Alaska Wrap-up 3-8 June

Alaska Wrap-up 3-8 June
On flight from Nome to Anchorage

In the continuing mode of very brief updates, here’s a teaser on my Nome and Gambell Alaskan adventures. Hopefully a few pix will make up for lack of content. It continues to be the case that I’m struggling to find the time and energy to write much more. As always, I continue to take copious voice notes daily, so in the fullness of time, the ‘whole story’, juicy bits and all will be published – I promise. Max, my accountant and friend made me promise a year ago. But for now, with apologies in advance, here’s a skeleton of the facts for now.

It’s hard to remember so far back – but I managed to get from Adak, Alaska to the North Carolina outer banks for the two days of pelagic birding I summarised in previous update, then back to Nome Alaska in just over three day’s time. Then the hour long bush flight to Gambell – a Native American village on St Lawrence Island, about a stone’s throw from Russia. Gambell is a ‘must do’ Springtime destination for anyone hoping for ABA rarities to add to a big year tally. As is the case for Attu Island at the end of the Aleutian chain, Asian birds migrating northwards sometimes find themselves slightly – or greatly off course, especially in the event of westerly winds, and take a breather on St Lawrence Island.

My second big Alaskan trip, as with Attu, was an organised tour with eight or nine keen birders – this time with Aaron Lang’s Wilderness Birding. It was actually a two-part tour – four days at Gambell and another three days in the Nome region on the Seward Peninsula. Once again, this was a well organised and wonderful experience, with a LOT of birding. Even though I’m not so great with groups, there were fantastic people in both legs of my Wilderness Birding trip (Gambell and Nome) to hob-nob with, and I really enjoyed the whole ‘organised’ business – quite a departure from my usual modus operandi. But the big resource on Gambell was the presence of rare bird finding gurus Paul Lehman and Barbara. Paul and Barbara are like hound dogs on the trail of Asian blow-ins in some of the most remote islands of Alaska, both in Spring and Autumn, and an untold number of birders owe a lot of their Alaskan rarities to these two. Thanks Paul and Barbara!

OK, its Thursday, and I’m in Anchorage after a glorious bath and sleep. Have therefore found a bit more time and energy to recount a bit about my three-day Nome experience – maybe I’ll later do same re my earlier three days spent at Gambell.

After our bush flight from Gambell to Nome, together with Mike and Libby from the Gambell tour on Monday 6 June, we met up with birding guides Scott and Aaron (the ‘other’ Aaron on the Wilderness Birding team) to start the birding. Like Aaron Lang and James in Gambell, these two guys proved to be birding superstars who also went to great efforts to make the experience of their charges all positive, and were super nice-guys to boot. It was five-ish in the afternoon – but with probably 10 hours of sub-arctic sunlight left in the day (seriously), so we hit the road straight away to look for birds – especially the immature male Spectacled Eider that was known to be hanging around an inlet at Hastings Creek. When we drove up to the best viewing spot there were a number of birders already there – but getting into their vehicles to leave. The word was “you missed it by five minutes -  it swam out the channel to the open sea, and hooked a left, along with strong winds to float off.”  Guide Aaron looked as disappointed as I was, so was vulnerable to my suggestion that we quickly get back on the road and drive parallel to the shoreline and find a way through to the beach. And that’s what we did, except there wasn’t much of a track going in. We drove the car as far as possible, and scopes and cameras in hands all ran the final few hundred metres to the shore. And bingo! Nailed the location of the bird by less than 50 metres. In fact it was still upwind from us to the right. I love it when a plan comes together.

Then next day (Tuesday) was insanely marvellous. First we went to the famous Bristle-thighed Curlew hillside, fairly high in the river valley, and surrounded by Julie Andrews Sound of Music moment fields of flowering tundra. Wow.  The walk to the nesting area was shorter and easier than is often conveyed in trip reports, and with such a superb blue-sky day, we had a wonderful experience with the Curlews, not to mention what I consider to be the most spectacular bird I’ve seen this year – an American Golden Plover in breeding plumage and territorial display. Unforgettable. But so were the other iconic birds we targeted and saw that day, including Bluethroat and Arctic Warbler.

Following a 14-hour birding day, I started out a bit groggy on Wednesday (yesterday) morning, but converted that to a bang when Scott picking out a Terek Sandpiper from a group of peeps at ‘the bridge’. A couple of days earlier this was the site of perhaps even greater excitement when a trio of Great Knots were seen. My understanding is that the Terek Sandpiper was either the third or fourth record for mainland Alaska, so guides Scott and Aaron (the ‘other’ Aaron) were understandably excited. Sightings of the knot are even fewer. So you can imagine how our excitement levels went into hyper-drive an hour so – and a drive to the southeast, when we noticed a largish wader (sorry, trying to adopt Americanisation: shorebird) that when briefly in the scope yielded “Great Knot!”. But the view was very brief, and I just managed to swing up the camera for a parting shot of its low flight to the right. Although we were fairly confident, I worried about the extent of white trailing edge in the wings of my blurry image that I viewed as we drove off. When I showed the image to Scott he identified it as a Rock Sandpiper. Buggah! Worst still, by then we’d already shared the revelation of the reappearance of the Great Knot (and the Terek) with other birders, who invested considerable effort chasing our Knottish Rock Sandpiper. One group later told us that they encountered at least 5 Rockies (normally rare in the region) in their quest to find ‘our’ bird.

Of course both Gambell and Nome birding is all about the rarities, and looking back on a wild and crazy week, I enjoyed my fair share of real boomers: Common Greenshank, Red-necked Stint, Red-throated Pipit, and Common Chiff-chaff at Gambell, as well as Spectacled Eider on the Nome leg - getting me very close to the 81 mark - being the benchmark of modern ABA Big Years during Neil Hayward's record-breaking 749 species year in 2013. Unlike the Australian scene, the accumulation of rarity sightings is the main-game in ABA big year birding, and has been my primary focus every day since 1 January, with the sighting of my first code 3-5 bird (aka 'coded' bird), Streak-backed Oriole.

During Neil Hayward's record setting year, the gods were far less generous with vagrant blow-ins, and he was at only 33 coded birds at this time in the year - simply because the crazy numbers weren't there to chase. This fact needs to be kept in mind if ever an attempt to compare the results of the two years is made. Having spent time with Neil this year, I can attest to the reality of the gulf between between our relative levels of birding skills and capabilities (not to mention 'gentlemanliness'). I cannot wait for the release of Neil's forthcoming book Lost Among the Birds - the bits that I've been lucky to read/hear speak volumes about the man behind the big year account. This guy is the real deal - and my bet is that the book is destined to be a classic, with insightful juxtaposition of birding and life, to sit right alongside Kenn Kauffman's Kingbird Highway.

Fortunately for me, it appears that I did pick the right year to blend big vagrant numbers with my principal birding asset - stubborn tenacity. The relevant sea temperatures have already begun to cool, with a swing to La Nina conditions eminent, so I won't count on any more waves of rarity invasions. But I will keep my foot on the accelerator pedal throughout all of the remaining 205 days of 2016. At the same time I'll continue to be thankful for the sacrifice made by family and work colleagues to give me this wonderful opportunity to reconnect with 'the old country', and get to know a spectacular diversity of birds while exploring some of the most beautiful natural places anywhere, all the time mixing it up with those enthusiastic American birders.

So with a total of approx. 687 species (two of these are 'provisional', and I need to create separate category for them) on my list I’m feeling good post-Alaska, and can focus on the missing North American breeding birds that I haven’t had time to see in migration or at breeding grounds, plus some very juicy rarities that continue to trickle into the lower 48 States. Life is good! 

Here are a few photos:
Gambell with Russia behind
Gamble traffic jam caused by Common Greenshank
Yellow-billed Loon
Rock Sandpiper in splendid breeding form
Switch from Gambell to Nome:
Big bar high-tailing it after I kicked its arse
Bristle-thighed Curlew
Beautiful Alaska
Northern Wheatear