couple of horned larks (Eremophila alpestris) and the others soon had good looks as well.
We then went back down the hill, crossed the Teller road, and explored some areas heading out toward the sea. Black-bellied plovers (Pluvialis squatarola) showed here and a ruddy turnstone (Arenaria interpres) flew by while we took a pit stop. All along the route we had long-tailed jaegers on nest sites.
Nothing else new appeared and we soon returned to the hotel. That evening a somewhat reduced group of us went on a tour around Safety Lagoon, finding a pleasing assemblage of ducks, swans, and common shorebirds. We found a least sandpiper (Calidris minutilla) among the other peeps.
At one point we came upon a little kid, not more than three, running buck naked along the road. We were past hm before we could react (other than laughter, of course). Another kid of five or so - this one fully clothed - came running toward the van, yelling frantically for us to help him get his little brother. Just behind him was a very unamused-looking fellow, apparently the grandfather, in hot pursuit in (if I recall correctly) a sort of dune buggy. The family was reunited without us needing to help and we just shook our heads and carried on.
Coming back along the ocean we scoped out some very distant white-winged scoters that Kevin had been told to check over as possible members of the stejnegeri subspecies. They looked right to me based on the criteria as expressed by Kevin.
Our last day we did a quick run south of town, finding another slaty-backed gull and another red-necked stint down at the river.
That afternoon we flew back to Anchorage and went our separate ways. My flight back was through Chicago, where delays forced me once again to sprint through the airport to make my connection, but I made it all right, although my luggage took several hours to catch up with me back home.