Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Winter is Coming

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..

Wow, you can't believe how happy seeing these ducks made me.  I have been trying to see a adult male spec eider not only this whole year but this was a the last remaining bird I wanted to see from when I first started birding....I have never seen one, actually never thought I'd ever see one.  10 trips to Alaska...notta.  This year, I could not find one, young males, hens, but not this magnificent male bird....the BIRD OF THE YEAR!!!!  and they were everywhere.

I had very limited disk space....I could not get a wall photo, they were either too far out or I was shivering too much, I don't know. I was incompetent bordering on stupid.  I filled up my disk, went back to the lodge to warm up and download to see if any were not blurry, purged them and went out to try it again, sadly the above is about as good as I got...sigh....you can't have it all, I guess.

Unfortunately for science, Paul Lehman wanted me to do a bird survey and better than I ended up doing, definitely better than I photographed...the best bird a dovkie, I couldn't photo....I ignored all the gulls except one with black wing tips I used as a test subject to see if my ISO was not too high

Thayer's Gull 

This turned out to be the best photograph I took all day, which was sort of scary, it was also the first photo of the day.

I took a short of a Black Guillimot.....

I actually waited for black kittiwakes to clear out so I could focus down on more Spec eider shots, one of which while scouring the background showed a pair of adult male King Eiders flying past...

Oddly, the spec eider was not even close to being in focus and the supposed kings....almost in focus even at extreme magnification here.  I'm also sure I saw quite a few Steller's eiders but those were in scope and their white pattern wasn't the kings above, the hens were dark and males had white on heads and smaller than the common eiders flying around but I ended up changing my log to eider sp. as I wasn't 100%, I don't know, in the end I became less than 100% of everything....was that even a pine bunting?  I even dropped the black wing tipped gulls on ebird to Herring/Thayers...you know, I didn't pay that much attention....I was looking for spec eider shots and I was cold, damn cold.  I could only expose my trigger finger for about a minute....once I had to put the old paw in hot water to warm up back in the Lodge.

I did get help in whales though....many locals pointed out humpbacks and one close in whale was unbelievably, a gray....in fact all 11 whales I saw were unbelievable.  I kept saying.  "they should be in Baja or Hawaii...."  The locals agreed with me.  

Then one went on his mission to harvest seaworms for supper on the beach before the gulls got them and the other to find more than the walrus bladder he offered me to sell.  These people are poor here...poverty is wealth of Gambell.  I was pleased to learn from Quinn the man who rents me his ATV, that he didn't like Spec Eider much, but Common eiders were fat and after the initial smell which he said you got used to, they went down quite well if boiled or some way of cooking I didn't understand.  He pointed around the map to a spot and told me that there are just a few of them here, they are really in great numbers at that spot right now.  He told me all this talk of eiders was making him hungry so he dialed a number and ordered Subway from Nome for like 5 people.  He smiled saying he was using the money I gave him for the ATV for supper.  It was an unexpected treat. I guess I helped the economy for a meal....

Well 4 pm came and so did Ravn bearing Quinn's Subway order...and my way out of there.

Then something walked in the runway, a little dog.  The dog froze in place, the plane kept coming. Me and two young woman from Savoonga winched and looked away as the propeller came directly over its head.....we heard nothing and looked up and the dog was still there, looking in shock, tail between its legs, how it didn't get chewed up in the propeller, I'll never know.

Silly dog.  The pilot greeted me.  "You get the bird?"

I nodded as here they started unloading Seven-up.....2000 pounds of seven up and 400 pounds of cookies......Maybe Pepsi versus Seven Up caused the split of the two outposts of Yupik culture here in St Lawrence?

I got on, the two young women bound for Savoonga, held hands like I held the hoof of a deer going to Kodiak, mostly in fear and needing mutual support....but this was no Larsen Bay to Kodiak flight, two engines are much MUCH better.....It was Nome and Lifer Beer in two hours....

I don't think anyone believed me that my dovkie wasn't a marbled murrelet and it was dinky and all black on top so after buying a new chip so had room to take a lot of photos, I went down to Seward the day after arriving back in Anchorage.  I needed to clear my head of all this doubt.  I found one.  It was surprisingly easy.

Marbled murrelet....and it was a heck of a lot bigger than my Gambell bird and had a lot of white on top. My confidence returned.  That was not a marbled murrelet I had seen

It was a worthwhile day off from birding to go and bird....I got a nice Spruce Grouse shot

I brought up my Alaska lifer list to 220 (neither of these two birds) mundane birds such as a chestnut backed chickadee, pine grosbeak, and a Steller's jay (I had seen one in Anchorage in 2013 as forgot to accept that shared list, which also got me a Hudsonian godwit when I accepted it), so cool.

and I think my photo list for the year broke 700 with the murrelet and the grouse.

well another year bird...772 plus 2 now, fwiw.

Paul Lehman is surely disappointed with me, I deserve it, I doubt I can show my head in Gambell any year soon, but heck, I was so happy seeing those eiders and gosh it was so cold doing it, but I'd do it again.  I don't like gulls much, bad memories from my days in Duluth...I did what I could and yea, I spent 2.5 hours of my 4 hours birding looking at eiders, I spent an hour unsuccessfully trying to refind the pine bunting....it was now nowhere to be found.... 

I'll be happy when I get my good lens back from Nikon, even this one I'm using now I broke the sun shade on it back two weeks and got a call today that the part is in Sioux Falls and they are shipping it to my house, only $45, a real bargain compared to the 6 bills on my lens...yikes!!

Winter may be coming but all I can say is in Gambell, it is already here.

stay warm



  1. Congrats on the pine bunting! And great adventure, but I'm now chilled after reading about it. Only 32 days left....

  2. Congrats on another great bird.


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