04 July 2015

Other good shorbs

If you remember back to all the excitement about the European Golden-Plover here on St. Paul, there was actually another cool plover here just in the days leading up to that.  Some clients and I were trying to find a good place to photograph kittiwakes and because the Salt Lagoon usually has a nice flock sitting on the sandbars, we ventured out onto the firm sand bottom of the lagoon at low tide.  But once out there, I was scoping a far corner when I saw this run into view:
The bright orange on this plover is a dead giveaway; it's a LESSER SAND-PLOVER!  Although they're rare anywhere in the ABA area (they're a Code 3), this species is almost expected in western Alaska (it's just hard to predict when/where they'll show up).  However, I wasn't expecting to find such a stunning male either.  What was more of a surprise was that we soon realized there were TWO sand-plovers together out on the Salt Lagoon.  I'm not sure how often that happens but who was I to argue?!

Both sand-plovers eventually took flight but instead of ditching the area, they actually flew right by us:
Some phone calls were made, we backed off to give these rarities space, and eventually all of the birders on the island got to see these stunning shorebirds.

But then fast forward a few days.  It was my day off and so like most of my days off, I was out birding with Ashley.  We figured it was worth walking the Novastoshna area again just to make sure the European Golden-Plover hadn't returned.  We were just about done combing the area when Ashley hollered from her distant location.  I looked over and she was making nonsensical hand gestures about, presumably, a bird she could see from her vantage point.  It wasn't until she made a hand gesture about something with a long, down-curved bill that I realized what she saw.  I peeked over the hill and sure enough, we were face-to-face with a curlew:
The thing is, no curlew is expected here at this time of year.  It flew a short distance and that's when we saw the buffy rump and tail:
We were looking at a BRISTLE-THIGHED CURLEW!  This enigmatic species is quite rare on a worldwide scale; in fact, there's only about 7000 of these in existence.  This species (Numenius tahitiensis) was first described in the 18th century on James Cook's travels to Tahiti where, as we now know, some of these curlews spend their winters.  However, where did these birds breed?  This question puzzled ornithologists for more than 150 years until 1948 when, finally, the breeding grounds were discovered.  And yes, it turns out they only breed in western Alaska.  Although they don't breed here in the Pribilofs, this species is nearly annual here, usually on spring or fall migration. 

BTCUs are unique in several ways but one interesting factoid is regarding tool-use.  Yes, these curlews are the only shorebirds in the world to use tools!  More specifically, they use rocks to break open bird eggs on the wintering grounds.  Finding food on remote ocean atolls can be a challenge, after all, and several species of birds will eagerly feed on bird eggs if given the chance (I saw this firsthand in Hawaii when turnstones would sip from broken albatross eggs).

Another interesting way that BTCUs are unique among shorebirds is that they become flightless during molt!  If that's part of your life history, you better hope you're on a tiny atoll with no predators... which is exactly what most of these curlews do.

Anyway, it turns out this curlew was going to stick around for several days and so all the birders on the island got to see it.

Lastly, I'll end with a picture of a non-shorebird; here's a random tandem of some HORNED PUFFINS:

30 June 2015

Needle in the hay

It's amusing how it was just my last post where I was waxing... err... ineloquently about rare birds here and how many aren't expected.  You see, I was very lucky last week to be on the receiving end of a Code 4 European Golden-Plover, just the 3rd record for all of western North America.  Ok, for real, I would have been happy with that... but can you believe that an even rarer bird showed up last night?  If not, you should.

I was at the seabird cliffs at Reef Point when I noticed a distant bird with a different wing cadence... it was soaring a lot... I put my bins up but wasn't really expecting to see what I saw.  It was a SWIFT of all things.  All I saw was a flash of white and that it was a swift before it ducked around a cliff.  My mind naturally jumped to a thought like "Sweet, I just found a Fork-tailed Swift!".  Thankfully, the bird quickly came back around and this time I was ready with my camera.  I sprayed.  Immediately some things jumped out to me even before I zoomed in on my photos.  For one, this thing was HUGE.  Think of a swift the size of a Black Tern or something.  I snapped a bunch of crappy pictures, looked down, zoomed in on the bird... and was confused.  What was I looking at?  Is that white under the tail?  Fork-tailed is supposed to have white above the... holy... crap.

I fumbled with my phone, I wanted to open a bird app to look at a swift that I knew about... but didn't know super well.  I ran up to Ram, a sharp birder and super nice dude, and showed him my crappy photos.  He thought the white was under the tail too.  I took one glance at the app and that's when it started to sink in... we were looking at a WHITE-THROATED NEEDLETAIL:
Notice the white throat and the white U-shape under the tail.
This is a big deal.  For starters, this was only the 6th time this species has ever been found in North America!  Also, all 5 previous records come from the outer Aleutians and most of those in the month of May.  So not only was this the farthest east record ever for the ABA area, it was also the latest by 3+ weeks.

What a cool species though.  These monster swifts are found in central Asia and southern Siberia... and I do mean monster; their wingspan is about 21 inches!  One claim to fame is their speed.  You've probably seen swifts, maybe even the big and fast White-collared Swifts... but it's actually the White-throated Needletail that is the fastest-flying bird in flapping flight; speeds have been reported at 105 mph.

Anyway, back to yesterday... after the bird made a couple of passes by Ram and me, I called Scott.  He rushed out of the house and up to Reef.  His first look was of the bird literally flying 15 feet over his head at probably 60 mph.   That'll clean out the sinuses!

Eventually all the birders on the island got to see the famous visitor.  Later in the evening it was seen slowly circling back and forth over the tip of Reef Point, well south of where we're allowed to bird.  And that's how the story ends.  The bird wasn't relocated today.

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: