Gambell, Alaska Fall 2003 Trip Report August 26 –September 10, 2003

Published by Phil Davis (pdavis AT

Participants: Phil Davis, High Lonesome BirdTours


for High Lonesome BirdTours

1. Introduction. This fall my wife, Barbara Davis, David MacKay and I served as leaders for two one-week Gambell fall birding trips for High Lonesome BirdTours. The first group (“Gambell-4”) ran from August 28 to September 3 and the second group (“Gambell-5”) ran from September 4 to September 10. After flying to Anchorage on August 24 and birding there for a day, Barbara and I connected through Nome for Gambell arriving on May 26, two days ahead of our first tour group. The first group of our participants arrived the morning of August 28. Barbara, David, and I departed Gambell with the second group on September 10. During this 16-day period, we shared the island with other birding groups, including groups from WINGS (Paul Lehman with Scott Baker and Gavin Bieber; and Rich Hoyer who led a private WINGS tour for some Oregon birders) and several other individual birders who arrived at various times. These independent birders included Bob Dodelson (NJ), George Wenzelburger (NJ), Nelson Dobbs (GA), Dona Coates (KY), Paul Sykes (GA), James Huntington (IA), et al.

2. The Weather and the Environment. Our trip list (a separate document) includes a post-trip reconstruction of the local weather data from the Gambell automated weather observation station, except that wind direction history was not available. Estimated and approximate wind directions are provided.

Winds. During our stay, the winds blew frequently strongly most frequently from the west or southwest. On some days; however, the winds were from northerly directions. The days with light, northerly wind days seemed to favor arrival of Asian vagrants.

Temperatures. The Gambell temperature ranged from a low of 37(F) to a high one day of 52; however, the constant and generally strong winds frequently dropped the wind chill an additional 10 to 15 degrees, especially at sea watch.

Visibility. Most of the period was overcast but with long-range visibility. The coast and high mountains of the Russian Chukota Peninsula were clearly visible for many days during our stay. Near the end of our stay the winds shifted to the southwest and low fog appeared.

Staff and Participants. Our Gambell-4 tour included four participants and three leaders/staff: David MacKay—our senior leader, who also cooked (Alamos, Sonora, Mexico), and Barbara and Phil Davis (Davidsonville, Maryland). Our Gambell-5 tour included three participants and the same three leaders. Notably, one client (Denny Hodsdon of Arizona) participated on both Gambell-4 and -5.

3. The Birding. General. Our pre-trip arrival on August 26 was delayed for several hours due to high winds at Gambell, with gusts as high as 50 mph. During the first week, expected trans-Beringian migrants were easily found on the island (Arctic Warblers, Gray-cheeked Thrushes, Red-throated Pipits, Northern Wheatears, Bluethroats, etc.) Between September 2-6 most of the interesting Asian vagrants were found, including Little Bunting, Siberian Accentor, Eurasian Wryneck, Common Rosefinch, Middendorff’s Grasshopper-Warbler, and Pechora Pipit. The only unusual Alaska mainland species found during our stay were Savannah Sparrow and Lincoln’s Sparrow. Birding Areas. The birding areas we covered on the island included the following: the “near bone yard” (i.e., middens), the “far bone yard”, the “circular bone yard”, Northwest Point (aka, “sea watch” or “the point”), the cliffs, the north and west beaches, the boat yard, the walrus “pull out area”, “old town”, the “near marsh”, Troutman Lake, the hillsides above and below the lake road, the hillside between the far bone yard and the cliffs, the “far marsh”, the runway road, the south end of Troutman Lake (including the ponds, and grassy areas), the gravel ponds, the berms, South Lake, the tundra east of South Lake, and the rocky outcroppings at the beach at the south end of South lake. The top of Sevuokuk Mountain was off-limits in accordance with our land-crossing permit.

4. Notable species. Accounts of notable Asian, western Alaskan, and Saint Lawrence Island species are presented, below.

Loons: Arctic Loon. Our two groups generally did not sea watch religiously, since most of our participants were more interested in non-seabird species. On several days, we did not get to sea watch at all. Therefore, our sea watch numbers are spotty compared to other groups. We did find observe one Arctic Loon on 9/1 at sea watch. All loon numbers were quite low, compared to most spring trips. About five Pacific Loons were observed and only a few Red-throateds. We did not see any Yellow-billed Loons, although other groups did report a few.

Short-tailed Shearwaters. A Gambell fall spectacle is the feeding flock of Short-tailed Shearwaters in the Bering Sea off of the North Beach. On most days, many thousands of these birds can be steadily seen streaming by Gambell as they feed in preparation for migration. Often, individual birds venture close to shore to provide good looks.

Greater White-fronted Goose. A flock was observed flying by on 9/5 and a single was seen on 9/8.

Emperor Goose. A single bird was present, swimming in Troutman Lake on 8/28 and again on 8/30. Something appeared to be wrong with its bill, probably an injury. A flock of 37 birds was observed flying by the point on 9/4.

Eiders: King Eiders were seen mostly as small flocks, sometimes mixed with other species, either flying by the point or swimming offshore at the rocky outcropping at the southern headlands. Steller’s Eiders were seen on several days at sea watch, either as singles or small flocks.

Rough-legged Hawk. This species was observed between 9/4 and 9/7 with up to four birds seen together hunting over the tundra beyond the south end of Troutman Lake on 9/5. All sightings were of light morph birds.

Gyrfalcon. Up to two Gyrfalcons were observed over Sevuokuk Mountain. One bird was a light morph.

Gray-tailed Tattler. On August 28, a single bird was observed at the east edge of the Troutman Lake shoreline. On September 6, a bird was seen briefly at the north end of Troutman Lake.

Sanderling. On 9/6 we found a juvenile Sanderling on the north shore of South Lake. This is a rare migrant on St. Lawrence Island (Lehman, 2003).

Baird’s Sandpiper. Between August 30-31, a juvenile was seen at the gravel ponds beyond the south end of Troutman Lake.

Rock Sandpiper. This species was seen most days. We found several individuals in juvenile plumage. For the local tschuktschorum subspecies, this juvenile plumage is not observed very often and is not particularly well documented (Lehman, pers comm.). We were able to capture some digital images (right).

Red Phalarope. On September 4, we found a single individual, in molt, at the gravel ponds. It was seen closely many days until September 8. Flocks of many hundreds (perhaps thousands) of Red Phalaropes were also seen flying and swimming in the Bering Sea off the point later during our stay.

Jaegers: Both Pomarine and Parasitic Jaegers were seen many days off of the point. One Parasitic was also seen roosting on the tundra at South Lake.

Slaty-backed Gull. Birds of various plumages were seen between 9/1-3, mostly near the dump or the sewage pond.

Eurasian Wryneck (Jynx torquilla). On September 2, a Eurasian Wryneck, a member of the Picidae (woodpecker and allies) family, was found in the boatyard. The species perched on posts and had an affinity for whale bones which still held meat/blubber—and therefore, hosted insects. One particular whale bone became the bird’s favorite roost. The bird was seen through 9/5. This bird was the first to be observed alive in North America; with the only previous record was of a dead specimen found in Wales, Alaska on September 8, 1945. This bird cooperated for photos and video recording (photo below). According to the AOU (1998), Wrynecks breed from northern Eurasia south to northwest Africa, the Mediterranean region and central Asia, and winter from central Eurasia to northern tropical Africa, India, Southeast Asia, southern China, and southern Japan.

© Phil Davis 2003 More of my images of this bird can be found at the following URL:

Middendorff’s Grasshopper-Warbler. This Asian vagrant was found on 9/5 in the far bone yard. Despite being a skulker, the bird was seen well by all participants, including scope views. This species breeds from Kamchatka and Sakhalin south to Japan. It winters in the Philippines and Greater Sunda Islands. It is a casual migrant in Alaska, primarily in the fall and in the Commander Islands (AOU, 1998). Note my fantastic image (right) of one-half of the bird!

Arctic Warbler. This trans-Beringian migrant (returning to Asia from Alaska) was seen daily through 9/8.

Bluethroat. We observed trans-Beringian migrant Bluethroats between 9/28 and 9/1.

Northern Wheatear. This trans-Beringian migrant was also seen daily between 8/28 and 9/3 and then again on 9/7-8.

Gray-cheeked Thrush. This trans-Beringian migrant (returning to North America after breeding Asia) was seen most days during our stay.

Siberian Accentor (Prunella montanella). This Asian vagrant/visitor was seen on 9/3 on the hillside above the far bone yard and again (probably the same bird) on 9/9. This species breeds in the mountains of Siberia and winters from southern Manchuria and Japan south to central China. It is casual in Alaska (including St. Lawrence Island) and is accidental in British Columbia, Washington, and Idaho (AOU, 1998).

Yellow Wagtail. Birds were seen in small numbers on a few days, mostly as flyovers over the village and bone yards.

White Wagtail. Up to three or four birds were seen on most days during our stay. Favorite locations included the whale carcasses in the boatyard (especially at the same place where the Wryneck was seen), in the dump, around the sewage ponds, and in the near bone yard.

Pechora Pipit (Anthus gustavi). A single bird was seen in the near marsh and the nearby edge of the far bone yard on 9/9. This expected form of this species breeds from northeastern Siberia (east to the Bering Strait) south to Kamchatka and the Commander Islands; and in southern Ussuriland. It winters from eastern China, Korea, and the Ryukyu Islands south to the East Indies and Moluccas. It is casual in Alaska on St. Lawrence Island and in the western Aleutians, also in Great Britain, Norway, Finland, Poland, and Iceland (AOU, 1998).

Red-throated Pipit. This species was common and was seen most days during our stay. Most birds were in first year or winter plumage and did not have reddish throats.

American Pipit. This species was also common and was seen most days during our stay. The predominant subspecies observed was Anthus rebescens japonicus, also called “Siberian Pipit” by some. This subspecies is morphologically different from the North American subspecies (called “Buff-bellied Pipits” by some) and it breeds in Asia, rather than North America. It is a candidate for a future split.

Little Bunting (Emberiza pusilla). A flighty Little Bunting was seen on the day of our (pre-trip) arrival on August 26 in the near bone yard. However, on 9/2 another bird was found in the far and circular bone yards and was present though 9/6. Little Buntings breed from northern Finland, northern Russia, and northern Siberia south to Lake Baikal, Anadyrland, and the Sea of Okhotsk. They winter in the northern parts of India and Southeast Asia, rarely in the British Isles, continental Europe, North Africa, the Near East, and the Philippines. The species is accidental in Alaska (AOU, 1998).

Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus). On August 27 (a pre-trip day), a Reed Bunting was seen in the south end of the boatyard and north end of the near bone yard. This bird was particularly flightly and was identified by composite views by multiple observers. Rich Hoyer of WINGS has the write-up on this bird. A member of his group, Noah Strycker, was able to capture a few photos, although they are distant and blurry. These images can be found at the following URL:

The migratory forms of Reed Buntings (sometimes called Northern Reed Bunting) breed from the British Isles, Scandinavia, northern Russia, and northern Siberia south to the Mediterranean region, Asia Minor, Iran, Turkestan, southern Siberia, Kamchataka, and northern Japan. It winters from the southern portions of the breeding range south to the Mediterranean region, Iraq, northwestern India, northeastern China, and southern Japan. It migrates casually, in spring, though the western Aleutian Islands (AOU, 1998).

Common Rosefinch (Carpodacus erythrina). On 9/1 a female Common Rosefinch was discovered in the far bone yard. The Common Rosefinch breeds from southern Finland, northern Russia, and northern Siberia south to central Europe, Asia Minor, the Himalayas, Mongolia, and northern China. It winters primarily from India east through Southeast Asia to southern China. It migrates irregularly through the western Aleutians and St. Lawrence Island, occasionally reaching the Pribliofs and the mainland of western Alaska, also in the British Isles, western Europe, and Japan (AOU, 1998). In other parts of the world, this species is called the Scarlet Rosefinch. An image of this bird can be found at the same URL where the Wryneck images are posted (also, above).

© Phil Davis 2003

Red Crossbill. Prior to our arrival a flock of Red Crossbills arrived in Gambell. When we arrived, some of the flock was still holding on and a few birds were seen on August 28-29.

Redpolls: We found one of the first Common Redpoll arrivals on 9/5. Both Common and Hoary Redpolls were seen by the end of our stay.

5. Departure. On the day of our scheduled departure, June 10, fog cancelled our afternoon Bering Air flight; however, another carrier (Cape Smythe Air) did get a flight in later that evening and we all elected to purchase tickets in order to get out that day.

6. Nome. Barbara and I spent two days (9/11-12) in Nome before returning to Maryland. While we saw few passerines; however, we did see the following interesting species:

Arctic Loon – a flyby at milepost (MP) 16.8 along the Council Road on 9/11. Both

Pacific and Red-throated Loons were also seen in Norton Sound and Safety Lagoon.

Eurasian Wigeon – many were seen with American Wigeon in the ponds of Safety Lagoon at MP 16.8 along Council Road on 9/11.

Steller’s Eider – one male on 9/11 in eclipse plumage in Norton Sound at MP 13.5 on the Council Road (just past the quarry).

Spectacled Eider – one female in the ponds of Safety Lagoon on 9/11 between MPs 28 and 29.2 on the Council Road. (Photo, right).

Slaty-backed Gull – about a dozen individuals, of various ages, in the Nome dump, at the mouth of the Nome River, and along the beach at Safety Lagoon on 9/11-12.

Northern Shrike – one was seen at the back of the Nome dump on 9/11.

7. Literature Cited American Ornithologist’s Union (AOU). 1988. Check-list of North American Birds. 7 th edition. American Ornithologist’s Union, Washington, D.C. Paul Lehman. 2003. Fall Bird Migration at Gambell, Saint Lawrence Island, Alaska (in prep).

Phil Davis Davidsonville, MD mailto: pdavis AT September 23, 2003