Alaska 2024: Pribilofs, Gambell & Nome
The Bering Sea & Western Alaska
May 22 – June 07, 2024
Tour Length: 17 days
Est. Spaces Left: Spaces available!
Birds, Photography, Mammals
Double Accommodation: $12,200/person
Single Supplement: + $1,250
Max Group Size
14 (+ 2 leaders)
Easy to moderate, optional intense walking, much birding from roads
The remarkable Pribilof Islands form volcanic outcrops in the middle of the Bering Sea, one of the richest and most productive oceans in the world. Due to its location, 240 miles north of the Aleutian Islands and 500 miles east of the Russian mainland, this speck of land has hosted more than 300 species of birds, although many of these only as rare visitors. The two main islands (St. Paul and St. George) and smaller outlying islands (Otter and Walrus) attract millions of seabirds that find safe havens for nesting along the volcanic cliffs, talus fields, and steep slopes. St. Paul Island is the most accessible of the two inhabited islands and good infrastructure, comfortable accommodations, and a wide network of roads allow us to explore this remote outpost easily. One of the main attractions is the seabird colony and the Pribilofs are particularly famous for hosting the most accessible nesting areas of the range-restricted Red-legged Kittiwake – we can watch and photograph this elegant gull very closely. The busy cliffs also host nesting Least, Crested, and Parakeet Auklets, Horned and Tufted Puffins, Thick-billed and Common Murres side by side, Black-legged Kittiwakes with smaller numbers of Red-legged Kittiwakes among them, Northern Fulmar, and Red-faced Cormorants. On the open water, we can often find Pigeon Guillemots and Ancient Murrelet. In the interior of the island, the maritime tundra of lower-lying areas gives way to sparse arctic tundra on hilltops and ridgelines. This rugged environment hosts resident Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches and Pacific Wrens while Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings migrate to the island to breed. St. Paul Island harbors extensive wetlands that host numerous breeding and migrating waterfowl and shorebird species. Among ducks, Long-tailed Duck, Green-winged Teal (Eurasian ssp.), and Northern Pintail breed in large numbers, while King and Steller’s Eiders and Harlequin Ducks are frequent to abundant visitors. The most common nesting shorebird on the island is the Rock Sandpiper, here a particularly large and colorful subspecies, while Red-necked Phalarope, Least Sandpiper, and Semipalmated Plover also breed. Numerous shorebirds migrate through and, incredibly, St. Paul Island has hosted more than 60 species of shorebirds alone, nearly every Holarctic species. Some of the more regular migrants of interest include Bar-tailed Godwit, Pacific Golden-Plover, Bristle-thighed Curlew, and Common Snipe. There is a wide selection of Eurasian vagrants and migrant shorebirds and during recent tours, we have seen Lesser Sand-Plover, Black-tailed Godwit, Ruff, Curlew Sandpiper, Long-toed and Red-necked Stints, Terek and Common Sandpipers, Gray-tailed Tattler, Common Greenshank, and Wood Sandpiper. Spring migration also brings Eurasian waterfowl and passerines and some of the rarities we have seen over the years have included Tundra Bean-Goose, White-tailed Eagle, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck, Black-headed Gull, Gray-streaked Flycatcher, Oriental Cuckoo, Siberian Rubythroat, Red-flanked Bluetail, Eyebrowed Thrush, Gray Wagtail, Olive-backed Pipit, Brambling, and Hawfinch. The number and diversity of rare Eurasian visitors is highly wind and weather dependent and while the cumulative list is long, we can hope for a handful of rare species during our visit under ideal conditions, yet recent springs have been spectacular with nearly a dozen Eurasian species during our tours. The potential and unpredictability offer some of the most exciting birding in North America. Several Alaska specialties can be found as migrants on St. Paul Island, including all jaegers, Arctic and Yellow-billed Loons, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Northern Wheatear, and more. In addition to the vast numbers of birds, we can observe Northern Fur Seals which are returning to their rookeries, have good chances to observe massive Steller’s Sea Lions, and will definitely come close to the approachable Arctic Foxes that roam the island. St.Paul Island is simply one of the most exciting and unique birding experiences in all of North America.
Gambell is a remote Yupik village on the northwestern tip of St. Lawrence Island, lying roughly 40 miles southeast of the Russian mainland which is visible on the horizon on a clear day. The small and welcoming community here still practices a traditional lifestyle that is rare in other parts of the country. It remains one of the most far-flung and fascinating birding locations in all of Alaska, offering the chance to observe millions of nesting seabirds, migrating waterfowl and loons, plus an excellent chance to find several Eurasian migrants and vagrants that are very rare in other regions of the ABA and North America. The seawatch here is incredibly productive, especially during the spring when millions of birds are rushing north from the Bering Sea and points further south to reach their Arctic breeding grounds. Four species of eiders pass by in considerable numbers, including the rare Steller’s and Spectacled, small numbers of Emperor Geese are possible, four species of scoters and five species of loons, including good numbers of Arctic and Yellow-billed – often flying right past the point. All three jaegers move through while Black-legged Kittiwakes are abundant and Sabine’s Gulls frequent, even Red-legged Kittiwake, Ross’s and Ivory Gulls are possible but the latter three are extremely rare. The number of alcids here is truly astounding and counting in the millions. The evening flights include Common and Thick-billed Murres, Black and Pigeon Guillemots, Parakeet, Least and Crested Auklets, and Horned and Tufted Puffins. Northern Fulmars and Pelagic Cormorants are common from the seawatch. The alcid species can also be observed closely on the talus slopes they use for nesting near the village and during most years at least one or two Dovekies are present, a very rare nesting species in Alaska. Other regular spring visitors to Gambell include Brant, Tundra Swan, Harlequin Duck, Pacific Golden-Plover, Rock Sandpiper, Red and Red-necked Phalaropes, Rough-legged Hawk, Short-eared Owl, Lapland Longspur, Snow Bunting, and the range-restricted McKay’s Bunting. Several species with largely Eurasian distribution occur regularly as passage migrants on Gambell during the spring with a handful remaining to nest, including Common Ringed Plover, Red-necked Stint, Slaty-backed Gull, Arctic Warbler, Bluethroat, Northern Wheatear, Eastern Yellow and White Wagtails, and Red-throated Pipit. Eurasian vagrants and rarities we have observed during spring tours over the past five years include Tundra Bean-Goose, Eurasian Wigeon, Tufted Duck, Lesser Sand-Plover, Pin-tailed Snipe, Terek, Common, Wood and Green Sandpipers, Gray-tailed Tattler, Common Greenshank, White-tailed Eagle, Common Chiffchaff, Eyebrowed Thrush, Red-flanked Bluetail, Siberian Stonechat, Brambling, Hawfinch, Eurasian Bullfinch, and Pallas’s Bunting (many others are possible). Of course, the number and diversity of Eurasian species and rarities is highly weather and wind dependent, as such it is unpredictable, making each day on Gambell very exciting. The seawatch can also prove exciting for mammals with Gray Whales often observed closely and depending on the amount of sea ice, Walrus, Bearded and Ribbon Seals are possible, while Arctic Foxes occasionally wander about the tundra close to the village.
Nome is a frontier town along the southwestern corner of the massive Seward Peninsula. The town is exceptionally remote and only accessible by air. The Seward Peninsula itself is dominated by vast areas of trackless wilderness, containing mountains, tundra, wetlands, lagoons, rivers, alder thickets, and small areas of boreal forest. This variety of habitats harbors some of the densest and most diverse birdlife in all of Alaska, a spectacle of waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors, warblers, sparrows, thrushes, and more that has to be experienced to be believed. The days of the gold rush have faded, although a few small mining operations remain active, and Nome now offers unparalleled access to the Alaskan wilderness. In addition to comfortable accommodations, plenty of restaurants and stores, more than 200 miles of maintained gravel roads offer relatively easy access to all habitats, including far-flung tundra locations. Several species with limited nesting ranges in Alaska and North America can be readily found in Nome, most notably Arctic Loon, Bristle-thighed Curlew, Red-necked Stint, Bar-tailed Godwit, Slaty-backed Gull, Bluethroat, Eastern Yellow and White Wagtails, Northern Wheatear, and Arctic Warbler. Nome also supports vast numbers of migrating and nesting shorebirds with highlights including American and Pacific Golden-Plovers, Black-bellied Plover, Rock Sandpiper, Wandering Tattler, Black Turnstone, Surfbird, Red Knot, Whimbrel, and Buff-breasted Sandpiper. In recent years our tours have recorded a fine selection of Eurasian shorebird rarities including Great Knot, Gray-tailed Tattler, Lesser Sand-Plover, Ruff, and Wood and Common Sandpipers. The offshore waters, bays, and lagoons also offer great chances for waterfowl and all four species of eiders are possible alongside Harlequin and Long-tailed Ducks, and four species of scoter, including the rare Stejneger’s Scoter. Nome is also one of the best places for loons with all five species possible: Red-throated and Pacific are common while Yellow-billed and Arctic Loons occur in small numbers. In the interior, cliffs and rugged mountains support excellent raptor populations with Golden Eagle, Rough-legged Hawk, Short-eared Owl, Gyrfalcon, and Peregrine Falcon all nesting. Lower lying tundra holds plenty of Willow Ptarmigans, while upland areas hold the scarcer Rock Ptarmigan. Away from the coastline, alder thickets are filled with warblers, sparrows, finches, and thrushes including Varied and Gray-cheeked Thrushes, Northern Waterthrush, Orange-crowned, Yellow, Blackpoll, Yellow-rumped and Wilson’s Warblers, American Tree, Fox, White-crowned, Golden-crowned and Savannah Sparrows, and Common and Hoary Redpolls. Add to that Lapland Longspur and Snow Bunting plus chances for Pine Grosbeak, White-winged Crossbill, Bohemian Waxwing, and even Spruce Grouse for a full Alaskan birding experience. Of course, this vast wilderness supports good numbers of large mammals with Muskox, Moose, Reindeer, Brown “Grizzly” Bear all regularly seen (even Wolf and Lynx are possible) while some of the smaller mammals include American Beaver, North American Otter, and more.
Gambell: Emperor Goose; Least, Parakeet &Crested Auklets; Dovekie; Yellow-billed, Arctic, Pacific Loons; Steller’s, Spectacled, King & Common Eiders; Ivory (rare) & Slaty-backed Gulls; Common Ringed Plover; Common Greenshank; Wood Sandpiper; Gray-tailed Tattler; Red-necked Stint; Red Phalarope; White Wagtail; Brambling all are common or annual; many less common Asian vagrants seen on recent tours: Green, Terek & Common Sandpipers; Great Knot; Long-toed & Temminck’s Stints; Eyebrowed Thrush, Siberian Stonechat, Olive-backed Pipit, Brambling, Pallas’s Bunting; Eurasian Bullfinch & Hawfinch depending upon year and weather patterns.
St. Paul Island: King & Steller’s Eiders (uncommon); Red-faced & Pelagic Cormorants; Red-legged Kittiwake & Sabine’s Gull (uncommon); Tufted & Horned Puffins; Least, Crested, Parakeet Auklets; Ancient Murrelet; Short-eared & Snowy Owls; Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch; Snow & McKay’s Buntings (rare); Asian rarities possible: Tundra Bean-Goose, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck, Common Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, Black-tailed Godwit, Siberian Rubythroat, Gray-streaked Flycatcher, Olive-backed Pipit Eyebrowed Thrush, Hawfinch, Brambling, and many other possibilities.
Nome: Bluethroat; Bristle-thighed Curlew; Eastern Yellow & White Wagtails; Northern Wheatear; Arctic Warbler; Arctic, Pacific, Red-throated & Yellow-billed Loons; Eurasian Wigeon; Bar-tailed Godwit; Rock & Willow Ptarmigan; American & Pacific Golden-Plover; Black-bellied Plover; Surfbird; Red-necked Stint; Sabine’s Gull; Aleutian Tern; Gyrfalcon; Merlin; Peregrine Falcon; many others including several Asian vagrants over the years.
Gray Whale; Orca; Beluga (rare); Walrus; Northern Fur Seal; Harbor Seal; Steller’s Sea Lion; Arctic Fox; Brown “Grizzly” Bear; Canada Lynx; Muskox; Reindeer
maritime tundra, seaside, wetlands, lagoons, coastline, offshore, mountains, rivers, alder thickets, and small areas of boreal forest
Native Alaskan culture; spectacular scenery; views of Siberia, wildflowers, history
Planning for the Trip
Coast Inn at Lake Hood, Anchorage, Alaska
Comfortable hotels & lodges in Anchorage and Nome. Basic, rustic hotel on Gambell with shared bathrooms and a basic hotel on St. Paul Island with some shared facilities.
From Anchorage: 18 nights lodging, all meals from first night dinner through final day’s lunch, transport, guides, taxes.
Alcohol, personal calls, laundry, and other personal expenses.
Weather is very variable from freezing cold and wet, to relatively mild and warm, strong winds can be expected, and fog/drizzle.
Suggested Clothing and Gear
Credit cards/cash; Binoculars; Scope and tripod (optional); Sunglasses and sunscreen; Small day pack/fanny pack; Small flashlight; Mosquito/insect repellant (DEET 25% or greater); Itch relief cream; Lip screen/balm; Toiletries; Hair Dryer; Small alarm clock; Cleaning fluids/cloths/drying cloths; Field guides; Hiking Boots/Shoes; Hat with brim/visor; Rain jacket/windbreaker; Warm hat with visor; Waterproof winter jacket (Gore-tex or equivalent); Balaclava or full facial ski mask; Warm, waterproof gloves (and backup pair); Glove liners; T-shirts or undershirts (Capilene or polypropylene); Pants (fleece or wool; jeans NOT recommended); Long Underwear (Capilene or polypropylene); PJs or shorts for lounging/sleeping; Wool socks (various weights) and liners; GORE-TEX socks/liners for water protection and warmth; Sturdy, waterproof boots; NEOS are lightweight waterproof overboots; Moleskin for blisters; Foot powder for drying
- National Geographic Field Guide to The Birds of North America (7th Edition) Jon Dunn, et. al. 2017; National Geographic Society
- Shorebirds of North America: The Photographic Guide Dennis Paulson (2005); Princeton University Press
- Birds of Europe with North Africa & the Middle East Lars Jonsson (1992); Princeton University Press
- A Field Guide to the Birds of Japan (1982); Wild Bird Society of Japan