Tuesday, September 24, 2013


"In preparation for our landing into Anchorage, please raise your tray tables, return your seats to the upright position, fasten your seat belts, and raise your binoculars for the Stonechat out the right side of the plane."

OK - that's not quite how it happened. But in the Big Year movie sequel - the one where I'm played by Brad Pitt - I'm sure that's how it'll be rewritten.

One of the few remaining joys of air travel is landing and turning on your phone. As a birder, you never know what's been found while you've been watching a movie you'd never consider watching anywhere else, doing the ridiculously easy Sudoko in the back of the in-flight magazine, or simply staring like an idiot at the seat in front of you. Of course - it's not always good news. One of my low-points this year was landing at Dallas at midnight, to discover that the Blue-footed Booby that I was going to chase in New Mexico was gone. (This was of course before they became trash birds in CA later in the year.) 

Stonechat! Just found. In Alaska. 

Damn! That was one of the birds I missed when I went back to Gambell. I bet it's come back to Gambell. Damn that Gambell place. Wait - Anchorage? That's mainland Alaska. And, more bizarrely, that's where I've just landed! I quickly open up the map, and find, to my utter amazement, that I'm 18 minutes away from a Stonechat that was found only a few hours ago. I have one afternoon here before flying to the Pribilofs tomorrow, and there's a Stonechat here. Incredible timing!

And thankfully, I'm not on my own looking for this bird. I get in touch with Dave Sonnenborn, who's a cardiologist in Anchorage, and who I had the pleasure of meeting and birding with in Gambell. He's also one of Alaska's top birders, and saw the Stonechat earlier today. He very kindly offers to pick me up and take me to the Stonechat location - and he's hopeful that the bird may still be there.

The bird was found at Carr-Gottstein Park, which is a little south of the airport. It's a tiny mound facing Turnagain Sound. As we walk out, we're surrounded by mountains...

We're met by a couple of birders coming in the opposite direction. Yes - they've seen the bird. (It's still here!) But it's working its way further away.

We stand at the top of the mound, and survey the marsh below us to the south. There's a distant pool, ringed by cattails. That's where the bird was last seen. After 10 minutes I glimpse a small bird with a pale rump, but can't relocate it. It was probably the bird and maybe that's all we'll get. After 30 minutes with no sightings we decide we're too far away - we need to leave the mound and descend into the marsh. 

When we're about 50 yards away, we stop to scan the cattails. It's a much better vantage point, as we're level with the top of the vegetation - and that's where the Stonechat should be sitting. Stonechats were one of my favorite birds as a kid; I'd see them regularly in the UK, as well as the similar Whinchat. I loved the way they would sit up erect on fences, wires, small trees - anything that would allow them enough elevation to survey the ground around them. The combination of red, white and black makes it a particularly handsome bird, and if they're fly-catching you'd catch a flash of the white rump.

I'm remembering all these memories as I'm scanning the tops of the distant cat-tails. And then I stop. "Stonechat" I shout. One of the cattails has a small appendage on top, in muted colors of red, white and black... 

Siberian Stonechat

The bird's active - flying off and disappearing, and then reappearing on top of a different cattail. Stonechat is a widespread bird in Eurasia, with many subspecies. The far-eastern form, maurus, with an unstreaked rump is now recognized as a separate species - the Siberian Stonechat. That's what this bird is.

Can you see me?

After a very slow start to Sept, with no new birds in Gambell, and only 4 birds for the month, maybe the birding gods are back on my side and my luck has returned. I hope so! I also hope this is a good sign for St. Paul and the rest of the month.

And thank you Dave for getting me a great bird on my brief layover in Anchorage!

+ + +

BIG YEAR LIST: 714 + 1 provisional

NEW YEAR BIRDS (1): (Siberian) Stonechat

Sunday, September 22, 2013


It's Sunday, so it must be Half Moon Bay. This is the third pelagic in as many days. Which means it's also the third morning waking up in a bed that has a steering wheel and a gear stick. (And I'm less than impressed with the outdoor toilet.)

I'm back on Debi's boat, and Jay's back too. We're making another try for Flesh-footed Shearwater - which we've both missed so far.

It's a beautiful day. As we're leaving the harbor we start spotting Marbled Murrelets bobbing on the water. They're in their handsome black-and-white winter plumage...

Marbled Murrelet

For a long time Marbled Murrelets were an enigma to the avian world - no one had any idea where they nested. Most alcids nest on islands, often on cliff edges or burrows. But apparently not these guys. It wasn't until 1974 that their nests were found - at the top of trees! They favor mature, old-growth trees in coastal forests. Oh, and they're rather partial to mossy trees - and for Douglas Firs the mossification process is only complete after about 150 years.

Juvenile bird calling to its parent.

Marbled Murrelets are threatened due to logging, and the replacement of old mossy trees by young unmossy ones doesn't help. In many California parks the really old trees can often be found around picnic areas, which also attracts Steller's Jays. As well as eating human trash, the latter also like eating eggs, especially Murrelet eggs. Current Murrelet conservation efforts are focusing on stopping the jays' feeding behavior - eggs that look like Murrelet eggs are planted around picnic areas. These eggs are mildly toxic - so when the Jays eat them, they throw up, and feel nauseous (I think they put something disgusting in them - like Reese's chocolate.) So far, the program has been very successful - not only do the Jays learn not to eat the Murrelet eggs, but they seem to be teaching their young not to do so either.

As we leave the harbor and progress through the open ocean we start seeing more pelagic species - including one of my favorites, the Buller's Shearwater...

Buller's Shearwater - a graceful shearwater with deep wingbeats
and beautifully-patterned upperwings.

As well as the heavy-set Pomarine Jaeger - one of many jaegers we've seen this weekend. 

Pomarine Jaeger.

"Flesh-foot!" The boat suddenly wakes up. "3 o' clock on the horizon" We all rush over to the starboard side. The "horizon" is a nebulous concept, loosely defined by the edge of a bank of fog that surrounds the boat. This is our target bird, and I'm nervous about missing it. Which I kinda do. I'm searching with my binoculars until I find a dark shearwater, way, way out, that lacks the silvery underwing of the potentially similar Sooty Shearwater. As I'm trying to see the pink in the bill, it slowly slips into the fog. Gone.

Jay doesn't get on the bird at all, and I'm left with a very unsatisfying and probably uncountable sighting. Neither of us are very happy.

As we're replaying the brief encounter / miss in our heads we're diverted by a somewhat ridiculous fish. It's an Ocean Sunfish - the heaviest bony fish in the world, and probably the ugliest too. They feed almost exclusively on jellyfish - which aren't very nutritionally rich. So rather than evolve into eating something slightly more sensible, they just stuff themselves with as much jellyfish as possible.

Ocean Sunfish - or Mola mola.
Don't eat too much jellyfish - or you could look like this!

"Shearwaters!" and we're back to birding. Debi's spotted a large group of her namesake bird on the water. We point the boat in their direction and gently approach. "You two up front. Now!" Debi's making sure Jay and I have front row seats for the Shearwater show.

In front of us is a small raft of about 15 birds. They're all Pink-footed Shearwaters, and a few dark gulls. We were hoping for a mixed flock that might have held a Flesh-footed. Oh well. As they start lifting off the water I hear Debi and Jay screaming beside me - "Flesh-footed." And this time, it's right in front of the boat - an all-dark, chocolate brown bird with a bright pink bill. We'd missed it - it must have been sitting among the shearwaters doing a good impression of a Pink-footed.

Flesh-footed Shearwater. Bright pink bill with a dark tip and chocolate-brown plumage.

And that's it for CA. I'm flying back tonight on the red-eye (that'll make 4 nights in a row without sleeping in a bed) to Boston for *1* night. Then back west to Alaska. After an unsuccessful Gambell trip I need to catch up on Asian vagrants. So - I'm heading back to St. Paul (Pribilofs) for a week, before meeting up with Jay and heading to Barrow with John Puschock - for Ross's and Ivory Gulls.

But first, I'm looking forward to resting my own flesh-footed legs in a real bed...

+ + +

BIG YEAR LIST: 713 + 1 provisional

NEW YEAR BIRDS (1): Flesh-footed Shearwater

Saturday, September 21, 2013


Why am I doing an Big Year in the ABA region? That's a ridiculously huge area of land - over 7 million square miles of it. Plus all the sea bits. And some lakes and rivers. And the air. Don't forget the air! And why am I *only* asking this question now? You can blame the Two Toms - Tom Ford-Hutchinson and Tom Benson. I met them today, and discovered, with considerable envy, that they're doing a County Big Year. As in Orange County, CA. That's 790 square miles! That's almost 7 million square miles less than me! Wow - I bet they don't have to sleep in cars, or planes, sweep any bone yards, or even wear two layers of clothing! It's probably too late now to rethink this whole shebang and do a Middlesex County Big Year...

Dana Point. Most decidedly not in Middlesex County, MA.

It's only a half-day boat trip today as we're only going out into Orange County waters. I'm hoping for Craveri's Murrelet - similar to Scripp's but with darker underwings. The chances are good - it's a good year for them, and both Toms saw a pair out here a week ago.

We're only a few hundred miles south of Bodega Bay but the sea bird diversity here is very different. Unlike further north, there are no Storm-petrels today, and only single-digit numbers of Pink-footed Shearwaters (5) and no Sooty Shearwaters (!). But that's made up for by the thousands of Black-vented Shearwaters...

Flocks of Black-vented Shearwaters. This is a good year for them - some years they're largely absent. Unlike some of the more pelagic shearwaters this one's found close to shore.

Black-vented Shearwater - superficially like a Manx (and previously 
considered a sub-species) but browner, with and an obvious dark vent (under-tail.)

Today's not the day for Craveri's though - which might have been a good thing as I could well have slept through it! I keep finding myself dozing off  - a combination of the jet-lag, two nights of sleeping in a car, and the gentle rhythmic undulations of the boat. 

Not a Craveri's Murrelet - but a Brown Pelican.
(awake for this one!)
+ + +

Back on land, I head to a bird I didn't try for in July when I was last in California. Back then it wasn't countable - but now it is. Welcome to the newest ABA area bird: Nutmeg Mannikin!

Nutmeg Mannikins are widespread across tropical Asia - from India southeast down to Australia. It comes in at least 11 subspecies, and a variety of names, including Scaly-breasted Munia, Spotted Munia and Spice Finch. They're highly social birds, commonly in flocks of up to 100 birds. The ease of breeding these in captivity has made them a popular cage bird. And escapees explain their presence now in the wild. They've been in LA and southern California since at least 1988, with several thousand in the wild today. And earlier this month they were formally added to the ABA list.

Thanks to a suggestion by Tom Ford-Hutchinson, I'm heading to Huntington Beach Central Park, where's there's a healthy population. Tom Benson estimated I should get the birds within 20 seconds. Or 40 seconds if I park at the wrong end of the parking lot! (Any longer I suspect and I must be some kind of birding idiot.) 
And sure enough - I'm not out of the car long (although I'm embarrassed to admit it's more than 40 seconds) before I hear their soft whistling calls. Part of being a social bird involves making lots of contact calls, to keep the group together. And which makes them easy to find. As I walk towards the calls, along a grassy stream bed, a flock of at least 50 birds jumps up from in front of me and disappears into a large tree.

Where'd they all go? A tree full of Mannikins.

They're surprisingly hard to pick out - a combination of their tiny size and ventriloquial calls. But the movement eventually gives them away...

Nutmeg Mannikin (male.) These birds eat grass seeds, using their large, conical bills. 
Notice the fantastic scaly breast!

What a very cute bird! And it's not just me that thinks so - an inquisitive bird pops out nearby to see what all the Mannikin fuss is about...

MacGillivray's Warbler - checking out the noisy Mannikins.

I have the rest of the afternoon free. There's a nearby Yellow-green Vireo and the coast's reeling from an invasion of Blue-footed Boobies. Instead, I decide to ignore these and waste 4 hours driving between Apple stores trying very hard to give them money for the new iPhone. Of course, they're completely out of stock, and look at me like I'm an idiot for expecting to be able to buy something that's technically been released and is on sale. Grrrr. So, no Vireo or Boobies and no new iPhone. But I do have a new bird for my ABA County Big Year!

+ + +

BIG YEAR LIST: 712 + 1 provisional

NEW YEAR BIRDS (1): Nutmeg Mannikin

Friday, September 20, 2013


I'm hoping that being in a place where a movie about birds was filmed will result in me seeing lots of them. Although, since it was a horror movie, maybe I'll only get the evil ones - you know, the ravens, crows, magpies. (And I've never really trusted those Juncos either.)

I'm in Bodega Bay, the back-drop for Hitchcock's movie, The Birds. I'm here for a long weekend of California pelagics, hoping to catch up with Black Storm-petrel, Flesh-footed Shearwater, Murrelets and any petrels. Today's trip is with Debi Shearwater, whose trips are always a lot of fun. She has an uncanny knack for finding the birds in the vast expanse of the offshore Pacific.

Bodega Bay - home of The Birds. 

I'm following my standard pelagic trip protocol: arrive late the night before, "sleep" in car, locate coffee in the morning, stumble onto boat. Sleeping in the car is partly to save money (yeah - Big Years aren't cheap - and I'm getting to the really expensive part of the year now) but mainly to ensure I don't miss the boat. Ever since I almost missed the ferry to the Dry Tortugas I've not trusted myself to wake up in time in a comfy bed, even with multiple alarms. And while I never feel rested, sleeping in a car *does* guarantee that I'll be awake every 15 minutes and be happy to actually "get out of bed." And because this is northern California, it's freezing cold, which means I'm not only awake every 15 mins, but I'm also shivering.

Breakfast is at Roadhouse Coffee. It's a small, homely place, where my Red Sox cap gets me noticed - which seems to happen a lot. People have strong opinions about Boston sports fans. Ever since the Red Sox won two World Series recently we're no longer pitied as the forever-cursed under-dog, but resented. (Having winning basketball, hockey and football teams doesn't help either.) This time though, it's friendly. One of the two customers (it is only 5:30 am) is a local - the father of the Sox second baseman, Dustin Pedroia. Dustin's kind of famous in Boston, which I guess makes his dad's kind of famous too. I'm torn between asking for his autograph, being speechless and starstruck, getting a photo, and telling him what a great guy his son is. In the end, I play it cool - I get my coffee and chat to him about the current season - which is going pretty well. 

I'm not sure of which horror movie to be more afraid today - the Birds or The Fly. As we board the boat, our captain alerts us to the many Kelp Flies aboard. "Don't worry, they don't bite. They just tickle." Yeah right - they tickle like spiders on crack! They live on kelp fields out to sea, but if you get too close they ditch the boring kelp and take over the ship. Kind of like Aliens. (Are we done for movie analogies today?)

The Fly! Kelp Flies. Not very bitey - just tickley. 

As well as hoping for some good birds, I'm also excited to meet up with Jay again. He's here for the weekend too, and ticking off some CA land birds. His grad school buddy Isaac Sanchez is here too, with his wife. Isaac's doing a photographic Big Year

Me, Isaac and Jay.

Appropriate for a day of horror movies, we're socked in by fog as we leave the harbor. Much of the early morning is spent moving between banks of dense fog and tantalizing views of open ocean. As the fog starts to lift, we start seeing birds...

Black-footed Albatross

South Polar Skua. We had a Jaeger grand slam today with 
Pomarine, Parasitic and Long-tailed.

...as well as whales (many Blue and Humpback), Dall's Porpoises, Northern Right Whale Dolphin, and Pacific White-sided Dolphins...

Wait for us! Pacific White-sided Dolphins. 

Sea lion relaxing alongside the boat.

As we're drifting into mid-afternoon on the edges of the Cordell Bank, we start seeing single storm-petrels coast by the boat. First there are Ashy…

Ashy Storm-petrel. One of the rarest Storm-petrels in the world - 
they're only found in this small stretch of NoCal water.

And then Fork-tailed Storm-petrels...

Fork-tailed Storm-petrel. Gray bird with obvious black underwing panel.

And finally, Black Storm-petrel - a year bird for me...

Black Storm-petrel. Noticeably larger than Ashy, with long dark wings, 
and a slower, more deliberate flight.

And then the singles start turning into small groups, and then larger groups, which coalesce into even larger groups, and soon the horizon is covered in a dark, swirling mass of Storm-petrels - tens of thousands of birds blackening the water and sky as far as the eye can see.

The Birds! A raft of storm-petrels.

Debi Shearwater and Steve Howell have never seen this number before. Their estimates are: 10,500+ Ashy Storm-petrels (the global population is estimated at 10,000 birds!), 6,500+ Fork-tailed Storm-petrels, 300 Black Storm-petrel and 25 Wilson's. That's over 17,000 birds! Maybe Hitchcock should have taken a boat out here? This probably represents the largest count of storm-petrels ever recorded in North America! It's a truly amazing experience - probably the most birds I've ever seen in one spot, and a once-in-a-lifetime show for even the  most experienced of pelagic birders on board. 

At the start of the day, Debi wondered where all the birds would be. With fog, and large areas of cold water, it wasn't obvious where to go. Being surrounded by birds in every direction, I'd say she did pretty well!

After tearing ourselves away from the Storm-petrel spectacle, we return to harbor where we're greeted by an interesting Heerman's Gull...

Heerman's Gull. Rare plumage variant with white in the primaries
and secondaries. At a distance, could be mistaken for a Jaeger / Skua.

I've seen a lot this year - new birds, new plumages, as well as some amazing non-avian wildlife. But today was one of the highlights of my year. Thank you Debi! The movie today was definitely a box-office success.

Tomorrow I'm on another boat - in Orange County. After navigating the bay area traffic and getting through Oakland Airport, I fly to LAX, and drive the hour or so south to Dana Point. It's late when I arrive, but at least the sleep won't be cold. And what better way to start my LA trip than a midnight breakfast at Denny's...

The Horror! The Horror!
(Denny's. Dana Point, CA.)
+ + +

BIG YEAR LIST: 711 + 1 provisional

NEW YEAR BIRDS (1): Black Storm-petrel

Saturday, September 14, 2013


Apparently, I couldn't resist. After a brief trip home, the pull of Alaska draws me west again. After leaving last week, Gambell has had an incredible couple of days, with 3 potential ABA life birds for me: Yellow-browed Warbler, Siberian Accentor (2) and Stonechat. 

Since I'm on my own this time, (I'm staying at the lodge) I need to bring my own food. I'm hoping the tiny bags of nuts and dried fruit that will only just fit in my carry-on will last me however long I'm out there.

Food for Gambell - cat not included.

As I'm leaving Anchorage I receive word from the island: none of the rarities could be refound this morning. But…there are favorable winds from the west (which I never saw last time - only the dreaded northerlies) - so there's hope for new stuff. The other change in the weather is that when I arrive this time I can actually see Russia…

Russia. The forested mountains of the Chukchi peninsula.

The island is much quieter - the Red-throated Pipits have cleared out, and the shorebird numbers are down - only a few Sharp-tailed and Pectoral Sandpipers left. And a lot fewer birders. Norm Budnitz is on his way out on the flight I came in on. James Huntington is still here, as is Jay Lehman and Dave Sonnenborn, as well as Paul Lehman who'll be here until the start of October.

Since there's no "bus" now, I'm catching rides with Clarence - a native who
eschews binoculars for his hawk-like eyes - eyes which have found a good number of birds here, including a Little Bunting in August. 

Oh - and there's a dog this time. 

Nando the dog.

Nando likes to run along next to Clarence's ATV and (playfully?) bite your feet. Biting my feet was not much fun (at least for me) - it resulted in my new Neos boots being torn and thus filling with cold water whenever I wade into any. But what was I supposed to do? Kick the dog in the face to keep him away from my feet? (Yes, after that incident there *was* some dog face-kicking.)

Other animals seen were the Ground Squirrels in the boneyards…

Arctic Ground squirrel nibbling on the Wormwood.

In fact - there are more animals than birds. As one day slips into the next, and we cover the same ground, over and over again, the disappeared birds never return, and the hoped-for ones never arrive. It's my last day here, and I've no new birds to show for an expensive and exhausting trip. I'm jealously reminded of the week John Vanderpoel had here back in 2011, when he saw Dusky Warbler, Stonechat, and Pallas' Bunting (as well as Gray-tailed Tattler, which I ought to have seen by now) - a nice bump to his Big Year.

"Do either of you need Common Snipe?" Jay and I are finishing our packing for the flight this morning - we're leaving in an hour. The crackling radio voice is Paul - and he's doing a quick sweep of the near boneyard. And yes - both of us *do* need Common Snipe!

After unpacking enough to find a hat, boots and a jacket (the gloves will have to wait) I'm out of the door.  Five minutes away, Paul's still in the boneyard - he can't relocate the bird - usually they fly far away, or just a short distance and are refindable. The 3 of us are joined by Clarence (with dogs.) We spread out and walk through the boneyard. Common Snipe would (just about!) make this trip worthwhile - but I can hear the metaphorical clock ticking down to my departure.

My flight time comes and goes, and no plane - or Snipe. It's too foggy to land (the plane, not the snipe.) We head back to the lodge to regroup. Jay's on a slightly later flight - ERA - and we can hear on the radio that it's making an approach. I'm temporarily paralyzed - should I try for Jay's flight? Or stick around for the later Bering Air flight and continue looking for the Snipe? Or spend another week out here with even fewer humans? Or just get a boat to Russia and see the birds the easy way?!

We race out to the runway (there's no airport.) And after the plane lands, and disgorges the few passengers, for the first time this year (or any year) I find myself asking the pilot, "Do you have any seats free?" He does. And with one last, useless glance around for the Snipe, I board the plane. I guess that means I'm done with Gambell for the year. Again. 

Paul refound the Snipe later today - just as I suspected he would.

Flying back from Gambell is one of the lowest points this year. Coming to Alaska (again) and taking two flights out here from Anchorage is a big deal. I thought I might miss (some of) the recently resident birds, but could get at least something new. Fall migration here really is protracted - you can be here a week and see nothing, and then one day you can wake up and be rewarded with a beautiful Asian vagrant or two. Sadly, I never woke up to that - just the endless trudging across wet boneyards, and springy pea gravel. 

I'm heading home to Boston now, with no plans until the 20th, when I'm on a pelagic from Bodega Bay, CA with Debi Shearwater. With just 1 new bird this month (Sinaloa Wren) I'm hoping the boat will be more productive than Alaska. Otherwise this Big Year will fizzle out in much the same unplanned way that it started...

+ + +

BIG YEAR LIST: 710 + 1 provisional


Saturday, September 7, 2013


It's almost 70 degrees warmer than yesterday, I've removed at least 4 layers, sat on 4 flights and I've swapped a view of Russia for one of Mexico.

While at Gambell, news came in of a Sinaloa Wren in Huachuca Canyon - a potential 3rd record for the ABA. So - here I am, taking a more southerly detour on my way home to Boston. 

Sinaloa Wren is a bird endemic to Western Mexico. It's a fairly drab brown bird with black-and-white bars on the ear coverts and under the tail. And this bird is a juvenile that is not only more drab (no barring) but missing some of its tail! It's hard to imagine a more scrawny bird!

The only two records of the bird outside of Mexico have been in southern Arizona - a reflection of the recent northward expansion of the species. The first record, in 2008/09 in Patagonia involved a bird actually building a nest. It's a very secretive species, and birders spent many, many hours / days trying to see that bird. I'm hoping this one will be more cooperative!

It's raining heavily as I turn off the canyon road into the picnic area where the bird's been seen. I stand under a tree, waiting for the rain to dissipate while listening for the distinctive rattle sound of the wren. Oh - and keeping an eye out for hungry bears! (And chiggers, though they tend to be harder to spot.)

Birders come and go, as does the rain, and after 4 hours it's just me and John Saba, a local AZ birder. Between the rain showers we see warblers come into the stream and bathe - Nashvilles and Wilson's, as well as a Bewick's Wren that gets us briefly excited. We split up and walk the stream area, back and forth. It's surrounded by dense tangles of climbing vines. It's getting late, and I'm already resigned to staying the night and coming back again in the morning.

I start pishing, hoping to stir up a few birds, and get an immediate and angry reaction from a small, brown bird that flies up from the undergrowth. It's a wren, and much browner than the Bewick's. 

As the bird flits about it makes the dry rattle call - diagnostic for Sinaloa Wren. It quickly starts climbing up the tree next to me, giving pretty awesome views...

Sinaloa Wren - long supercilium, brown upperparts and buffy underparts. 
It's the same genus as Carolina Wren, and has a similar structure, but more drab. 

I'm very excited to see the Wren, and to be finally heading home. But I'm still haunted by Alaska - an Asian Brown Flycatcher just arrived on St. Paul. I'd been thinking of going there after leaving Gambell, but since there was nothing there at the time, I decided not to. I realize it's crazy chasing birds on islands in the Bering Sea. But...probably no more crazy than the rest of this year. So - I check with the airline about availability (they only fly 3 days a week to St. Paul) and discover they're sold out of tickets. Until October!  

So, Boston it is.

+ + +


NEW YEAR BIRDS (1): Sinaloa Wren 

Friday, September 6, 2013


This year has taken me to some pretty distant and remote places - from the Dry Tortugas of the Caribbean to the bogs of northern Minnesota, from the boreal forests of Alberta to the deserts of the southwest. Not to mention the high seas of the Atlantic, Pacific and Salton. But none feel as remote as St. Lawrence Island - closer to Russia than mainland Alaska.  

St. Lawrence Island (red circle) - 36 miles from Russia.
If Sarah Palin lived here (which she wouldn't as there are no TV cameras)
she *actually* would be able to see Russia.

I'm back in Alaska for a week - on a tiny island hoping for Asian vagrants to stray across the Bering Sea. I'm staying in Gambell, a village at the north-west promontory that reaches out toward the Chukchi Peninsula of the Russian Far East. It's home to some 1,300 people, mostly Siberian Yupik - who've survived by subsistence hunting of whales, walruses, seals as well as fishing.

Getting here involves a small plane from Anchorage to Nome (which looks a lot greener and less icy than when I was last here) and then an even smaller plane to Gambell. It's the only airport where the I've been led out to the plane by the pilot!

Bering Air, Nome, Alaska 

I'm traveling with Wilderness Birding Adventures - the same group I birded with in Homer in June.  We're met on the runway by Aaron Lang, our fantastic guide for the week, and the "bus" - our transportation for the week…

There are no vehicles on the island (and no paved roads), but lots of ATVs.

Our first day / afternoon is a memorable one, and one of the best rarity days of my Big Year. A short trip on the "bus" takes us to the corner marsh, at the north-east end of Lake Troutman. It's not long before we hear and see Red-throated Pipits in the wet grass.

Red-throated Pipit. 
Notice the streaked back, pale nape and heavily-spotted underparts.

And then our first shorebirds appear as we wade into the ankle-deep water... 

Long-billed Dowitcher

And a new shorebird for the year - Sharp-tailed Sandpiper - from the Russian Far East. Typically, only juveniles migrate through the island, taking an easterly route to their south-east Asian wintering grounds; the adults (presumably not impressed after seeing Gambell their first year!) take a more westerly route.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper - warm breast coloration with no streaks 
(unlike the similar Pectoral Sandpiper) and prominent supercilium with rufus cap.

And then, as we're walking through the wet marsh grasses, we flush a large bird - a duck. It drops down after flying only 10 feet, allowing us point blank views. It's the rarest bird of the week - a Baikal Teal - a first for the island and a life bird for most of the birders here.

Peekaboo! Baikal Teal!
Obvious white loral spot. In flight showed white trailing edge to the wing 
and cinnamon edges to the speculum.

Aaron excitedly announces the bird over the radio, and it's not long before the hoards of  birders on the island (14) are here, looking for the bird...

Has anyone seen a duck around here?

And that's not the only duck tick for the day - during the evening sea watch, we spot a Spectacled Eider on the water. Like most of the ducks this time of year, it's in eclipse plumage - a briefly held plumage during late summer - where the males swap their bright colors for drab, female-type plumage.

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A typical day on the island starts with the morning sea watch. Actually, it starts about an hour before that with breakfast and filling my stomach with as much warm coffee as it can hold (which apparently is quite a lot.) There are no cafes in Gambell. None.

Taking the bus to the morning sea watch.
Norm Budnitz driving with James Huntington holding up the departure!

Looking for sea birds at the Point

Dressing for Gambell is pretty stress-free. There's no "should I wear this?" or "will this go with that?" Instead, you simply put on every piece of clothing you managed to pack. The temperatures this week are in the 30s, but with strong winds and rain, it feels much colder. For Gambell this year, I'm sporting 4 layers of pants (thermal, cargo, jeans, and rain), 5 body layers, and 5 foot layers (3 pairs of socks, hiking boots and Neos outer shoes.) 

Current fashion in Gambell

At 10:45, after the sea watch, all the birders on the island meet to "sweep the Far Boneyard." There are 3 boneyards around the village - ancient garbage dumps of whale, walrus, seal and other unfortunate meals. They're full of holes (from locals digging for fossilized bone and ivory) and are covered in wormwood - about the tallest vegetation here. It's where wind-swept vagrants like to hide and forage for food. "Sweeping" thankfully does not involve a broom; birders walk through in a line hoping to flush hidden birds.

The Near Boneyard - the vegetation is the very aromatic Wormwood

I think I saw one - over there!
"Sweeping the Far Boneyard" looking for birds

Sometimes we found young alcids in the boneyard as they launch themselves from Sevuokuk mountain above, on which they were born, and don't quite make it to the sea below...

Parakeet Auklet - juvenile. 
This individual has a large growth on its head that looks like James Huntington.
(Hands belong to Paul Lehman - Alaskan birding guru.)

The rest of the day, with breaks for lunch and dinner, is spent walking the other bone yards, walking the lake, or sea watching. 

Lake Troutman - a popular place to kick back and photograph Red Phalaropes. 

More places to look for birds...
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Before I came to Gambell, I was told to hope for any winds but north. North winds can be the worst for migrant and vagrant birds. I'm reminded of this as we're dealt a steady diet of north winds and few birds. As a result, all the new birds for me were on the first day, with the rest of the week spent trying to get better views of the other migrants and residents.

Emperor Goose - the only one that risked landing. 
The rest were fly by's on the sea watch.

Emperor Goose decoy
(The plastic thing that is, not Aaron Lang)

Fox Sparrow - the Sooty form found in mainland Alaska. 
Actually a pretty rare bird out here.

Slaty-backed Gull - 3rd cycle (top) with two Glaucous Gulls, 
at the (appropriately-named) dump.

We also get great views of Arctic Warbler, Snow Buntings, Lapland Longspurs, Snowy Owl and, sadly, an injured Short-eared Owl…

Short-eared Owl in the near boneyard.
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When the birding's slow, there's time to enjoy the local architecture. 

What would be Main St if it had a name. Or a sign.
(Sevuokuk Mountain in the background.)

Actually - these are pretty new buildings. The original settlement was built partly underground to give more protection from the wind and the cold of the winter…

(Remains of) original housing in Old Town - 
sunk into the ground, with whale bone framing.

There aren't many commercial buildings, except for the local store…

Local store - a good place to buy canned food and ammunition. 
Great if you like eating and shooting cans.

But my favorite place to wander is the boat yard - where the locals haul up Bowhead Whales for butchering and drying meats from wooden racks. It's an eerie place populated with giant skeletons…
Whale bones - with rack for drying meat in the background.

Bowhead Whale jaw bones - complete with rotting blubber. Yummy!
Bowhead Whales have the largest mouth of any animal (although fact checkers still waiting for accurate measurements on Sarah Palin)

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One of the highlights of the trip was catching up with the other two Big Year birders this year - Jay Lehman, and Ron Furnish. Jay was coming from a (successful) whirl-wind trip through Arizona and then the Nevada Snowcocks. And it was my first time meeting Ron - who, like Jay, is also on pace to break 700. Like Jay, Ron is magnanimous and friendly - eager to help with suggestions and advice on birds and locations.

And finally - thanks to Aaron Lang at Wilderness Birding for a great trip with great company. It was a blast!

Wilderness Birding group sea watching (photo by Aaron Lang)

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NEW YEAR BIRDS (4): Red-throated Pipit, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Baikal Teal, Spectacled Eider