North Winds: A Gambell Update


Today marks my one week anniversary of my arrival on Gambell. I plan on celebrating the same way I have each day- by birding of course! I'll probably drink some Crystal Lite and heat up a bowl of ramen for a celebratory dinner. 


For the majority of the last week the winds have been from the North or Northeast. This translates into slow birding. What birders on Gambell are hoping for is a West / Southwest wind, with a little rain mixed in to push migrating birds out of the sky forcing them to make landfall on the island.


Other Big Year birders may not be updating their blogs for two reasons: virtually no new birds, and super-slow internet. It's so slow, the Google homepage takes minutes to load. I've been writing my updates on my iPhone (hence some auto-correct mistakes sneak through the editing process) and publishing them at 4am or standing next to the router and trying to publish on my iPhone. Sometimes photos can be uploaded but I have only tried via Instagram which compresses the photo much smaller for upload. I don't see internet speeds changing soon...


The majority of birds we are seeing each day by abundance are Short-tailed Shearwaters, Crested Auklet, Black-legged Kittiwake, Snow Bunting, and Horned Puffins. Least abundant birds are probably North American land birds, which we have found several of over the last few days:

American Tree Sparrow

Golden-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow


Northern Wheatear


We've seen a trickle of shorebirds, including a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and Gray-tailed Tattler which have both been here the entire week, and several stray Long-billed Dowitchers, Pectoral Sandpipers, and Rock Sandpipers.


Numbers have fluctuated a little this week, with a brown juvenile Gyrfalcon showing up for a couple days, and a Peregrine being seen off and on.


Gulls are usually Glaucous, Glaucous-winged, Slaty-backed Gull... This species is a scarce but regular visitor on Gambell. Identifying adult (beyond 3rd cycle) is straightforward but the majority of birds here this year have been 1st/2nd cycle birds- with many of them showing Herring traits mixed in making an interesting quandary. I'm still a gull novice, often birding with others like Paul Lehman and Greg Scyphers who have years of experience identifying gulls. Many gulls out here deserve a shrug, as they can't be identified confidently. There's no competition out here that I'm involved in, except with myself. I count birds I see that I can identify on my own with the highest degree of certainty. Photographs help clinch questionable birds, but you can't photo every bird you see. There's about 30 birders out here, some with tour groups, others independent, some are long-time friends, others prefer to bird alone. People see birds others don't. This week I've birded with Olaf, John Weigel, and Laura Keene for hours- we are all out here for the same reason- to cooperate and see Asian vagrants. Last night I sat together with Olaf and Laura and we had a great discussion over dinner about some of the animal encounters of our year: rattlesnakes, bears, whales, and the noticeable absence of mountain lions.


Marine mammals have been slower, but on sea watch we've seen Steller's Sea Lion, Minke Whale, and Gray Whale. Land mammals have been more numerous, with feral dogs joining us on our flushing lines through the boneyards, and various voles and shrews. I've seen arctic fox sign but haven't spotted the culprit.

Looking ahead, change is in the wind. Say a prayer, cross your fingers, or do whatever you do to help conditions improve bringing new birds to the island. Some people are staring endlessly at the ocean, and I fear they may just walk in and disappear...


Joking aside, I'm having the time of my life out here. Talking with the people, hearing birding stories, and searching for new "island birds" has been a fun challenge. I found two Arctic Terns and the American Tree Sparrow yesterday, which was rewarded with raised eyebrows from Paul, both fall firsts for the the year. I guess I'll have to get back out and keep looking! Something good will turn up soon, I can feel it!

Christian HagenlocherComment