It’s foggy and drizzling outside and we’re in a holding pattern for 1/2 hour before we decide where to go this morning. One thing for sure though, we will go out. The birders on Gambell are a tough lot. Tomorrow the forecast is calling for a high of 26 Deg F. Braving daily high temperatures often in the twenties (even in June) and strong winds that feel like daggers stabbing your face, these birders will sit for hours on ice watching the birds fly by. Maybe they’ll put a piece of cardboard under their butt. Rain? Doesn’t stop a Gambell birder. Who can afford to let a little rain keep them from a lifer Great Knot? I still remember vividly the four men from Attours who walked off the private plane that arrived from Attu in June of 1996. Covered from head to toe in rain garb with leather slickers and panchos to repel the elements, they reminded me of wandering elves from Middle Earth as they walked across the St. Larwrence Island tundra toward us. Tough hombres they were. But here is the story of the ultimate Gambell birder.
In late May of 1996, I was already into my second week on St. Lawrence Island. I rewarded myself with a break from the almost nonstop filming of gulls, and birded the far bone yards. The boneyards are THE spot for finding stray Asian landbirds near the village of Gambell. In fact, I’m hoping for several “Boneyard” rarities on this trip. Anyways, this particular day, I was searching for a Common Cuckoo that had been seen earlier. Guy McCaskie and his lovely wife Terese were twenty yards away from me birding, also searching for the cuckoo. I noticed movement to my right and turned away from them to check out a small bird which turned out to be only a Lapland Longspur. When I turned back, Guy was gone! Nowhere to be seen. For just a moment I thought he must have found the cuckoo, but no one could move that quick. Terese was looking down and was obviously distressed. Guy had fallen into one of the pits. Unfortunately, many of the pits are dug up and scavanged for ivory and you need to be careful where you step as vegetation will grow over the opening concealing the trap. I rushed up to join Terese and peered over the edge of the pit. Guy had fallen about six feet, was shaken and badly bleeding from his forehead. He needed immediate medical attention. Terese and I were able to pull Guy out of the pit. I was in possession of an ATV (necessary to haul all my video equipment) so I offered to drive all of us back to the village. I remember this being about a fifteen-minute drive. Guy seemed a little dazed, but was coherent. About three minutes into the drive it came in over our short wave radio that a Temminck’s Stint had been spotted at one of the small ponds near the landing field. Guys eyes seemed to focus immediately and the glazed over look was gone. Now Temminck’s Stint is a very rare bird at Gambell. I’m certainly not expecting one on this trip.
Guy McCaskie is the Dean of California birders and has contributed a tremendous amount to the knowledge of bird distribution and movements in California. His book on the Salton Sea is necessary reading for anyone who wishes to further his or her understanding of California bird distribution. I have a great deal of respect for him. But above all he’s a birder that seeks rare birds and Temminck’s Stint would be a lifer for me. Guy said to me “You know John, maybe you should see the stint first?” I took one look at the blood soaking up the handkerchief that Terese held to his head and replied “Let’s get you bandaged first, then I’ll swing over to the pond”. About three minutes later the radio blared once again that the stint was holding and those who wanted to see it shouldn’t wait to long. Guy said once again, “You know, John, this might be your only opportunity to see a Temminck’s Stint in North America!” I replied, “Guy, your bleeding like a stuffed pig. You need to get this bandaged. Believe me, I don’t mind delaying the stint till you’re taken care of” and I accelerated the ATV towards headquarters. But just moments later, the radio squawked for a third time. A Red-throated Pipit had now joined the stint. This was to much for Guy. Gone was the shaken look, replaced by determination. He looked at me sternly then roared “Screw this little flesh wound….let’s go get that stint…now!”
And that, my friends, is the definition of a true Gambell birder.