Birding Alaska: Gambell I: Trip Report (2010)

Tour Dates: May 23-29, 2010

Report and photos by Dave Krueper

The High Lonesome Birdtours Gambell I Trip was a resounding success overall. Although the snow cover at Gambell was the highest in the last ten years, the weather cooperated for the participants, but might not have been the best for potential rarities. Nonetheless, we recorded a total of 60 species while in Anchorage, a very good total of 70 species while in Gambell, and the total trip list totaled 121 species for the two areas combined.

23 May 2010
The trip started with a “Meet -n- Greet” session at the Coast International Hotel, where we made introductions and chatted with the other 13 members of the trip. David and Jennifer MacKay (primary leader and chef extraordinaire respectively) were already at Gambell and busy with preparations for our arrival and thus were not available tonight, but we later surely appreciated their organization and epicurean skills. Forrest Davis gave us all a brief introduction to the tour, and then we departed for an hour of birding at Westchester Lagoon in Anchorage before dinner at Orso’s.

While only spending a relatively brief period of time at Westchester, we were able to study at leisure 12 species of waterfowl, and had spectacular views of Red-necked Grebe, five Hudsonian Godwits, American Herring Gull, Arctic Tern, five species of swallow and a very cooperative Rusty Blackbird, which allowed all to see it well before we departed for dinner.

Orso’s was great as usual, and we retired to bed with anticipation of the days upcoming on St. Lawrence Island.

Red-necked Grebe

24 May 2010
We had a departure time for Nome at 11:05 am which allowed for some leisurely birding around the hotel and at Lake Hood adjacent to the hotel. Since sunrise comes early, some participants chose to do some birding and then have breakfast, and finish final packing arrangements before our departure to the airport at 8:30 am. Shuttle to the airport and checking in went well, but we were delayed one hour on the runway due to a hydraulic issue. Better safe than sorry though! Arriving one-hour late in Nome set our lunch plans back a bit, but we quickly made our baggage exchange to Bering Air and got on to our plane and rocketed off to Gambell.

The flight out was uneventful, but that nagging feeling of “what am I missing on the island?” was on our minds as we cleared the clouds to the north of the island and then landed at the Gambell airstrip. But as it turned out, we had little to fear since the snow totals in the area were the highest in many years and it was only 35ºF with 15 mph winds from the south. David MacKay and the staff from the Sivuqaq Hotel were there to meet us and transport our luggage to our rustic but very comfortable lodging at the Siviqaq where we were to be staying for the next five nights. (Note: “Sivuqaq” is Russian Yupik for “to squeeze” and although I have no idea if that is a local term for something which happened in the past, it would make sense that the term originated from a description of the narrow straights which birds migrate through between Far Eastern Siberia and Gambell). We had a late lunch, and then ventured out for a foray in the Near Boneyard for about an hour before coming back and getting some instruction on use and safety of the ATVs. While in the Near Boneyard, we were able to see one Common Ringed Plover and a Common Snipe (which most or all of the group managed good looks at). While the Common Ringed-Plover has bred in the area and is nearly annual, the snipe was a great find.

We then departed for the South Marsh for the late afternoon where we spent the remainder of the afternoon and evening pouring over the birds there, and were rewarded in spectacular fashion by scope views of Lesser Sand-Plover, one Red-Throated Pipit, one Common Greenshank and several White Wagtails. This was a tremendous start to our tour, and we could not have asked for a better introduction to birding on Gambell. Back to the Sivuqaq by 9:00 pm for a late dinner and discussion on the following morning’s plans. Winds were still somewhat favorable, from the south and west, and we were very hopeful for the following day.

25 May 2010
Our expected routine became established today, with plenty of fresh coffee, tea and a light breakfast available at 5:30 am. We dressed in layers and then headed out to the Point to do some sea watching and in particular to look for the elusive Ivory Gull and Arctic Loons as they fly by the Point. The sheer total of alcids passing the Point from south to north was staggering, but we were unsuccessful in finding our target birds this morning. We did manage some great views of Yellow-Billed Loon, King, Common, and Spectacled Eiders in the morning. Looking to warm up, we headed back to the Sivuqaq for a full breakfast at 8:30 am.

After breakfast, we packed up for a trip to the Far Marsh and headed down the airport road as access. We spent several hours in the area to see if anything new had arrived, but beyond the expected Rock and Pectoral Sandpipers, we were unsuccessful. We scouted the road back to Gambell along the mountain to the east, then the Circular Boneyard and the north coast access to see if anything was hiding in the rocks. Calling it a “morning,” we headed back to the Sivuqaq for Jen’s lunch which consisted of home-made chicken soup and sandwiches which really warmed us up.

After an early afternoon break, we went back to the Near Boneyard to search for a female Brambling which had been discovered, but we dipped on that. We were pleased to get some more views of Common Ringed Plover and of course the always dapper Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs. While scouring the Boneyard, one of the leaders noticed some mischievous local boys turning our ATV fuel control switches from on to off, hoping to cause some confusion, but for naught. (The locals also were found to be fond of jumping on the roof of the Sivuqaq late at night just to let us know how much they appreciated our visit!). Back to the Point where we got some wonderful scope views of a sub-adult male Spectacled Eider which cooperatively remained for all to admire at leisure.

We decided to head back to the Sivuqaq for dinner at a normal hour (wonderful home-made macaroni and cheese casserole, salad and cauliflower) and then back to the Point for another attempt at some species we were seeking from 9:00pm – 10:30pm. We found a feeding frenzy of Northern Fulmars near the large iceberg, but little else and we called it a day by 11:00pm.
Common Ringed Plover.
26 May 2010
Routine established, we headed out to the Point and the Alcid Cliffs after a light breakfast, but with little to report. The high levels of snow on the Cliffs might have discouraged pioneering Dovekies to establish nesting cavities this early in the season, but we were determined to continue to search for early arrivals. Back to the Sivuqaq for pancakes, fried apples and reindeer sausage as the full breakfast.

Fortified, we drove the ATVs down the beach to the end of the airport runway to search for loafing gulls and ducks. Continuing down to the Lower Marsh, we found a Tundra Swan, Green-winged Teal, Common Ringed Plover, Pacific Golden-Plover, Semipalmated Sandpiper (about the 5th record for the island) and Dunlin. Receiving a radio transmission of a male Rustic Bunting in the Near Boneyard, we dashed out to the north, but could not re-locate the bird in the afternoon. We were instead rewarded with great views of two female Brambling, and one of the leaders saw a female Rustic Bunting near the Boneyard, which did not cooperate for the rest of the participants. Being such a rarity and a bird which most or all of the participants needed for their North American lists, we vowed to spend as much time as necessary to get good views of the species.

After a break for dinner of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, vegetables and coleslaw, we forayed back out for another attempt at the bunting, but were unsuccessful. Back to the Sivuqaq by 10:00 pm, and prepared for the next day.
27 May 2010
The day dawned with our third consecutive day of northeast winds and some clouds, not the hoped for combination since we were hoping for winds from the southwest for increased chances of having Asian vagrants making landfall. We had a quick early breakfast and then headed to the Near Boneyard with the specific target of finding the elusive Rustic Bunting. Within a short period of time we located the male Rustic Bunting and most of the group was able to get on to the flighty bird. We also checked the Old Town Shipyard and the “Bonehenge” sacred site on the south end of the Near Boneyard for new arrivals. Back to the Sivuqaq for a full breakfast where we plotted our next move.

The remainder of the morning was spent in the Near Boneyard where we successfully relocated the Rustic Bunting and then out to the Alcid Cliffs to search for Dovekie. Due to the heavy snow cover on the nesting cliffs, the birds were probably spending their time in the ocean off of the Point foraging for a few more days before investigating and claiming their nesting burrows. Nonetheless, we were all treated to spectacular views of thousands of Parakeet, Crested and Least Auklets in the open water and flying to and from the Cliffs.

Lunch was home-made hot mushroom soup and sandwiches which hit the spot after a cool morning in the field. In the early afternoon we headed back to the Near Boneyard to make another attempt at the Rustic Bunting and to see what else had arrived in the early morning. We were able to study the two female Bramblings from close range, and all members of the group were able to successfully get great and prolonged looks at this North American rarity. Additional bonus species included several Hoary Redpolls from close range, three Eastern Yellow Wagtails, one White Wagtail, and one American Pipit. The two Common Ringed Plovers and the Common Snipe remained in the Near Boneyard, but we were itching for something new and spectacular. Although the Yupik kids were wandering the Boneyard with their air rifles hunting for the endemic St. Lawrence Island Collared Lemming (and maybe a few birds as well), we were determined to continue to work the area as well as the Point for the duration of the trip for that elusive mega-rarity that was “sure” to turn up.

Out to the Point again to look for Arctic Loons and Ivory Gull. We noticed the large iceberg which had grounded there was beginning to break up, and the “Vega” Herring Gulls and Glaucous Gulls were not using it as much as in previous days. A Short-eared Owl flying over the Near Boneyard was a nice addition, and the two majestic and striking Emperor Geese which flew by the Point were appreciated by all participants.

Dinner by Jen was a wonderful salad and lasagna combination, the perfect way to end the day and to fill empty stomachs.

Rustic Bunting

28 May 2010
Our last full day in Gambell, we were hopeful for something special to show up for a grand send off. A totally clear day with winds from the northeast, we went out to the Seawatch site for an hour before our full breakfast. We were able to view the alcid spectacle where tens of thousands of birds streamed past us in both directions, moving to and from feeding areas and also passing as migrants further to the north… a wonderful sight.

After a hearty breakfast of French Toast and reindeer sausage, we gave the Alcid Cliffs a go. The Least and Parakeet Auklets did not disappoint, and we noted that the Thick-billed Murres outnumbered the Common Murres by a ratio of 20:1 today. As expected at this time of the year, the Pigeon Guillemots outnumbered the Black Guillemots by a factor of about 100:1, but we were able to see seven Blacks during the morning session. Notable was watching a Common Raven flying past with a Least Auklet in its beak, and then we watched as the raven dismembered the prey item and swallow it nearly whole. What a tough life these little alcids must have!

Back out to the mountain road on the east side of the lake where we found one Red-throated Pipit and two Eastern Yellow Wagtails, but little else. Continuing south to the Lower Marsh where we were greeted by a Parasitic Jaeger. A new Wood Sandpiper was discovered, which we all enjoyed. One of the leaders observed two larger shorebirds in the marshy vegetation at a distance and we got the group on the birds, which turned out to be Reeves (female Ruffs). David MacKay then located a male Black-Bellied Plover which rounded out a great morning at the south end of the normal circuit.

After lunch we spent the afternoon at the Near Boneyard. We spotted the Rustic Bunting briefly, but it was elusive and we walked a great deal to try to pin it down again without success. Dinner was a delicious pork loin with vegetables and salad, which fortified us for another seawatch session until calling it quits at nearly 10 pm.
29 May 2010
Since the participants were due to depart on the 10:00 am flight back to Nome, we chose to spend some time at the seawatch site where we admired the alcid spectacle with the mountains of the Siberian Far East as a backdrop one last time. We got everyone packed up and got the participants to the airport by 9:50 am when the flight from Nome arrived on time. Saying our good-byes, we parted ways as the group flew back to Nome and then depending on schedules, back to the Lower 48.

A wonderful trip, and I thank all of the participants for a most memorable experience!

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