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


  1. Neil,

    Are you sure this was a Siberian Stonechat (maurus)? Here in Korea, the common stonechat is the Stejneger's Stonechat (stejnegeri), which is now taxonomically different from the Siberian Stonechat. Either way, congrats on getting an "easy" tick this time of year!


    1. Good point. I know Stejneger's has been seen in the UK, and it's often only really separable from Siberian (maurus) by mtDNA testing. I believe the current thinking here though is that all the US records have been of maurus - the Siberian Stonechat. It's slightly academic as the AOU here has yet to review the Stonechat splits - and currently still lumps them all as Stonechat. (A similar situation exists with Naumann's and Dusky Thrush, which the AOU considers one species.)

  2. Brad Pitt?! What ever happened to Rowan Atkinson? :)

  3. Just found this site as was having fun looking at it.
    Glad the timing worked out so well for the Stonechat! That AM I was out there, with my baby son in his carrier, trying desperately to document the Red-throated Pipits that were hanging around in the general area and not having any success. I saw this guy pop up on some drift wood and thought, hummm a Stonechat (I grew up seeing them all the time in Japan) but it can't be...not here. After a better look the phone calls started flying and my sleeping son soon got a startled awakening to a group of 20+ birders all around. Was a fun day! Maybe I can help locate the Dusky when you swing back into town as I live in the general area.

  4. Glad you got the Stonechat!

    Like you I landed, turned on the phone, and realized that a rare bird was afoot!

    Looked for it and didn't find it, although I recall seeing you there (I'm somewhat familiar with other birders in Anchorage, so you stood out).

    I pretty sure it was Aaron B. (who just posted a message above this one) that initially found the bird with his inhuman eyes and ears and credit should go to him...

    Glad you got the Stonechat!