Day 28, Anchorage Alaska
Let me just say it here. I am not dead, I repeat, I am NOT dead. I am safely back at The Coast Inn drinking a much earned beer, now not for any life birds, but for life....wait a minute....I feel like I'm repeating myself...
I was enjoying my day off after jumping a plane out of Gambell yesterday and surviving the worst stretch of fall birding in Gambell history (more on that later) and I went into the bush north of Anchorage to maybe find myself, find God, and find some birds... nothing in particular just birds. I stopped at this view above and dreamed that I was standing there holding the hand of my best friend, Silja, the love of my life, a woman I miss so much, who with, I have now not shared a moment together in 32 days, our longest stretch apart...something I will never do again and I saw this view and couldn't take it as I knew she would like it too...I had to walk on.
So I walked aimlessly on continuing my search for avian life, God, a meaning in life, answers to life questions, a good plot for a novel, anything....I was a nice day and it all seemed so simple.....but....
and all I found, again, ..................was bears........
bears.....again?...the answer to life's questions seems to just be bears, I guess it is a simple answer. A one word answer that seems to fit everything for me....BEARS!
There is a saying back home about being up to your ass in alligators but what if you are up to your ass in bears?
Okay, I was warned this time (and I am a whole lot smarter, or so I think after Arizona) first there was the yellow sign, like I was warm...but well one goes through yellow lights....well I do.
Then the red sign, maybe hotter now, a smart guy would stop...
You know, I took these pictures BEFORE I saw any bruins like I knew what was coming down the trail, why did I know this? Because bears and me, well you know, we got this thing....In truth, I kept going because well and then there was this grouse up 20 yards on the trail, maybe it was a grouse, I had not confirmed the species, (Paul Lehman wants confirmation or the sighting is worthless), maybe it was a ptarmigan, or a spruce, or a ruffed...IDK...It was a hen. .I didn't get that far because then HE came....
I was going to be no hero....This was a real bear, not a garbage bear.....I stopped and watched and well he came, and kept coming and well, at 50 feet away, I got the puppy dog out of there.....
I couple hundred yards down the trail....I met some people...crazy people...idiotic people apparently looking for bears.
"Hey, you didn't happen to see a bear?" They asked. I nodded but kept up my pace (a fast pace)
"Which way?" They said confused.
I gave the thumb over my shoulder.
"Why are you going the other way?" They were even more confused.
" 'cause it was.. a bear, a really big bear." I race walked past them. "But you got that big camera...." they said....yeah I thought, lot of good that will do, he'll just spit that out when he is finished.
I saw a more sane person in the parking lot coming past me as I was breathing easy watching robins, robins in a parking lot seemed like safer birds for me than grouse. "Hey what you see?" She asked flirtatiously.
"Just a damn bear." I said. She turned 180 degrees. "I thought you were going this way." I said.
"Not anymore." She said and hurried off the other way.
I should try to imply some meaning to this sighting but Doug Gotchfeld would just say "why does there have to be meaning?" Ah Doug......Gambell.....
Yea, 16 days in Gambell, the place where you can literally see tomorrow, today...
That is Russia in the background and on the other side of the International dateline which is about 15 miles off shore. I would like to change that saying to where you can experience tomorrow's birding frustrations today....IDK. It was a bad year for birding's marquis spot....again I'll get to this. First for all you know, I'm still in St Paul...
Day 9; St Paul Island
Enough Rain for One Lifetime
This was to be our last day on St Paul and we gave it our best efforts, walking celery, walking the pumphouse, driving the roads....but alas we went all day with nothing more to show and at 4pm Pen-Air showed and well, off we went for what could be the best flight ever on that airline, fast, efficient, we were standing in Anchorage at 7pm waiting for a shuttle to a hotel.
To sum up most of last week in St Paul...drudgery, wet and windy drudgery...but well I got something out of it...3 birds
What we saw was the best thing in the sky all year...
we saw the sun
It was so nice in Anchorage, we didn't want to go to bed. The sun, the sun, the sun............
Jim left and went back to Newark, finally, I went to bed after taking care of some paperwork that needed to be done.
Day 10. Nome, Alaska
A Boogle of Weasels
Well I boarded my cargo plane for Nome, it was a rather uneventful time in Anchorage airport, although beware, I learned Alaska Air is cutting the size of carry-ons so small, I think Pen-Air may allow bigger, so BEWARE! Rules change in the end of the year. Platinum on Delta gets you somewhere on Alaska, like the end of the line but in a cargo plane, but I did learn something and the woman looked the other way for my heavy bag.
I flew into Nome and landed at noon, later in the flight, I started talking to the guy sitting next to me, Dr. Geoff Chambers from New Zealand, a retired University researcher working on the genetics of Albatross. As my tour had gone out without me, I rented a car and I took him out to get a few lifers, for him, he was waiting for a 10am flight to Siberia, and a Russian boat to Wrangle Island. Cool trip and I got invited to New Zealand.
We came upon a rarity but it was just a rarity for the area, Caspian tern in Safety Sound.
An Alaska lifer for me, yahoo...wahoo...don't ask me why I know it is #205, please don't. I will never post my Alaska list again. Well, then I learned you get a patch for crossing 200 and I did do that in the past week so okay, I'll apply to join the 200 club....It was 73 when I left Attu in 2013. Geoff got Aleutian tern, his goal bird, and so that went well and we saw muskoxen.
First I saw a funeral owl, and then today, it was a boogle of weasels, yes it is a flock of sheep, a herd of cows, and yes, YES, it really is a boogle of weasels. Short-tailed weasels darted about me everywhere, I may have hit one but we'll get to that if that is considered good or bad....today, though, it WAS a veritable boogle of weasels.
Well seeing a weasel can mean many things, most of them are bad. I depends on what culture and what context. In Japanese culture, it is really, really bad. There is none that I can find for the local tribes people and in my culture, northern European, it is only safe to kill weasels from August 15th to September 8th, (the French could never kill one safely). They play tricks on us for the rest of the year and killing one then is a harbinger of the worst omens ever and was more taboo than marrying your sister or having sex with your mother. But during the special period, seeing one was generally just bad for the weasel as now, we could sing, "pop goes the weasel," and smack one and get a little revenge, although that is not the meaning of the rhyme. I surmise it feels good getting a little revenge and the pop, well.... I think being in the dates window, August 27th, seeing all of these weasels then, means nothing, and well if the weasel did go pop on my tire, I'm safe, whew!!!!. Maybe crazy birding if, I didn't pop him? I was afraid to look behind me.
We ate pizza and finally I connected with the WINGS people. Aurora Hotel is the worst, they cancelled my reservation, and told me "WINGS Tour? They aren't here." and my room-mate cancelled, maybe the whole thing was off, IDK.
I went out for pizza and beer with Geoff and at the tail end of the day finally ran into the group. I guess I could have just met them at the airport tomorrow, but I was glad it hadn't got cancelled. Tours and me are not compatible. Never have, never will, cruise ships, anything I need to follow along things go wrong and haywire. But I needed the time in Gambell...
There is something called the 24 hour rule, within 24 hrs of leaving a spot a bird you desire shows up. It happened on St. Paul but to Jim, not I....little stint showed today, a bird Jim desired, I didn't need it, whew....weasel chaos averted, go and plop that bugger! A group is also called a confusion, which maybe is the confusion of trying to determine the omen, but boogle is the word for me...the word of the day.
to quote my late grandfather, Allwin Danielson, on the matter of weasels, "beady eyed little blood-thirsty bastards." I think that sums up today in one neat package.
In hindsight, I should have headed the warning.....damn weasel, and never got on the plane.
I went through the curlew and godwit calls in my head and stood up and picked up the bird as it crossed the road above me and then swung to my left fanning its tail showing a black end stripe and white at the rump, with a small amount of white on top of the wings, but only the primaries. It had large barring streaks on the belly and when it got going east, it closed the tail so only the black tip was evident.
Although on Gambell, a more fitting picture would be this one intermixed with garbage
Mind you, I like Gambell. It is a classic reservation village, I can site many similar places in South Dakota, I live next to one, Peever SD comes to mind, BUT really why would they put the dump and sewage treatment pond upwind from the village, and then one would only expect all the garbage to be blown all over town and also into the fresh water source for the town, Troutman Lake....do they not get this? Do they not care? Oh well...can't fix Pine Ridge, Eagle Butte, Agency Village, so why expect to fix Gambell.
The near boneyard....
This is as good of a time as any to describe the gang here in Gambell
Besides all of the big year birders, 5 of the top 7 listers of ABA all time were at Gambell (Macklin Smith (1), Larry Peavler (2), Paul Sykes (3), Ebbe Banstorp (5), and Monte Taylor (7), The man who made Gambell what it is as the premier vagrant spot for ABA Birding, Paul Lehman, Six really top quality guides (Aaron Lang, James Harrington, Gary Rosenberg, Doug Gotchfeld, Cory Gregory, and Gavin Bieber), the biggest lister in Nevada (Greg Scyphers) and Nevada OU Secretary and mega lister, Martin Meyers, plus some other big shots...Chris Feeney, a birding chum I know and have written about previously, Susan Clark from Michigan who was on a pelagic with me and some others birders I didn't really get to know...sadly.
I felt like a minnow in a tank of sharks, except, I guess that these guys were not mean like sharks but maybe more like whales....the cartoons always portray whales as nice....now occasionally a whale accidentally sucks in something and maybe spits it out, ask Jonah about that, but well, I was Jonah in a sea of whales, I guess then, just hoping not to get sucked into the baleen and spit out.
Let me go over these megas of bird listing
Paul Lehman has spent more time on Gambell than anyone not claiming Gambell as their home. He is writing a huge paper on the species appearance on the island and is the king of Gambell. He isn't in charge really of anything though but well, he is. He sees almost every bird worth seeing on the island so if you want to become persona non grata don't call in a bird to Paul....
Paul is a cross between The Father in Leave it to Beaver and Marcus Welby. He is a father figure, imposing yet nurturing. Tough but fair, encouraging you to do better and yet has all those answers for you when you most need them. Paul is like Dr Welby in knowing all that needs to be known. Paul has a doctorate, so to say and honorary of course, from the Gambell School of Ornithology.
Paul Sykes is sort of that uncle who comes over at a wedding and smacks you on the head and tells you, "to shape up and stop embarrassing the family." He tells it like it is because someone has to do it. We all need an uncle like that. Paul has seen 903 ABA birds. He has a heavy Georgian accent and has been everywhere and almost seen everything and has spent much time on the Ivory Billed woodpecker finding project and seems like a good guy and I like Paul. I asked Paul what his favorite bird chase was. He chastised me a little in saying "we don't think that way." That was a very deep answer if you think about that for a while. I was trying to get the higher meaning of it for days when it came to me...he was just Uncle Paul smacking me behind the ear. Yea, "we don't think that way." I needed to change my idea of bird listing....they are all great chases, the best one is the next one. The worst one is the last dip.
He birds a lot with Larry Peavler (904) Larry is the thinker behind the duo of Larry and Paul. He is quieter and certainly has forgotten more about birds than I will ever know. I didn't get Larry to open up much. Larry is a nice guy, polite and I like his rabbit bomber hat.
It took me a while to get Ebbe Banstorp (870) talking but then I did. Ebbe has an odd Swedish accent that took me a while to place as I initially thought he had to be Danish but that didn't fit, as he didn't pronounce things Danish. He is from the province of Skone, in southern Sweden, they have an odd Swedish dialect down there (Skonish) compared to "08s" which is the phone exchange for Stockholm and the standard Swedish accent, but if you ask him, he is just from Orange County. Ebbe walks, doesn't ride an ATV, has a fixed birding schedule and absolutely refuses to ever EVER seawatch. Too cold I think he told me and It has done him well, even his fixation on Frosted Flakes has done him well. A birding Swede...cool.
Monte Taylor is the king of photography of ABA birds having photographed more species than all but 6 people have seen, his life list at 860, photo list of 852 is amazing. He spends all of his time organizing photos in the corner, waiting on the radio minding his computer. Monte is under appreciated and not understood by everyone. He is the character from Oh brother, where art thou? played by George Clooney. Monte has the gift of gab, just like the character and travels with Ebbe so one talks and one listens and well that seems to have worked for 31 years. I like Monte, and I would not hesitate to call him to help me in a pinch in Santa Ana, California or Irving or somewhere close by. I hope I meet him and the other Megas again....
Macklin Smith came in a week later. One word describes Prof. Macklin Smith, "Genteel." Macklin has an amazing number (916). He lived through a disease that would have killed him just a few years before he got it, living in extra time is a grand thing as it beats...not living. Heck, I'm going on my 36th year of extra time. Life IS good. Medicine, I like it! ....Macklin knows poetry from the Middle ages, was a professor at Michigan....I would have liked to have studied "Paradise Lost" with him in college or the "Inferno" from Dante. My college president at Ripon, Bill Stott, also was a man with an advance degree in English Lit and a master birder....English and birds....go figure? I bet Macklin has a lot to say and not just about being the birding chef of Attu...
I hadn't seen Doug Gotchfeld since 2014. Doug was a young gun back then, which was only 2 years ago, it seems since then he has transformed into a bit of philosopher, he seems to have grasped deeper meaning in life, wise in his young years. Maybe it was a trip to Israel, maybe he is like Scotch, and aging well, even though he is really just a kid. Maybe...it doesn't mean anything, it is just Doug being, Doug and there doesn't have to be any meaning. I just want to say, I like it! Doug is the best field photographer I have ever seen, just does amazing, amazing things with his 400 fixed lens on a Canon...I think He could get a clear photo of a fly going across the room....
I last birded with Greg Scyphers and Martin Meyers (sp?) at the tail end of the amazing 9 days I had with Thor Manson on St Paul in 2014 with Doug....and Cory. They were still licking their chops thinking of what we had as when their plane landed the winds turned and the birds switched to warblers and robins from Asian code 4s and 5s.....I sort of think I jinxed them again....sorry guys. This is birding.....I think they are okay, even though I kept reminding Greg my daughter has a dusky grouse up on him in lifers in Nevada......everyone has a nemesis....even him. When an Arctic warbler showed in Nevada last week, he looked a little peeved at it all and he wasn't nearby....even when we tried to be supportive and stated one couldn't prove it wasn't a Kamchatka Leaf warbler as they look similar to an arctic and without a call who knows...? I don't think he appreciated that and he looked at us like we were insane.
So that is a bit of a snapshot of the crew....and they are a good crew, the Gods of birding in many respects.
It is hard for me to sit with a group of birders for as long as I did on Gambell....I don't like to talk birding and weather that long, I like football and baseball, and 1880-1930 history and art history of the same period, fishing, .....and we only had one TV channel and no alcohol is allowed on the island...I could have used a beer.....IDK, but I survived and best of all they didn't kill me.....I doubt anyone will invite me back but I always say that.
back top birding...
There was a report of a lesser sand plover so we all went out like the US Calvary looking for the bird. It was an organized assault by Col Feeney with most of the best bird chasers in the world, these guys could find a lone mouse in a building.
The total shorebirds this day was the same gray tailed tattler and a couple of long billed dowitchers, there were even few ruddy turnstones about, but no plovers. No one saw the bird, someone would have if it was there.
Gambell, St Lawrence Island
It blew, blew some more and the crew got surly. We watched the weather like clockwork at 530, and then notcied at day 23, it would shift to west.....there was hope, but for the WINGS tour people, they ran out of time and hope and went home at day 17, but nothing changed, nothing did.
We looked at the turbines every moment and hoped they would change from NE to something... anything...the wheatears and arctics left....we hoped for even a sparrow....then we looked at alternative weather models...during all of this three things happened.
First...we discussed a white cheeked pintail in Virginia which Paul L called "squishy" meaning that it was probably an escaped bird and you could count it but...well it was "squishy".
second, we discussed the Tropical storm on the east coast which didn't bring in much, a couple of tropicbirds in the Chesapeake Bay area but not much and then shockingly we discussed the remnant hurricane in Arizona which produced the most amazing fall out of odd seabirds I expect to ever hear about....things never seen off the coast of California let alone in Arizona.....and I was stuck here. but well I wouldn not have gotten there in time to see anything anyhow...just wishful thinking of what could have been.
Thirdly I thought of bugging out, but there was this great weather forecast for vagrants....
Day 23 Gambell
The wind shifted 40 minutes ahead of forecast at 210, by three a report of an Siberian accentor, came out and we missed it being in the south, Chris and I passed the time each day counting rock sandpipers and harlequin ducks 5 miles south of town.
But...we found it, good bird, cool bird, but this was not a year bird for me, then we spotted a second bird, my 3rd and 4th all time of the species, they are kind of neat...code 4s too.
They stayed for two days....unfortunately an hour later, the winds shifted to pure south and defied the weather report and any predictions....and the other birds...never came....they never came. I wanted to cry....
Day 24-25 Gambell
In the morning fog, I flushed a snowy owl, unfortunately I had no witness, no photo, no proof, shoot, I even lost it in the fog....it was just a snowy owl but the bird was not counted, sigh, these guys are tough. I didn't even report it to Ebird....Paul L would reject it, so why bother.
I worked on my novel which I named "Counting Owls" but as the depression grew and my loneliness expanded, I found the writing becoming more lustful even pornographic and weirdly like one had 30 porn channels and were switching them fast, it didn't make any sense. I couldn't even focus on one steamy scene so I switched to murder scenes and the murders became ghastly, grizzly, all blood and mutilation so I had to stop writing. Is this what being stuck somewhere does to people?
Mostly I just felt I had to get out of here, the people nice, the natives fine, but the weather was still hopeful, so I demurred and stayed and as the guys studied new weather models, things could be okay....
I went out and saw 7 short eared owls getting enough photos to satisfy but they had been seen before. My best...
Then on day 25, Chris found the snowy owl. He confirmed my sighting! I wasn't seeing things....then I went out and saw 5, a flock or a parliament, I thought we saw 5.
Paul L looked at the photo and counted 4 owls, daily count was 4, as we could only prove 4. It was still a parliament of owls, though.
I got a better in flight photo later....
I also saw many pacific golden plovers
I rescued a least auklet chick stuck on the ground not making it to sea and I carried it to the ocean and threw it in flying off, I hoped that would appease the birding gods but alas, all I did was saved a least auklet chick, they were getting blown around all over as the adults just leave them and eventually hungry they fly off the cliffs but well, they aren't too bright and many die. Doug G said why does there have to be a meaning in saving a chick or seeing a bear...maybe, it is just that you saved a chick and seen a bear.
I walked the dogs, chasing us on ATVs, I'd say I spotted a wolf here but you'd see the tag. Our best boneyard stomp had 7 canine helpers
Depression grew...and I think by day 27, the weasel had won. I wished I hadn't seen it, but secretly hoped it was dead.....so I called Bering Air and I left....I got all the way to Anchorage sitting by Nicole from Nome for the 3rd time. She said I needed a beer on the plane as all the internet was out in Nome and it was lucky we got out of there....she talked about her moose she had just shot....a 60 incher, he was battle tested with healed wounds that would have killed an ordinary animal...any talk was better than talking about birds and the weather.
I woke up on day 28 to calls from my mom and wife, text from sister, Jena, she had given birth to a nine pound 6 oz girl, her 2nd...named Lucy.
I'm an uncle again, maybe I can be a Paul Sykes kind of uncle...LOL....IDK.
When it is all said an done, what number we have doesn't matter. A Wikipedia blurb means nothing. All we are remembered by is really our children. I think of my grandfather Allwin everyday and if I think too much, I start to cry. I like to tell his stories as much as possible as it makes me feel like he is still around. He would be 101 if he was around and I loved my grandfather. He thought I was special, and told everyone that, that I think was what made me move forward in life. I have not really felt as safe and secure in my existence from anyone else, to be honest. I don't want to dish on anyone it is just the way it is. One of my bucket list items was to name a son after him, Allwin was born 5 years after his death.
Lucy is named after grandma Lucille Danielson, the other half of my grandparent duo....Lucille gets to meet her namesake, still kicking at 91...she is also the person I dedicated this year to. My grandmother has outlived all of her siblings and for that mater a vast majority of her nieces and nephews, memories are fading of many people who walked on this earth. I see grandpa Allwin "Bop" in my son's eyes, every time I look at him. My sister makes me proud, way to go girl!! Husband Jon is okay too! I hope they see Grandma Lucille in this child's eyes for the rest of their lives.
I am having a hard time writing and seeing the screen as tears well up. I want to go home. I miss my wife and my family. My wife got a new kitten and I haven't seen the kitty either. But alas I cannot, but I have to stop writing or I may become morose.
Damn big year ...
Gambell was a bust but maybe those left behind will get something....hard to tell.
It isn't for lack of trying. You know...maybe next year.