The Heavy Hitters of Gambell

I’m on a southbound plane from Anchorage to Seattle.  The Gambell trip is over and what started with a roar ended with a whimper.  Still I added nine additional year-birds. As you can imagine, between the northeast winds and rains there was some down time at Gambell.  It gave me a chance to get to know some of the other birders on the island – not just people in the Wings tour, but some of the independents as well. There are definitely some heavy hitters here at Gambell- birders with an ABA list of over 800 species.  You don’t climb to this level without a whole lot of birding over many years. You may be thinking that if I can see 711 in just a shade more than two-thirds of a year, then 800 shouldn’t be that hard. But the reality is that I’ve seen all but around ten of the regularly occurring birds in the ABA area.  Actually around 35 of those 711 were vagrants.  So to reach 800 birds, you would need to find over 75 additional vagrants!  You would need to chase many vagrants throughout the lower 48 and Canada… and spend a great deal of time in Alaska and do this year after year.  All the heavy hitters here at Gambell have birded Attu, the most westerly island in the Aleutian chain.  Why? Because of it’s close proximity to the Russian Far East.  Now that Attu is more difficult for birders to get to, though Zugunruhe Birding Tours is offering two tours in 2012, the next best location for Asian vagrants defaults to either Gambell or St. Paul in the Pribiloff Islands where my brother Bill and I will journey on Sept.28.  Some of these heavy hitters are also fascinating characters. I think all of them deserve mention.

Paul Sykes

At the top of this totem pole is Paul Sykes. Paul is currently ranked number three on the ABA list at 875, not counting last years Blyth’s Reed Warbler. That list includes a Bachman’s Warbler, extinct since 1963, that Paul saw as a young graduate student at North Carolina State.  He’s devoted much of his life to the study of birds, doing research for first US Fish & Wildlife and then the US Geological Survey.  Some of these projects included:

–       Snail Kites in south Florida

–       Dusky Seaside Sparrow

–       Eastern population of the Painted Bunting

–       Kirtland’s Warbler in both the Bahamas and Michigan

–       Puerto Rican Parrots

Paul also has spent significant time over the last forty years searching for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers over different intervals in Florida, South Carolina, Louisiana and most recently Arkansas. Paul does not drink the “Ivory-billed Kool-Aid” He believes that they have been extinct since at least the early 70’s. He’s traveled to Attu 14 times, made 26 trips in total to Alaska and has spent 547 days in Alaska. His Alaskan bird list of 344 species reflects that. When I asked Paul what his most wanted bird was he quickly replied “Anything I haven’t seen”.  However, since I spent three days on the Ft. Bragg pelagic trips with Paul missing Hawaiian Petrel,  I know that must be pretty high up on his want list.  Todd McGrath has designated Paul as one third of the Bermuda Triangle. When they’re on the boat it’s a dead zone for rare seabirds.  Fortunately, Paul will NOT be on any of my three boat trips coming up this week.  He will be at St. Paul with me later this month.

Larry Peavler

Currently at 868 and hot on the heels of Paul Sykes is Larry Peavler.  He’s now slotted in the number 6 position on the ABA Life List.  By weekday he’s a tool and dye maker for General Motors in Indianapolis, IN.   By weekend he’s a bird chaser extraordinaire with 8 trips to Attu and 9 trips to Gambell including the last four falls with Paul Sykes.  That of course begs the question of how he would ever actually pass Paul.  Larry did pick up a Little Bunting on Aug. 31 for his 868th lifer. Larry videotaped a winter plumaged adult Ross’s Gull in Eagle Creek Park, IN that I used in Small Gulls of North America. His “Most Wanted” bird is Spoonbill Sandpiper.  I’ll see him on the Pribiloffs as well.

James Huntington

James is currently sitting at 861.  His birding resume is impressive.  Not only did he participant on many of the Attu trips, he was a leader for Larry Balsh’s Attours, the fabled tour company that organized and led the Attu trips.  James seems to be in a slump lately. He suffered through all  four of the “petrelless” Ft. Bragg trips I was on and was unable to add anything in Gambell this week.  James is a mailman in Iowa City and I’m sure he delivers mail rain or shine with a smile on his face since he’s of the friendliest guys I’ve met in a long time.  Of course maybe I’m biased since it was James that found the Ivory Gull at Gambell this spring.

Louise McCullough

Louise began birding when her son Jerry needed to see 45 bird species to earn his Eagle Scout Merit Badge in 1959.  She hails from Citrus Heights in the Sacramento area.  She’s notched 815 life birds in the ABA area! She is a veteran of four trips to Attu and 8 to Gambell, three of which occurred in the fall.  Louis didn’t go out to the point for sea watch everyday, but when she did she hung in there in some tough conditions. Why wouldn’t she you may ask?  I don’t know- maybe it’s because she’s 92 years old? Her daughter and son also bird, in fact her son Jerry was also with us on Gambell.  I woulldn’t be a bit surprised to see her at Gambell ten years from now.

Monte Taylor

Monte has 821 life birds. What’s most impressive though is that the Stonechat we saw last week was the 812th bird photographed by Monte in the ABA area!  That makes him top dog in the ABA Most Photographed category.  Next closest, BJ Rose, is 37 species behind him. Monte is from Orange County, CA and has been birding since he was 10 years. He still remembers his first lens and camera – Vivitar lens 120 to 600 with a Minolta SRT 101 body. He got hooked on a family trip down to Florida and Myaka River State Park and has been birding and photographing every since.  In fact the only detour from his passion was during college when he changed focus from Curve-billed Thrasher to Mattress Thrashers.  Monte is definitely a chatterer and told several funny stories over the last ten days.  Monte’s “Most wanted” bird is to photograph an Eurasian Siskin since he saw it on Attu but didn’t photograph it in 1993.

Ebbe Banstorp

Born in Sweden but now living in California, Ebbe is number nine on the totem pole of fat ABA lists at 841.  He and Monte apparently travel together searching for rarities, though Ebbe seemed to be out beating the bushes a little more often

Paul Lehman

In addition to being the Czar of Gambell, a superb field birder and the most knowledgeable person on North American bird distribution in the world, Paul currently sits at 825 ABA lifers. Actually what he’s most proud of is his total tick list.  A total tick list is the sum of all the birds seen in each of the 50 states. I can’t keep track of this total. But the total is in the five digit range

Tim Steurer &  Mark Cudney

Both are from California and both are over 800.  Didn’t get a chance to chat much with either but one of their claims to fame is that they were officially designated as the other two legs of the Bermuda Triangle by Todd McGrath.  Mark admitted upon leaving the Ft. Bragg pelagic trip last month that his record of “12 years without a rare bird” was still in tact. Fortunately, they won’t be on any of my next three pelagic trips so there is some hope that I’ll see something rare.

800 Wannabes –

There were four “800 wannabes” with me at Gambell as well:

Mike Schwitters – Added three birds here now at 797.  Mike never made it to Gambell but found a unique way to circumvent that fact.  Retired Air Force, Mike somehow was able to visit the island of Shemya during the spring and summer for eleven years. Shemya is just thirty miles east of Attu and has a classified base on the island. There was the constant threat of Aleutian Cackling Geese flying into airplane engines; Mike worked to find ways to eliminate.  In his spare time he birded the small one mile long island everyday. His list of rarities is impressive. He also has the 1st North American record of Common Morehen recently split from our Common Gallinule.  His “Most Wanted” bird is Little Bunting and I hope he sees one it over the next three days.

Dona Coates – has a life list of 794 species. She’s from Kentucky and signs on as the Wings tour’s official cook each fall.  The ground rules are that if a lifer shows up, we eat left overs or cereal.  Unfortunately for Dona and fortunately for us we didn’t miss a freshly prepared meal.

Lynn Hemink – a hard charging birder from California and my roommate is at 789.  He picked up one lifer on the tour, Pallas’s Bunting. He began birding at age 13.  Heck of a nice guy and can hold his own in the field.

Barrett Pierce – 787 species – Little Gull – Maybe Newfoundland  Barrett is from Amarillo, TX and has that slow and thorough Texas approach to searching for birds.  Back in March, Barrett was very helpful in providing directions for the Little Gull, which come to think of it, is my only individual of the year.

Tomorrow I leave for California for three pelagic trips.  It should be a lot of fun. Stay tuned.

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