After seeing the state of life in Anadyr and being warned by the Russian security services people who interrogated us (a story that will have to wait until later) that we were traveling to a lawless region full of criminals we were all anxious about what lie ahead at our final destination, Meynypil’gyno. For almost two weeks we waited in a cramped little room for both the weather to cooperate for flying and for the pilots to actually feel like flying. Finally, we lifted off in a big, old, orange helicopter and flew across an inspired snowy mountain range to this small fishing village on the edge of the sea.
On our final approach we saw organized rows of small houses below that looked quite inhabitable. Gone were the fears of being housed in one of the squalid shacks that we saw in Anadyr. And as we exited the helicopter we saw smiling people greeting one another and they warmly welcomed us. Alas, all is well! We have spartan but reasonable accommodations, safe storage for our equipment, dreadfully slow Internet (but we have it!), and a lovely hostess who is providing us with great home cooked Russian meals. Knowing we will have good food and some communication with home for the next two plus months has been a welcome relief.
The village of Meynypil’gyno has a population of about 500 and sits on a long gravel spit that parallels the Bering Sea. Just inland is an area of rolling moraine hills interspersed with small tundra ponds. Beyond that is a range of rigid, unexplored mountains. Snow is still deep in many areas and the main water bodies are still frozen but things are thawing quickly. Everyday the drifts are shrinking and prospects for venturing farther afield are presented. The weather is cold and windy as is to be expected for most of our stay.
Bird migration is in full swing and is especially exciting along the coast. When the winds are right there is constant passage of birds: Common and Steller’s Eiders, Harlequin Ducks, scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, Brant, 4 species of loons, assorted alcids, Black-legged Kittiwakes and regular flocks of 50 or more Pomarine Jaegers. Shorebirds are moving too but their migration doesn’t seem to have peaked yet. Species have included Ringed Plover, Lesser Sand Plover, Red Knot, Ruff, Wood Sandpiper, Dunlin, Red-necked Stint, and others. The beach is also remarkable in that Gray Whales swim within 20 feet of the gravel shore. Many are feeding and just passing by but others are using the coarse gravel to rub their bodies free of barnacles and other skin irritants. I stood knee deep in the surf and watched a group of three whales, within 15 feet at times, rolling, splashing and spy hopping along shore. It is tempting to dive into the frigid waters with them if only for a moment.
We have made several trips inland, hiking through the moraine hills and getting familiar with the territories of nesting Spoon-billed Sandpipers from previous seasons. Some birds are already singing there when the wind subsides. The songs of Skylark, Red-throated Pipit and Northern Wheatear have been the most conspicuous. It is my first time listening closely to the song of a Skylark. Their ability to mimic the sounds of the arctic avifauna are unmatched. I listened as one bird gave perfect vocalizations of Pacific Golden-Plover, Temminck’s Stint, Dunlin, Wood Sandpiper, Dusky Thrush and many others. We are anxiously awaiting the day that the first Spoon-billed Sandpiper arrives and its voice is heard among the others in the rolling hills. It should happen in the first few days of June.
UPDATE: Its June 3rd and a low pressure system is parked over the Bering Sea. High winds and rain have hampered our ability to detect any arrivals and may delay the arrival of the Spoon-billed Sandpipers. Hoping for a break in the weather soon!