Few places allow a birder to stand closer to raw possibility than Gambell
Published: March 1, 2005
|"I got it!" I called out. Steering a course around whale bones and drying racks loaded with freshly shredded walrus, I hurried toward the beach. As I had hoped (and expected), Jeff, a member of our tour group, was scanning offshore.|
"Got a radio?" I asked. "Could you call the gang and let them know the House Martin has reappeared? It's hanging around the drying racks."
Jeff obliged. "Going to go see it?" I inquired.
"Saw it earlier," he replied, turning his attention offshore.
That's right. Jeff had been among the lucky few to see the bird earlier in the day - he had seen it, in fact, come in off the water.
And even though the swallow had been seen in North America only a handful of times, even though my sighting had been brief, and even though my chances of ever seeing the bird on U.S. soil again were slim to nil, I chose to do what Jeff was doing: Moving a short distance away, I eased my butt into the pea gravel, set up my scope, and started scanning offshore.
In every human endeavor there is a frontier - a line between past achievement and new ambition. It may be physical; it may be psychological. To birders on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, a mere 40 miles from Siberia, it is both. Every spring, a small number sign on for package tours to this outermost outpost. Some go because the trip will stop conversation at the next bridge gathering, but most go for bird species that lie on the geographic fringe of North America and for the possibility of encountering species that lie beyond the fringe.
Asian species. Migratory overshoots. Birds that make twitchers twitch and listers lust. Of course, North American birders can see Common Ringed Plover and Common House Martin in Europe and Asia in comfort and ease, but that misses the point. For a bird to count on a North American birder's ABA Checklist Area life list, the species must be seen on North American soil or in North American waters. Gambell meets both standards.
"Of course, we'll have to go to Gambell," I said to my wife Linda one evening not long after we decided to renew the Feather Quest (and just after a second glass of wine).
Going all the way
"Why-y-y...," she said. Her response had none of the intonations that suggested it was a question, but I chose to treat it as such.
"Because you can't get to Attu any more," I replied, stating something about the famed Aleutian island that was true at the time.
"Aaand...," she said, gesturing with an upturned palm, inviting more.
"And since the point of our travels is to try to capture the essence and spirit of North American birding, we'll have to go all the way."
"Gambell," she said, "is not on the way to anywhere."
"Not on the way, all the way. To the frontier. To the fringe. Gambell is birding's high-water mark. It's where East meets West. Hope meets ambition. It's..."
"Cold," Linda said, shaking her head. "You're thinking of going with Bob and Lisa, right?"
"Right," I said. Bob Dittrick and Lisa Moorhead, operators of Wilderness Birding Adventures, are old friends. "Bob, anyway," I amended. "Lisa's uncommitted. But James Huntington is co-leading."
Linda brightened. "That doesn't sound too bad. And you're sure you need to do this for the book?"
"Absolutely," I said. "More wine?"
I lied. We didn't really have to go to Gambell. Not for the sake of our travels, not for the sake of the book. But if you've now concluded that the impetus was packing my North American life list with Eurasian booty, you're partly right but mostly wrong. Fact is, I like birding, but I hate bookkeeping. To me, "listing" is just a convenient label for a more fundamental motivation. The reason I wanted to go to Gambell was possibility. There are few places in North America where a birder can stand closer to possibility.
From the Point, a gravel beach just west of town, I could see Least and Crested and Parakeet Auklets moving in low, wing-flailing sheets over the Bering Sea. You don't need a spotting scope for this. You don't even need binoculars. The birds pass by so close you can hear the sizzle of wings. And the Horned and Tufted Puffins, Common and Thick-billed Murres, and Pigeon and even Black Guillemots constitute the oceanic equivalent of yard birds at Gambell. They're always there, always captivating.
But possibility seems diminished by proximity. Possibility lives farther out, so you use your spotting scope. Scanning through the migrating Pacific Loons, you search for the one with the bulge of white behind the trailing edge of the wing (signature of the Arctic Loon) and hope for the one with a humongous yellow bill (trademark of the Yellow-billed Loon).
Gambell is located so close to the land of possibility that Arctic and Yellow-billed Loons are everyday matters of fact. Real possibility lies farther out. At the edge of the receding ice pack, Ivory Gulls and Ross's Gulls and... Possibilities too impossible to name, possibilities whose very mention causes them to evaporate.
On land, in the "Bone Yard" and the "Far Bone Yard" and along the "Base of the Cliffs," tour groups search each morning for birds deposited while the birders slept - birds like Common Cuckoo or Brambling. The airport ponds are checked 8 or 10 or 20 times a day. Once a species like Common Ringed Plover, Gray-tailed Tattler, or Common Snipe is found, CB radios are pulled from pockets, the airwaves pulse with news, and the tribe gathers to savor a possibility given corporeal form.
Gambell is a demanding place to bird. It involves a lot of walking. It's not all that scenic. But it is a birding happening. And you can always do what I like to do: Go down to the beach. Plant your butt in the gravel. Cast your hopes and skills at the horizon. Make whatever promises you like to whatever gods you worship in the hope that possibility will...
Well, like the bird we saw on June 4: It wasn't very close, but it also wasn't very far, either. Clearly a murrelet. Appeared to be in full breeding plumage. All brown, except for the conspicuously whitish throat. And there is a murrelet that shows this pattern: not Kittlitz's, but Long-billed, an Asian species with a track record for wandering...
We studied that bird, and we studied it - as the current carried it away from us and closer to the horizon, where possibility thrives.
Which was it? I don't know. It was a possibility. Not all possibilities are realized. Not all birds that are seen are named. They live in memory, where they remain as tantalizing as the birds that lie just beyond the horizon and have yet to find me or me to find names for them.
I am haunted by possibility.
|Pete Dunne is vice president for natural history information for the New Jersey Audubon Society, director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, and the author of Prairie Spring: A Journey into the Heart of a Season (2009); Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion: A Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds (2006); Feather Quest: A North American Birder's Year (1999); and other books about birds and birdwatching.||