The tiny village of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea hosts a number of super rare birds in the Fall that become disoriented while migrating from East Asia and Russia. Because it is a part of Alaska, Gambell has become a must destination for extreme birders who want to add to their ABA Area life-lists.
I had visited Nome and Gambell in May, 2013 and picked up 24 “lifers”. More importantly, I met Aaron Lang of Wilderness Birding Adventures. As I approach the magical number of 800, the most time-cost-efficient trip to close my gap (8 species) was a September trip. Aaron and Steve Heinl were the perfect guides for the nine of us. Talented birders and cooks with a great sense of humour, they made ten days in a crowded one-bathroom house quite pleasurable.
Why do birds bother to stay in Gambell? The fatigued travelers are attracted to the unique green wormwood vegetation and insects that exist around several “boneyards”. These pits contain discarded whale and walrus bones that have been excavated for their ivory. The ivory is carved and sold by entrepreneurial Yupik natives.
The problem is, many of the migrants are small, indistinct, and shy. Photography is key to identifying them. Thankfully, I was able to add three (3) members of the Phylloscopus family to my life-list, a page in the bird guides that I never paid much attention to because of the unlikely chance I would ever see and identify these ”LBJ’s” (“Little Brown Jobs”). My photos aren’t blog-worthy but were good enough for positive ID’s.
But I did flush and spot a different looking bird on the third day. The group surrounded the area I thought the bird landed. Aaron was on it. LITTLE BUNTING he yelled. A code 4 from Asia. And significant enough of a find to make the NARBA (North American Rare Bird Alert) airwaves that evening. I felt pretty good because I was in serious birding company and wanted to contribute something other than calling out a common Snow Bunting or an inaccurate identification.
Each morning we trudged a half mile through pea gravel to the end of the island and stood watch over the open water at dawn looking for seabirds. One morning it did NOT rain and we could see Russia 35 miles away. Remember Sarah Palin? Anyway, this group did not discuss politics….just birds. And I picked up Spectacled Eider and Kittlitz’s Murrelet. I had expected three lifers, hoped for five and now had six bringing my total to 798. And I still had half of the trip remaining.