Friday, November 29, 2013


It shouldn't be a surprise that it's cold in Alaska. In the winter. But the -2F that bitch-slapped me in the face as I emerged from Anchorage airport in the early hours this morning was still a surprise. 

I left Boston on Thanksgiving evening. Yeah - Big Year birding doesn't (really) allow for holidays. But at least I got to spend most of mine at home; my fellow big year birding friend, Jay Lehman, was stuck in Newfoundland in bad weather looking for a gull with yellow legs. (I hope he found it, as well as legs with a turkey on the other end!)

I'm in Alaska for at least a week. I'm heading out to Adak in the Aleutians on Thursday, with John Puschock and Bill Sain (from Texas.) I'm here early to (i) look for a Dusky Thrush in Anchorage; (ii) go to Nome for McKay's Bunting, and (iii) buy some proper clothes that will stop me from freezing to death. Seriously.

Big news in Anchorage this year is the return of the Dusky Thrush - an extremely rare Asian thrush. It's the third year this bird has wintered in a small residential neighborhood between the airport and downtown. Since it roams over a fairly large area, I was grateful for all the advice I received from local birders, especially from Dave Sonneborn. I met Dave on St. Lawrence Island earlier in the year, and he helped me find the Stonechat on a previous visit to Anchorage. Today, Dave was going to help me with the Dusky. He lives in the neighborhood, and even had the thrush as a yard bird!

Dave Sonneborn - Dusky Thrush guide for the morning.

Dave and I ventured out after the sun had risen, which at this time of year is about 10am. We drove around to the sound of soft snow crunching under the tires. The trees were veiled in a frosty covering of glittering snow. And with the low, tangential light, it was an eerily beautiful morning to be out. 

As we approached the area where the thrush has been seen most recently the activity increased: swirling flocks of Bohemian Waxwings buzzing around the fruit-laden Mountain Ashes, Black-capped Chickadees and American Robins. We scanned through the Robins, looking for a white-breasted thrush, with an obvious eye-brow.

It was Peter Scully, another local birder, who soon found the bird, whistling for us to follow him into a small courtyard of apartments. A group of trees reached up between the buildings, and it was here that the bird was sitting, scanning its surroundings, which now included a bunch of grown men pointing various large optics at it. We watched the bird for 30 minutes as it moved silently from tree to tree.

Dusky Thrush! Clear white supercilium (eye-brow), rufous wings (and underwings) 
and white underparts with white-edged black breast feathers.

The face pattern and thin bill reminded me of a Redwing - another Eurasian Thrush - which was a common winter visitor to the UK of my childhood (and hopefully a visitor to my Big Year in Dec!) 

What a great start to my Alaska trip! I thought this bird might take several days of searching - and Dave and Peter found the bird in less than 30 minutes.

"Let me in - it's cold out here!"
Hairy Woodpecker - on the side of a house. 

Tomorrow, I'm going back to Nome. It's a favorite wintering ground for the McKay's Bunting - an even whiter version of the Snow Bunting. 

Thank you Dave for helping me find such a great bird - and for the fantastic meal that evening of delicious Thanksgiving leftovers. On all my travels this year, most of them alone, it's nice to share good company and good food. The perfect compliment to a cute Dusky Thrush.

+ + +

BIG YEAR LIST: 737 + 2 provisional (Rufous-necked Wood-rail, Common Redstart)

NEW YEAR BIRDS (1): Dusky Thrush


  1. Hi Neil...Really enjoyed your big year, and hoping you pull through and beat the record!

    Two comments I wanted to make:

    Siberian Stonechat has not been split by the AOU/ABA, although it is recognized by BOU and Clements. That record should be Common Stonechat until AOU votes (which should hopefully be soon...maybe this year).

    I noticed you took off the Aplomado Falcon from South Texas. FYI, both Sandy Komito and John Vanderpoel counted there South Texas Aplomados for their big years. I don't see an issue on you adding them back in...ABA has yet to clarify the status of those and it seems like until they do, they should be fair game.

    1. Hi there,

      Thanks for the comments. Good point about the Stonechat. You can tell I'm still thinking like a British birder! I'll change my nomenclature to match the ABA.

      Your second comment is very timely. I've been avoiding this one since, well, since the spring when I first saw Aplomado Falcon this year. I didn't tick it then, as Texas (and hence the ABA) doesn't recognize them (yet.) John Vanderpoel chased and added the bird, in December as he was getting close to breaking the record. He argued (correctly, I think) that for the purposes of comparing his list with Sandy's he should count the bird on his Big Year list (but probably not his life list.) I've wrestled with this, and although I'm not adding the bird to my life list, I'm open to adding it to the Big Year list. And for the same reasons as John - it may end up being numerically important, and it makes it easier to compare my list to those of Sandy and John. But unless I get a few other birds, it's a moot point. I'm going to focus on the chasing for the moment, and return to this later. Nice to have a bird in my back pocket though!

      - Neil

  2. American Flamingos seen in Texas today!

  3. Hey Neil,

    I've been enjoying keeping up with your Big Year Blog. Keep it going! Good luck searching for Smew, Whooper Swans, and any other asian strays you may encounter. I'm sure you've seen the post about the American Flamingo in Texas. That bird, along with it's friend the stray Greater Flamingo, have apparently been in the same area since June. I think I may know where they have been roosting. Send me an email at if you would like some more info on where the best places to look for this bird is. It may be a little bit of work to reach the areas it's been visiting, but the up-side is that you know for certain that it is a free wild flamingo from the Yucatan. Good luck!

    Corey Lange

    1. Thanks Corey!

      I was very happy to hear about this bird. There was one in Florida (Everglades) back in July, but I didn't make it out there in time, and there haven't been any since. I thought I'd lost this bird this year. Breaking my AK trip to go see this one. And yes - very cool that the origin of both birds are known exactly. Flamingos are hard to pin down though - so fingers crossed they stay.

      Heading out to Cox's Bay today to see if they're still there...

      Thanks for the comments,
      - Neil