Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Alaska Is Big on Rare Birds
June 17, 2017
By Steve Grinley
I haven’t had the opportunity to travel lately, so I thought that I would share with you a recent trip report from fellow birder, Strickland Wheelock of Uxbridge, who led a trip to Alaska for Mass Audubon. The first leg of his trip was to Gambell and he shares it with us here:
“One of my greatest experiences is birding Gambell – a small Siberian Yupik village located at the tip of Saint Lawrence Island located only 35 miles from Siberian Russia. This is a subsistence community that depends on hunting whales, seals, walrus for food and income – only modes of travel are ATV and walking on this loose gravel and tundra.
“As a pre-trip to Drumlin Farm’s W S June 1 – 14th scheduled Alaska trip, a partial group from DF joined High Lonesome tour group from May 26 – 30th to experience the incredible volume of alcids that nest on the cliffs (between 10 to 20 million alcids) surrounding Gambell. Along with the alcids are the hopes of finding rare vagrants that end up on Gambell blown off course.
“Each day we hike the bone yards, scan the tundra, do sea watch off Northwest Point or take the ATV’s a few miles to view the top of a lake with the hopes of finding a vagrant- first you have to scan through tons of Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings all doing arial displays. Other common birds are Glaucous Gulls and Semipalmated Plovers.
“Fortunately day 1 the weather was cold but not windy as we headed out of town to look for vagrants- before we could get out of town we found a Gray-Tailed Tattler followed shortly by Common Greenshank, Hawfinch, Common Sandpiper, Brambling, White Wagtail, Slaty-backed Gulls, Red-throated Pipit along with Peregrine Falcon, Rough-legged Hawk, Ravens, Vega Herring Gulls, Sandhill Cranes, lots of Green-winged Teal, Long-tailed Ducks, Harlequin Ducks and Pintails, Hoary Redpolls, etc
“The following few days we would do a few early and late sea watches where you would experience an estimated 5 to 10 Thousand alcids every 5 minutes flying by the Point – these consisted of Least, Crested and Parakeet Auklets, Common and Thick-billed Murres mostly mixed with Horned and Tufted Puffins, Pelagic Cormorants, Pacific and Red-throated Loons, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Arctic Terns.
“Always adding excitement to the watches were spotting Yellow-billed Loons, Steller’s, Spectacled and King Eiders, Fulmars, Long-tailed and Pomarine Jaegers, Black Brant, Tundra Swans, Black and Pigeon Guillemots, etc. Mixed among the birds were pods of Gray Whales and seals feeding surrounded by Kittiwakes swirling above them with jaegers harassing them.
“When you scan the cliffs where all these millions of alcids breed, you get to see close up their field marks which is awesome versus fast moving softballs over the ocean. With lots of searching, we were,able to locate a Dovekie that also breeds with all the auklets.
“The following days looking for vagrants we relocated many of the previous ones but added to the mix were a Lesser Sand-Plover and Eyebrowed Thrush.
“The natives of the community were very friendly, often offered us some of their beautiful hand carved objects from whale bones – while we had several layers of clothing on, the children are in shorts and some a playing in some pools of water or all driving about in their ATV’s. Most houses had outside racks of whales and seal meat drying – a different way of life for these hearty folks from our existence.
“On our way back to Anchorage via Nome, we make a quick run down Council Road to be rewarded with Bar-tailed Godwits, 12 Sabine’s Gulls, Surfbirds, Ruddy and Black Turnstones, Red and Red-necked Phalaropes, Baird’s Sandpiper among many Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers. Unfortunately we just missed a few Ross’s and Ivory Gulls that had left a few days before.
“In conclusion, our few days was an incredible experience for all seeing millions of birds and vagrants up close plus observing the community that has existed for centuries and their life style – something all of us will never forget.”
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