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Alaska 2004

Part 1:  Gambell

I woke up feeling kinda icky, but not enough to cancel the trip, thankfully; took some Pink Stuff and went to church, and the services went great; but I really felt like I was ready to fall on my face! Got to say a nice goodbye to everyone, then came home, changed, had a bowl of cereal, sprayed the place, emptied the garbage, and unplugged everything before my friend Judy showed up to take me to the airport.  Getting checked in was a breeze (no one in line), and security was quick, too, so I had plenty of time to crash. Got into Seattle fine (I wasn't looking forward to checking in the next day, though, as the line going through security was awful) and connected with my childhood friend Lois Jane for a good healthy dinner!  Crashed after that, and got to the airport super early the next morning where check-in was a breeze compared to what I saw the day before! Ran into San Diego birding buddy Phil Pryde when it was finally time to board the plane, and had an uneventful flight to Anchorage, where we shared the shuttle with Dorothy Jackson, her friend Alice Gregory, and Merrill Webb, whom it turns out I had met before at the ABA Convention in Park City, Utah! Phil told us that the lake across the street from the hotel (called Hood Lake and loaded with seaplanes) was good for Greater Scaup, so after we checked in I walked over and checked it out, where tons of Violet-green Swallows were flying around, along with a token Bank. Saw Phil's Greater Scaup, and a funny ching-ching-ching song had me stumped until I saw the junco on the wire doing it!

                    

No, that's not an air traffic controller goof-up; they have parallel runways in Seattle!  At right, mountains coming into Anchorage

 

        

Our hotel, the Coast International Inn (left); Greater Scaup hung out in Hood Lake across the street  (male left, female right)

Napped until dinnertime, where the other folks were in the lounge: I mistook Walter Lamb for one of the guides cuz he was so young and had his own scope, but he straightened that out right away! Turns out he was ex-army, and because he was probably the youngest participant (I didn't ask, but I'm sure he was younger than me, although not by much probably) the rest of us lovingly called him "The Kid"! He had energy to spare that put all of us to shame!  Also met Ray and Ruth Covill from Massachusetts; since they were also on the Grand Alaska tour, they kind of "adopted" me, and we had some great times goofing around, especially on the Grouse Stomps...  The last two members were Jean Lewis from Florida, a real sweet, fun lady, and Grace Nutting from Wyoming, who was a lot of fun, too.  And of course I can't forget Kevin Zimmer and Marshall Iliff, our fearless leaders! I was anxious to meet Kevin because I had heard of his famous stories from a mutual friend, particularly the ongoing saga of the Paper Towel Tube!  (Kevin said that by simply mentioning it I became suspect... ☺)  Marshall was really the kid at 28 years old, but he was a great birder and great kidder, and the two of them were quite a pair! 

After dinner we gathered to go to Fort Richardson, where a guy named Bob Dittrick (not sure I'm spelling that right) was monitoring owl nest boxes and had a couple staked out. This was about the only time you could do this on any of the Alaska tours, because both Boreal and Saw-whet Owls nest terribly early, and even by the end of the Gambell/Nome trip most of the young have fledged. So he met us at the fort entrance and took us to the first box, that of a Boreal Owl.  Bob scratched and out she popped! Picture-wise, I should have tried digiscoping through Kevin's scope (both gave permission to do that, as some cameras can scratch the eyepiece of the scope), as the light was kinda low for a normal shot, but for some strange reason, when I digiscoped the Saw-whet Owl (who stayed put much longer; I was afraid my flash forced the Boreal back in prematurely, but Bob assured me it didn't) it came out great! Bob puts out a lot of these boxes and it's evidently greatly helping the population of both these owls.

 

   

Kevin Zimmer readies the scope for our owling excursion to Fort Richardson

 

          

Biologists put up nest boxes for Boreal (left) and Saw-whet (center) Owls; note the bare brood patch on mama Saw-whet!  (Low lighting caused a lower shutter speed on the Boreal...)  At right, San Diego birding buddy Phil Pryde (left) and Walter Lamb stroll the road for dickeys.

Had a fitful sleep and overslept, but thankfully only by one minute! Left one bag there in Anchorage (on purpose), and then we headed to the airport. All the food has to be transported over to Gambell, so we had about 16 coolers and 13 boxes full of stuff that had to be checked in! After all that was done we ate breakfast in the cafeteria there (first of many), then boarded the plane for Nome! I ended up with Kevin and Marshall ("Oh, gee whiz; do I have to sit with you guys?" Grin grin...) and had a great time listening to various reptile war stories!

Once in Nome we zeroed in on the little rivulet and the vegetation beyond where a Fox Sparrow (of the Red variety) was singing. Redpolls were whizzing in and out, and although the lighting was terrible for the most part, we did get good looks at some of them, revealing that most of them were my first lifers: Hoaries! Later some Commons came in for good comparisons as well. A Tree Swallow gave a brief look and an Arctic Tern flew by as well.  I had to smile at Walter: he had his laptop wherever he went, and even opened it up here to access some data on something-or-other!

                

Left:  Walter guards the coolers--all our food had to be shipped to Gambell!  Right: While waiting to board the plane to  Gambell, Walter uses his computer to try to sort out the redpolls...

          

These are all Common Redpolls; the male (above left) shows a lot of pink, but females (two right pictures) can be confused with the frostier-looking Hoary Redpolls

The guys had gone to order Subway sandwiches (we had a choice of turkey or roast beef: they told us not to get fancy!), so when they arrived we all headed in and fed our faces, then boarded two little puddle jumpers to Gambell! The weather was relatively warm: no wind at all, and I was very comfy wearing my down jacket open! Marshall was with our plane, so when we landed, he took us through the Near Boneyard where we saw the two most common passerines: Lapland Longspur and Snow Bunting (with a real atypical song). The Boneyards were where the natives dug up old walrus tusks to use in their ivory carving, and they left all these potholes in their wake where vagrants often hid, sheltered from the wind and rain. Nothing this time, but we did a little seawatching and got terrific looks at my life Least Auklets, plus lessons in telling Thick-billed and Common Murres apart in flight (the Commons were noticeably ashier than the TBs). Oldsquaw (aka Long-tailed Ducks; old habits die hard) were plentiful, too, as well as Glaucous Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwakes, and Vega Gull (called East Siberian by Clements), and the real gem, a second-year Slaty-backed Gull! Kevin had warned us that in the harsh arctic light the backs of the Vega Gulls were gonna look awfully dark, and he was right: I could have sworn some of those backs looked black! In fact, one of the pictures I took shows the pattern typical of a 2nd-year Slatyback, but the saddle isn't quite black, I don't see the barring on the coverts supposedly typical of Vega, and the photo wasn't taken through the scope, which I thought all our Slatybacks were. The photos are below: what do you guys think?

                  

Left: Landing at Gambell.  Right:  The locals unload and transport all our stuff to the inn...

               

Right:  Marshall takes us on the "scenic route" through the Boneyard to look for songbirds (R-L): Snow Bunting (fuzzy, but he's kinda cute singing...), and two Lapland Longspurs

       

You had to walk everywhere, and the soft gravel made that a challenge!  Seawatching was the most relaxing birding by far; here Walter mans his scope in hopes of a rare seabird!

                                   

(Left two shots) East Siberian (or Vega) Gull, considered a race of the Herring by some authorities.  (Right two shots) Glaucous Gulls; notice the lack of black in the wingtips and paler mantle.

        

The left photo is a confirmed young Slaty-backed Gull, but the two right birds, ID'd as young Vegas because of the paler mantle, have a pattern that seems to better fits Slatybacked; what do you think?

                                       

L-R:  Crested Auklet, basic-plumaged Thick-billed Murre, two Parakeet Auklet shots, and a group of Least Auklets

    

Black-legged Kittiwake

We dumped everything at the lodge (Sivuqaq Inn), which was actually a housing area built for the guys who were building the school! It's attached to "The Deli", the only restaurant (if you care to call it that) in town, and was also the place where Kevin prepared all our meals. Tonight, however, the staff stuck around to cook us dinner because we just didn't have time to prepare anything.  Hanson, the head guy, gave us all our keys, only mine didn't work (it worked on Phil's door, ironically--don't ask me how I found that out cuz I don't remember), so he had to come back and find me one that did! We each got two keys: one to our room and one to the main door's deadbolt, as the place was technically supposed to be closed after six, and they really didn't want the locals coming in and out after hours.

After that we headed out again over to the Boneyard, scaring up the best bird of the whole time there (IMHO): the lingering Hawfinch! We had several good looks, and I was even able to snap a so-so picture, and while it wasn't a lifer, it was definitely better than the flyover first look I had in Moscow! We trudged our way to The Point again, and the weather was perfect, with great lines of birds flying past: lots of Crested Auklets with the occasional Least for size comparison, lines of murres often flanked or led by Tufted Puffins (it got to be a joke after awhile because almost every murre flock had a puffin in the lead as if to say, "I'm a murre: lead me!"), the odd Pacific Loon flying over, and more gulls. We had great looks at both guillemots; those underwing linings sure do stand out! A Fulmar made an appearance as well, and a few ducks shot by, including a female Steller's Eider that I couldn't see well enough to count with confidence. I did get decent looks at a female King Eider, three White-winged Scoters, and a pair of Blacks, however.

 

      

Left:  Phil and Jean are ready to hit it again after getting settled at our "hotel", which doubles as the town deli!  Right: "The Boneyard": natives dig up buried walrus tusk for their ivory carvings, and the resultant potholes are great hiding places for vagrants!

 

                           

Left and center:  Hoary Redpolls.  Right:  Hawfinch, a rare stray from Russia!

 

       

You have to tread carefully through this stuff or you could break an ankle!  At right, Dorothy and Ruth prefer the roads!

 

       

Time to head to The Point once again...(Ruth and Ray go by way of the airstrip)

 

 

Old whale bones by the village

 

                              

The natives are subsistence hunters and, after they've stripped the carcass and hung the meat out to dry (below), the rest is often left to the elements...  At right is baleen, also used in their carvings

    

I was really shot (as was most everyone), so we headed back to the inn to crash.

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