A Spring to Remember: High Lonesome BirdTours Hits Vagrant Shorebird Jackpot in western Alaska

Curlew Sandpiper Barrow(2)

Curlew Sandpiper in full breeding plumage Barrow Photo Stephan Lorenz

Beginning with winnowing Common Snipes, through flocks of Wood Sandpipers, add a surprise Little Stint, and finally the mega-rare Pin-tailed Snipe, every single one of our Alaska trips this season had a winning combination of timing, weather, and shorebirds. Each trip picked up at least two or three vagrants from Asia. Participants joining two or more High Lonesome trips to western Alaska this year hit a veritable jackpot of shorebirds. I include some summary statistics followed by detailed descriptions to help you choose future High Lonesome departures to Alaska. While an average year may record four or five vagrant shorebirds, we experienced an exceptional spring season in 2016. Overall our combined trips to Adak, St. Paul Island, Gambell, Nome, and Barrow recorded 46 species of shorebirds. We enjoyed good views a dozen vagrant species, plus five Alaska specialties, and of course seeing North American species in all their breeding finery and displays was also a treat.

Western Sandpiper breeding on Gambell

Western Sandpiper Photo Stephan Lorenz

Red-necked Phalarope Gambell

Red-necked Phalarope Gambell Photo Stephan Lorenz

Pectoral Sandpiper Barrow

Pectoral Sandpiper displaying Barrow Photo Stephan Lorenz

We started the season with our annual trip to Adak, a remote outpost in the central Aleutians, where we enjoyed Alaska specialties like migrating Bar-tailed Godwits and Pacific Golden Plovers. A thorough check of Contractor’s Camp, a local shorebird hotspot, revealed two Ruffs, which showed well during the course of our stay. In the same area we enjoyed the displays of no less than four Common Snipe during a clear, calm evening and could really appreciate the subtle differences in plumage and sound. The distinct “Aleutian” subspecies of Rock Sandpiper foraging along Sweeper Creek was also fun to photograph and completed a successful trip.

Ruff Adak

Ruffs on Adak Photo Stephan Lorenz

Rock Sandpiper Adak

“Aleutian” Rock Sandpiper on Adak Photo Stephan Lorenz

The west winds had been building throughout the week and by the time our group arrived on St. Paul Island we found ourselves among a flurry of rare shorebirds. We dropped off bags quickly, readied our birding gear, and soon walked through a productive wetland near Tonki Point. After seeing the ever-present Rock Sandpipers, the second species of shorebird we found was a Wood Sandpiper. This vagrant was quickly followed by more of its kind and then two or three Long-toed Stints that revealed their namesake feet clearly in flight. Before we could make it to dinner we were stopped in our tracks by a Common Greenshank on the close shore of Salt Lagoon and this individual stayed throughout our visit offering great photo opportunities.

Wood Sandpiper St. Paul Island

Wood Sandpiper on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

Common Greenshank St. Paul Island

Common Greenshank on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

After a delicious dinner we drove back to Salt Lagoon and incredibly added yet another rarity in the form of a Lesser Sand-Plover, a female bird in breeding plumage foraging on the mudflats among scores of Rock Sandpipers. This was going to be difficult to beat, but during the next three days we found even more and in fact we recorded up to ten Wood Sandpipers and half-dozen Long-toed Stints a day. During our first full day we tracked down two Common Sandpipers at the northern point of the island and in the afternoon found a Common Snipe. It took some persistence, but one last check during the third day got us the Curlew Sandpiper that had been seen earlier in the week. The bird was foraging among tide pools and on kelp covered rocks among dozens of Rock Sandpipers and we had great scope studies. Additional highlights from our St. Paul Island visit included Tufted Duck, Brambling, and Siberian Rubythroat.

Lesser Sand Plover St. Paul Island

Lesser Sand Plover on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

Least Sandpiper St. Paul Island

Least Sandpipers breed in small numbers on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

The vagrant shorebirds continued in Gambell. After our short flight, we quickly dropped off luggage, readied the ATVs, and checked on a reported Terek Sandpiper. The bird was present and offered great scope views and photo opportunities. What a start and continuation of an amazing run of rarities. We drove around Troutman Lake after dinner and managed to find three Common Sandpipers before the day was over. Those were not the best birds yet. It was not until we analyzed the excellent photos taken by our participants of an “interesting” snipe in the Far Boneyard that we realized we had found Gambell’s first Pin-tailed Snipe!

Terek Sandpiper on Gambell 2

Terek Sandpiper at Gambell Photo Stephan Lorenz

Common Sandpiper on Gambell

One of three Common Sandpipers on Gambell Photo Stephan Lorenz

Common Ringed Plovers are a regular breeding species on Gambell, but this year the birds arrived early and in good numbers, allowing us to study and photograph at least two pairs during the course of our visit. When we thought things could not get any better another Wood Sandpiper was found and towards the end of the trip a Common Greenshank, allowing participants that had not been with us to St. Paul Island to catch up with this great vagrant. Several Red-necked Stints seen in the gravel ponds and from the point were just the icing on the cake. Other highlights from Gambell included a White-tailed Eagle, Eye-browed Thrush, Red-throated Pipits, and White and Eastern Yellow wagtails.

Common Ringed Plover on Gambell

Common Ringed Plovers were present in good numbers on Gambell this year Photo Stephan Lorenz

Red-necked Stint Gambell

Red-necked Stint Gambell Photo Stephan Lorenz

Our Nome tour focuses on several shorebird species found mainly in western Alaska with a special emphasis on the Bristle-thighed Curlew. The curlew is an endemic breeding bird to Alaska and migrates to Oceania for the winter. While it was not easy this year, we managed good flight views of the species at its regular haunt along Kougarok Rd. The two other specialties of the Seward Peninsula, Pacific Golden Plover and Bar-tailed Godwits, were seen in good numbers. Most of the previously reported rarities had left, including the Terek Sandpiper that had been found by our earlier Nome tour, but we still managed to find a single Gray-tailed Tattler during our final morning at Safety Sound.

Dunlin breeding on Gambell

Dunlin Photo Stephan Lorenz

Pacific Golden Plover Adak

Pacific Golden Plovers Photo Stephan Lorenz

Barrow at the northernmost tip of Alaska is rightly famous for its spectacle of breeding eiders and displaying shorebirds. While vagrants are not to be expected during our short tour we still managed to find some. The most surprising vagrant was a Little Stint, which we found thirty minutes after arriving in one of the productive gravel ponds along Stevenson Rd. We had great views and good photo opportunities, but unfortunately the bird could not be found by other birders looking for it the next day. Also during our first evening we found the breeding plumaged Curlew Sandpiper out on the tundra along Gaswell Rd., a really beautiful bird. The displaying Red-necked Stint chasing Semipalmated Sandpipers was almost expected by now, but rounded out the tour nicely. Join us next year and see what we can find!

Little Stint Gambell(2)

This Little Stint was a welcome surprise in Barrow Photo Stephan Lorenz

Long-billed Dowitcher Barrow

Long-billed Dowitcher Barrow Photo Stephan Lorenz

Shorebird Total: Vagrant Species, Alaska Specialties, North American Species

Black Oystercatcher (Adak), Black-bellied Plover (Nome), American Golden-Plover (Nome, Barrow), Pacific Golden-Plover (Adak, St. Paul Island, Nome), Lesser Sand-Plover (St. Paul Island), Common Ringed Plover (Gambell), Semipalmated Plover (Adak, St. Paul Island, Gambell, Nome, Barrow), Killdeer (Barrow), Terek Sandpiper (Gambell, Nome), Common Sandpiper (St. Paul Island, Gambell, Nome), Spotted Sandpiper (Anchorage area, Nome), Gray-tailed Tattler (Nome), Wandering Tattler (St. Paul Island), Greater Yellowlegs (Anchorage area), Common Greenshank (St. Paul Island, Gambell), Lesser Yellowlegs (Anchorage area), Wood Sandpiper (St. Paul island, Nome, Gambell), Whimbrel (Anchorage area, Gambell), Hudsonian Godwit (Anchorage area), Bar-tailed Godwit (Adak, St. Paul Island, Nome), Ruddy Turnstone (Adak, St. Paul Island, Gambell, Nome), Black Turnstone (Nome), Red Knot (Nome), Surfbird (Nome), Ruff (Adak), Curlew Sandpiper (St. Paul Island, Barrow), Long-toed Stint (St. Paul Island), Red-necked Stint (Gambell, Nome, Barrow), Sanderling (Nome), Dunlin (St. Paul Island, Gambell, Nome, Barrow), Rock Sandpiper (Adak, St. Paul Island, Gambell), Baird’s Sandpiper (Barrow), Little Stint (Barrow), Least Sandpiper (Anchorage area, St. Paul Island, Nome), Buff-breasted Sandpiper (Nome), Pectoral Sandpiper (Anchorage area, Gambell, Nome, Barrow), Semipalmated Sandpiper (Anchorage area, Nome, Barrow), Western Sandpiper (Gambell, Nome, Barrow), Short-billed Dowitcher (Anchorage area), Long-billed Dowitcher (Anchorage area, Gambell, Nome, Barrow), Wilson’s Snipe (Anchorage area, Nome, Barrow), Common Snipe (Adak, St. Paul Island), Pin-tailed Snipe (Gambell 1st record), Red-necked Phalarope (Adak, St. Paul Island, Gambell, Nome, Barrow), Red Phalarope (St. Paul, Gambell, Barrow)

Semipalmated Sandpiper Nome

Semipalmated Sandpiper in Nome Photo Stephan Lorenz

Black Oystercatcher Adak

Black Oystercatcher on Adak Photo Stephan Lorenz

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