Life on Gambell
I've returned from half a day of searching for rare birds, with no luck. With cold hands I struggle to type a blog update on my iPhone which may not even upload due to the archaic Internet connection. I haven't been on Facebook, and can only sporadically get a photo onto Instagram. Maybe the wind has something to do with it? Legend has it the winds were born out on the ocean here, sweeping across the rest of Alaska and the lower 48. It's been cold and windy here on Gambell the last few days, with few differences to separate each day from the last. The 20 mph North wind is not conducive for Asian rarities so morale isn't high, especially with the birding tour group that is only here for a week. I've been taking some notes and putting the details into a book draft, so I'll remain brief but do my best to share with you what it's been like on Gambell since I arrived.
The winds may be cold, but the tension between two big year birders is icy also. Spirits and shoes were dampened on their last visit to Gambell and there's some history I'm sure I am unaware of. This is the second time the four of us have been in the same location, the first being the tiny airport at Adak as John, Laura and I left Attu and Olaf arrived. I am on good terms with all three, and in the last three days have birded with each one independently from the others. I've seldom seen all three at the same place as the other three simultaneously, since someone always manages to sneak out the door or walk on the other side of the road when they spot the other "alpha male". Perhaps it's to avoid conflict or drama- who knows. Today Laura Keene and I spent the afternoon searching for Steller's Eider, which we both saw this morning on our sea watch but not well enough to count for me. Paul Lehman called the ID at a distance and I got on the birds immediately, but they just looked like distant brown eiders to me. I couldn't see any significant field marks, but photographed the birds anyways. Hopefully in the coming days I'll be able to spot more and get a better view, in order to add it to my year list and really feel good about it. Laura had seen them earlier, but wanted to come help me find them and hopefully spot an Arctic Loon to add to her year list. We took an ATV down the beach, spotting Pacific Loons, Harlequin Ducks, Crested Auklets, and hundreds of Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs. Birding has been slow with the north wind, and no Asian migrants have been found in over a week. Red-throated Pipits that were present a few days ago are now harder to find. Most birders here (maybe 28-30 in total) are out looking each day for rarities, which seems like a lost cause due to the wind direction. My morale is hard to break, since I'm not solely after the rare birds. I have lots of people to interview, including three of the top 5 birders in the ABA area, with life lists surpassing 900 species. These guys have been to Attu dozens of times collectively, and have seen many first North American records. Each of them is here for the same reason- add more birds. The stories they have are amazing. I cannot wait to share them with you all!
I have had the opportunity each day to sit down and talk with some of the native Yupik people here on the island. I've been trying to make it a priority to talk with someone new each day. Today I spoke with two individuals, one who was a village elder. He was born in the 1930s on Gambell and his tribe is of Russian origin. He recounts the free flow between people across the Bering Strait, as well as reindeer when the strait freezes in the winter. He told me about hunting, and growing up before the Soviet Iron Curtain isolated the flow of people and tradition between here and Russian tribes. None of the existing buildings on Gambell were here when he was young, in fact the village was at a different location than it is now. I had many questions about the history and archaeology of the area, as I have daily encountered diggers who rely on excavating artifacts and fossilized ivory to sell as income. Yesterday a man about my age brought in a large piece of mammoth tooth he found, wanting to sell it to me for $120 USD. This is still very much a subsistence culture, where the people hunt whales in spring, pick berries in the summer, and hunt walrus and seals later in the fall and winter when sea ice brings mammals closer to the island. They use many parts of these animals, and it's common to have carvers come into our hotel in the evenings showing us their carvings made from walrus ivory and fossilized bone.
There is much more to share, however an Ancient Murrelet was just reported off the point. I think I'll go out and take a look. You never know what will turn up out here!