"Whatever it is, it's a first for North America."
These are the words of dreams - most birders can spend a lifetime birding and never get to hear them. Today - I did.
After a very uneventful day yesterday I was beginning to regret my return to St. Paul and the Pribilofs. After leaving only a few days ago to head up to Barrow I decided to return - to find an island with fewer birds, fewer birders and a lot more wind. I'd been lured back by tour leader Scott Schuette who'd predicted vagrants from the recent west winds.
We're standing on the lee side of a slope near "town", which offers some protection from the brutally windy conditions. Scott and I have just flushed a bird, Scott made the traditional alarm call, "bird!", and I managed to get on a reddish-brown bird as it bounded away before disappearing downhill. It looked interesting. (Interesting here means it might not be one of the ubiquitous Lapland Longspurs.)
Scott assembles the group and we head after the fleeing bird. As we stop to survey the lower hill, I scan with my slope - more a force of habit than an expectation of actually seeing anything. Most of the good birds here - i.e. those that have just survived a long sea crossing from Asia - are probably buried deep in the vegetation, sensibly hiding from the elements. But I do spot something - an incredibly bright bird sitting atop the putchkie (celery.) With bright orange flanks and blue-gray upperparts I recognize this bird from a trip to Vancouver earlier this year...
"Bluetail" I shout somewhat resigned to Scott.
Scott looks in the scope, "That's not a Bluetail, it's some kind of Redstart. Whatever it is, it's a first for North America."
Several things start happening at once - Scott's on the phone to Doug, our other guide, telling him to get here asap with a camera. The group around me - 6 other visiting birders - start to comprehend the significance of Scott's words, I start trying to get digi-scoped pictures, and everyone's crowding around, desperate for a look through the scope at a bird that has never before been recorded in our birding region.
I take another look - of course it's a Redstart. I notice the bright rufous tail now and the delicate head pattern.
And then it's gone - disappearing toward the dunes. And then Doug arrives. We're all very aware of the need for good pics - otherwise we've all just been looking at a bird that will never be accepted. Scott and Doug formulate a plan to avoid pushing the bird further out in the dunes - and we start slowly combing the area.
"There it is!" Doug sees the bird flit over another dune. With Scott on lookout on a neighboring hill, we gently edge over the rise and look over into the sandy hollow. We don't see the bird. We're looking down into a great natural wind-break. If I were a bird - this is where I'd be! "On the left!" Bill Frey has the bird, close to us, on this side of our dune. We all briefly get on the bird before it disappears again. Scott has photos. That means we have evidence that this really is happening. We start allowing ourselves to actually enjoy this.
We don't relocate the bird. We check some nearby areas, and still don't have it. We decide to come back later - hoping the bird will relocate back to its original location. We head off to try again for a mystery bird we've seen twice at Hutch Hill but not identified. It's a brown bird (bunting?) that we've only seen in flight as it flushes. We have everything set up - cameras, eyes, a perfect flushing formation. Everything, that is, except the bird.
We head back for the Redstart (it's now 5:30 - we originally found the bird at 2:20pm) and walk the area as we did when we found it. I stop near where I first saw it and scan - and immediately spot the now familiar bright colors on top of the celery, "It's back!"
With longer and better views if becomes clear that the bird is probably a Common Redstart - of the eastern subspecies samamisicus. There's a pale panel in the wings (characteristic of this ssp) - on the edges of the tertials. The upperparts are slate-gray, and the flanks orange. The bird has a fuzzy white supercilium mainly in front of the eye, which meets across the lores. The chin is dark and flecked with white. In flight, the long red tail and rump with a darker central wedge is obvious. The bird is probably a young male. The samamisicus subspecies ranges as far east as Central Asia - that's a long way from here! This bird doesn't even earn an entry in Mark Brazil's "Birds of East Asia" that we're using out here.
The lack of a strong white secondary panel rules out Daurian Redstart - probably the most likely Redstart based on geographic range (it winters in Korea, Japan and China.) It's not a Black Redstart - there's orange on the flanks and chest much higher than the pectoral line on a Black.
For most of the birders here, tomorrow is their last day. Larry Peavler and Paul Sykes have been here 3 weeks. For them, the long wait for a good bird is finally rewarded. Hopefully the bird will stick around allowing others to see it (luckily with only 3 flights a week, tomorrow is a flight day), and hopefully we have enough documentation for this bird to be accepted.
I've spent a lot of time in Alaska this year, on my own Big Year quest. Most of it has been spent waiting for good birds to drop in. Mostly, they don't. Occasionally they do - and then the excitement is extreme and palpable. But today was something different. Today, the birding in the Bering Sea was at its very best.
+ + +
BIG YEAR LIST: 720 + 2 provisional (Rufous-necked Wood-rail, Common Redstart)
NEW YEAR BIRDS (1): Common Redstart (provisional - potential first for the ABA.)