There have been very few bird chasing trips this year that were so up in there air than this one. I had planned nothing, and all to chase a bird not seen for a day and go from Boston all the way to Gambell, Alaska. The mileage from Boston to Anchorage 3950, add in Nome, then Gambell you get a trip of well over 4800 miles. All this in late November ....and for what?
A pine bunting. What you say? A pine bunting. A 5 1/2 inch bird from Asia that has only been seen now 4 times in North America and only twice in 20 years. Sitting in Boston, checking fares, as I had no ticket to going anywhere, I came on a one-way on SunCountry. The family was seeing a Musical in the morning in Minneapolis and had not bought a ticket for me. I said what the heck, and booked a flight to Anchorage. The first problem was a mechanical issue which delayed the flight west. I missed my connection in Seattle as a result so was forced to fly on the Alaska Air Cargo plane leaving well after midnight. I crawled into Anchorage at 4am, crashed under an escalator for 3 hours and then checked my gear and eventually found myself on a flight to Nome, exhausted. It was winter in Nome and the sun was just up wen we landed at a little after 11, yes, the days are short up north now.
I had a bunch of hours to kill before Ravn Air left for the barren outpost on St. Lawrence Island. I made it to the store buy a little food but truth be told, I have two days supply of food with me in my gear for winter birding trips. I watched a little football at Airport Pizza and ate a pizza that is still causing me some abdominal discomfort. That was a mistake. I walked around town to see if any McKay's buntings were about and found...none. I guess good thing I got that bird in February. No feed had been put out, either.
The Ravn flight to Gambell had a soda stop in Savoonga. 120 twelve packs of Pepsi, the mail and me made up this flight into the Bering Sea, the soda went as far as the other city on St. Lawrence Island, I went the whole way.
Overflow Pepsi in the passenger compartment of the plane
The story of how this village came into being seems much more complicated than what I have ever heard. A group of people in Gambell didn't want to live with the rest of the people in Gambellso they left and decided to found a new village. The polite version? I expected more when I landed in Savoonga and maybe I got it. A pickup truck came to pick up the soda. Here, unguarded soda is soon missing soda or so I heard, these people are the Pepsi generation, apparently. A 4x4 ford van came to shuttle 3 passengers which boarded to fly to Gambell to visit. one to visit the nurse for an injury. So they had at least 2 vehicles of size in Savoonga, two more than Gambell. So there is more. In Gambell they have only ATVs and two larger enclosed ATVs from what I saw.
The rest of Savoonga.....A school, a store on stilts, and maybe a similar look to it, the mountains seemed very far away. There was no lake. The new people though were eager to talk as the plane zoomed up into the turbulence. The twin Beech shook a bit as it cruised to the other side of the island. The talk....eagles.....eagles with dark heads and white tails around Savoonga, even now, a few days ago. I didn't see any white-tailed eagles out the window and I have heard this before.....I wonder what to make of it?
It was a tough go landing in Gambell with a 30 mph crosswind but we got down, I guess without the soda, maybe the plane more stable. I hitched a ride to the Lodge and hoped. This wasn't birding hope this was lodging hope. I had been trying to contact anyone about rooming at the lodge for 2 days, anyone and with the holidays no one answered returned calls or anything. I got there and as feared door locked. I didn't have a back up plan. I didn't bring my Gambell phone with either. I asked two guys to find someone to let me in. One never knows if they were or had been distracted. It was cold but I was tough. I huddled into the corner. My old buddy dogs, came by to check on me,
Even Gimpy is still hobbling around
I would have grabbed one if I had been frozen but I wasn't...yet....had I been forsaken? Eventually a rather irritated Hanson showed up, mumbling and checked me in. "No I didn't have a reservation. Sorry Hanson, thank you very much Hanson." I tried to be thankful and apologetic. It wasn't his fault, and not the Lodge's, walk-ins don't arrive here in winter or on a whim. The lights...off, everything off, but I was in, he gave me a key. I called my ATV contact and he came right over as it was now half dark, and dressed for full Arctic, I went off in the general direction of the accursed bird...
then There it was!
Pine Bunting...code 5.....lifer bird....a bird I'll never see again in my lifetime....it wasn't dead and according to Clarence, the local man who found it, it had been AWOL all day and just showed up...whew!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I went back in where it was warm. After watching the 530 pm weather report....it was like I hadn't left, this time I got the comfy chair. I read the walls as the village was working on how to sell the town as an Eco-tourism destination and had left up their meeting barnstorming....work the birders like they do on St Paul, I would tell anyone....don't try to sell local dance, customs, and food... Then I went to bed in a real bed....it had been a very long day.
I still had a day to bird, the Pine Bunting never showed again, but I had some great views of Gambell in the winter...
The wind blew. Sometimes it snowed, sometimes the snow became a blizzard and it was cold, maybe 15 degrees and as the say.....WINTER IS COMING! I looked around to try to find members of the Night's Guard or Jon Snow running around but alas the next season of Game of Thrones has neither started or come through here.....Mr Martin had not been to Gambell in winter or maybe he has?
I went birding, but much to the chagrin, I assume, of Paul Lehman, Olaf with his short attention span, got distracted by a huge flock of Spectacled eiders....thousand of them, here are a couple of males..