Slettnes – Gambell-Seawatching: a photographers point of view

EiderenteA Common Eider (Somateria mollissima) with a yellow bill might be not the only difference what you realize, if you are seabirding on different locations. Well, Somateria mollissima v-nigrum is breeding along the arctic coasts of north-east Siberia to Alaska and shows a yellow bill unlike its relatives from the northern part of Europe. But is this the only difference when seawatching? Along island or peninsula edges seabirds are living and migrating not only in the Palearctic but also in the Nearctic. Bird-lens.com managed trips now to 2 hotspot destinations in the high arctic. One location, Slettnes is on the northern tip of Norway, on the Nordkyn peninsula. This is the best location to spot the migration out to the Barents Sea.

On contrast, Gambell, a small village on the north-western tip of the remote St. Lawrence Island of Alaska, is an outstanding outpost not only for North American Birders to observe impressive bird migration along the shore of the island to the Bering Sea further north.

After having performed these trips, it is time to compare the chances and challenges in observation and photography of migrating pelagic and seabirds.

To make it short. Both locations are excellent vantage point for the experience to become impressed by the huge numbers of bird species, you normally see only in small numbers and/or from very distant locations. The lighthouse of Slettnes near the little village of Gamvik is the one spot. Many birders make their way in the middle of May to observe and count the birds migrating through. Passing the rocky shore, sometimes close looks of birds like Red-throated Loons (Gavia stellata), Yellow-billed Loons (Gavia adamsii), Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis), Northern Gannets (Morus bassanus ), King Eiders (Somateria spectabilis), Long-tailed Ducks (Clangula hyemalis), Common Scoters (Melanitta nigra), Great Skuas (Catharacta skua), Pomarine Jaegers (Stercorarius pomarinus), Parasitic Jaegers (Stercorarius parasiticus), Long-tailed Jaegers (Stercorarius longicaudus ), European Shags (Phalacrocorax aristotelis), Glaucous Gulls (Larus hyperboreus), Iceland Gulls (Larus glaucoides), Razorbills (Alca torda), Black Guillemots (Cepphus grylle) or Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arctica) are possible.

The tiny village of Gambell on the north-western tip of the big St. Lawrence Island in the middle of the Bering Sea is the other location. Some tough birders fly in from the end of May to observe the seabird migration. The coast here made from gravel. 4 Loon species could be detected, Arctic Loon (Gavia arctica), Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica), Red-throated Loon (Gavia stellata) and Yellow-billed Loon (Gavia adamsii). Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis), Pelagic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax pelagicus), Steller’s Eider (Polysticta stelleri), King Eiders (Somateria spectabilis), Long-tailed Ducks (Clangula hyemalis), White-winged Scoter (Melanitta deglandi), Black Scoter (Melanitta americana), Greater Scaup (Aythya marila), Pomarine Jaegers (Stercorarius pomarinus), Parasitic Jaegers (Stercorarius parasiticus), Long-tailed Jaegers (Stercorarius longicaudus), Glaucous Gulls (Larus hyperboreus), Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla), Slaty-backed Gull (Larus schistisagus), Common Murre (Uria aalge), Thick-billed Murre (Uria lomvia), Pigeon Guillemot (Cepphus columba), Parakeet Auklet (Cyclorrhynchus psittacula), Crested Auklet (Aethia cristatella), Least Auklet (Aethia pusilla), Horned Puffin (Fratercula corniculata) and Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) were all seen.

So, the sheer number of seabirds is not the issue. Both sites yield many species and high numbers of birds. One difference is, that on Slettnes birds are flying mainly from the west to east, whereas in Gambell birds are flying from South to North. Peak migration time differs slightly. The lighthouse of Slettnes near Gamvik was visited in the middle of May. The north-western tip of the St. Lawrence Island in contrast was visited at the end of May. A time difference of not more than 2 weeks.

A major difference is the substrate on where you are standing. Gambell has a gravel beach which offers several suitable horizontal levels of observation. If you care with the dynamics of the waves, you almost are able to shot on eye-level with the migrating seaducks. Slettnes shore is made from rocks. Changing the angle of observation or even changing the position to the sea is far more difficult.

There are some differences in bird behavior which might be accidental but are nonetheless noteworthy. When Long-tailed Ducks (Clangula hyemalis) were migration over the sea in the hundreds on “normal” days in Slettnes, this was hardly seen in Gambell. Long-tailed Ducks were observed much more frequent on the shallow ponds in the back country of the St. Lawrence Island. Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arctica) is the only Puffin for Norway, whereas you can see Horned Puffin (Fratercula corniculata) and Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) in Gambell. The behavior was quite different. Atlantic Puffin you do not normally see from the coast because they prefer to swim a bit more off-shore; this was an interesting experience on a boat trip. Horned Puffin and Tufted Puffin in contrast could be easily seen migrating along the coast in Gambell, sometimes even quite close to shore. Horned Puffin and – to a lesser extent – Tufted Puffin seemed to be more sociably oriented than their Atlantic cousins. Often they led a flock of other seabirds, mainly Murres.

A different pattern also in the Loon observations. Whereas Red-throated Loons (Gavia stellata) migrated in long rows over the stormy sea in front of Slettnes, only singly individuals could be seen from the Gambell coast. Yellow-billed Loons (Gavia adamsii), too, seems to be easier and closer to see in Slettnes. On the other hand: in Slettnes, no migrating Arctic Loon (Gavia arctica) could be observed. It was still to early for their migration.

One issue is, that it is possible only in Nordkyn to book one off-shore trips – preferable with a reliable skipper for sport fishing (Nordkyn Nordic Safari) for better and closer looks of the migration along the Barents Sea. Gambell does not offer any boat trip.

Nordkyn Nordic Safari is specialized in adventure trips in the wild nature by the seaside of the Arctic Ocean around Mehamn Norway, the northernmost fishing village of the world. Besides birding and photo expeditions the company offers deep sea fishing, Bird rock watching, For several years now, Nordkyn Nordic Safari offers boat trips where you can watch animals and feel the magic of arctic nature. Vidar, the owner, is very noticeable in his many years of experience and he offers a professional service.

Best is: to give both locations a try.

An island like Gambell on the north-western tip of Alaska is anyway an outstanding outpost and offer a bunch of opportunities not only for North American Birders. During a 6-day trip with the tour operator High Lonesome a group of mainly US-birders was amazed by the impressive bird migration along the shore of the island to the Bering Sea further north. An almost as important feature was the possibility to catch-up with maybe the best vagrants sightings of the spring 2016 including an observation of a Pintail Snipe (Gallinago stenura).

There are lots of pelagic bird species with a great range of sizes and ranges. In the bird-lens.com – gallery of pelagic birds you will find different species of these off-shore birds found in the western Palearctic.

In order to meet the growing demand for top shots of the rare species of the Palearctic, Bird-Lens is keen to enrich the range of pictures of birds you can find in the western palearctic.

Trips to many sites which can contribute to a WP-portfolio of birds were visited. Already several trips included excursions to remote places like the coastal mountains of Northern Norway or to Alaska. Also off-shore trips with e.g. Nordkyn Nordic Safari AS to observe migrating arctic seabirds in the Barents Sea or with Seabirding off-shore Hatteras, North Carolina to explore the dynamic ecosystem formed by the combination of the continental shelf edge and the Gulf Stream Current, to capture images of rare birds were performed and turned out to be very successful. The nice images you find in the gallery are only a first impression of what you will find in the gallery in the “Picture Shop” very soon. Just give me a message, if I could serve you with an image needed before the new pictures are online.

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