25 June 2015

Plover lover

When describing the birding here on St. Paul Island, we find ourselves saying things like:
"If you stay long enough, you WILL see rare birds.  However, not all of them are expected ones."
It's totally true too.  Sure, if you spent a season here, you'll probably see things like Brambling and maybe a Wood Sandpiper or two.  You'll probably even see some rarer things but you may as well stop predicting there.

You see, once in a rare while there is a bird that comes out of left field.  Something on nobody's radar.  Those moments are especially memorable and I'm happy to say that I was on the connecting end of one of those moments yesterday morning.  Here's how it went down...

I was guiding 4 keen Danish birders around the island and, being their last morning on the island, we figured it would be nice to show them Northeast Point before they left.  We were driving through Novastoshna when I saw a largish shorebird flying SW, parallel the road, to our left.  However, I lost it once it swung behind the van.  Knowing only it was a golden-plover species, we turned around and decided to walk Dune Lake in hopes of relocating it.  We weren't very far in when it flushed from the lake bed and flew up towards the road where we lost track of it.

It was then that some of the group thought they saw white underwings and that the call didn't fit Pacific.  Not knowing where the bird went but very curious to see the bird again, we decided to walk Fantasy Wetlands in hopes of relocating the bird and confirming suspicions.  Again, before I saw the bird on the ground, it flushed and flew SW towards Big Lake.  It was then that I managed to rifle off a few pictures of the bird in flight:

After the bird went out of view over the dunes towards Big Lake, I paused, bowed my head... and started sorting through the photos I just took.  I zoomed in on the first photo.... white underwings.  REALLY noticeable white underwings too.  Next photo.  White underwings again.  I flipped my camera around and showed the Danes the zoomed-in look on the camera screen.  "Interesting" I said with a shrug and smirk.  The Danes wanted to see the tail.  Scrolling through more of my photos, I managed one of the bird with the foggy sky in the background and there are NO toes extending past the tip of the tail (something a Pacific Golden-Plover would show):
It hadn't really sunk in by the time I drove to the hilltop to call Scott.  Groups converged in Novastoshna but nobody could find it before lunch.  Later in the day, Scott managed to see it flying overhead so hopefully it's still in the area for others to see.

This species is a Code 4 rarity on the ABA checklist but beyond that, it's exceedingly rare in this part of the world.  Yes, there have even been flocks of these in Newfoundland and the like but we're a long ways from Newfoundland!  This is the 1st record of this species from the Bering Sea region and only the 2nd or 3rd record for all of western North America.  

20 June 2015

Longest day of the year

In some ways, birds that breed in the arctic have a mixed bag.  Relatively speaking, their summers are short (after all, I remember seeing a snow storm in Barrow in early July).  However, the birds manage these summers because each day this far north is long.  Of course, what I really mean is that the sun is visible for a vast majority of the 24 hour period.  In fact, today, June 20, is the "longest day" that we have to work with; the sun will set here on St. Paul Island at 12:20 AM but will come up only 6 hours later.

Because of the long days, birds go into hyper mode to mate, lay eggs, and raise their young.  Because it's truly dark here for just a few hours each night, many birds are able to feed their young almost around the clock.  It's hard to believe but there are already young creatures all over the island right now.  I've seen young Arctic Fox kits outside their dens, the Rock Sandpiper eggs have hatched, young ducklings are waddling about, and even the tiny Pacific Wrens are busily attending their nests.  Speaking of the latter, there has been this busy parent feeding young still in the nest down at Reef:
Unlike much of the year, the weather here has been consistently beautiful during the last several days.  The high pressure is sitting right on top of us; there's no hint of rain, plenty of sun to go around, and... well... not much in the way of Asian vagrants.  Oh well!  It's times like these that we shed some layers and try to enjoy the amazing visibility, like this view of Otter Island to the south:
Otter Island is the third largest of the 5 Pribilof Islands (and not one you've probably heard much about).  However, it's still spectacular; the cliff face you can see is taller than any cliff we have on St. Paul Island.

A group and I ventured up to the cliffs at Zapadni Point the other day to scope things out.  We were met with a great showing of alcids like these three auklet species perched together:
When the sun catches the eye of a PARAKEET AUKLET, it's sure to catch YOUR eye as well:
A similar pale-eyed look can be seen on the smallest alcid in the world, the LEAST AUKLET.  This particular one looked just as surprised as we did that the sun was out and shining:
Although this weather isn't necessarily conducive to Asian vagrants, I didn't say that rare birds CAN'T show up.  Case in point: yesterday.  Ashley and I ventured to Antone Wall to scope through seabirds swirling behind a passing fishing vessel but it turns out that we didn't even pay attention to the boat!  As soon as we arrived, we found an interesting alcid swimming just offshore, a CASSIN'S AUKLET!
Although this species can be seen in the Aleutians (as well as down the West Coast), they're quite rare in the Pribilofs.  In fact, this represents only the 3rd St. Paul Island record!  Things got even crazier when Scott arrived; we soon realized there wasn't only one, there were THREE of them just offshore at Antone Wall.  I snapped a picture of two together:
Eventually, pretty much all of the birders on the island got to see these rare (for here) alcids before, rumor has it, they flew to the west and out of sight.

Anyway, hopefully this calm weather gives way to a horrendous storm out of the southwest with ripping 40 mph winds.  :-)  You know me, always the optimist.

BTW, if you have any questions or comments, the optimist's email address is:  arcticory@gmail.com

17 June 2015

Codes & rare birds

If you're a birder and you visit St. Paul Island, you want to see a) localized species like Red-legged Kittiwakes and auklets, b) birds that have blown over from Asia, or c) a combination of the two.  If these options don't apply to you, you probably have the wrong island in mind.

If you ask, many serious birders up here kind of shrug off the ABA codes (1-6) that are given every species on the ABA checklist.  Besides, a Code 1 Eastern Towhee would be incredibly rare here, much rarer than a Code 4 species like Oriental Cuckoo.  However, for those of you who come here for species that we ABA birders generally think of as rare, I've started something new here on my blog.

If you look on the right-hand side of this page, down below the recent posts, you'll see a list of the rare ABA birds that have been seen on St. Paul Island this year.  Granted, I'm limiting these to Code 3, 4, and 5 species so you won't see things like Bar-tailed Godwit and Wood Sandpiper (both Code 2).  It's not a perfect setup but if you're curious about what rarities have been seen here this season, take a look.

Speaking of codes and rarities, AV found the 3rd HAWFINCH of the season yesterday (which just so happens to be our only Code 4 species of the year... for now):

As always, if you have any questions or comments, feel free to direct them to me at:


16 June 2015

The rarer spring bird

I spent a fun day out with a big group yesterday here on St. Paul Island.  The highlight for me was flushing this GRAY-CHEEKED THRUSH up off the east side of Hutch Hill:
You can imagine how excited we get when we see a drab bird flush up from a hillside that usually only has longspurs and Snow Buntings on it.  Even though this isn't a Rufous-tailed Robin (like this hill has hosted before), I was quite pleased to stumble upon this rare spring migrant (I believe this is only the 5th spring record of this species).

However, I imagine the highlight for everyone else in the group was something completely different.  Even though the area hadn't been checked for many days, I figured it was worth a try to see if any of the COMMON CUCKOOS remained.  We formed a long line and swept the area (as we do when we hope to flush up rarities).  Suddenly, yep, a COMMON CUCKOO flushed up:
These birds are nuts.  I mean, most people are used to our Yellow-billed and Black-billed cuckoos here in the US but these vagrants are gray birds and BIG.  Like... falcon big.  If you see one fly by, as we did, you really might think it's a falcon or harrier or something.  Some of the cuckoos we see here are damn near impossible to identify though.  Caution must be exercised when deciding between Common Cuckoo and Oriental Cuckoo; the latter being much rarer here.  One of the helpful angles to photograph is the underwing... like these:

In the end, sadly for most, this does look to be a Common Cuckoo (but still a fun bird!).  Notice mostly the vent (which does look to be pure white), the underwing pattern (which doesn't look contrasty enough), and the very sparse breast barring.

It's worth mentioning that the other guides have stirred up recent sightings like BRAMBLING and an OLIVE-BACKED PIPIT but neither birds were subsequently seen.  So, until next time... bird.

14 June 2015


I'm not sure if it's hard to believe or not but the fact remains that we've already been on St. Paul Island for a month.  Our season runs for five months so here's to the next four!

We've had some very solid days already this spring although maybe none reaching quite the level of June 2 of last year (checklist here).  However, this spring trumps many of the past springs so hey, I'm happy with it.

All three of us guides here have spent considerable time at Whitefish Point in the UP of Michigan.  Two of us have even lived in Berrien Springs, Michigan for a considerable chunk of our lives.  It's funny how the Pribs have played into things.

It was that WPBO connection that I thought of when I saw this flying over while we walking Antone Slough:
Anyone who has spent much time lakewatching in the Great Lakes probably has that silhouette etched into their wind-blown minds.  That RED-THROATED LOON was only my second of the season so far (I've seen more Yellow-billed than any other loon species so far and I think Common and Arctic are tied with one apiece!).

A big change this season is that I'm living in a different house than I did in 2014.  Ashley and I enjoy scoping Town Marsh and the tubenoses at East Landing from our living room window on a daily basis.  We've also started offering seed to the local rosy-finches in hopes that it might attract an odd stray from Asia.  It actually worked!  The other day Ashley spotted this male BRAMBLING a few feet below our window!
Although our yard list is only at 20-25 species currently, it's refreshing to have species like BAR-TAILED GODWIT, WOOD SANDPIPER, and SHORT-TAILED SHEARWATER on it.  But seriously, and you know this, we're both just waiting for a Eurasian Bullfinch to show up at our seed.

The DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANTS continue to be regular this season (St. George has had them too).   Last year we had a couple but this year there are probably close to 5 or 6 and they've remained for quite a while.  Here's a continuing bird, complete with double-crests, at Weather Bureau Lake:
Although it wasn't an ABA bird for her (thanks to this checklist), I took Ashley out to see if we could relocate the COMMON CUCKOO.  We did.  While scoping it, she excitedly exclaimed that it had landed next to another cuckoo!  Whhhattt?!  Sure enough, two cuckoos:
This very much reminds me of last June when we also had two cuckoos hanging out together (albeit in the upper cut of the quarry).  Lest you start to think this is typical, let me remind you that a typical spring here gets NO cuckoos!

Anyway, that's all for now but check in soon to see what else the Bering Sea has dished out to St. Paul Island.

11 June 2015

16 photos of June

It would be an understatement to say that it's been a busy last couple weeks of guiding.  As you might guess, I've had little chance to blog.  I assume that'll change at some point but until then, here's another post devoted to the interesting sightings from the last 11 days.  Because there is a wide mix of stuff, I'll just tackle them in taxonomic order.  Here goes....

It's hard getting closer to the beginning of the ABA checklist than TUNDRA BEAN-GOOSE.  Indeed, the goose fairy has returned bringing with it more ugly bean-geese.  Here's a mostly-TUNDRA-looking-thing from Tonki Point Wetlands; we're thinking there's a decent chance it's a different bird from the other two bean-geese we've had in this first month of the season:
Another highlight from the local waterfowl realm was this COMMON MERGANSER on Salt Lagoon.  This is actually a GOOSANDER (Eurasian race of Common Merganser) which was the first I'd ever seen.  Here's a pretty horrible digiscoped picture from like 1/2 mile away:
Another new species for my island list came in the form of this ARCTIC LOON at Marunich.  It was particularly satisfying watching this bird diving repeatedly but ALWAYS showing crazy amounts of white on the flanks when swimming.  Solid bird.  I like.
Much less exciting for most normal people was this DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT that hung out on the cliffs at Ridge Wall for a bit.  Of the three cormorant species found on St. Paul, this one is by far the rarest.  I was struck by how big DCCOs really are; their wingspans are half a foot bigger than the local RFCOs.  Here's the dark beastie on the cliff:
... and sometimes you see rare birds when you least expect to.  For example, I was at a cliff checking out nesting seabirds with a group when a COMMON SANDPIPER materialized on the cliffs below us!  And no, they're NOT common here in the New World!  This was a way better view than the one from May of last year:
This COMMON GREENSHANK showed up on the Salt Lagoon yesterday.  Although this is the second COMG of the season on St. Paul, it doesn't matter, I'm not sick of them one bit:
We had quite a few WOOD SANDPIPERS around for a while including these two around the Gate Pond area.  One even started displaying to the other (which these will often do if there are multiples around).  Here's a picture with both sandpipers on the edge of Webster Lake:
The worst picture you'll see today is of this "SIBERIAN" WHIMBREL that I had late one night near Pumphouse Lake.  You can see the curved bill and the white wedge up the back... but that's about it:
In terms of species that St. Paul birders missed last year, BLACK-HEADED GULL was one of the surprises.  So one would deduce that it wasn't that surprising that one eventually showed up here this spring.  It's been somewhat reliable on Big Lake:
So far this spring we've seen two different MEW GULLS on St. Paul Island.  However, these aren't the short-billed doodaddies we're all used to from the West Coast.  These have been of the "KAMCHATKA" race of Mew Gull.  Here's a picture showing the long bill (among other things):
Moving right along, the next highlight was lucky to come about.  A group and I were eagerly watching some Bank Swallows (which are uncommon here) when we noticed that one of the birders that had wandered off was running towards us.  We figured he wanted a look at the swallows.  Nope.  Instead, he notified all of us, between heavy breaths, that a COMMON CUCKOO had flown right behind everyone and was continuing down the beach!  We reconvened, loaded in the van, and headed that direction.  A short while later, we managed to relocate the bird:
It's been a while since the first SIBERIAN RUBYTHROAT of the season was found... but that was in the quarry.  The problem was that it was so incredibly skulky that not very many people got satisfactory looks.  Take this photo, for example.  A chunky brown bird zipping between boulders.  Maddening:
So imagine the relief when word reached us of a tame, male SIBERIAN RUBYTHROAT right next to the airport!  We convened, relocated the bird, and were amazed at how freaking awesome these are when seen well!
We followed it around a bit and got to watch it confidently walking through grasses and perching up from time to time.  What a stunner!
Another recent rarity this week came on one of our daily checks of Polovina Hill.  In the lower cut, this distant EYEBROWED THRUSH was hanging out and enjoying a break from the strong north winds:
Only 4 spots from the end of the ABA checklist is a rare, large finch from the Old World.  It just so happens that we had a fun surprise on a foggy morning when we visited Hutch Hill.  Although we weren't expecting to find anything, there was this HAWFINCH sitting quietly on the backside of the hill:
Anyway, that's all for now.  Hopefully I'll be updating this before another two weeks slip away.

Also, I'm trying to remember to include my email address in case anyone has any questions: