11 October 2016

A Gamble

As you can clearly see, I'm WAY backed up with blog content.  I even missed posting anything in the month of September.  It's been a busy fall and it's not going to get any calmer until later in November!

However, it'd be nuts not to share some photos from a recent 3-week trip Doug and I took to Gambell, Alaska.  So, brace yourself, massive quantities of photos are about to materialize in front of your very own eyes....

There's No Place Like Nome

Yeah, cheesy, I know.  Simply put, if you've been to Gambell, you've been to Nome.  Because all of the flights to Gambell start/end through this hub in western Alaska, many birders opt to bird Nome a bit as well.  If you aren't familiar with where Nome is, take a look below:
Our trip begins there because Doug and I spent an evening and a morning birding the area before flying out the next day.  Although the birding was kind of slow, I was impressed by many things including my lifer MUSK OX:
Seriously though, I have wanted to see these for YEARS and it finally happened in 2016.  When we turned the corner and saw these beasts standing there... well, let's just say I probably had the same look on my face as this guy did:
Interestingly, the oxen WEREN'T the largest animals we saw lurking the Nome area.  We picked up these giant ginger blobs working a hillside... Grizzly Bears:
These were the first I'd seen in years, probably dating back to my time on Icy Cape in NW Alaska back in 2006.

But yes, Nome provided a few birds, some of which I hadn't seen in years including WILLOW PTARMIGAN:
That first evening in Nome though was a beautiful one.  Something about the fall season in Alaska has always stuck with me.

The Flight

Our flight to Nome was aboard a rather small plane.  So small that Doug was actually plopped in the copilot's seat (to his delight)!
The flight from Nome to Gambell takes a little less than an hour.  Once we keyed in on St. Lawrence Island, we turned the corner and had a nice look at Gambell from the air as we banked in:

The Town

I should start with a description of where Gambell even is (or you can just look at the pin on the below map).  Gambell is at the northwest tip of St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea:
If you look at the above map again, you'll see how close we were from mainland Russia.  And yes, this is key, we COULD see Russia on clear days!  You want to see proof, you say?  Deal.  Here's a photo of Gambell with Russian mountains in the background:
In fact, here's another photo I took showing some mountains in Russia.  Pretty crazy to think that I was looking at land ruled by the Vlad P.
The town of Gambell is small though (about 700 people) although not as small as St. Paul.  Some key differences though revolve around the lack of cars/trucks in Gambell; there they use ATVs for everything.

The landscape is dominated by pea-sized gravel.  And, sadly, trash.
Here's a glorious view of the one store on the island:
Inside the store... some shelves were stocked with food, some weren't:
Honestly though, they had plenty of options for food despite a lack of cheese, fresh veg, etc.  I had actually mailed up two boxes of food anyway and so those were waiting for me when I arrived.

Here's a view of the school:
See all that gravel?  It looks docile from here but hiking in this for miles each day definitely was taxing!

Like St. Paul, Gambell has 3 wind turbines to help with electricity:
Many of the houses in Gambell, especially in Old Town, were quite dilapidated.  Some of these houses, besides being very old, were boarded up and not lived in:  


One of the main features of birding in Gambell are the boneyards.  In short, these are places where bones and carcasses have been discarded for more than 2000 years!  However, because ivory from walrus tusks is so valuable, many of the locals spend their days digging through these boneyards hoping to find old ivory.  These boneyards are filled with half-dug holes and plenty of vegetation thus providing shelter for lost songbirds.  Here's a view of some bones in a boneyard... any white rabbits?
We would often form a line of birders and walk slowly ("sweep") through the boneyard hoping to kick up any skulky songbirds.  Here's a group of us working the Circular Boneyard:
This sweep looks like it's happening in the Far Boneyard:

The Seawatch

Every single morning, birders made their way to the gravel northern tip of the island to seawatch.  Some walked there, most drove their ATVs.  The seawatch is one of the main birding attractions of Gambell, I'd say.  Probably what makes the seawatch here famous is a the massive volume of SHORT-TAILED SHEARWATERS that pass by the point some days.  A mind-boggling stream of shearwaters will pass by for hours on end:
One of the days, we did calculations and estimated that a solid million shearwaters had passed by that day alone.  Wow!

We were in season for jaegers which is never a bad thing.  We saw both POMARINE and PARASITIC JAEGERS multiple times from the seawatch.  Here's a distant Parasitic:
Seaducks were almost always present too.  Probably the most common species we saw were HARLEQUIN DUCKS that would pass by in ones, twos, and sometimes small groups:
The eiders were a lot of fun!  All four species were seen while we were there (although I personally missed the Spectacled).  The most common eider was always the KING EIDER; here's a female offshore a short distance:
I was happy to reconnect with some STELLER'S EIDERS during our visit.  In flight, the bold white underwing paired with the white on the speculum made the ID fairly straight-forward:
On the water, the Steller's were always in a tight little group:

The only geese we saw migrating by was a single EMPEROR GOOSE and a few BRANT.  Here's the latter with a foggy Bering Sea in the background:
The loon migration, although muted many days, was enjoyable to witness.  It had been years since I had connected with numbers of YELLOW-BILLED LOONS; especially close ones like this one cutting the point overhead:
We also had several other species of loons including PACIFIC and RED-THROATED.  Here's a comparison photo showing the larger, stouter, and darker PACIFIC LOON in the front being tailed by a smaller, shorter-legged, and paler RED-THROATED LOON:
Alcids were another attraction at the seawatch.  We saw thousands upon thousands of LEAST and CRESTED AUKLETS whereas PARAKEET AUKLETS were present but it much smaller numbers.

The PIGEON GUILLEMOTS were common too:
I should add that I spent a LOT of time seawatching here, mostly hoping and waiting for my lifer Kittlitz's Murrelet.  When other birders would leave seawatch, I often stayed back and continued scoping and hoping.  I'm also very happy to say that after several days of this, I DID finally connect with a few of these Alaskan alcids!  As it turns out, this would be my one-and-only new lifer on the trip (and you can see it updated on the right side-bar here on my blog as well).

The gulls were another staple at Gambell and especially at the seawatch.  The small gull category was dominated by the abundant BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKES.  Here's an adult flying by the point:
The most common species of large gull was by far the northern and ghostly GLAUCOUS GULL.  However, in second place was the "Vega" race of HERRING GULL which I found a lot of fun to study (yeah, one of THOSE people).  Here's a gorgeous 1st-cycle showing that nice dark tail band with a paler uppertail (American HERGs have an all-dark tail instead of this distinct dark band):
The adult "Vega" HERRING GULLS ranged from having very dark eyes to some having rather pale-looking eyes:
There were other large gulls around too though including GLAUCOUS-WINGED, a few nasty hybrids, and a couple of SLATY-BACKED GULLS.  Here's a youngster SBGU with the stern, pale eye and pot-bellied look:
Of course, we saw things out at sea that WEREN'T birds as well.  That included some GRAY WHALES, STELLER'S SEA LIONS, and these ORCAS:


Birding in Gambell was VERY slow during our visit due to winds out of the north and northeast.  We managed only a few songbirds and even fewer of them were rare ones from the west.

However, there were some species we saw every day and I guess I'll start with those.  Like ravens.  Yep, we saw COMMON RAVENS every day.  These guys... well, they're actually the largest songbirds in the world:
Another common species (although in dwindling numbers by that point of the season) was the LAPLAND LONGSPUR.  If you've been to northern or western Alaska, you're probably familiar with these dudes:
We may have missed them a day or two but most days yielded a few HOARY REDPOLLS as well:
This is still a distinct species although they may be lumped soon with Common Redpolls.  For the time being, though, we enjoyed the pale goodness of these northern finches.
Some of the actual migrants we saw were sparrows (highlighted even by a Lincoln's Sparrow.  Woooo).  One of the sparrows we saw a few times was FOX SPARROW:
Even more numerous (although never abundant) were GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS.  I flushed this one up out of the Near Boneyard down by the airport building:
A relative to the latter species, we flushed up WHITE-CROWNED SPARROWS a few times as well:
This GRAY-CHEEKED THRUSH was a brief visitor to the Old Town/Boatyard area one morning:
One of the passerines we saw is NOT found in the Lower 48... ARCTIC WARBLER.  Although these breed in Alaska, they migrate westward from there and very rarely show up south of Alaska.  Here's one that was skulking around in one of the boneyards one morning:
Another species similar to that were the WHITE WAGTAILS that we saw almost on a daily basis.  Although I didn't manage any halfway-decent photos, it was fun being around so many of those.

Probably the highlight of the rare songbirds was this SIBERIAN ACCENTOR in the Far Boneyard:
This is a Code 4 rarity that occasionally shows up in western Alaska during the fall months.  Although Doug and I had seen these before in the Pribilofs, it's hard to turn down a view of this interesting and boldly-marked vagrant.

Birds of Prey

This category was often highlighted by falcons; we saw PEREGRINE FALCONS many days along with a few GYRFALCONS.  Sometimes we even saw them interacting; here's a Peregrine looking small compared to the beefier Gyr that was giving it a bit of a chase:
The GYRFALCONS were really nice to have around though.  No complaints from us when one decided to do a close fly-over:
Unlike the Pribs, we had ROUGH-LEGGED HAWKS around every day (they breed in the area).  So if I were to keep track of my Bering Sea list... this guy would have been new:
We had a couple of owls around too.  One windy morning, this SHORT-EARED OWL was flying around the beach before it landed on the berm next to me:
We also finally caught up with a SNOWY OWL along the shore of Troutman Lake.  This particular one was extremely dark, probably a young female:


September really isn't the right season to hope for rare shorebirds in Gambell.  It's ok though, we weren't there solely for shorebirds.  Besides, we still were around for this Code 3 GRAY-TAILED TATTLER that hung out along the shore of Troutman Lake for a few days:
Much less abundant here (compared to St. Paul Island) were the ROCK SANDPIPERS.  Here's one that found me down at the seawatch:


St. Lawrence Island has quite a bit more diversity in this category compared to St. Paul.  For instance, we saw ARCTIC GROUND SQUIRRELS just about every day along the mountainside.  Chubby little things, they would plop there and stare us down, yelping occasionally if they felt threatened:
One of the highlights of our entire trip was finally tracking down a ST. LAWRENCE ISLAND SHREW!
This species is endemic to St. Lawrence Island (meaning it's found nowhere else on earth).  St. Paul Island has an endemic shrew as well but this is a different kind.  Despite a fair bit of looking, this is the only one we saw.

The Dogs

Yes, there is a pack of feral dogs that roam around Gambell on a daily basis.  Some of them might actually be pets, evidenced by collars, but most of them seem to survive only by rummaging through trash and following people around.  In some cases, the small cute ones have been known to bite the hands of birders who try to pick them up (ok, maybe only Doug experienced this).  We don't think rabies is a huge issue though?  I think Doug is still alive, anyway.

They ARE rather cute though... despite them following you through the boneyards and potentially flushing birds before you're ready.  This particular one was so amped up every single day, it was hard not to be impressed by the never-ending energy and friendliness:
Some just plopped down next to you and rolled around in the often-warm sunlight:


Gambell has a couple of really nice features near town including this mountainside.  With the right clouds, it looked quite mythical:
When you spend almost every dawn at the seawatch, the light coming up over the mountain provided some impressive sunrises:
Here's the same view on a different morning:
The foggy mornings had their moments too.  Here's a sunrise over Old Town:

The Departed

After 18 days, our stay in Gambell had come to an end.  The winds were still horrible, very few birds were around... it was time to ditch like a witch.  However, the weather on our departure day was dicey; lots of fog and rain.  The first flight didn't come on time... but when it landed, we hopped aboard THAT plane instead of our later flight to ensure we'd get off the island (no telling if the later flight would make it in or not).  So, here's our ride off the island in the process of off-loading precious cargo (yes, that's all soda):
On our way home.  One last Alaskan sunset:
So with that, our September gamble had wrapped up.  I ended with 83 species for the Nome Census Area (county equivalent).  Will I ever return?  It's hard to say but I hope so.