Gambell, Alaska: A Birding Mecca on the Siberian Express

Common Greenshank courtesy of Forrest Davis.

Common Greenshank courtesy of Forrest Davis.

Gambell, Alaska is a Siberian Yupik community that lies about 40 miles off of Siberia in the Bering Sea. It is strategically located for bird watching enthusiasts to take advantage of the “Siberian Express:” the migration flyway for birds returning from southern Asia and the South Pacific to their breeding grounds in the far northern tundra.

Gambell is located at the far northeastern corner of Saint Lawrence Island in the northern Bering Sea. It guards the entrance to the Bering Straits separating Asia from from North America. The residents of the 600 member native community migrated here many thousands of years ago, about the same time their cousins from Asia were crossing the Bering Sea Land Bridge to North America. The Siberian Yupiks of Gambell are more closely related to their counterparts on the Siberian coast of Russia than to the eskimo groups of mainland Alaska. In fact, the Gambell natives continue to make the treachorous journey across the straits to visit their relatives along the Siberian coast, a trip that was made even more dangerous when the Iron Curtain was in place. On a clear day, you really can see Russia from Gambell!

Gambell is a remote village that relies on the sea for its survival. Bowheads whales, walrus, seals, and polar bears are still hunted for food, skins, and ivory. Some of the most skilled ivory carvers live and work in Gambell, and their intricate carvings are highly-valued by collectors. The best of these carvings sell for hundreds, even thousands, of dollars in Anchorage and other cities.

On tours to Gambell we often stay at the village hotel, which offers basic, but comfortable accommodations with shared baths. We bring our own cook since there are no restaurant facilities in the village. There are no cars or trucks in Gambell, only all-terrian vehicles (ATV’s) and snow machines. The smooth, slippery gravel that covers the entire area around Gambell makes walking a major challenge. We rent ATV’s from the natives to make is easier for us to get around.

In looking for birds, a typical routine requires that we check a number of different areas around the village for birds that may have swept in over night. During the spring, thousands upon thousands of birds migrate along the shore adjacent to Gambell heading for the their breeding grounds in Alaska. During the Fall, birds make their return south, but over a more extended period.

Depending upon the weather conditions, a number of birds that are rare in North America, can be pushed onto landfall at Gambell. These birds are what makes Gambell such a desirable destination for North American birders.

Many Eurasian birds never before seen in North America have been recorded at Gambell. In addition, numerous very rare Asian vagrants are seen most years, such as: Common Greenshank, Green Sandpiper, Terek Sandpiper, Great Knot, White-tailed Eagle, Common & Oriental Cuckoo, Siberian Rubythroat, Stonechat, Rustic Bunting, Common Rosefinch, Eurasian Bullfinch, and Yellow-browed Warbler.

Forrest Davis

Forrest Davis

Forrest Davis is owner and founder of High Lonesome BirdTours. In 1994, following a varied career that included a tour in the Marines, several years at NASA, and career as a health care executive, he Read More

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