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Birding Gambell in Fall – Not a Place for the Half-hearted Birder

I spent September 10-15 in Gambell on St. Lawrence Island off the west coast of Alaska, which is some 45 miles from Russia (mountains of which were sometimes visible across the water) and the home of about 700 hardy people, mostly Siberian Yupiks. Although over 270 bird species have been recorded there over the years, most of those species are infrequent visitors at best. During my stay I saw 45 species, most of which were skulking under dense vegetation growing in three old animal boneyards in Gambell. There are no trees in Gambell for birds to perch on, and much of the area is covered with pebbles. I was delighted to note, however, that since I was last there in 2008, a few actual hard roads have been added so that not all walking is miserably difficult and travel by ATV is quite pleasant in those areas.

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I stayed at the Sivuqaq Motel in Gambell which is equipped with a full kitchen (you buy your own ingredients and make your own food), dining room and lounge facilities, in addition to the bedrooms. While I was there, about 8 other birders were at this motel, along with a few other people working in the town. Organized bird groups often rent whole houses in Gambell, and there was one such group there when I arrived. Birders typically rent ATVs from Gambell residents so that the mostly hard-to-walk areas between boneyards and other birding areas can be quickly and easily accessed, particularly when someone finds a rare bird and tells others on the hand-held radios.

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Except for the one day of drenching rain, each day for most of the birders at the Sivuqaq Motel began with a couple hours of seawatch shortly after dawn, with the birders sitting as much out of the wind as possible behind an ATV on a high berm of pebbles on the northwest point of the island north of the houses in Gambell, each of us staring westward toward Russia across the waves. Almost all of the time there were steady streams of thousands of Short-tailed Shearwaters passing by and periodically swirling back to feed.

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Much less numerous but regular were flybys of Harlequin Ducks, Glaucous Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Northern Fulmars, Pelagic Cormorants, Common and King Eiders, Common and Thick-billed Murres, Horned and Tufted Puffins, Pigeon Guillemots, and various auklets. A few loons, including a couple of very welcome Yellow-billed Loons also passed by.

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After a quick stop back at the Sivuqaq Motel to warm up, the “Near Boneyard” near the top of the airport runway west of the village itself was usually surveyed next after the seawatch. Surveying a boneyard typically involved the participating birders in a spread-out line along one side of the area, and then walking in a line across the site. The “walking” was actually a careful navigating of a very uneven terrain covered with protruding seal skeletons and other bones, shallow and deep holes dug by Gambell natives looking for walrus tusk ivory to use for carving souvenirs, and clumps of low wormwood plants that often obscured the soil below, making it difficult to know where to step safely. All the while that we were trying not to break our legs on these walks, we were trying to keep our eyes peeled for little flitting birds being scared up by the approaching birders. Some birds, rather than flying, scurried along the ground, very similar to the many voles that also had trails everywhere through the boneyards. Probably there were many birds that we never saw, lurking beneath the vegetation.

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East of the village houses are mountains, where we usually saw Common Ravens. Near the mountains are the other two boneyards (“Far” and “Circular”), which were generally surveyed after the Near Boneyard. Although the weather was cold and windy (usually in the low 40s), and sometimes rainy, by the time we finished each survey, I felt like I had been in a sauna due to all the heavy raingear that I was wearing and all the effort it took to clamber across the boneyard. Sometimes all of this effort produced not a single bird. Other times there would be a couple of American Pipits, possibly along with a Red-throated Pipit. The Near Boneyard most regularly produced other small birds, including Golden-crowned and Fox Sparrows.

A very sneaky Brown Shrike was seen there once or twice nearly every day, usually streaking away, and rarely photographed by anyone. Similarly skulky were a few Siberian Accentors, but their flights were shorter, and every now and then the bird could actually be seen and even photographed when not in flight, peering out between the wormwood stalks. The Far Boneyard usually had a few Redpolls, both Common and Hoary, which were much easier to see as they flitted ahead of us and perched on the wormwood.

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A single Sky Lark was found in a grassy area west of the Near Boneyard on my third day on the island and it remained in the area for the rest of the time that I was there. It was the only time I have seen a Sky Lark in North America other than the descendants of introduced Sky Larks in British Columbia. Nearby a single, very tame Snowy Owl was usually to be found roosting on a large bone or rock.

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In addition to being present along the island shore, flocks of mostly Glaucous Gulls congregated on Troutman Lake, south of Gambell. A single Thayer’s Gull was found on the northern tip of the island. One White Wagtail could still be found on the south end of the lake, where a couple of pairs had nested earlier in the year. A single Long-tailed Duck and a Northern Pintail were also present on the lake. Everywhere flocks of Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs flew up and around us, apparently gathering together and trying to get up the energy to leave the island for the winter.

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Although there was much possible shorebird habitat, very few shorebirds were seen while I was there. On my last full day in Gambell, a single Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, a couple of Long-billed Dowitchers and at least one Pacific Golden-Plover were found together at the sewage pond north of town.

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Most of the time that I was in Gambell, no birds or very few birds were visible, and we just waited and looked for something new to arrive. Some of the birders who were there had been there for weeks and were planning to stay there for many weeks more, including Paul Lehman who each year for many years has stayed at Gambell for a couple of months during fall migration. This is not the type of birding favored by most birders — it takes a motivated patient person who never gives up hope and keeps trying and does not get unbearably bored when there are no new birds for endless day after day after day. It can be very difficult, but finally getting a view of something like a Siberian Accentor can make it all worthwhile, especially if eventually something new, preferably a vagrant from across the ocean, finally does get found.

 

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