It was May 1987 and I was sitting in a native graveyard just outside of Gambell, a native village on St. Lawrence Island, in the Bering Sea. It was in the low 40s at best.
It isn’t dark there in May, which was a good thing, because I was trying to get a decent look at a red-throated pipit.
The bird can resemble a small robin, but it is nowhere near as sociable. Bird guides describe it as “secretive” and, in North America, its only accessible breeding grounds are where I was sitting.
The rest of the group I came here with was back at the rented house we shared, probably well into dinner, and I was cold and hungry. They were all top-gun birders who had seen the bird before, or saw it well enough earlier in the day when I was at an area called “The Point” staring at icebergs floating by. Still, the pipit would be a “lifer” for me, and I was not leaving until I saw it well.
While the pipit nests in this area, the one or two pairs that come to Gambell don’t stay in one place for more than a few seconds before they jet up and land 100 feet away, hidden by the rocks. And coffins.
In the past, the native islanders, the Yupik people who might be ancestors of Eskimos, would place the body of the deceased in a simple coffin and just set it in the rocks. I guess the earth was often too frozen to dig a grave. The weather, animals and birds soon reduced both the coffin and the body to weathered splinters.
So after trying to catch up with the pipits for an hour or so, I decided to just pick a rock, sit down and wait them out. I could see pretty much all of Gambell (population about 600). Lake Troutman was still frozen. I can see a place called the Red House where we are staying and the near-and-far bone yards where generations of hunters buried walrus carcasses and which were now getting dug up in search of what’s called “petrified ivory.” If Sarah Palin ever visited Gambell, she would be able to see Russia from our house — the Chukchi Peninsula is about 30 miles away.
There are no wires and no roads, just paths cut through the Gambell gravel, as it’s called, by the occasional four-wheeler, often going up to a spring to get fresh water. I saw the communal bath house and the “supermarket,” which was surprisingly modern but had so little on its shelves that our group had to fly in with all of our food for our stay. I saw, too, the airstrip where, God willing, Bering Air would land and fly us to Nome in four days.
I am not patient by nature, but over the years I have learned that oftentimes just waiting is rewarded. Sometimes the bird will just come to you. I have waited out a garganey in a Wisconsin bog, a boreal chickadee in northern Minnesota, and a flame-colored tanager in Arizona. Of course, sometimes you just wait, and then you leave.
Some birds just appear. If the bird is one you haven’t seen before, this can be an almost visionary experience. Recently, I was on a pelagic trip in the Bering Sea, 20 miles north of Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Dutch Harbor is the home port for “The Deadliest Catch” reality show.
We were in a fairly small boat given that it was the Bering Sea, but it was also clear and fairly calm by Bering Sea standards. We were surrounded by hundreds of northern fulmars, short-tailed shearwaters, glaucous-winged gulls and kittiwakes. An occasional flight of tufted puffins zipped by like feathered old P-37 fighter planes.
This assembly went beyond a flock of birds. We were in a cloud of birds, sort of a Serengeti plain of birds picking bits of food pushed to the surface by the Chelan Banks, an area where the Bering Sea and Unalaska Bay meet, not far below us. Then, I saw one of the largest birds I will ever see gliding in to check us out — a short-tailed albatross with a huge pale bill and an 87-inch wingspan. I was pointing and yelling before I even thought to point and yell. Some birds will do that to you.
But not this red-throated pipit. “Patience, Jackass, patience,” as the kiddie campfire joke used to go. I felt a drizzle starting and the visibility dropped a notch. But then there it was! Close enough for me to clearly see its dull, reddish throat and streaky sides. Not a “10” look but definitely an 8 or a 9.
Back at the Red House the rest of the group congratulated me for sticking it out and “getting” the bird, but I was already running through the list of what might be next. Bristle-thighed curlews were nesting on the tundra about 70 miles east of Nome, but that’s another story.