A Field Guides Birding Tours Report

Alaska Fall Goldmine: Rarities on the Pribilofs 2023

September 28-October 7, 2023 with Doug Gochfeld guiding

Field Guides Birding Tours
Little Bunting was the first vagrant that we found as a group, and it played hard to get it in the putchkie forest of St. Paul, but we did get some reasonable flight views and heard it calling regularly. This was a good reminder that the birding in the Bering in fall can be simultaneously challenging and rewarding! Photo by guide Doug Gochfeld.

For birders, Alaska in the fall elicits lots of big dreams about seeing far flung rarities newly arrived from Asia. While sometimes difficult to bring these dreams to fruition, given all the variables involved (including the weather!), this year we sure did. Our chosen place to treasure hunt for these feathered gems was the lovely and utterly remote St. Paul Island, in the Central Bering Sea. During our week on the island, we were treated to a wonderful showing of migrants from both sides of the sea. The red-letter birds from Asia included Wood Warbler, Little Bunting, and Eurasian Hobby, with a supporting case of multiple Bramblings and Slaty-backed Gulls. Meanwhile, the Northern (Great Gray) Shrike and Bohemian Waxwing that we saw could have come from either side of the sea, as the Asian and American subspecies of both are very difficult to differentiate visually. From the American side, an American Redstart was the first documented record for the island, and Western Tanager, Warbling Vireo, Varied Thrush, and Townsend’s Warbler were also nice scarcities that turned up as we methodically birded our way through the windbreaks, sand dunes, crater lakes, putchkie patches, seacliffs, and wetlands of St. Paul. We also, of course, encountered the endemic breeders of the Pribilof Islands (subspecies for now, they all have the possibility of being elevated to species status in the future): Pacific Wren, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, and Rock Sandpiper. Other big highlights were Yellow-billed Loon, Red-legged Kittiwake, and Least Auklet (the latter two have long left the breeding cliffs for the middle of the ocean by the time this trip runs).

The birds were not the only highlight of this trip though. The windswept autumnal landscape of St. Paul was a major star of the show – keeping us company as we tramped all around the island, from the freshwater wetlands (mostly flooded this year), to the forests of celery (putchkie) and steep ravines where songbirds found shelter, to the cinder cones that remained from the island’s volcanic formation. The rocky beaches (and the sandy ones) still held some of the Northern Fur Seals that make for quite the summer spectacle here, and were the original reason that this island was settled by humans. We also never got tired of the lovely and curious Pribilof Foxes that we saw in all manner of settings.

We had one more day of birding after we left the island, and this buffer day ended up being a great way to tie a bow on the tour. Having gotten off the island as scheduled, we had a full day to explore and bird the greater Anchorage area, and we took full advantage by seeing a nice variety of northern birds: Spruce Grouse, American Three-toed Woodpecker, White-winged Crossbill, Canada Jay, and a very memorable experience watching a Golden Eagle swoop across Arctic Valley and land on an Arctic Ground Squirrel, which it then carried off high into the sky, surely to eat it in a more secluded setting. We also had close encounters with three Moose as the day neared its end, adding another one to the short but high quality list of mammals for the tour.

Thanks for joining me on this treasure hunt in Alaska –we certainly uncovered some jewels, and beyond that, it was a real delight to travel and bird with you all, and I greatly look forward to seeing y’all in the field again, whenever and wherever on this bird-covered Earth that may be!

—Douglas Gochfeld

One of the following keys may be shown in brackets for individual species as appropriate: * = heard only, I = introduced, E = endemic, N = nesting, a = austral migrant, b = boreal migrant

Anatidae (Ducks, Geese, and Waterfowl)

CACKLING GOOSE (ALEUTIAN) (Branta hutchinsii leucopareia)

A couple of these on Pumphouse Lake on our first evening on the island.

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The sun sinking over one of the freshwater marshes that dot the southeastern quadrant of the island. The weather can be rough in the Bering, but the scenes can also be idyllic. Photo by guide Doug Gochfeld.

CANADA GOOSE (Branta canadensis)

A few of the strange looking "Anchorage Geese," which are taken by most authorities to be "parvipes" Canada Geese, around Anchorage.

TRUMPETER SWAN (Cygnus buccinator)

Two juveniles at Westchester Lagoon.

NORTHERN SHOVELER (Spatula clypeata)

A couple on Westchester Lagoon.

EURASIAN WIGEON (Mareca penelope)

We had over 25 in a single flock on St. Paul Island.

AMERICAN WIGEON (Mareca americana)

At least one amongst the many Eurasians on St. Paul, and several in Anchorage, mostly at Westchester Lagoon.

MALLARD (Anas platyrhynchos)

One on St. Paul, where it is one of the scarcer of the regular waterfowl migrants. Also some in Anchorage.


Common on the island.


Abundant on the island. At this season, they've molted to the point where it is impossible to be sure of the subspecies of the males, though we surely saw a good many with Eurasian/Common Teal influence.

CANVASBACK (Aythya valisineria)

Five of these on Westchester Lagoon were a nice surprise.

RING-NECKED DUCK (Aythya collaris)

One at Westchester Lagoon.

GREATER SCAUP (Aythya marila)

Common in low numbers on the island, and also around Anchorage.

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Here's the group hunting for bunting at the northeast end of the island. Photo by guide Doug Gochfeld.

LESSER SCAUP (Aythya affinis)

A couple on Westchester Lagoon.

STELLER'S EIDER (Polysticta stelleri)

A female flying to and fro on the ocean off of Reef Point and Sea Lion Rock was the first of the season for the island.

KING EIDER (Somateria spectabilis)

A couple of singletons around the island, and then a distant raft of ~40 individuals off of Marunich.

COMMON EIDER (PACIFIC) (Somateria mollissima v-nigrum)

A young male floating on the ocean just off the harbor breakwall was showing the bright orange bill unique to this subspecies quite well. Another scarce one on St Paul.

HARLEQUIN DUCK (Histrionicus histrionicus)

Abundant on salt water around the island. The most common waterfowl species during our stay on the island.

WHITE-WINGED SCOTER (Melanitta deglandi)

Best views were a small flock of migrants that dropped down onto Webster Lake for a few minutes one evening.

BLACK SCOTER (Melanitta americana)

A few of these flying by at various points around the island's coast, and then a small raft that showed up in Salt Lagoon for our final two days.

LONG-TAILED DUCK (Clangula hyemalis)

Common breeders during the summer months, they were mostly gone from the island by our visit, but we saw them in ones and twos here and there.

BUFFLEHEAD (Bucephala albeola)

The first migrants of the season (males) showed up during the second half of our island visit.

COMMON GOLDENEYE (Bucephala clangula)

A couple of these around Anchorage.

BARROW'S GOLDENEYE (Bucephala islandica)

The more common of the goldeneye on both Westchester Lagoon and Lake Hood.

COMMON MERGANSER (Mergus merganser)

Abundant on Westchester Lagoon.


One mixed in with the above species on Westchester Lagoon.

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This Wood Warbler was another of the mega rarities that showed up during this year's tour sojourn on the island. There are only about a dozen records of this species for the US, and all but one of these are from islands off of Alaska. Photo by participant Andrew Kenny.
Phasianidae (Pheasants, Grouse, and Allies)

SPRUCE GROUSE (Canachites canadensis)

We had a couple of encounters with three total individuals on our morning birding north of Anchorage, and the final one gave us extended views on the roadside as we watched from the comfort of the van at close range. Awesome!

Podicipedidae (Grebes)

HORNED GREBE (Podiceps auritus)

A couple on St. Paul, and then several on Westchester Lagoon.

RED-NECKED GREBE (Podiceps grisegena)

A few on the ocean off of Marunich, and then one back in Anchorage.

Charadriidae (Plovers and Lapwings)


The first one we saw was a road-killed bird, but thankfully we had several encounters with up to perhaps two dozen total birds, all juveniles, around the island. After leaving the Pribilofs, these birds' next stop would be their wintering grounds in the central and south Pacific.

Scolopacidae (Sandpipers and Allies)

RUDDY TURNSTONE (Arenaria interpres)

A couple of quick flybys on St Paul.

SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPER (Calidris acuminata)

The Pribilofs are the most reliable accessible place to see this species in North America. Each year, tens of thousands of juveniles fly from their hatching grounds in Asia across the Bering Sea to stage in remote western Alaska (especially at the Y-K Delta), and then after they've beefed up they cross back to the west side of the Bering and head south to their southeast Asian and Australasian wintering grounds, and St. Paul Island is perfectly located to take advantage of this route.

ROCK SANDPIPER (PTILOCNEMIS) (Calidris ptilocnemis ptilocnemis)

Just a few of these breeders were lingering along the coast and in the road to Marunich.

PECTORAL SANDPIPER (Calidris melanotos)

A couple were around Antone Slough when we walked it thoroughly.

LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER (Limnodromus scolopaceus)

A handful of juveniles were lingering at various marshy habitats throughout our island sojourn.

RED PHALAROPE (Phalaropus fulicarius)

Just a couple off shore, mostly at SW Point.

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The endemic subspecies of Rock Sandpiper put in a good showing in several places around the island. If some dedicated research on this complex is ever carried out, this may one day be its own species, perhaps called Pribilof Sandpiper! Photo by participant Larry Reis.


Our best views were at SW Point & Antone Lake.

Stercorariidae (Skuas and Jaegers)

POMARINE JAEGER (Stercorarius pomarinus)

Brief view of one of these beastly jaegers flying away over the rips at SW Point.

Alcidae (Auks, Murres, and Puffins)


We had scattered distant singles the first few days, but then on our final full day the wind shift brought a nice flight of Thick-billed Murres to the southern side of the island, of which we saw several dozen.

PIGEON GUILLEMOT (Cepphus columba)

We scoped one very distant bird on the water off of Marunich.

ANCIENT MURRELET (Synthliboramphus antiquus)

Had a couple of small groups of these whirring by off shore on a couple of visits to SW Point.

LEAST AUKLET (Aethia pusilla)

A juvenile was bobbing cooperatively on the surface just off SW Point on our final seawatch there, and eventually swam close enough for us to get excellent scope views as it swam around just off the rocks.

HORNED PUFFIN (Fratercula corniculata)

Some still around the island, flying by promontories at the SW and NE corners of the island.

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We got great views of a couple of snazzy looking Bramblings from Asia during our gallivanting around the island. Photo by guide Doug Gochfeld.
Laridae (Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers)

BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE (POLLICARIS) (Rissa tridactyla pollicaris)

Still thousands around the island during our visit, and sometimes congregating in large numbers, especially on Big Lake.

RED-LEGGED KITTIWAKE (Rissa brevirostris)

Nice views of this regional endemic, mostly mixed into the bathing flocks on Weather Bureau Lake. Most have shoved off and out to sea by this date, but there are always still a few around at this date (and the island itself can be thought of as "out to sea").

SHORT-BILLED GULL (Larus brachyrhynchus)

A few of these lingering around Anchorage, at Ship Creek and Westchester Lagoon.

HERRING GULL (AMERICAN) (Larus argentatus smithsonianus)

Juveniles at Reef and Tonki Point, and then a couple of individuals at Ship Creek (where hybrids greatly outnumber pure birds) that looked like pure Herring Gulls.

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St. Paul is pockmarked with volcanic craters, but perhaps none are as eye-catching as the one that gives Lake Hill its namesake lake. Photo by guide Doug Gochfeld.

HERRING GULL (VEGA) (Larus argentatus vegae)

A nice dark-mantled adult flew by us at SW Point.

SLATY-BACKED GULL (Larus schistisagus)

Adults at NE Point (2) and SW Point on different days.

GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULL (Larus glaucescens)

Every day.

GLAUCOUS GULL (Larus hyperboreus)

A juvenile scoped from Reef.

Gaviidae (Loons)

PACIFIC LOON (Gavia pacifica)

Seen several times off shore, both on the water and flying by.

YELLOW-BILLED LOON (Gavia adamsii)

An adult in breeding plumage flew over in the company of a Pacific Loon, and then a non-breeding plumaged bird seen well not too far off SW Point.

Procellariidae (Shearwaters and Petrels)

NORTHERN FULMAR (PACIFIC) (Fulmarus glacialis rodgersii)

They're gone from the breeding cliffs by this date, and whether or not we see them from shore is predicated on the food availability in the surrounding waters and the weather. We had them as a group off of SW Point on one day.

SHORT-TAILED SHEARWATER (Ardenna tenuirostris)

Seen off SW Point a couple of times.

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We did indeed do some birding around Anchorage once we departed from the island, and one of the highlights was this bull Moose, which sniffed the air to see what we were all about as we watched an American Three-toed Woodpecker. Photo by guide Doug Gochfeld.
Phalacrocoracidae (Cormorants and Shags)


The go-to cormorant here, where they breed in good numbers.

PELAGIC CORMORANT (Urile pelagicus)

Seen on a couple of occasions, including floating off shore at Webster Seawatch.

DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT (Nannopterum auritum)

A surprise swimming around and (very successfully) fishing off the beach at the Webster seawatch.

Accipitridae (Hawks, Eagles, and Kites)

GOLDEN EAGLE (Aquila chrysaetos)

A great experience with a youngster at Arctic Valley. It was initially perched on the hillside, and after we watched it there for a while, it took flight and swooped across the valley, landing on an unsuspecting Arctic Ground Squirrel. It then flew off and circled higher and higher with its prey, presumably to devour it in a more private location away from our prying eyes.

Picidae (Woodpeckers)


A real nice male at Connor's Bog in Anchorage.

DOWNY WOODPECKER (Dryobates pubescens)

Arctic Valley.

HAIRY WOODPECKER (Dryobates villosus) [*]

Calling from the edge of Westchester Lagoon.

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Spruce Grouse was another of our great encounters during our Anchorage birding day, this one photographed by participant Chris Andrews.
Falconidae (Falcons and Caracaras)

MERLIN (Falco columbarius)

A quick flyover at Westchester Lagoon.

EURASIAN HOBBY (Falco subbuteo subbuteo)

On our arrival day to St. Paul, we made a madcap dash after the one that had been seen intermittently on the days leading up to our arrival. We saw it in flight a couple of times, and then watched it disappear behind a bluff and towards town, never to be seen by any other birders.

Vireonidae (Vireos, Shrike-Babblers, and Erpornis)

WARBLING VIREO (Vireo gilvus)

This species is rare for most of Alaska, but we had two different individuals, one at Webster House and one hanging out with the other insectivores in Zapadni Ravine.

Laniidae (Shrikes)

GREAT GRAY SHRIKE (Lanius excubitor)

A very sweet surprise at the Quarry on St. Paul, we got to watch it, and hear it do lots of vocalizing, for a while. Then a migrant American Pipit came over to check it out, and after a funny little standoff where the shrike didn't seem to know whether to be enticed by, or scared of, the pipit, a very long chase ensued, up and down and around the quarry several times.

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Zapadni Ravine was the site of an interesting mixed flock of three species of three different families for a few days, so we visited this migrant trap several times during our island sojourn. Here, a few of the island's iconic Northern Fur Seals loll around in background. Photo by guide Doug Gochfeld.
Corvidae (Crows, Jays, and Magpies)

CANADA JAY (Perisoreus canadensis)

Arctic Valley.

STELLER'S JAY (Cyanocitta stelleri)

Westchester Lagoon.


Abundant in and around Anchorage.

COMMON RAVEN (Corvus corax)

The default crow-like corvid in and around Anchorage.

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The large, long-billed, and very isolated Pribilof subspecies of Pacific Wren likely warrants elevation to full species status...once someone does the legwork of research. We saw a bunch of them during our trip, and they seemed to be doing quite well this year. Photo by participant Andrew Kenny.
Paridae (Tits, Chickadees, and Titmice)

BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEE (Poecile atricapillus)

A pair along the road at Arctic Valley and then more at Connor's Bog.

Phylloscopidae (Leaf Warblers)

WOOD WARBLER (Phylloscopus sibilatrix)

One of very few North American records, this bird showed up in Zapadni Ravine and we raced our way over there to see it. We ended up seeing it again twice more over our stay, as it set up shop in the ravine and was eventually at times part of a mixed foraging flock that included 3 families of insectivores: it represented the Phylloscopidae (Old World Leaf Warblers), and it was joined by a Warbling Vireo (Vireonidae) and a Townsend's Warbler (Parulidae).

Sittidae (Nuthatches)

RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH (Sitta canadensis)

A half dozen in the spruces at Connor's Bog in Anchorage.

Troglodytidae (Wrens)

PACIFIC WREN (ALASCENSIS GROUP) (Troglodytes pacificus alascensis)

These charismatic and endearing balls of fluff were abundant this fall on St. Paul - they must have had a great breeding summer on the island this year. These tough little nuggets will remain on the island throughout the winter, while all the other passerines we encountered will depart south for warmer pastures.

Sturnidae (Starlings)

EUROPEAN STARLING (Sturnus vulgaris)

Some on the Anchorage unit.

Turdidae (Thrushes and Allies)

VARIED THRUSH (Ixoreus naevius)

A rarity on St. Paul, we had one above the upper cut in the Quarry.

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This young American Redstart shocked us all, and was the first modern day record (and first well-documented record overall) of this species on the Pribilofs. You just never know from which direction the vagrant birds will come - and we were fortunate to have ample examples from both sides of the Bering. Photo by participant Larry Reis.

GRAY-CHEEKED THRUSH (Catharus minimus)

Another scarcity on St. Paul, we had one hopping along the road near English Bay before it eventually flew off into the vast sea of grass and putchkie to the north.

AMERICAN ROBIN (Turdus migratorius)

Another scarcity on St. Paul, we encountered what may have been the same individual on two different days several miles apart: in a roadside lava field near SW Point, and then above the upper cut of the quarry with the Varied Thrush.

Bombycillidae (Waxwings)

BOHEMIAN WAXWING (Bombycilla garrulus)

A nice surprise in the upper cut of the quarry on one of our final visits here.

Motacillidae (Wagtails and Pipits)

AMERICAN PIPIT (RUBESCENS GROUP) (Anthus rubescens pacificus)

This migrant from America was seen on at least three days on St. Paul.

Fringillidae (Finches, Euphonias, and Allies)

BRAMBLING (Fringilla montifringilla)

A couple of singles, one near the Webster House, and one which dropped into Antone Slough right in front of us.

GRAY-CROWNED ROSY-FINCH (PRIBILOF IS.) (Leucosticte tephrocotis umbrina)

The House Sparrow of St. Paul, we saw quite good and plenty during our sojourn out in the Bering.

COMMON REDPOLL (Acanthis flammea)

Seen almost every day we were on the island.


A flock of 15 performed very nicely at Arctic Valley.

PINE SISKIN (Spinus pinus)

Flyovers at SW Point and the Quarry, and then a high flyover flock of 20 at Arctic Valley, perhaps actively migrating.

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We got a couple of views of this Eurasian Hobby very early on in our visit, and somehow Chris Andrews was able to capture it during its final pass before it disappeared for good! It was about the 6th record for St. Paul Island, and the species is about as rarely seen on the outer Aleutians (adjacent to Russian waters) as it is on the Pribilofs. Photo by participant Chris Andrews.
Calcariidae (Longspurs and Snow Buntings)

LAPLAND LONGSPUR (Calcarius lapponicus)

Still somewhat common on St. Paul during our visit, though numbers dwindled through our visit.

SNOW BUNTING (Plectrophenax nivalis)

An every day bird around the road system and at various birdseed dumps on St. Paul Island.

Emberizidae (Old World Buntings)

LITTLE BUNTING (Emberiza pusilla)

One of our treasured prizes, we found one of these while walking through Webster Celery on our very first evening on St. Paul, and it called a few times and was seen a perched briefly a couple of times in between long flights.

Passerellidae (New World Sparrows)

CHIPPING SPARROW (Spizella passerina)

Our last new bird on St. Paul was a juvenile along the road near SW Point.

AMERICAN TREE SPARROW (Spizelloides arborea)

One of these scarce migrants was near Webster House on our antepenultimate day on the island.

FOX SPARROW (SOOTY) (Passerella iliaca chilcatensis)

We had a couple of these at various places along the road on St. Paul.

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The legendary crab pots of St. Paul, and a vagrant Western Tanager perched atop them (at the same time as the redstart, oh happy day!). Photo by participant Paul Beerman.

DARK-EYED JUNCO (SLATE-COLORED) (Junco hyemalis hyemalis)

Webster House.

WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW (GAMBEL'S) (Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii)

Tonki Wetlands, Hutch Hill, and a single along the road system.

GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROW (Zonotrichia atricapilla)

The most common migrant sparrow during our time on St. Paul, with up to 3 on multiple days.

Parulidae (New World Warblers)

AMERICAN REDSTART (Setophaga ruticilla)

An incredible rarity find, this was likely the first record for St. Paul Island, and it obliged for excellent views on the day it was found in the legendary crab pots just outside of town.

YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER (MYRTLE) (Setophaga coronata coronata)

One at Hutchinson Hill on St. Paul, and then a lingering latish bird at Connor's Bog in Anchorage.

TOWNSEND'S WARBLER (Setophaga townsendi)

Part of the charming little mixed-family insectivore flock in Zapadni Ravine.

Cardinalidae (Cardinals and Allies)

WESTERN TANAGER (Piranga ludoviciana)

Another surprise American rarity, found in the Crab Pots shortly after we saw the American Redstart.

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This fetching Pribilof Fox is one of the whiter ones you will see, and it was very contentedly napping one afternoon as it overlooked the seal colonies at the northeast corner of the island, while also keeping an attentive eye on us as we birded the area. Photo by guide Doug Gochfeld.


PRIBILOF SHREW (Sorex hydrodromus)

Ann had a quick look at one at Webster House, and then we had a dead one at Zapadni Ravine that we could study for a bit before salvaging the specimen for science.

ARCTIC GROUND SQUIRREL (Spermophilus parryii)

A bunch of these at Arctic Valley, including one being taken out and then taken away by a Golden Eagle.

ARCTIC FOX (Vulpes lagopus)

The Pribilof "blue" fox was common during our stay on the island, and we even saw a couple of beautiful pale morphs.

STELLER'S SEA LION (Eumetopias jubatus)

Seen most days on the island, including 6-8 looking out from Hutch on one day.

NORTHERN FUR SEAL (Callorhinus ursinus)

The reason St. Paul Island was settled was because of these very animals, and we saw plenty each day (though numbers these days are much lower than historical norms).

HARBOR SEAL (Phoca vitulina)

St. Paul and Ship Creek.

MOOSE (Alces alces)

Great views at a young male and a pair at Connor's Bog. Almost too great.

REINDEER (Rangifer tarandus sibiricus) [I]

We saw the main herd on St. Paul very distantly one afternoon, and then the next morning they were closer to the road and so we got much better scope views. We counted roughly 680 total individuals.

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Here's one more photo of our most cooperative of the red-letter Asian vagrants we encountered during our visit - the Wood Warbler at Zapadni Ravine. Photo by guide Doug Gochfeld.

Totals for the tour: 97 bird taxa and 8 mammal taxa