Friday, September 6, 2013


This year has taken me to some pretty distant and remote places - from the Dry Tortugas of the Caribbean to the bogs of northern Minnesota, from the boreal forests of Alberta to the deserts of the southwest. Not to mention the high seas of the Atlantic, Pacific and Salton. But none feel as remote as St. Lawrence Island - closer to Russia than mainland Alaska.  

St. Lawrence Island (red circle) - 36 miles from Russia.
If Sarah Palin lived here (which she wouldn't as there are no TV cameras)
she *actually* would be able to see Russia.

I'm back in Alaska for a week - on a tiny island hoping for Asian vagrants to stray across the Bering Sea. I'm staying in Gambell, a village at the north-west promontory that reaches out toward the Chukchi Peninsula of the Russian Far East. It's home to some 1,300 people, mostly Siberian Yupik - who've survived by subsistence hunting of whales, walruses, seals as well as fishing.

Getting here involves a small plane from Anchorage to Nome (which looks a lot greener and less icy than when I was last here) and then an even smaller plane to Gambell. It's the only airport where the I've been led out to the plane by the pilot!

Bering Air, Nome, Alaska 

I'm traveling with Wilderness Birding Adventures - the same group I birded with in Homer in June.  We're met on the runway by Aaron Lang, our fantastic guide for the week, and the "bus" - our transportation for the week…

There are no vehicles on the island (and no paved roads), but lots of ATVs.

Our first day / afternoon is a memorable one, and one of the best rarity days of my Big Year. A short trip on the "bus" takes us to the corner marsh, at the north-east end of Lake Troutman. It's not long before we hear and see Red-throated Pipits in the wet grass.

Red-throated Pipit. 
Notice the streaked back, pale nape and heavily-spotted underparts.

And then our first shorebirds appear as we wade into the ankle-deep water... 

Long-billed Dowitcher

And a new shorebird for the year - Sharp-tailed Sandpiper - from the Russian Far East. Typically, only juveniles migrate through the island, taking an easterly route to their south-east Asian wintering grounds; the adults (presumably not impressed after seeing Gambell their first year!) take a more westerly route.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper - warm breast coloration with no streaks 
(unlike the similar Pectoral Sandpiper) and prominent supercilium with rufus cap.

And then, as we're walking through the wet marsh grasses, we flush a large bird - a duck. It drops down after flying only 10 feet, allowing us point blank views. It's the rarest bird of the week - a Baikal Teal - a first for the island and a life bird for most of the birders here.

Peekaboo! Baikal Teal!
Obvious white loral spot. In flight showed white trailing edge to the wing 
and cinnamon edges to the speculum.

Aaron excitedly announces the bird over the radio, and it's not long before the hoards of  birders on the island (14) are here, looking for the bird...

Has anyone seen a duck around here?

And that's not the only duck tick for the day - during the evening sea watch, we spot a Spectacled Eider on the water. Like most of the ducks this time of year, it's in eclipse plumage - a briefly held plumage during late summer - where the males swap their bright colors for drab, female-type plumage.

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A typical day on the island starts with the morning sea watch. Actually, it starts about an hour before that with breakfast and filling my stomach with as much warm coffee as it can hold (which apparently is quite a lot.) There are no cafes in Gambell. None.

Taking the bus to the morning sea watch.
Norm Budnitz driving with James Huntington holding up the departure!

Looking for sea birds at the Point

Dressing for Gambell is pretty stress-free. There's no "should I wear this?" or "will this go with that?" Instead, you simply put on every piece of clothing you managed to pack. The temperatures this week are in the 30s, but with strong winds and rain, it feels much colder. For Gambell this year, I'm sporting 4 layers of pants (thermal, cargo, jeans, and rain), 5 body layers, and 5 foot layers (3 pairs of socks, hiking boots and Neos outer shoes.) 

Current fashion in Gambell

At 10:45, after the sea watch, all the birders on the island meet to "sweep the Far Boneyard." There are 3 boneyards around the village - ancient garbage dumps of whale, walrus, seal and other unfortunate meals. They're full of holes (from locals digging for fossilized bone and ivory) and are covered in wormwood - about the tallest vegetation here. It's where wind-swept vagrants like to hide and forage for food. "Sweeping" thankfully does not involve a broom; birders walk through in a line hoping to flush hidden birds.

The Near Boneyard - the vegetation is the very aromatic Wormwood

I think I saw one - over there!
"Sweeping the Far Boneyard" looking for birds

Sometimes we found young alcids in the boneyard as they launch themselves from Sevuokuk mountain above, on which they were born, and don't quite make it to the sea below...

Parakeet Auklet - juvenile. 
This individual has a large growth on its head that looks like James Huntington.
(Hands belong to Paul Lehman - Alaskan birding guru.)

The rest of the day, with breaks for lunch and dinner, is spent walking the other bone yards, walking the lake, or sea watching. 

Lake Troutman - a popular place to kick back and photograph Red Phalaropes. 

More places to look for birds...
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Before I came to Gambell, I was told to hope for any winds but north. North winds can be the worst for migrant and vagrant birds. I'm reminded of this as we're dealt a steady diet of north winds and few birds. As a result, all the new birds for me were on the first day, with the rest of the week spent trying to get better views of the other migrants and residents.

Emperor Goose - the only one that risked landing. 
The rest were fly by's on the sea watch.

Emperor Goose decoy
(The plastic thing that is, not Aaron Lang)

Fox Sparrow - the Sooty form found in mainland Alaska. 
Actually a pretty rare bird out here.

Slaty-backed Gull - 3rd cycle (top) with two Glaucous Gulls, 
at the (appropriately-named) dump.

We also get great views of Arctic Warbler, Snow Buntings, Lapland Longspurs, Snowy Owl and, sadly, an injured Short-eared Owl…

Short-eared Owl in the near boneyard.
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When the birding's slow, there's time to enjoy the local architecture. 

What would be Main St if it had a name. Or a sign.
(Sevuokuk Mountain in the background.)

Actually - these are pretty new buildings. The original settlement was built partly underground to give more protection from the wind and the cold of the winter…

(Remains of) original housing in Old Town - 
sunk into the ground, with whale bone framing.

There aren't many commercial buildings, except for the local store…

Local store - a good place to buy canned food and ammunition. 
Great if you like eating and shooting cans.

But my favorite place to wander is the boat yard - where the locals haul up Bowhead Whales for butchering and drying meats from wooden racks. It's an eerie place populated with giant skeletons…
Whale bones - with rack for drying meat in the background.

Bowhead Whale jaw bones - complete with rotting blubber. Yummy!
Bowhead Whales have the largest mouth of any animal (although fact checkers still waiting for accurate measurements on Sarah Palin)

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One of the highlights of the trip was catching up with the other two Big Year birders this year - Jay Lehman, and Ron Furnish. Jay was coming from a (successful) whirl-wind trip through Arizona and then the Nevada Snowcocks. And it was my first time meeting Ron - who, like Jay, is also on pace to break 700. Like Jay, Ron is magnanimous and friendly - eager to help with suggestions and advice on birds and locations.

And finally - thanks to Aaron Lang at Wilderness Birding for a great trip with great company. It was a blast!

Wilderness Birding group sea watching (photo by Aaron Lang)

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NEW YEAR BIRDS (4): Red-throated Pipit, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Baikal Teal, Spectacled Eider

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