30 May 2015

Gambell, St.Lawrence island - Alaska spring birding

Gambell is the westernmost point in USA, with Russia seen in the horizon, surrounded by the Bering Sea. It is one of the most remote places to bird in the US, and some exceptionally cool arctic birding can be enjoyed here. On our recent Alaska adventure we spent 4 days on Gambell. This is a small Yupik (eskimo) community of approx 650 people living on the northernmost point on St.Lawrence island. They are mostly hunter gatherers, but every year a few birders find their way to this remote place and as such makes a little contribution to the local economy. 

On our recent Biotope Alaska trip we selected a few top birding destinations to visit. We are interested in exploring places that are similar in character and climate to our own region Varanger in Arctic Norway. It is interesting to see how relatively little birding as a tourism niché is developed in Alaska. There are of course several guest houses and hotels that specialize in catering to birders, but most nature tourism based facilities are quite general in character and not specifically aimed at birders (finding photo hides, for example, seems impossible). That, however does not make the birding less spectacular. It simply could have been made more comfortable and more easily available. 

As keen birders we of course had our target bird species that we very much hoped to see. The Kenai Peninsula and Nome was great, and Gambell too provided some brilliant birds! We met and talked to quite a few locals, who told us we where the first visitors / birders to the island this year. We arrived in snowy / foggy conditions, but we are used to that from Varanger. The Auklets had just started to settle in the bird cliff near town, and the seabird migration was simply awesome! In addition we hoped our early arrival would provide us with the very rare McKay´s Bunting. 

We hope you enjoy this trip report from our brief (21-24th of May) birding adventure in Gambell:

Gambell, Alaska - Biotope on tour

Arriving Gambell with Bering Air 

Birding Gambell - the movie (a 3 minute fast forward Biotope production)

McKay´s Bunting - white on white

One of our target species in Gambell was the worlds whitest bunting. A true Bering speciality, of which there is only about 6000 individuals left in the world. It actually took two days of walking around the town and its surroundings to find this bird, which we finally found at the foot of the bird cliff. 

The strikingly beautiful McKay´s Bunting: an adult male. A cool feature well worth noticing is the dark feathering under the white. The dark ´undercoat´ helps absorb heat from the sun, while the white maintains its snowy camoflage (when there is snow, that is). These are the same characteristics as a Polar Bear, with its white fur and dark heat absorbing skin. (click on any image in blogpost for slide show view / bigger photos)

There are also quite a lot of Snow Buntings around, which is also great to see, as they are of the Russian / Aleutian subspecies Plectrophenax nivalis townsendi. They are very similar to the subspecies vlasowae which we seem to get a few of in Varanger in early spring, arriving slightly before the ´standard´ Snow Bunting. The eastern subspecies are characterised by very little dark on their backs.

Hi peeps!

When arriving Gambell you very quickly realize that you have arrived a place where market economy is not a driving force. In fact the Sivuqaq Lodge or Inn is the only place to stay in Gambell (unless you have some contacts that can set you up privately). The Inn is run by Sivuqaq Inc. the local community organization. They know very well that they are the only place to stay and charge you accordingly. This was by far the most expensive place we stayed in Alaska, costing 210 US dollars pr night. But then again, you are visiting a community that is not geared towards tourism, but a hunter gatherer community. Exept from a few locals that make carvings (of Walrus tusks) there is very little to spend any money on. Which as birders is very ok with us, and since the lodge is run by the community organisation it is quite ok to spend a little extra on the accommodation. 

Basic, yet welcoming - the Sivuqaq Inn, Gambell.

The Gambell store. By the way - there are no cars in Gambell, only ATVs.

Gambell housing. Most architecture in the Arctic it is not made of locally sourced materials, but rather it is a mix of cleverly used and reused industrial materials. We will make a blogpost on Arctic architecture later - a topic well worth looking into. 

The singing bird cliff

The bird cliff in Gambell is full of Auklets, primarily Least and Parakeet Auklets, but also Crested Auklet, Horned and Tufted Puffins. The soundscape is absolutely amazing! It is very unlike the sharp Kittiwake scream and Guillemot murring bird cliff in Varanger, at the Hornøya bird cliff. The Gambell bird cliff is a singing bird cliff. The high pitched Auklet vocals makes for a wall of sound. The fog just added to the amazing atmosphere of the place.

Incoming Least Auklet

Parakeet Auklets

Least and Parakeet Auklets. We also saw Crested Auklets in the cliff, but not any puffins. Cleary we arrived Gambell just as the first birds had started to settle in the cliff.

The Boneyards

The hunter gatherer leftovers are easy to deal with: you dump it outside town and nature will consume it to the bone. In fact the boneyards of Gambell are the most productive places bird wise: this is where plants grow, passerines, waders and other birds find food. Simply put: the garbage rots, and becomes food again. However the hunter gatherer way to deal with garbage does not go very well with the consumer lifestyle: processed food in plastic packaging and endless amounts of plastic bags does not rot. Its simply becomes a hazard to wildlife and a very obvious pollution problem. 

The consumer dump versus the hunter gatherer dump

Walrus and Bowhead Whale

Birding the boneyards was productive, and we were treated with this rare Russian visitor, a Lesser Sandplover.

Gambell seawatching

Seawatching at Gambell is spectacular! A constant stream of Auklets fill the horizon, in ten thousands streaming by each day. I read about it when prepping our tour, but seeing it with our own eyes was absolutely amazing. Seawatching very quickly became our favored thing to do in Gambell. We where lucky to find a boat well placed on the beach, which acted as our wind shelter for two days (then someone needed it). The wind chill is considerable and I am certain we are not the first birders visiting The Point wishing there was a bird hide / wind shelter there. Maybe it is something we should make happen?!! No doubt the Gambell community can increase the numbers of visiting birders by slight improvements like wind shelters at key sites in Gambell. I am also certain that locals would enjoy such facilities as well. 

Gambell seawatching is world class: The constant stream of birds off the shore made it incredibly interesting, and the variety of species was very good too: In three days of seawatching we had Parakeet, Crested and Least Auklets in many thousands, we had 15 Harlequin Ducks, 1200+ Long-tailed Ducks, 250+ Pacific Eiders, 430 King Eiders, 8 Steller´s Eiders and 6 Spectacled Eiders. The latter was another one of our Alaska target species. Stunning birds, and what a great place to see them! We also had 25 Pomarie Skuas, several Long-tailed and Arctic Skuas, 28 White-billed Divers, 2 Red / Grey Phalaropes, 25 Red-necked Phalaropes, lots of Guillemots and Brunnichs Guillemots, Glaucous Gulls, White-winged Scoters, Black Scoters, Pintails, Surf Scoters, Horned and Tufted Puffins, lots of Fulmars (ssp rodgersii), 250 Short-tailed Shearwater, etc

Lila and Elin seawatching behind the shelter of a boat.

Fulmar of the Pacific subspecies Fulmarus glacialis rodgersii (pale and semi pale type)

Bering Sea ice architecture - instant wind shelter

I enjoyed one last evening of seawatching, but our wind shelter boat was gone so I had to improvise: the Bering sea ice on the beach made for nice building blocks, and a pallet made for a nice chair. Voila: a basic but very comfortable and well functioning seawtching wind shelter.

A few scenes from the Gambell seawatch

Our lift back to Nome, and our final few days in Alaska.

We have one more blogpost coming soon from the Nome section of our Alaska birding adventure. Meanwhile check out the first blogpost from the Kenai Peninsula: birding Homer and Seward.

Also out now: Gambell, St.Lawrence island - Alaska spring birding

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Best wishes 

Tormod Amundsen / Architect & birder / Biotope