Early Fall 2021 at Gambell
by Amy Davis
The legendary migrant trap known as Gambell occupies a few square miles of tundra on the northwestern tip of St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska. Its proximity to the Chukchi Peninsula in Far East Russia makes it a frequent host to Asian vagrants, perhaps especially in fall, when misoriented individuals of species that typically winter in Southeast Asia ride in on west winds. Gambell lies along a vagrancy route indicating reverse fall migration for the many Asian species that turn up there. Fall 2021 has been a nice one at Gambell so far. Highlights from late Aug through mid-Sep include a “Siberian” Common Chiffchaff (representing one of no fewer than four Phyllloscopus species present) and an especially cooperative Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler.
Gambell’s first-ranked rarity (in taxonomic sequence) was a Common Snipe photographed on 30 Aug. This species is fairly common on the western Aleutians in spring but rare at Gambell, where there have been 20 (mostly spring) records.
Phylloscopus warblers are the skulking little brown jobs only a twitcher could love. Told apart by voice and very subtle plumage and structural differences, they present a satisfying identification challenge at Gambell, where birders this fall have had the opportunity to compare four different species. A Willow Warbler showed up at the Far Boneyard 22 Aug. Since this species’s first ABA appearance in 2002 at Gambell, about 20 individuals have been reported there. Another handful of records come from the Pribilofs, and all records have occurred in early fall.
A “Siberian” Common Chiffchaff was at the ponds near the Far Boneyard 26 Aug–11 Sep. Gambell boasts 11 records of this species since the first was fully documented in 2012, and most are from spring. There are only two ABA Area records away from Gambell, both also from Alaska: the species has made single appearances at Utqiagvik on the North Slope and at St. Paul in the Pribilofs.
Two Dusky Warblers have visited the boneyards this season: at least one was present 30 Aug–7 Sep, and both were reported 4–5 Sep. This species’s pattern of vagrancy makes it appear highly prone to reverse fall migration. There are around 29 fall records from Gambell, all but two from Aug–Sep. Elsewhere, there are a smattering of reports from the Pribilofs and Aleutians, as well as one from Middleton Island in the Gulf of Alaska. Further afield, there are no fewer than 21 records from California (all from late Sep–October), and, incredibly, a late October record from Baja California.
Arctic Warbler rounded out the Phylloscopidae count; the species is a trans-Beringian migrant and expected at Gambell in fall.
An uncharacteristically confiding Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler was a delight at Troutman Lake on 4 Sep, and it represented the most recent of only about 16 ABA Area records. Seven of those are from Gambell, and the rest are from St. Paul in the Pribilofs and Attu and Buldir in the Aleutians.
A Mountain Bluebird at the boatyard 10 Sep was a first for Gambell.
Three Siberian Accentors were discovered in the Far Boneyard on 5 Sep, and two lingered through 7 Sep. There have been about 46 individuals of this captivating species at Gambell, all in fall, and all but one since 1999. There are also records from Shemya in the Aleutians, St. Paul in the Pribilofs, and elsewhere in coastal Alaska. Further south, vagrants have also turned up in British Columbia, Washington, Idaho, and Montana.
A Brambling appeared 11–13 Sep. Almost 140 of these handsome finches have been reported from Gambell since 1973.
Finally, a Little Bunting was found at the Circular and Far boneyards 3 Sep. Since 1993, about 40 individuals have appeared at Gambell, where the species is almost annual in fall; just a single spring record exists. Elsewhere in Alaska, there are records from St. Paul, Attu, Shemya, and Juneau. Outliers have been found in Washington, Oregon, and California, and south to southeastern Arizona and Baja California Sur.
The records above have been gleaned from eBird and other social media. They have not yet been vetted by state/provincial records committees.
Davis, Amy. 2021. Early Fall 2021 at Gambell. North American Birds.
Howell, Steve N. G., et al. 2014. Rare Birds of North America. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.
Lehman, P. E. 2018. The Birds of Gambell and St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. Studies of Western Birds 4. Western Field Ornithologists Camarillo, California.
No stranger to ABA publications, Amy Davis has served as Sightings department editor at Birding and technical reviewer at Birder’s Guide. She was also photo editor for Pennsylvania Birds. Amy loves citizen science and volunteered extensively for breeding bird atlases in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and West Virginia. She resides in Forked River, NJ, and recently broke her home county’s big year record. When she’s not birding the Barnegat Bay, Amy studies nursing and plays classical piano.
Good job Amy! my friend Ann Esmas was on the Gambell trip and shared her findings and photos with me. I gotta make that trip!
Thanks Amy p- a very clear report and photos.