Thursday, May 30, 2013


I should be writing this from home (MA.) Actually - I shouldn't be writing this at all! I should be sleeping, catching up with Gerri and the cats, hanging out at my favorite coffee shops (1369 and Simon's if you're ever in need of Cambridge coffee recommendations!) Instead, I'm still on the road - for 3.5 weeks with 1 week's worth of packing! You do the olfactory math!

Alaskan volcanoes and fog really screwed up my schedule. So, instead of heading home before Alaska Part II (Nome), I'm squeezing in a side trip to AZ and then MN. AZ is for the late-arriving flycatchers, and more goatsuckers (a rare Buff-collared Nightjar was recently reported from Madera canyon) as well as tracking down that pesky Mexican Chickadee. MN is for all the warblers that I missed in migration.

Arizona is my favorite place to bird. The scenery is stunning, and the birding really is heavenly...
Paradise is in Arizona (Chiricahua Mountains)

But wait...
What? People die in Paradise?

The highlight of this quick trip was the owling. I've tried for Northern Pygmy-owl at least 5 times this year, and come up short. This time, I went back to the same places - Huachuca Canyon and Miller Canyon - determined to see this little gem of a bird. Northern Pygmy-owls are diurnal, meaning they hunt during the day. At this time of year, they're probably very active with hungry nestlings to feed.

Huachuca Canyon: (got through the military complex again - despite the eyebrow-raising British accent) arrived at the parking lot. No owls. It was a hot day (it's been near 100 most of this week), so I sat and waited. "Took...took...took...took..." I heard it - Pygmy-owl calling. It did this twice during the 2 hours I was there. Very exciting, even though the bird never showed itself.

So - on to Miller Canyon. Tom Beatty, the owner, has reported an active nest recently - which is the empty hole I saw last time. With some excitement, I made the climb back up the canyon. As I approached the nesting hole, I could see:

Deja vu, all over again.

I sat down far enough away and waited to see if anything would turn up. Suddenly - as I was watching the hole, this appeared:

Owlet. Baby Northern Pygmy-owl!
(Actually, there were two - I suspect one was standing on the other!)

And it wasn't long before an adult showed up:

Northern Pygmy-owl - adult. 6-3/4" in length.

Pygmy-owls have false eye marks on the back of their heads.
Helpful for panoramic menacing.

The owlets were in for a treat - dinner was a big yummy lizard...


Dinner preparation: first, ensure the food stops moving...

Here's a movie of the owl, just before it takes the food to the hungry owlets. It's calling - probably to alert the young.

While at the Chiricahuas, I heard lots of Elf Owls around the Portal Lodge, and finally managed to see one using a flash-light. Elf Owls are our smallest owl - just 5-3/4" long. I didn't manage to get a photo - the bird didn't hang around while I was manipulating scope, iPhone, and flash-light, but I did manage a pic of a sleeping Cassin's Kingbird in the same tree...

Not an Elf Owl.
Cassin's Kingbird - roosting in the Portal Lodge parking lot

Other night birds were 2 new goatsuckers for the year: Common Poorwill, and the rare Buff-collared Nightjar. I didn't see either bird, but heard both well.

It's difficult to plan a spring trip to Arizona as birds arrive in very definite phases. Two birds that are right at the tail end of migration are both flycatchers, and I managed to catch up with them on the first day:

Thick-billed Kingbird (appropriately named!)
Patagonia Roadside Rest - nest building.

Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher. Notice the rich red / orange tail.
Madera canyon - amphitheater.

Sulphur-bellieds have a unique call - they sound like a squeaky toy:

I've mentioned the Chiricahuas a few times, which meant I made the long trek to the very far south east of the state - for Mexican Chickadee. I missed this bird last time after a *lot* of searching. I was back again for a repetition - only this time I got up much earlier!

There aren't many places to search for this bird, as, sadly, much of the upper Chiriacahuas looks like this:

Fire devastation - 2011.

I started at Turkey Creek at 5:30, and after 15 minutes was rewarded with a bird singing. It was high in a fir tree, and never moved or came out, or showed itself. Success! - and a great start, I remember thinking. I didn't know at the time, that in the next 3 hours of searching multiple places, this was all I was going to get - a single heard bird. The pressure was off - but I sure would like to see one of these little fellows. Apparently they're nesting now, which makes them more difficult than usual. Again on this trip, Northern Pygmy-owls stole the show - I had two birds calling during the middle of the day.

It was a short visit - but packed with some great birds and wonderful memories. It's fun (and frustrating) chasing rare birds, but slowing down and spending an afternoon watching owls going about their business was one of the highlights of the year for me. Thank you again Arizona...

Sunset. Madera Canyon - Proctor Road.

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NEW YEAR BIRDS (6): Thick-billed Kingbird, Sulphur-bellied Kingbird, Buff-collared Nightjar, Common Poorwill, Northern Pygmy-owl, Mexican Chickadee.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


Birders come to the Pribilofs for two reasons - to find Asian rarities and to see the resident breeders, some of which you can only find here. I've had a good mix of both.

One of the birding highlights for me was seeing the hundreds of thousands of breeding sea birds. These birds take advantage of the huge cliffs around much of the island, securing a tiny ledge or burrow for the short breeding season. 

Breeding won't start until June, which is fortunate as many of the cliffs are still covered in snow…

But the cliffs are still good places at this time of year to see alcids (black and white colored sea birds that are like little penguins) resting and prospecting for nest sites - if you don't mind the combination of wind, cold, and heights…

One of the most common alcids on the island is the Least Auklet - a tiny bird, with some funny whiskers and a knobbly bill…

And if you think that's funny-looking...

Crested Auklet - nasal crests are in this year

Parakeet Auklets have a unique bill shape - almost circular - that helps them catch small crustaceans and jellyfish...

Parakeet Auklets

The island is home to 2 species of Puffin - one of my favorite sights on the cliffs and on the water…

Horned Puffin

Tufted Puffin

Puffins nest in excavated burrows at the top of the cliffs.

The largest alcids are the Murres - there are 2 types on the island, the larger, darker and more common Thick-billed Murre, and the smaller, browner Common Murre...

Thick-billed Murres - at the back are black with a white line above the bill. 
Common Murres (2 in the middle) are brown.

Thick-billed Murres pretending to be penguins

Kittiwakes also use the cliffs to nest (both Black-legged and Red-legged). Occasionally, the much larger Fulmars can be seen resting here too…

Northern Fulmar

Fulmars are "tubenoses" - notice the complicated bill structure which has up to 9 different plates. This helps their olfaction, allowing them to locate food (and possibly their nests) over vast ocean distances. Tubenoses spend almost their entire lives at sea, and drink sea water. The bill also incorporates an enlarged nasal gland that helps to remove salt - forming a 5% saline solution that drips out of the nose (on cold days I think that was happening to us on the cliffs too!)

The non-cliff parts of the island are mostly tree-less tundra - which looks like this…

or this...
Volcanic lava fields.

The lava fields are a favorite nesting area for the Snow Bunting…

as well as the Pribilof Gray-crowned Rosy-finch…

These Rosy-finches are significantly larger than their mainland counterparts.

At this time of year, there are many pools and marshy areas created from the snowmelt. These are great places to find shorebirds - like today's Wood Sandpiper, a vagrant from Russia…

Wood Sandpiper

Unfortunately, not all of these rarities stay alive long enough for me to count…

Remains of a Slaty-back Gull - would have been a life bird, if it was an alive bird!

Walking any of these areas requires lots of clothing...

Notice the Neos overboots - popular in Alaska. They're a light, waterproof 
material that completely covers your shoes and goes up to your knees. 
Much easier to pack than rubber boots!

But it's not just birders that visit the island. Some recent sightings of Daleks over the Bering Sea resulted in an impromptu visit from the Time Lord...

TARDIS / Toilet

I had a great time on the island, saw some amazing birds (I added 11 to my big year list) animals, and scenery and really appreciated being in such a remote location. I was sad to leave today (my flight made it this time!) The same unpredictability of the weather that cancels flights also brings in new birds - Alaska is a fun place if you like not knowing what's coming next...

(Visiting St. Paul requires going through the TDX tour company - an Alaska native organization. They have 3 tour guides out here for the summer - Scott Schuette, Cameron Cox and Doug Gochfeld. All 3 were fantastic and amazing at getting us onto birds. Thanks guys!)

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NEW YEAR BIRDS (6): Parakeet Auklet, Bar-tailed Godwit, Pacific Golden-plover, Parasitic Jaeger, Wood Sandpiper, Pomarine Jaeger.


When there aren't birds to watch, there's plenty of other wildlife to enjoy on the Pribilofs.

St. Paul is one of the most important breeding sites for the Northern Fur Seal (Callorhinus ursinus.) They're named after the think fur pelt, which has an astonishing 300,000 hairs per square inch. Up to a million of these giants (males can reach up to 7 foot in length and weigh up to 600 lbs!) come to the island every summer to breed. From June, many of the beaches are one continuous mass of seething blubber. The alpha males - the Beach Masters - are the first to arrive. These guys attract a harem of up to 40 females - which invariably leads to lots of quarreling, hitting, biting and shoving. You know, the usual harem issues...

The Beach Master - an alpha male Northern Fur Seal.

The Fur Seals are protected now under the Marine Mammal Protection Act - and for good reason. They were once extensively hunted for that hairy pelt. It was one of the main reasons why the US was keen to purchase the whole of AK; by the early 1900s, the tax on fur seal skins alone covered the $7.2 million Alaska Purchase (1867.) It's estimated that in the first 20 years 2.25 million seals were killed, mostly on St. Paul - and mostly females, which resulted in the deaths of their dependent pups, as well as future reproductive potential. (Today there are believed to be less than 1 million fur seals in the whole of the Bering Sea / Pacific.)

We also saw some Harbor Seals, and Steller's Sea-lions. Sea Otters used to be common here (hence "Otter Island" - to the south-west of St. Paul) but were hunted to local extirpation. So now they're not very common!

We saw Arctic Foxes daily - often around "town" or out in the tundra gazing at the seemingly cautious and inaccessible birds. This population doesn't appear to turn very white in the winter: all the foxes we saw were red, like this one…

Arctic Fox - looking hungrily at a flock of 122 (!) Bar-tailed Godwits.

St. Paul has a small population of Caribou. These were introduced from a Russian stock of domesticated caribou (i.e. reindeer) so I guess, technically they're still reindeer. They don't seem to do well in severe winters - like the one previous to this year, when their numbers plummet and the locals stop hunting them to allow a recovery. 

Reindeer. This one is not doing very well.

But we did start seeing some evidence of more lively Reindeer...

Reindeer poop. Looks fairly fresh. 
(Also looks like appetizing blueberries.)

Eventually we found the real thing...

Reindeer - domesticated caribou introduced from Russia.

There are no dogs or rodents on the island - which would be detrimental to the breeding seabirds. But there is an endemic shrew - the St. Paul Shrew. They're not common, nor easy to find. We didn't see one. (St. George - the other big island in the Pribs - has lemmings.)

And finally - if you spend enough time in the right area (the Trident Cannery Canteen) you should be able to see one of these…

Cannery Cat. 
Notice the small ears - adapted for the extreme winters, 
and large mouth - for eating the copious amounts of food available.

Monday, May 27, 2013


When my flight to the Pribilofs was canceled last week, I remember lamenting how much better it would be to be on the island not being able to get off, rather than in Anchorage not being able to get on.

Now I get to experience both!

Birding. Lots of future opportunities to use this pic.

My flight was cancelled yesterday, as the plane from Anchorage can't land in fog. Which is a problem, as it frequently looks like this here...

St. Paul. Not a good place for planes that can't land in fog.
(If you're coming to St. Paul - don't worry - this isn't the actual runway!!)

There's a flight scheduled for today. Hopefully I'll get out - I need to get to Minnesota soon before the Connecticut Warblers stop singing!


There's not a lot written about the art and architecture of the Pribilofs, so I thought a lame-ass blog about birding would be the perfect medium for such a scholarly review.

Firstly, and most importantly, I've found no art or architecture. So far. 

After 3 days, and I've only just discovered that there's a store…

St. Paul has a store. It's closed.

But if you're interested in buying a machine...

The machine shop. Also closed.

Maybe everyone is enjoying the local night / afternoon life...

The local bar. Hopping on Mon-Fri 3:30-6:00.

But maybe there'd be more going on in town if people could actually leave their houses...

When it's not foggy, there is actually a pretty Russian Orthodox church in the center of "town." (actually, even when it is foggy, I suppose the church is still there.) 

The town center.

For us, the highlight is the Trident company fish cannery...

The Trident halibut and crab cannery. 

This is where we eat our 3 meals a day, which for our first two days had no electricity or heating. 

Cold people eating cold the cold.

As if this wasn't serious enough, they also have problems with soy sauce and bedrooms…(and, apparently, verb selection)

Here's where the cannery workers live…

Cannery dorm. For fun add soy sauce.

Maybe the vernacular architecture is not the prettiest, but it sure is a welcoming and friendly place...

Or not...