Eileen L. Keelan
This spring, after much planning
and saving, we were excited to have the opportunity to spend three weeks in
The tour began on a Monday evening
The flights to Gambell were very
exciting. There were about thirty of us in the tour. Two nine-seat planes made
two trips (plus one flight to carry all the luggage) to get all the
participants to the island. Though the weather was very good when we left
The runway is the only feature of that facility that, at Gambell bears the lofty name of airport. The gear was unloaded and taken into town via snowmobile (off-road vehicles are used in summer.) The passengers walked. The house here our group stayed was about a mile or so from the airport. Walking was very difficult due to the snow. The island consists mostly of soft gravel so even without snow, walking is not easy. There are several locations at which to bird, all requiring extensive walking to reach. Various groups kept in touch by radio so as to know what birds were where. The weather was extremely cold: everyone was bundled up to the point of being unrecognizable. Most people soon became identified by their most outstanding feature; their hats-visible from a distance. This technique meant that no one knew anyone else when we came inside. (We gradually overcame this difficulty.)
There were two houses for our group. The main house was home to the married couples who slept in the attic-reached by ladder-one couple to a corner. There were two bedrooms downstairs-one for the single women and one for single men. The rest of the single men slept in the other house. There was a small main room furnished with a weird, uncomfortable couch and a few folding chairs. The cooking and meals took place in the main house. Seating was first come, first served as there were not enough chairs for everyone. There was no plumbing in the house; a shower could be had for $1.50 about a mile or so walk away. Though one or two people took advantage of it, most participants settled for getting their hands clean when it was their turn to help with the dishes. The bathroom consisted of a room with a plastic bucket and small, plastic toilet seat balanced on top, emptied, when necessary, by one of the tour leaders. Not one of the tour participants complained that they were not required to help with the latrine chores.
Birding on the island was terrific. In addition to such Asian birds as brambling, wood sandpiper, common sandpiper, slaty-backed gull, rufous-necked stint, and black-backed wagtail, we also saw Asian subspecies of several North American birds: common merganser, merlin (first North American record), whimbrel, herring gull, common tern, and American pipit. Other interesting species seen at Gambell include yellow-billed loon, emperor goose, Steller's and spectacled eiders, bar-tailed godwit, ivory gull, many alcids including dovekie, bluethroat, white wagtail, and McKay's bunting. We also saw many tundra voles and few gray whales, some at very close range.
Our departure from Gambell was
almost as exciting as our arrival had been a week earlier. The last of the tour
No roads lead to
While birding was by far the most
exciting thing we did in
We did not allow these slight laundry setbacks to dampen our enthusiasm however, and, clean and sweet smelling once again, we began to look forward to the Pribilofs.
For some members of the group,
Once again, weather was cold, wet, and windy. We went by bus to the King Eider Hotel, one of two hotels on the island. After checking in, we re-boarded the bus and took off for a tour of the island. A group of Victor Emanual Nature Tours (VENT) birders was also on the island; our two groups headed in opposite directions so that we could meet and compare notes later. We saw red-legged kittiwake and red-faced cormorant life birds for most of us, though we had much better views of them the next day at the cliffs and a few fur seals. It was too early in the season for the seals to be there in the huge numbers for which the Pribilofs are famous but the early bulls were very impressive.
We returned to the hotel. Our dinner shift was after the VENT group's so we had time to watch game two of the NBA championships on the TV in the lounge. The Lakers had already lost game one to the Detroit Pistons. Now, we were not only hungry after a long day of traveling and birding, but we were watching the Lakers lose again.
Meals at the King Eider Restaurant
were the most expensive of any that we had in
The next morning, we crowded back onto the bus. (Passenger limits for the buses are obviously not determined by loading the bus with participants who look as though they fell, fully clothed for winter, out of an REI catalog and armed to the hilt with binoculars and telescopes. People thus attired seem to take up two to three times more space than they ordinarily would. Unfortunately, this state of affairs is not taken into consideration at the crucial moment of passenger-limit setting.) We drove to the cliffs for some of the most spectacular birding on this island. We had excellent, close-range looks at some of the birds we had seen the day before and, despite the wind, some opportunity for photographing them. Birds which nested on the cliffs included least, parakeet, and crested auklets; horned and tufted puffins, both murres, both kittiwakes, fulmar, and red-faced cormorant. Few species inhabited the interior of the island, although rock sandpiper and enormous rosy finches were fairly common.
In the afternon, after convincing City Hall to reopen so that a busload of birders could buy souvenir sweatshirts, we hit the birding trails again. A few birders visited the cliffs again, some went hiking, and some remained in the relative comfort of the bus waiting for word of a bird that could entice them back out into the cold and wind.
Our rooms at the King Eider Hotel were fairly comfortable, though temperature regulation apparently was not a feature of this hotel: we heard complaints that the rooms were too hot and that they were too cold. Ours was of the overheated variety, but it sure felt good for the first ten minutes inside after a day of birding. There were no private bathrooms but, remembering Gambell, we were only happy that there was any indoor plumbing at all and right down the hall too!
After the excitement of the
Pribilofs, we returned to
The only way to visit
Because we spent extra time at the lunch stop, studying arctic warblers, we missed our bus and had to wait and wait for another one; our total time in the park was twelve and half hours. We were rewarded with excellent views of several mammals: grizzly bears, including mothers with cubs; Dall sheep; and caribou were the most impressive. Others that were fun to see were red fox and arctic ground squirrel. The mammal we were most excited about and that we were most fortunate to see was a timber wolf.
We saw both willow and rock ptarmigan
at random spots along the road and occasional long-tailed jaegers overhead. The
gyrfalcon we saw sitting on some rocks at
The scenery at
We returned to
Since we boarded the ferry after
dark, very little birding was done until the next day. We slept in very small
but fairly comfortable cabins that contained two berths an upper and a lower
and a sink. The ferry arrived at
We had to roll out of our berths in time for a three A.M. arrival at Seward. The rest of the night was spent in a hotel with fine rooms on the inside but still under construction on the outside. On the bus from the ferry to the hotel were two non-tour travelers. They made their presence known when, in the grab for luggage, it began to look as though they might not get their own bags. One tour member informed them that it was too late they were now part of the group. They said they would be happy to become members of the group as long as they could eat breakfast with us. Another tour member said they were more than welcome to join us for breakfast and that it was their turn to pay. We never did see them again.
The drive back to Anchorage from Seward was much calmer than the ferry ride (which is more a comment on the rough seas we had than on any special talent birders have for driving passengers tend to be glad seatbelts were invented when they see their birder/driver guiding the steering wheel with a knee and hanging out the window with a pair of binoculars).
The trip ended in