01 August 2015

The Great Halfway

For better or worse, we're officially half done with the 5 month guiding season here on St. Paul Island.  Actually, we're more than half done (this is my 80th day this season with about 77 left to go... not that anyone is counting).  This gives me a logical break to look at some numbers...

For starters, by this time last year, my season list had climbed to 117 species whereas this year, I'm 5 short of that.  That is actually a smaller gap than I had expected; I feel like I had considerably more species last year but that's probably due to me remembering the vagrants more than some of the more expected things I got this year (SACR and SAGU anyone?).

It's not surprising that the first half of last season delivered about 20 new ABA birds for me whereas this season it's delivered only 4.  Obviously, most of that is due to me needing things then like all the auklets, kittiwake, cormorant, etc.  People often remind me that I might have had more lifers this year if I hadn't done so well last year.  :-)

The beginning of last August didn't provide much in the way of island birds; my first of the month came on the 16th when I saw my first Wilson's Warbler of the fall.  However, we've missed a couple of birds so far this season that I think could/should show up any day.  Red-necked Stint, for one, has been missed by us so far this year.  Sharp-tailed Sandpiper is another.

But in looking back, it WAS in August that the fun really began.  On the 25th, I had a memorable day that started with my lifer Bluethroat and ended with a chase to Hutch Hill for a Willow Warbler.  Of course, it was on our way back from Hutch that a Gray-streaked Flycatcher was near Webster House!  So with that, I eagerly await some new surprises!

In the meantime, it's no surprise to see lots and lots of LAPLAND LONGSPURS still.  After all, this is by far the most abundant passerine on the island:
I mentioned in the last post that we've had a LESSER SAND-PLOVER around.  Indeed, it was around as recently as yesterday on the flats of Salt Lagoon:
We still have finches around too.  I snagged my first island RED CROSSBILL the other day and yesterday yielded some continuing PINE SISKINS, these in the main quarry bowl:
Not all unusual sightings of winged things are of birds.  We had this big boy rumbling overhead the other day; turns out it landed at the airport as well: 
Sometimes the planes that land here are private jets that don't belong to PenAir or Ace Cargo (at least I don't think they do).  Here's a smaller plane that we watched take off while we were at the top of Lake Hill:
I can't say that I had ever seen an ARCTIC FOX standing literally in the middle of Rocky Lake before.  I suppose it's pretty shallow!  Shortly after I took this, it turned tail and ran full speed through the lake away from us:
If you've spent a chunk of time here on St. Paul, you might know exactly where this panorama was taken yesterday:
On the weather maps, we're sitting in the Bering Sea with a giant "H" on top of us which means the days have been calm and evenings have been pretty.  We'll see how long it lasts...

30 July 2015

Adorable award goes to.....

As July winds down, shorebird migration continues to gear up.  However, that's about all that's been happening on St. Paul Island lately.  And in truth, there haven't been too many shorebirds of note yet besides another LESSER SAND-PLOVER on Salt Lagoon just today (ok, sure, they aren't bad looking!).  

Is it just me or does this RED-LEGGED KITTIWAKE look really unimpressed?  Maybe that's because most of the kittiwake nests in the Pribs have failed this year.  I reckon I'd be frowning too.
 
The NORTHERN FUR SEALS continue to amuse photographers (most of our clients these days) with their antics.  One favorite pastime is to see if you can capture the seal out of the water when they porpoise (dive up out of the water).  Here’s one seal most of the way out of the water:
 
… and a second later, it’s coming back down just as another one is starting its jump:
 
Reef really is one of the best places on the island for photos.  I was there with photographer clients one recent evening and when the light improved... I got to work with my own camera.  First up, yet another TUFTED PUFFIN:
 
Some of the PARAKEET AUKLETS were ridiculously close.  This one landed right next to me, so close that I was worried my camera couldn’t focus on it:
 
And you know, looking at the above bird, I used to think Parakeet Auklets were decently cute but now that I have a close up of the bill... I’m not sure they're not terrifying.

I started to work a few RED-FACED CORMORANTS that evening including this adult.  It’s not saying much but it might be one of my better cormorant shots:
 
Then it stretched its bill open and turned towards me.... it’s hard to pass up that photo opportunity!
 

However, the cute award has to go out to these ARCTIC FOX kits that have been ridiculously adorable as of late.  A pile of sleeping foxes?  Why not!
Anyway, thanks for checking in and hopefully I'll have a good bird to update you guys with soon.  In the meantime, feel free to shoot me a line at:

arcticory@gmail.com

27 July 2015

The Worried Wren and Fly-Bys

In past years on this date, St. Paul Island has hosted rarities like Little Stint and Terek Sandpiper.  Although those two species are near the top of my "Wanted List", we can't even find a Red-necked Stint!  Although we remain stint-less so far this year, I'm not worried.  Does this PACIFIC WREN at the Reef Seal Blind looked worried?  I don't think so.
Although seeing puffins and auklets perched on the cliffs are a main attraction, we also have ample opportunities for snapping shutters on devices focused on these species flying by.  Here's a TUFTED PUFFIN:
Sometimes the said puffin returns with food in its mouth (a sure sign that it has a youngster to feed):
Flight photography IS a lot of fun here though.  If the wind is blowing from the correct direction, you can stand on the cliff edges and have a variety of species just slowly float on by.  Here's a NORTHERN FULMAR in flight:
... and a RED-LEGGED KITTIWAKE:
Kittiwakes are gulls.  Another gull here is the much-bigger GLAUCOUS-WINGED:
I was out with a client yesterday when we crested a rise in the road near Telegraph Hill to find an adult PARASITIC JAEGER sitting there in the middle of the road.  It eventually took off and followed the road to the west before we lost it near the quarry:
I think this SALTMARSH STARWORT on the edge of Salt Lagoon was the first I'd seen there.  In fact, it's believed that this species is only found at two locations on the island, the other being Antone Slough.
Speaking of Salt Lagoon, this LESSER SAND-PLOVER the other day was a nice addition to the fall assortment of shorbs.  This was my 4th day this year with a LSAP:
We've had west winds for about a week straight though and I truly am hopeful that the next week will deliver another highlight or two.  Stay tuned!

24 July 2015

Tatt ticklin'

There's no denying it... I think we might actually be through the doldrums of summer and firmly planting ourselves on the cusp of the fall rarity season.  After not seeing much in the way of Code 3+ species for some time, the recent arrival of a few has my hopes up (probably higher than they should be, for that matter).


It was about this time last year that I was celebrating the arrival of GRAY-TAILED TATTLERS by shaving my beard (as I did only after seeing new ABA birds).  Fast forward a year and when I checked the same backwater tidal area of Salt Lagoon, the channel area behind the FWS housing, I can't say I was too surprised to find one there again:
The ID is pretty straightforward on adults; look for the super pale back, pale eyebrow extending behind the eye, and the clean white belly/undertail:
They're an expected species through the fall here; last year I had GTTA on 17 different days.  Doing the math, it looks like I had them about once every 4 days through August and September.  Still, I'm happy to edit the sidebar of this blog to add another Code 3 for the year!

It's in this season that we guide a lot of people that are visiting St. Paul Island in hopes of photographing the wildlife.  Although my first passion is birds, I do enjoy being around some of the expertise of visiting photographers.... even though I can't find them half the time:
One of their favorite subjects are the ARCTIC FOXES that can be found along the edges of the island.  In particular, seeing a brood of fox kits usually puts visitors in a tizzy.  Here's a popular family, complete with a youngster licking its attentive parent:
Although most of the foxes are dark here on St. Paul (year round, even), there was a nicely colored one near the Reef Seal Blind yesterday evening:
The NORTHERN FUR SEALS are still packing the beaches in full force including this sleeping trio the other day at the Reef Seal Blind.  It's one tired-out family; male in the back, female resting on him, and her pup resting on her:
Most of the songbirds such as longspurs, buntings, and wrens have fledged their young already.  This adult male SNOW BUNTING was keeping an eye on one of its fledged youngsters at the cut in Hutch Hill:
Crossbills continue to have a presence on the island although I certainly don't see them every day.  However, not all the vagrant finches are crossbilled; we've had several PINE SISKINS around as well which is unusual (in all of last year here, I saw PISI only once).  I was pretty surprised to find this tight flock of 5 on Hutch Hill today:
We've had a number of GREATER SCAUP around this season, quite a few more than I recall seeing last year.  The number fluctuates but has been as high as 10 birds (and they mostly hang out on Webster Lake).  However, I WAS surprised to find this LESSER SCAUP mixed in with them; even one of these is flagged in eBird here on SNP:
It was starting to get a bit surprising that I hadn't tracked down a SLATY-BACKED GULL yet this season.  And then today happened.  This 3rd-cycle bird was on the beach at Webster Seawatch:
Although it's a Code 3 species, these are fairly easy to get out here.  Last year I had them on about 30 different days spanning a 3-month period (13 Jul - 14 Oct).  Seeing a SBGU every three days?  I like those odds!

I'll end with a few flower pics.  First up, a FORGET-ME-NOT, the state flower of Alaska:
I'm not certain if I have a favorite flower on the island but if I did, I think WHITISH GENTIAN would be in contention for the top spot:
Thanks for checking in.  If you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach me at:

arcticory@gmail.com

19 July 2015

Waiting on rare

As July continues to pass us by one day at a time, I’m reminded that we have now been on St. Paul Island for more than 2 months.  With the guiding season here lasting until October, we have more than 2 months remaining.

The weather the last few days has been unremarkable; some misty days, some breezy days, but no real system to get us excited (big storms often bring changes in terms of migrants).  We’re still waiting on our first Red-necked Stint or Gray-tailed Tattler of the season but they’re just around the corner.  In fact, it was on this day last year that I saw my first GTTA.

In the meantime, before the crazy fall goodies start dropping in, we’ve been trying to stay busy with what’s been around.  One highlight was that Ashley and I finally tracked down a LONG-TAILED JAEGER.  This species had sneakily crept onto Ash’s nemesis list through the years but we remedied that yesterday out near the Low Cliffs.  What a looker!
It's actually a decent time to be looking for jaegers; all three species have begun to migrate through and this dark POMARINE JAEGER was sitting in plain view on Salt Lagoon one day:
Although they’re beginning to be ho-hum these days, WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILLS continue to hang out on the island.  We’ve now seen them in more than half a dozen locations including this one that was on the beach at Marunich:
 
Earlier I mentioned them being tame and the above bird was no exception.  When it saw us 4 guys standing there with tripods on our shoulders, it assumed we were friendly and decided to come check us out.  First it landed on one of the extended tripod legs and then it circled around and landed on a backpack of someone else!  It guess it's been so desperate to find some tree branches on the island (of which we have none) that we were good enough.  The bird eventually settled down on some rope that was coiled up on the beach and I took to digiscoping it with my iPhone.

Just yesterday on our walk up to Low Cliffs, we found the continuing two WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILLS not far from where I left them several days ago.  Here’s a head shot of one of these tame youngsters:
 
I was interested to see what these crossbills might be eating here on St. Paul Island.  Usually, crossbills are cone specialists (pine, hemlock, spruce, etc) but without cones on the island, it's clear that these birds have had to find alternatives.  Indeed, one of them was eating flies and the other one was having luck extracting seeds from old Dandelion heads:
 
The Low Cliffs provided more to look at than just jaegers and crossbills though.  In fact, the show that the NORTHERN FULMARS put on was amazing; they'd cruise right by your face and, if you're lucky, your waiting camera:
If you've spent time here on St. Paul, you're probably familiar with walking the lava field near Southwest Point.  It's another world out there and I'm often reminded how much I like stumbling through the dips, gullies, and gulches of ferns, lichens, and dwarf willows.  We walked it a bit yesterday and although Rock Sandpipers and Ruddy Turnstones were common, my adrenaline spiked when I saw a different sandpiper in the mix.  Turns out, it was "only" a PECTORAL SANDPIPER:
Still, though, it's flagged in eBird (meaning it's noteworthy) and it's certainly the first time I've ever seen this species sitting on the tundra in a lava field.


It was about this time last year that I was lucky to find a banded RUDDY TURNSTONE at Marunich.  It turns out that it was banded earlier in the year in Japan!  Well, I’ve been keen to look through more turnstones this year to see if lightning would strike twice.  Turns out, I DID find another turnstone wearing a band at Marunich.  However, this bird only had the metal band; no flag or color bands to narrow it down to an individual.  When this happens, we know it’s been captured by someone but it’s almost impossible to tell who/when/where.  I tried to get some close-up pictures of the band but still couldn’t make out much:
Nope, certainly not a bird... but the NORTHERN FUR SEALS that use St. Paul Island have been entertaining as of late.  Most of the females have now given birth and the beaches are alive with the high-pitched bleating of the youngsters.  Many of the medium-sized males have moved up the beach and now lay squarely in front of the seal blind.  If you look carefully, this below photo of a fur seal shows the seal blind as a reflection:
I'll leave you on this cloudy Sunday morning as the July wind swirls out of the south with a mist on its shoulders.  If you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach me at arcticory@gmail.com.